THE NINTH MONTH on the Islamic calendar—twenty-nine or thirty days of community fasting (Ṣawm), from crescent to crescent, Ramadan—is, among other things, a celebration of Al-Ra ḥmân’s renewal of guidance to mankind.
Our Ramadan and Its Associations with Revelation
One of the great focuses of Ramadan is a renewal, or intensification, of our companionship with the Quran, whose revelation to Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was initiated in the lunar month of Ramadan, 610 ce.
It was the month of Ramadan in which the Quran was [first] bestowed from on high as a guidance unto man and a self-evident proof of that guidance, and as the standard by which to discern the true from the false. Hence, whoever of you lives to see this month shall fast throughout it….[He desires] that you complete the number [of days required], and that you extol God for His having guided you aright, and that you render your thanks [unto Him]. [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:185]
Halfway up the Red Sea coast of the Arabian Peninsula, inland, in a cave on Mount Ḥirâ’, there, Al-Amîn, “The Trustworthy One,” meditated, seeking Allah’s favor and guidance. The divine first verses (Sûrat Al-ʿAlaq, 96:1-5) exploded into his psyche and shook him to the very core of his being—charging him with a mission to receive a Text and to proclaim it, as it came to him, for the benefit of mankind.
Language and Renewal of Guidance
Man’s use of written language (cf. “the Pen” of Sûrat Al-ʿAlaq, 96:4) had been taught him by his Creator (Sûrat Al-ʿAlaq, 96:1-2, 4). (See also Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:31-33 concerning Allah’s initiation of man into the use of language as a cognitive tool in general.) Such language had enabled the human community first to receive in a stable form their Creator’s guidance; but this did not keep them from transgressing the known boundaries set by their bountiful Lord (Sûrat Al-ʿAlaq, 96:3).
This was due to man’s tendency to assume an attitude of self-sufficiency (Sûrat Al-ʿAlaq, 96:7) and as a result of his turning away from [previous prophetic] guidance (Sûrat Al-ʿAlaq, 96:11). Indeed, from the get-go, Muhammad ﷺ would have to contend with outright peer pressure (Sûrat Al-ʿAlaq, 96:17) against his resort to prayer (Sûrat Al-ʿAlaq, 96:9-10) and against his attention to a righteous orientation in life (Sûrat Al-ʿAlaq, 96:12).
Reception and Purpose of the Prophet’s Guidance
In the face of rejection from his people, what was Allah’s instruction to the Prophet ﷺ in dealing with such deniers of His benevolence? Nay, pay thou no heed to him, but prostrate thyself [before God] and draw close [unto Him]! [Sûrat Iqra’, 96:19]
Yet, it was the resulting Book, “sent down” to Prophet Muhammad ﷺ—This divine writ—let there be no doubt about it—is [meant to be] a guidance for all the God conscious [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:2]—which would make the people of Muhammad ﷺ the “best community” of mankind—incorporating them in the Prophet’s mission for the benefit of mankind:
You are indeed the best community that has ever been brought forth for [the good of] mankind; you enjoin the doing of what is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong, and you believe in God. [Sûrat Âl ʿImrân, 3:110]
Our Fast and Its Benefits
Our Ramadan is our time for yearly “bargain days,” for drawing close to Allah in prostration, in reading (in recitation, as able) of the Quran, in praise and supplication. What enables this special access of closeness to Allah? Our fasting, our withholding of the normal daytime satisfaction of food and drink, the onset of emptiness in our digestive systems, the light-headedness—and later, as the month unfolds (if we persevere), the increased sensitivity to one’s body, to one’s own self and beingness, to the shared presence of our Muslim partners in this life, sensitivity to our cooperative mission together with them, to mankind, to one’s fellow creatures—animate and other—to one’s Creator, to what He reveals to us, to what He requires of us.
This sensitivity is a special gift of the sustained, renewed fasting set off by the rhythm of Ramadan and its rearrangement of our eating schedule. We make the most of this opportunity for spiritual progress if we can manage to eat modestly between sundown and dawn, and if we can allow our digestive systems to go into “lite-mode”—so as to effect a “Spring-cleaning” of our biological place of residence, a whole-body “face-lift”—and ultimately, if we persevere, to a spiritual deep-cleansing.
Our Prophet’s Fasting
We are encouraged to take our pattern and inspiration from the model of our beloved Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, both as to his attitudes and as to his practices. He of course fasted daily throughout Ramadan without “days off.”
By all accounts, his diet was much sparser than the tremendous variety we have available today. He could not look forward to an ifṭâr (fast-breaking) banquet. Yet throughout the year he fasted recurrently on semi-fixed days and for special occasions; and he regularly spent long nights in Prayer with his Lord, reciting the verses of Guidance that had been entrusted to him for mankind’s benefit.
The direct connection is clear for us, too, between fasting and closeness to Allah, mediating both an awareness of His Presence and facilitating a reception of His Guidance offered to “him who wills to be guided.”
His General Patterns of Fasting
In the arena of fasting, we know that we are not expected to keep pace with Muhammad ﷺ, with his frequency, with his intensity of worship. But let us view the Prophet’s general practice of fasting throughout the year, the month and the week. I draw below from Shamâ’il Tirmidhî,[i] his chapter of a ḥâdîth on the Prophet’s fasting.
Ḥadîth #283: Ibn ʿAbbâs relates: “Rasûl’Allâh ﷺ fasted the major portion of [a given lunar] month at times, till we thought that he did not intend ending the fasts. In some months, he did not fast. [So] we began to think he would not fast now. Besides Ramadan, he did not fast for a full month.
His Fast Days of the Month
Thus it was not the habit of Rasûl’Allâh to fast for the consecutive days of a full month, other than during Ramadan. It has been mentioned variously that it was his practice to fast on Mondays and Thursdays, as well as on the 13th, 14th, and 15th of the lunar month (Al–Ayyâm Al-Bîḍ)—unless travel or another obstacle made fasting difficult. When his normal habits had been broken, he ﷺ liked to go back to them and “complete them by observing a continuous fast” (p. 308).
Ḥadîth #285: ʿÂishah says: “I did not observe Rasûl’Allâh ﷺ fast for more days in any month (excluding Ramadan) other than Shaʿbân. He fasted for the major part of the month, and nearly fasted for the full month.”
Shaʿbân, of course, is the lunar month preceding Ramadan. Comments Kandhelwi concerning the above ḥadîth:
The reason for fasting the major portion of Shaʿbân is mentioned by Sayyidina Rasûl’Allâh ﷺ himself that, ‘In this month, there is also that day wherein the deeds of the year are presented before Allah. I love that my deeds should be presented while I am fasting.’ Besides this, many other reasons are narrated in the a ḥâdith. It is possible that at a certain time, it is for a particular reason and at another time it is for some other reason. The combining of many reasons at one time has also been mentioned by Sayyiditina ʿÂishah j, that the practice of Sayyidina Rasûl’Allah ﷺ was to fast for three days in every month. At times, due to unforeseen circumstances, these were not observed. The total qaḍâ’ [making up for delay] (of missed fasts) were combined and kept in Shaʿbân by Sayyidina Rasûl’Allah ﷺ. In another narration it is mentioned that it was the practice of Sayyidina Rasûl’Allah ﷺ to fast on every Monday and Thursday. In this manner during the course of the year, due to circumstances, the fasts of two or three months could not be observed. It could be possible for these to add up to a full month….
It is stated in the ḥadîth that Sayyidina Rasûl’Allah ﷺ was once asked the reason for fasting so many days of Shaʿbân. He replied: ‘The names of all those who are going to die during the course of the year are written down in this month. I desire that my death be written in a state when I am fasting.’ (pp. 309-310)
His Fast Days of the Week
Did the Prophet ﷺ fast on Fridays? There is evidence and ʿulamâ’ (scholarly) opinion on both sides: Some indications are that Friday fasts were practiced by the Prophet ﷺ, others that it was prohibited to pick out Friday as the sole day of fasting.
Ḥadîth #289: ʿÂishah reports: “Rasûl’Allah ﷺ fasted three days of every month. In some months he fasted on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays; and in some months he fasted on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.”
Commentary: So that in this manner all the days of the week are covered. The days of Friday were intentionally omitted—as stated in some a ḥâdîth that this day has been proclaimed as an Eid. Other important matters were fulfilled on this day. Or, Friday has not been mentioned in this narration and may have been mentioned in other narrations. (p. 312)
Ḥadîth #291: Muʿâdh says: “I inquired from ʿÂisha, Did Rasûl’Allah ﷺ fast for three days of every month?” She replied: “Yes.” I then asked: “On which days of the month did he fast.” She replied: “He did not fast on specific days, but whenever suitable.”
Commentary: At times it was the practice of Rasûl’Allâh ﷺ not to give importance to fixing certain days. At times, he fixed certain days. For example, fasting on the first three days of the month, or sometimes on the last three days of the month, or in some months on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, and in another month on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Therefore, different a ḥâdîth have been narrated on this subject, and ʿÂishah refused to specify a certain day. (p. 312-313)
We will do well to remember that fasting is counted by Allah as something “between Me and My servant.” The fasting “marathon” of Ramadan is done by the Muslim community in concert. It is a time of mutual support—even reaching out to the larger human community, of experiencing the challenges of living in hunger, of helping to alleviate the hunger of others. Yet, ṣawm (fasting) was an ongoing practice of the Prophet ﷺ, throughout the year.
One can think of the long-term and short-term merits of fasting, both of which are positive:
(a) How our fasting is to be accounted to one’s credit (thawâb) on the Day of Reckoning, as well as:
(b) The immediate benefit of conforming to the practice of Rasûl’Allâh ﷺ, namely, the benefit of best pleasing Allah Himself
Ḥadîth #295: Abû Ṣâli ḥ reports: “I inquired from ʿÂishah and Umm Salamah, as to which act was the most beloved by Rasûl Allâh ﷺ.” Both gave the reply: “That deed which was practiced continuously, even if it was a little.”
Commentary: The object of all these a ḥâdîth are that ṣawm (fasting) and likewise all other nawâfil (pl. of nafl “voluntary”) deeds, “even if it be a little,”—[of] whatever could be done—should be practiced continuously and with care. One should not forsake these with the thought that it cannot be practiced constantly, because the nawâfil are the only acts that compensate for the shortcomings of the farâ’iḍ (pl. of farḍ, compulsory acts). Therefore, one should endeavour to observe and practice as much as one possibly can. (p. 316)
Ramadan, An Extra Package Deal
We differ from the Prophet ﷺ in our zeal for closeness to Allah and in our commitment to worship. Fasting is one of the “pillars” of Islam—which should indicate to us its established efficacy as a practice to gain the pleasure of Allah and to draw us closer to Him.
But even for the least committed of us—or for those of us who simply find it difficult to add into our schedules more Prayer and more days of Fasting—there are special “package deals” throughout Islam to tug us close to Allah in the long run. As we proceed through Ramadan, and as we plan for afterwards, let us consider adding more fasting to our toolkit in this life. Let us consider the following Package Deal, at the very least:
Whoever fasts [all the days of] Ramadan, then follows it up with six [more days] in [the month of] Shawwâl, it is as if he had fasted [his] whole life span. (Muslim)
Shawwâl is the lunar month following Ramadan—when we already are in the rhythm of experiencing the benefits of consecutive days of fasting. The added six days do not even need to be consecutive! So let us not miss this Deal offered by Allah u to His servant!
[i] Shamâ’il Tirmidhi, with commentary, Shaykhul Hadith Maulana Muhammad Zakariyya Kandhelwi, tr. Muhammad bin ‘Abdurrahman Ebrahim, 1994, New Era Publishers, Ghaziabad (U.P.) India., pp. 305-317.