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Ramadan: The Holy Month of Mercy and Forgiveness

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 25.02.2006:

This Week in Palestine

October 2005

By Dr. Aziz Khalil

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. During this month Muslims are commanded to fast, meaning abstain from food, drink and other sensual pleasures. The Almighty says (2:183): “O You who believe, fasting is decreed for you as it was decreed for those before you so that you may attain self-restraint.” Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam: shahada (affirmation of faith), salat (prayers), zakat (almsgiving), hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) and siyam (fasting).

The Arabic word ramadan is derived from the root ramida, meaning intensive scorching heat and dryness. So, we can metaphorically say that Ramadan scorches out or burns away sins with devotion to Allah through intensive worship and good deeds such as zakat (obligatory charity) and sadaqat (voluntary charity).

Fasting means not only abstaining from food, drink and sexual intercourse during the day but also restraining the tongue, the eye, the ear, the heart and mind from indulging in unlawful acts that render the fast worthless. The Prophet Mohammad (PPBH) said: “Many a man who fasts obtaining nothing from his fasting but his thirst, and many a man who prays during the night and obtains nothing from his prayers but wakefulness” (At-Tirmithiyy Hadith, No. 1989). In contrast, the rewards of fasting are bountiful. The Prophet said: “Whoever observes fast during the month of Ramadan out of sincere faith, and hoping to attain Allah’s rewards, all his past sins will be forgiven” (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Book of Fasting).

During the month of Ramadan, paradise’s doors are opened, hell’s doors are closed and satans are chained. So, by observing fasting, a devout Muslim is offered a golden opportunity to reap worldly and divine rewards through self-control, devotion to Allah and spiritual self-reflection. A Muslim can practise self-control over the body and its carnal desires through communal praying, doing good deeds, reading the Qur’an, exercising patience and moderation, sympathizing with the less fortunate, strengthening family ties and supplication to Allah. Although these practices should not be exclusively limited to the month of Ramadan, the rewards are doubled. They are religious and spiritual values that should be an integral part of one’s life.

Among the landmarks of Ramadan are the revelation of the Qur’an, lailatu l-qadr (night of destiny/power) and eid el-fitr (feast of fast-breaking). It is believed that the first verses of the Qur’an were revealed to the Prophet Mohammad through the archangel Gabriel on one particular night during Ramadan (lailatu l-qadr), which is considered in the Qur’an better than a thousand months. During this night, which is celebrated on the 27th night of Ramadan, angels descend to witness how people worship and obey Allah, to show their deep love for the believers and to increase their rewards. Muslims gather in mosques to observe or seek this blessed night in devotion, night Sunnah prayers (tahajjud), recitation of the Qur’an and supplications. The end of Ramadan is marked by eid el-fitr, which extends for three days, during which people wear holiday apparel, especially kids, attend a communal sunrise prayer, congratulate each other, visit cemeteries and offer gifts or money to children.

Ramadan has plenty of medical, social and psychological benefits. First, it is believed that fasting helps lower blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar. In fact fasting is recommended for weight control and diet. Second, family and community bonds are generally strengthened during Ramadan. Families and friends exchange invitations to Iftar (fast-breaking meal) parties, prepare collective Iftar, make home visits and socialize. People gather in mosques to perform communal prayers (taraweeh).

Furthermore, charity fosters social solidarity with the poor and with society at large. These social activities help Muslims sense the merits of the unity of the Muslim nation. Finally, Ramadan provides people with ample time for spiritual self-reflection, peace of mind, tranquillity and renewal. Frequent reading of the Qur’an and praying bring people closer to Allah’s mercy and forgiveness, which are the essential meanings of the holy month.

How does a Muslim spend a typical Ramadan day? Fasting is broken just after sunset. This coincides with the evening prayer. In the past, a canon was fired to announce the end of the fast. But, nowadays this announcement is made on radio and TV. With the Iftar meal people eat dates and drink liquorice, carob or kamar ed-din (apricot) juice. After the meal people usually go to the mosque to perform the congregational maghreb (night) and taraweeh (non-mandatory) prayers. They return home and have the typical Ramadan dessert, katayef (a pancake stuffed with walnuts or white cheese, folded and dipped in syrup). Some visit relatives and friends to socialize.

If they do not go out, they usually gather around the TV to watch the Ramadan fawazeer (riddles), candid camera and comic or dramatic serials. These serials, especially the Egyptian ones, preoccupy the time of a large number of families. Children take their illuminated fawanees (lanterns made of tin and coloured glass, with a candle inside) and play in their neighbourhoods, singing some Ramadan chants. The second meal is called sohoor, which is a “blessed” light meal taken shortly before the break of dawn. In the past, people were awoken for sohoor and daybreak prayers by a drummer called misahharaty. He used to walk down the alleys before dawn, beating his drum and singing. The harsh political conditions and security measures make the practice of this traditional ritual almost impossible.

Congregational Friday prayers are special in Ramadan, especially if they are performed in Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The Israeli authorities generally announce that Muslims from the West Bank will be granted access to Jerusalem to perform the Friday prayers. In reality, what happens is that elderly male and female Palestinians take great pains to fulfil this religious duty in Jerusalem. They set out in the early hours of every Friday, reach the Israeli checkpoints and then are ordered to go back. They engage in heatedly emotional arguments with the soldiers, showing a strong will to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque. When they fail to enter Jerusalem, they perform the communal Friday prayer at the checkpoint.

Sadly, some practices and social traditions have eroded the true meaning and spirit of this holy month. First, the medical benefits of fasting are counteracted by lavish eating. It is not uncommon that some Muslims gain weight during this month of abstinence and moderation. Naturally, having huge, sumptuous Iftar meals entails overspending, which conflicts with the values of moderation, austerity and a balanced diet that are among the basic principles of Ramadan. Second, some Muslims experience “temporary” religiosity during Ramadan by praying in the mosque. Once Ramadan is over, most mosques are poorly attended, especially during dawn prayers. Second, day-time religious rituals are followed by TV shows broadcast by the myriad of satellite channels, which compete by broadcasting entertainment shows and dramatic serials, punctuated with attractive commercials. The very popular fawazeer offer lucrative prizes, which attract a large segment of the population. This commercialization of Ramadan strips it of its essential components, which are obedience and submission to Allah for the sake of gaining his mercy and the atonement of human sins. Finally, reducing work hours at government offices during Ramadan is unjustified. Once people return home from a short working day, they pray and go to sleep to while away the hours that precede the breaking of the fast.

This year Ramadan may start on October 4th. Palestinians will welcome and celebrate this year’s Ramadan with a euphoric mood following the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, with the hope that Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank will be celebrated before next year’s Ramadan. It is important to prepare oneself for Ramadan and try to preserve its spirit by engaging in intensive worship, devotion to Allah, appreciating His bounty and commiserating with the poor, engendered by a shared sense of suffering. Most importantly, one should not forget the plight of the families of the dead, the imprisoned and the injured.

Dr. Aziz Khalil is the Chair of the English Department and an Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics at Bethlehem University.

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