Ramadan: what is it for?​

By Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwī

There is, for the moment of breaking the fast, a famous du`a that most Muslims learn as children. It is famous because the Prophet used to say it, salla-l-lahu `alayhi wa-sallam. The du`a is short and to the point, and uncomplicated; it has a clear rhythm, and it rhymes – all of which makes it (in the Arabic) easy to memorise. Yet, the meaning of this du`a is quite extraordinarily rich and profound. It is one of countless examples of the Prophet’s skill as a teacher, and the strength of his grasp of what islam means and what it is for – in this case, his grasp of what Ramadan means and what Ramadan is for. It is God who set him the task of prophethood; and it is God who enabled him to complete that task across the whole expanse and multitude of demands that it imposed.

We have the best of reasons, therefore, for reflecting on his du`a as a way into understanding what Ramadan is for. The whole of it is just these few words:

  1. Allahumma la-ka sumtu: O God it is for You that I have fasted
  2. wa-bi-ka amantu: and in You that I have believed
  3. wa-`alay-ka tawakkaltu: and on You that I have relied
  4. wa-`ala rizqi-ka aftartu: and with Your provision that I have broken my fast

Some versions of this du`a shorten it to just the first and fourth lines. So let us begin with the shortest version.

In the precious few seconds before surrendering to the need to eat and drink, we say: “O God: it is for You that I have fasted, and (it is) with Your provision that I have broken my fast.’ What is the need for saying this? The fact of sunset has already been announced by the call to prayer. And, self-evidently, God does not need to be informed about this – He already knows that we fasted, how well we did so, and with what we are about to break our fast. So why are we stating the obvious? What is this du`a really about?

When Muslims stand to pray, in company with others or alone, it can happen that they do the prayer without being fully present in all of it, their minds drifting away to other concerns. Though most undesirable to do so, it is possible to say or hear the words and do the movements of the prayer, without the attentiveness that is their due right. Thus it can happen that we are absent in some part of the prayer though we are not absent from it. By contrast, when we are fasting, we cannot be absent in it or absent from it. The minimum outward form of fasting – abstaining from food and drink and sexual activity from first light to sunset – continually requires us to be mindful. Indeed, as the effects of hunger and thirst become stronger during the day, so mindfulness in doing what we are doing becomes stronger. It is, no doubt, by virtue of this increase in attentiveness that (according to the teaching of God’s Messenger, salla-l-lahu `alayhi wa-sallam) seeking forgiveness, acts of devotion and worship, and acts of kindness in Ramadan are rewarded more generously than at other times. One of the many blessings of this month is that when Muslims stand to pray they do so much more mindfully than before.

Sadly, some Muslims absent themselves altogether from the duty of prayer, and perhaps also neglect other of the rules and conditions of Muslim life. Yet, even such Muslims observe the fasting in Ramadan. Why? Why do they do so, and how are they able to do it? In Ramadan we become aware of what we know but do not properly acknowledge, namely that God is real to us, individually and personally, that His will is real to us, individually and personally, and that He really does enable us to do what He commands us to do. And we know what He commands from His Book, from the teachings of His Messenger, salla-l-lahu `alayhi wa-sallam, and from the clear prompting of our consciences to do what is unselfish and good and to not do what is selfish and bad – in everyday life the decision about such matters is, if we are honest, rarely difficult. Not knowing what to do is hardly ever the problem; the problem is nearly always having the will to do it and see it through.

We are always ready to state in a formal way that “it is inconceivable of God that He should command us to do either what it is impossible for us to do or what it is not good for us to do”. But in Ramadan, by personally coping with our own hunger and thirst day after day, we demonstrate to ourselves the truth of this statement and, more importantly, we demonstrate our belief in it along with our acting by it. The body’s relief in the iftar meal is accompanied by the heart’s relief that we have a right of entry to the dignity reserved for believers. It is for the sake of that dignity that the most unobservant Muslims are nonetheless observant of the fasting month.

Having said, “O God, it is for You that I have fasted”, there is only a brief moment before the heart realises the truth of what we say next: “and (it is) with Your provision that I have broken my fast”. Theoretical dependence on God becomes concrete and real; a vague, abstract assent to the idea of God becomes a lived experience of belief in Him.

In sum, the affirmations in the du`a are not redundant information-statements. Rather, they express, in the first person singular, gratitude and wonder that the task that was set has been done. The second and third lines, in the longer version of the du`a, explain how it was doable: by believing in God and relying on Him.

The phrases of the du`a are linked by a simple “and’. It would be possible to link them into a sort of virtuous circle with “because” – I have been able to fast for You (i.e., at Your command) because I have believed in You; because I have believed in You, I have relied on You (entrusted myself to You); and having relied on You I have from You the provision with which I have broken my fast; because I have broken my fast with food and drink provided by You, it is for You (i.e., at Your command) that I have fasted . . .

But that is a wrong way to understand the du`a. To make such a reading possible we have to switch the emphasis of the Arabic on You (which we have indicated by “It is for You that”, etc.) to an emphasis on I – “I did this because, and this because, etc.” This reading makes the fasting appear to be an initiative of human will, and a test of it, as if the purpose of fasting were to make the human will stronger through denial and self- discipline. That is, at best, a possible (and welcome) side-benefit; we always need self-control, and we need it to complete the fast properly – it is only the means to the end. And the end, the goal, of the fasting is not to strengthen the will (even if that is a minor outcome of the effort) but to silence and suspend it: we eat and drink when God wills, not as and when we will.

Human will is a busy thing, forever tangled in plans and preoccupations, our own and those of others, competing and co-operative. Its objectives are not as clear and certain as we like to imagine, but they appear to us important enough to distract us from awareness of ourselves as creatures of God who need to be answerable to Him. That need is the basis of our dignity as human beings. Though obscured by the human will, this need is stronger and deeper than the body’s needs for water and sustenance and reproduction. That is why in devotion and worship we find relief from our own plans and preoccupations, and what we will can be viewed from the larger perspective of what is pleasing to God. By means of hunger and thirst, endured in response to God’s command to make Ramadan a month of fasting, the clamour of the will dies down, its urgency is weakened. The silence that the will forever obscures and displaces is defined for our attention, and we have the opportunity to be aware of God, of our dependence on Him and of our need for Him. That is the wisdom of the way the Prophet phrased his du`a.

Unfortunately, the idea is widespread that the benefit of fasting is self-control. This may be true, but it is not its purpose. If any human power had, for its own private reason, imposed on us the same task of not eating or drinking, we would have spent all the hours of daylight fuming angrily about it. We would resent our weakness in relation to the power and its arbitrary, unkind imposition and, naturally, we would disobey if we could get away with disobeying. Then, when food and drink were allowed, the relief would not suffice to convert our resentment into pleasure. Rather, it is most likely that resentment would ruin the taste of the meal.

If the same conditions were imposed upon us by chance – for example, if we got so lost on the way to a meeting for lunch that we missed not only the lunch but the next meal also – the food, when at last it came, would most likely taste well. This is because we accept, simply and fully, the unfortunate circumstance that we got lost and were unable to reach food. Even so, it is an experience that we would try hard to avoid in future. The same applies to crash diets and severe physical training regimes that people impose upon themselves for various reasons – done well and sustained, they can improve health, self-control, etc., but the aim is to avoid them in future, as soon as the desired object of human will has been attained.

That is not at all the case with fasting in Ramadan. For sure, it is a task imposed, but no Muslim ever plans to avoid it in future, and no Muslim is seriously tempted to disobey its conditions. On the contrary, most Muslims look forward to Ramadan and observe the fast conscientiously – as I mentioned, even usually non-observant Muslims do so. As we enter the last third of the month, we begin to get anxious that only a few days are left, and the feeling takes hold that, when Ramadan has passed, we will miss it. Then, when it is over, we do miss it in fact – for a while. We can understand the feeling of anxiety when friends or relatives staying with us come to the end of their stay, and the feeling of loss when they have gone and we miss them. But how do we explain such feelings for a month of the year, and a month of fasting at that?

The answer is in the du`a. O God: it is for You. A well-known Prophetic hadith tells us that God has said the fast is for Him, and He will reward it. So what is the reward that we are after, if not nearness to Him? When, from behind the noise of our will enfeebled by thirst, we almost hear the silence, we hope to catch within it an echo of God’s mercy. Perhaps that is what perfect silence is. His mercy is ever present, but we are not attentive. It has more weight and power than any and all human sins, crimes, faults, lapses, slips and shortcomings put together, and it is accessible to all except those who deny Him and deny their need of His forgiveness. It is not bound by place or time but the Messenger of God, salla-l-lahu `alayhi wa-sallam, has informed us that the mercy of God, though it is always near, is brought yet nearer in Ramadan. The coming of this special opportunity is what we look forward to, and its passing is what makes us anxious.

In-sha|a Allah, there will be time in the talk to mention the diverse other blessings of Ramadan that are explained in the hadiths, and the many other du`as that the Prophet commended to us to help us benefit from fasting and worship in this month, most especially its connection with the mercy of the Qur|`an and its revelation.