Ramadan – Scriptural vs. Cultural


How does Islam manifest itself in Ramadan today? We witness a struggle between two forces – the traditional version or the cultural baggage versus Ramadan as it was brought and enforced by Muhammad (sa).

Abu Umamah (rta) has reported: “A man came to the Messenger (sa) and asked him to advise the man about something that would lead him to Paradise. The Prophet (sa) instructed him to fast.” (An-Nasai) It is generally misunderstood that fasting begins and ends with Ramadan. In the Prophet’s (sa) Sunnah, fasting was perennial.

According to the scriptural perspective, the greatest challenge of the fast is not to give up food, drink or sexual relations during the daylight hours. Rather, it is a means to train the human will. When we give up the Halal (permissible) for a month to seek the pleasure of Allah (swt), it should then become possible for us to give up Haram (forbidden) for the remaining eleven months of the year.

Hence, the simplest definition of an acceptable fast would be to do what Allah (swt) loves and to forsake what Allah (swt) hates.

How much of tradition can a believer incorporate in his fast without marring Ramadan’s original essence?

A customary element, which has emerged, is that Ramadan is the month of feasting. Actually, fasting and feasting are two different worlds. During Ramadan, Muslim around the world indulge in eating as if there will be no tomorrow, whether that later results in cholesterol issues, diabetes, acidity, etc.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reported ten years ago that there were more obese people recorded in human history than starving people. The three meals an average American partakes in one day is equivalent to what 25 poor individuals eat in one day in certain African and South Asian countries.

This is an extreme way to look at life; if life is not pleasant or enjoyable, it is not worth living. For this very reason, we hear people committing suicide or wishing they could end their lives if they contract a terminal illness. We even hear of doctor-death going around, facilitating death for these patients as they find no joy in life. This mindset of over-indulgence and feasting destroys the human will. Fasting, on the other hand, disciplines it.

Allah (swt) states in the Quran: “They are like cattle, nay even more astray…” (Al-A’raf, 7:179)

We need to understand that Allah (swt) has created angels with intellect and no desires. He has created animals with desires and no intellect. Human beings are the only creation with intellect and desires. But if humans give up their intellect and fall for desires, they start to behave like animals. Animals can’t fast. They only know how to feast. Similarly, when humans give up their desires and only work with their intellect, they become angelic.

It is a well known Hadeeth of the Prophet (sa) that “the worse container a human can fill is his stomach.” (Ibn-Majah and At-Tirmidhi)

On another occasion, he mentioned: “We should eat one-third food, drink one-third water and leave one-third room for air/breathing.” (Ibn-Majah and At-Tirmidhi)

During Ramadan, our test begins at Sahoor (pre-dawn meal) and determines whether we lay a foundation of feasting or fasting. If we have eaten to the brim, our system will take nearly ten hours to digest all that. By the time the digestive system has taken care of the Sahoor, we are ready for Iftaar (fast-breaking meal), when we reload our stomachs. We travel from one excessive point to the other. According to research, the highest number of cases of digestive disorders stream into the emergency wards during Ramadan.

Where does the fault lie? Is it in traditions such as piling up a guest’s plate even though he categorically refuses anymore, and thinking that it is a Sunnah to over-feed your guests? Or, do we think that over-consumption of food is a means of expressing gratitude to the Lord? How do we sift the real Islam from the cultural one?

If we do not carry authentic knowledge, we automatically start depending on traditions. Traditions, at times, lead us to innovations. And all innovations will end up in Hellfire. So, if fasting, which is meant to be our vehicle to Paradise, is not taking us there, where are we headed?

We have a choice. If we didn’t, Allah (swt) would have removed this responsibility from us. Allah (swt) never burdens any soul beyond their capacity.

We should commit and change our Ramadan pattern. Begin by making an intention to fast in the night before the dawn. One who does not make an intention has no fast. This helps us reflect upon the reason of the meal, which is not to celebrate. It will remind us that we are now boarding the vehicle that will take us to Paradise. How did the Prophet (sa) drive this vehicle? We will be encouraged to study the Sunnah. We will be living the life of Ihsan – a life that is conscious of Allah (swt).

An official statement or Dua is not necessary. However, it is important that we focus and prioritize our mind on the fast and plan that this is not going to be a feast; rather, it will be a fast. We will experience hunger pangs during the day. How else will we appreciate the blessings of Allah (swt) and feel the pain of the destitute? So, pause for a moment to check your intention. Then take a light Sahoor such as olives, egg, brown bread, etc. Pray Fajr in congregation.

The second part of the test will be at the time of Iftar. Will we board that cultural feasting train that we can’t control and head down the misguided path? Or, are we going to make Dua, eat a few dates, drink water, pray Maghrib in congregation, and then take a moderate meal?

The Prophet (sa) said that Allah (swt) says: “Every act of Adam’s descendants is for themselves, except fasting. It is meant for Me alone, and I alone will give the reward for it.” (Sahih Muslim)

Place your fast on the prophetic scale. What and how much did he eat? Did he prevent over-indulgence? Did he ever advise us to fast for 30 days and end up gaining 5 kg at the end of Ramadan? Muslims were meant to be a balanced nation with moderate behaviour. We were warned not to fall victim to extremism, like the People of the Book. Feasting is extremism.

May Allah (swt) help us to fast the way He has prescribed. Ameen.

This article is based on a lectureshop organized by “LiveDeen” in 2011. It has been transcribed for Hiba by Rana Rais Khan.