Worshipers perform Taraweeh prayer in Amr Ibn al-As Mosque - File photos
CAIRO – 19 May 2018: There are both cultural and spiritual aspects of Ramadan that manifest themselves in Egypt, although they are often intertwined. The cultural aspects are largely well-known, having been discussed by many throughout the years. There are the colorful “fanous” lanterns and decorations adorning the streets; the extravagant, mouth-watering meals; the late-night outings; and the seemingly endless amount of TV series that air the entire month. While these are wonderful and most certainly add a little something extra to Ramadan, what truly makes the holy month special is found within the spirituality of the month.
First, it is important to understand what Ramadan is. Ramadan is commonly known as the ninth lunar month of the Islamic calendar, in which the Qur’an was sent down and in which Muslims are obligated, with some exceptions, to fast from the first light of dawn until the setting of the sun. Linguistically, the word comes from an Arabic root meaning “to burn”, so it provides the sense of being the month in which our sins are burned away. Some Islamic scholars have noted that it is always referred to as “the month of Ramadan” in the Qur’an and have therefore suggested that Ramadan is actually one of the many names of God, for the month truly belongs to Him and it is He who burns away our sins, with the month and its associated acts only being means by which He does so. We see then that the acts associated with Ramadan are not a chore, but a blessing—truly a gift granted to us by our Creator.
The act most associated with the holy month is of course fasting. While many people may see fasting from food, drink, sexual desire, etc. from sunrise to sunset as burdensome, those who do so willingly for their Lord see spiritual fruits on the horizon, ripe for the taking. These people are eager to cut off what so many of us take for granted on a daily basis, and they do so with a smile on their face, for they know the secrets of fasting. In a divine saying told to us by the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, God says, “Every act of the human is for himself, except for fasting – it is for Me, and I reward for it.” The scholars have mentioned that this is due to the fact that fasting is concealed; the one performing it doing so for no other reason than the pleasure of his Lord, who then rewards the one fasting with the best of rewards.
Shaykh Salih al-Jafari, the great 20th century gnostic and imam of Al-Azhar Mosque, stated in his book “The Secrets of Fasting” that the three letters of the Arabic word for fasting each allude to an aspect of it: patience, scrupulousness, and possessing inward beauty. Fasting develops within us a high degree of patience, not only from going without food, drink and other cravings, but also by controlling our primal emotions and through our interactions with others. This is often seen here in Cairo, as people try to let bygones be bygones and not let a given situation get to them, holding back anger, lust, and other impure thoughts and emotions. The Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said that “fasting is half of patience,” as it decreases our cravings that make us impatient in the first place. One who is able to control his most basic animalistic nature of craving food is able to control his other desires as well, therefore becoming like the angels, who do not eat, drink or crave, but only do as God desires.
Muslims are encouraged to use the month of Ramadan as a time for devoting themselves more to God. Being patient and having the cravings of the self under control through fasting provides us with more time, energy and clarity to focus on God and our spirituality in a more scrupulous manner. We are more able to look inwardly and honestly take an account of ourselves. How prudent and careful are we in our various acts of worship? How sincere are we in our dealings with God and with others? How often are we fleeing from our lower appetites and turning towards God? By answering these questions, we are able to discover our deficiencies and scrupulously work to improve ourselves.
For those who patiently and scrupulously seek to strengthen their relationship with God by means of the fast of the body, mind and soul, inward beauty is the result—a gift bestowed upon them. For what other reason have we been placed in this world other than to remove the darkness within our own selves and become enlightened with the beauty of a pure heart through the worship of God for the sake of God? Through this blessing, we are able to see the world in a new, beautiful way; for the world is but a mere reflection of what is within our hearts. Shaykh Salih’s son, Abd al-Ghany, mentioned that fasting is an evidence of love. The one fasting fasts purely out of love for God, and the act itself develops within him a certain level of love for his fellow creatures and brothers in humanity. He is no longer seeking to satisfy his own cravings and desires, but instead seeking to take every means available to improve himself and possess inward beauty for the sake of God—thereby becoming a complete human being.
While there is nothing wrong with enjoying the extras of Ramadan that have manifested culturally in Egypt and elsewhere, it is important to keep the spirit of the holy month alive. If we become neglectful or forgetful of what makes Ramadan holy and why we celebrate, then we have lost its meaning and made it like any other month. May we be among those who remember the spiritual significance of the month of Ramadan, and by doing so, may we become inwardly beautiful.