The fourth pillar of Islam
Established in Medina in 624, the fast of Ramadan is a commemoration of the first revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad, which occurred in the ninth month of the lunar year. It is a moment of joy and generosity, where individuals think about the poor and needy and strengthen links with the religious community. Practising Muslims observe prayer times, strict daytime abstinence and the breaking of the fast at sunset.
Celebration, community and sharing
In addition to prayer, strict rules regarding the control of bodily needs and pleasures dictate the daily life of believers. They must abstain from all drink, food and sexual relations and curb their desires from dawn to sunset. They then break their fast with a light, balanced meal and eat another just before dawn. Although Ramadan is compulsory, it is nevertheless flexible, showing understanding towards practising individuals: “Whoever of you is present in that month, let him fast! But he who is ill or on a journey shall fast a similar number of days later on. God desires ease for you, not hardship. He desires you to fast the whole month, so that you may glorify Him for His having guided you” (Quran, 2:185). Followers can choose to fast at another time of the year, as long as they observe the rules and fast continuously. Knowingly finishing early, missing days or failing to observe one of the rules results in them having to fast for an additional two months for every day they have missed. Such atonement fasting can be replaced by a donation of money or food to the needy. This is also the case for people who are exempt from fasting, such as the chronically sick, or pregnant women, for whom fasting could be life-threatening. This act of generosity towards the poor is not simply a punishment, but serves to raise awareness of community life. Ramadan is a true celebration advocating personal abstention, yet is also a form of solidarity and a sharing of food which goes beyond family and religious borders. The act of individual faith goes hand in hand with the desire for collective social justice.
A time of prayer
The month is divided into three periods of ten days, each with specific prayer intentions. The first period is devoted to asking for God’s blessing. The second focuses on repenting and forgiveness. During the third, the follower asks for salvation from the fires of hell. Ramadan culminates on one of the odd-numbered nights of the last ten days. This is the ‘Night of Destiny’ (Laylat-al-Qadr), a night which is ‘equivalent to one thousand months’ according to the holy texts. It commemorates the exact moment when the Quran was revealed to Muhammad. The ‘Night of Destiny’ and its ‘great reward’ can occur during any night of the last ten days of Ramadan and is said to be revealed to the believer who has diligently sought it through prayer and fasting, just as the Quran was revealed to the prophet. Ramadan ends with Eid al-Fitr, ‘the Lesser Eid’, on the first day of the following month.
Different types of fasting
There are different forms of fasting (siyâm) in Islam. Fasting may be expiatory, to make up for a transgression, or simply to replace a religious duty which one is unable to fulfil, or even voluntary, observed by those following an ascetic lifestyle. The Ramadan fast stands out as the most important as it lies at the very foundation of Islam as a religion. It is a manifestation of a homage to God and is thereby at the same time holy, compulsory and festive in nature.
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