Ramadan: Striving for God Consciousness
By Dr. Louay M. Safi
The Qur'an reminds the believers that they should not
reduce religious practices to a set of blind rituals ..
Ramadan is the month of fasting for Muslims the world
over. Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, and sexual intercourse from dawn to
dusk for the duration of Ramadan. For some, fasting may appear as a form of
deprivation and of bodily exertion. On one level, abstaining from sensual needs
and pleasures is indeed a physical experience. But those who stop at the
physical aspects of fasting miss the essence of Ramadan and its purpose.
Fasting the month of Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam. These are the
foundation upon which the entire structure of Islam is built. These consist of
the declaration of faith, prayer, fasting Ramadan, paying of Zakah [the annual
charity payment], and performing the pilgrimage to Makkah, known as hajj. Three
of the five pillars of Islam are rituals, that is, prescribed religious acts
whose rationale is not immediately available for understanding. These are
prayer, fasting, and hajj. Muslims are required to do them because they are part
of their religious duties, that is, they are part of their covenant with God.
As a ritual, fasting is a symbolic act whose meaning becomes gradually apparent
through experience. The meaning embodied in a ritual is always unveiled when one
immerses himself or herself in the act itself. This does not mean that fasting
is not open to intellectual delineation, but rather any intellectual delineation
either presupposes or predicts a meaning that can best become apparent through
performing the symbolic act itself.
The essence of fasting Ramadan and its goal is summed in the Qur'an in one word:
taqwa. "O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was
prescribed to those before you, that you may attain taqwa." (Qur'an 2:183)
But what is taqwa? And how does it relate to the physical act of fasting?
Taqwa is a recurring theme in the Qur'an and a paramount Qur'anic value. Taqwa
is both an attitude and a process. It is the proper attitude of the human toward
the divine that denotes love, devotion, and fear. Love to the source of good and
beauty that make life worth living; devotion to God's boundless wisdom and
majesty; and fear of misunderstanding the divine intent or failing in
maintaining the appropriate posture and relationship.
The attitude of taqwa cannot and does not stay in the confines of the human
spirit, but is ultimately revealed in expression and action. The attitude of
taqwa is ultimately revealed in, and in turn reveals, the true character it
nurtures: the commitment to the sublime values stressed by divine revelations of
courage, generosity, compassion, honesty, steadfastness, and cooperation in
pursuing what is right and true.
Taqwa is equally the process by which the believers internalize the sublime
values of revelation and develop their character. Thus the Qur'an reminds the
believers that they should not reduce religious practices to a set of blind
rituals, of religiously ordained procedures performed at the level of physical
movement, and that they should always be mindful that religious practices, like
praying and fasting, ultimately aim at bringing about moral and spiritual
uplifting: "It is not righteousness that you turn your faces towards East or
West: But it is righteousness to believe in God and the Last day, and the
Angels, the Book, and the Messengers; to give out of the things you hold dear to
your kin, the orphans, the needy, the wayfarer, the one who asks, and to free
the slave. And to be steadfast in prayer and to give for charity. To fulfill the
covenants you have made, and to be firm and patient in times of pain, adversity,
and panic. Such are the people of truth, and such are the God-conscious."
As Ramadan helps us to develop our moral discipline, it also reminds us of the
plight of those who live in constant hunger and deprivation. We are reminded
time and again by the revealed book that religiosity is meaningless and
pointless if it does not lead people to care and share: "Have you seen one who
belies judgment; it is the one who repulses the orphan, and does not insist on
feeding the needy. So woe to those who pray but are neglectful of their prayers.
Those who are guilty of duplicity and refuse to provide for the ones in need."
Fasting Ramadan, like other religious practices in Islam, is an occasion for
pursuing moral excellence that can also be translated into excellence in social
organization and interaction. In a tradition that was reported in the books of
Bukhari and Muslim, the Prophet was once asked: "O messenger of God! who is the
most honored of people? He said: the one who has most taqwa. They said: this is
not what we are asking about.... He said: ... the best of them prior to Islam is
the best of them in Islam if they comprehend (the revealed message)."
It is not difficult to see that the Prophet's companions did not have immediate
access to the meaning of taqwa, as many Muslims today still don't. When they did
not accept his first statement as an answer, the Prophet gave them an
explanation of what he meant when he responded to their question about "the most
honored of people." In responding with the question, the Prophet was reiterated
the meaning provided by the Qur'an: "Verily the most honored of you in the sight
of God is the most righteous (muttaqi)." (Qur'an 49:13) The Prophet's statement
underscores the fact that taqwa as a moral and spiritual quality is significant
in the human world insofar as it leads people to act with compassion and respect
Nothing does empower a community more than the development of the moral
character of its members. By embodying the moral values of revelation, people
can have a higher social life, one that is based on mutual respect and help, as
it is based on honest and fair dealings, and a sense of duty that encourages
people to observe the principles of right and justice as they pursue their
varying and competing interests. The theme that moral life based on the notion
of taqwa leads to societal strength and prosperity is an oft repeated theme in
the Qur'an: "Whoever has taqwa of God, He prepares a way out for them, and He
provides them from sources they never could imagine." (Qur'an 65:2-3) And again:
"Verily the earth is God's to give as a heritage to such of His servants as He
pleases; and the end is best for the God-conscious." (7:128)
Fasting is not simply a time during which people deprive themselves from
physical pleasures, but is an occasion to exercise moral restrain and experience
spiritual growth. Ramadan is a time of remembrance of God and renewal of
commitment to the high and noble values he revealed to mankind. And nothing
would give us the sense of spiritual fulfillment than a state of taqwa, of
God-consciousness, that Ramadan helps us to realize.
Dr. Louay M. Safi serves as the executive director of
ISNA Leadership Development Center, an Indiana based organization dedicated to
enhancing leadership awareness and skills among American Muslim leaders, and a
founding board member of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy. He
writes and lectures on issues relating to Islam, American Muslims, democracy,
human rights, leadership, and world peace. His commentaries are available at his