I want to talk today about Ramadan and fasting. I know you are thinking, “One more Khutbah about Ramadan? Please…” But my focus is a little different this time. I’d like to talk more specifically about our practice of fasting here in America, and how we can look to the history of our faith for “clues” about how we understand its meaning.
I will begin with a story about the journey of fasting in my own family. I am taking the liberty, with my wife’s permission, of sharing her experience with this pillar of the faith over the years. She has struggled with fasting since adopting Islam over thirty years ago. Every year she has tried to fast, and it has been almost impossible for her to abstain from eating and drinking all day, especially in summer, with its 17-18 hours days. She always felt discouraged and frustrated. She would be almost incapacitated by dehydration. Her body physiology was not used to the practice of abstaining, especially from water. The challenge was not just physical, but also psychological. The concept of fasting ran counter to everything she had always been taught about the need stay hydrated, especially in summer, and that eating small amounts of food every few hours was the best way to maintain energy and productivity. On days when she had to work full time, she could not fast. In spite of all that I encouraged her to fast to the best of her ability – not fast all day, drink water once or twice during the day – whatever she needed to do to get through and function. She tried different ways over the years, but she always tried to fast. And Alhamdulillah, to her surprise, she is finally able to fast all day, even in the summer.
This journey is not unique to her. We have to think of others who probably struggle with fasting like she has – other converts to Islam in America, children growing up, especially when they see that other people around them do not have to suffer like they do. We should even think about other Muslims who decided to leave the faith for a time, but then come back to it, and who might find Islamic rituals difficult to follow, especially fasting and praying regularly. We can go further and say that even for those of us who are used to fasting all our lives, we might find it challenging to keep the tradition while maintaining regular working hours, with everyone expecting us to perform “business as usual,” Ramadan or not. Muslims in Islamic countries deal with the challenges of Ramadan by changing their life style and work expectations. In Egypt, for example, no one is expected to do much during Ramadan. For them, everything is “Baad il Eid,” which means, “After Eid.” I wish we could do that here, but we cannot, and honestly, we should not. I remember when I fasted Ramadan for the first time in America, I felt that I had never fasted before in Egypt. It was so easy in Egypt. No struggle, it was fun. But here, having to work long the same long hours every day, it was a challenge.
This leads to the second part of my Khutbah. Is there anything in the experience of the first Muslims that we can refer to, to inspire us through our challenges with fasting in America? The concept of fasting in Ramadan as we now know it developed over time in Madinah. When Prophet Muhammad, pbuh came to Madinah, he found that the Jews were fasting the day of Passover to celebrate the exodus of Prophet Mousa and his followers from Egypt. He said, “Mousa is our prophet too,” so he decided to fast that day and asked his followers to fast as well. Sometime during the first year in Madinah, Allah revealed to Prophet Muhammad Ayat 183-184 of Surat Al-Baqara, asking the Muslims to fast three specific days –the 13th, 14th, and 15th days of every month. (This later became a tradition of the Prophet for fasting outside of Ramadan.) Allah also mentioned in these ayat that those who find it difficult to fast do not have to fast, and they could provide a meal to a needy person in Madinah instead. The rule was general, without any limitations. It was left up to each Muslim to decide for himself or herself whether or not they could fast. Allah also mentioned that if someone was sick or traveling, they should not fast, and make up those days later, after Ramadan, whenever possible.
Sometime later, within the first two years in Madinah, Ayah 185 was revealed, asking the Muslims to fast the entire month of Ramadan. The ayah confirmed to everyone that those who find it difficult should not exhaust themselves by fasting.
It was the month of Ramadan in which the Qur’an 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; but he that is ill, or on a journey, shall fast instead for the same number of other days. God wills that you shall have ease, and does not will you to suffer hardship; but 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. [2:185]
What a beautiful ayah – a beautiful concept. Allah wants us to fast, but not to have hardship. Why? Because fasting, like all Islamic rituals, has a purpose. The rituals are not just “Faraid,” - rules to be followed - they are pathways to Allah. They are there to help us stay on that path. Hardship might compromise that concept, making us focus more on getting through it at any price, with the risk of losing perspective. It is worth pointing out here that “fasting” in Arabic - sawm - means literally “to abstain from something.” For example, in Surat Maryam, God conveyed to Maryam that she should tell the people
“Behold, abstinence from speech have I vowed to the Most Gracious; hence I may not speak today to any mortal.” [19:26]
When the Muslims began fasting in Madinah, they followed different rules from those we follow today – this was the third phase of fasting. They ate at sunset. They were allowed to eat and drink as long as they stayed awake, but if they went to sleep, they would not eat or drink until the next day at sunset. Some of the commentators say that they believed that was the way the other people of the book, (Jews and Christians) fasted at that time, as Allah said in Ayah 183:
O You who have attained to faith! Fasting is ordained for you as it was ordained for those before you, so that you might remain conscious of God. [2:183]
Most of the Muslims went to sleep after they prayed Isha, especially when they prayed with the Prophet, in order to be able to get up early for Fajr prayer. Some of the Muslims could not follow that rule, and were not strict in observing it (including, believe it or not, Omar ibn Khattab). One day, one of the Prophet’s companions named Sarma ibn Malik, who was a farm worker, inspired another revelation regarding fasting. He came home at the end of the day with some dates from the field where he worked. He told his wife, “I do not want to eat dates tonight. Dates have ‘burned my stomach.’ Take these dates and trade them for something warm to eat.” He was too tired to stay awake, so he fell asleep. When his wife came back she woke him up to eat, but he was afraid to, not wanting to violate the rule. The next day he went to work. At the end of the day, Prophet Muhammad saw him at the mosque and asked him “What happened to you, you look pale and sick.” So Sarma ibn Malik told him what happened. That night, Gibrael came to Prophet Muhammad with Ayah 187 from Surat Al-Baqara, revising the rule of fasting, telling the Muslims that they can eat and drink whenever they want from sunset to dawn. What is more intriguing in this ayah (Al Baqara 187), is that Allah stated that He knew some of the Muslims were, literally, “cheating” (“takhtanouna anfusakum”).
Allah was not angry with them, but merciful. He forgave them and lifted that hardship. There is a wonderful story from the Seerah which illustrates this forgiveness as practiced by the Prophet. A man came to Prophet Muhammad and said “I am burning in hellfire. I intentionally broke my fast during the day yesterday. What should I do?” The Prophet waited for awhile, according to his companions, waiting for an answer from Allah (as was the case many times in Seerah). Then he asked for the man to come back to him. The Prophet had a good sense of humor as well. He said, “Where is the man on fire?” The man came back. The Prophet then said, “Here is what you have to do. Ask Allah for forgiveness, free a slave.” The man answered, “I do not have any.” The Prophet answered, “Then fast for two successive months.” The man answered, “I cannot.” The Prophet then said, “Then feed 60 needy people from Madinah.” The man said, “I cannot.” The Prophet waited a little bit. Then a man came with a pot full of dates and gave them to the Prophet to give to the man as a Sadaqa (act of charity). The Prophet gave it to him and said, “Find 60 needy people in Madinah and feed them these dates.” The man finally said, “Prophet Muhammad, in this city I am poorer than anyone else.” Prophet Muhammad laughed out loud and told him, “Go home and feed your family with these dates.” Just like that. No hardship, absolute forgiveness and mercy. Prophet Muhammad understood this poor man’s good intention and solid faith, and never questioned it.
The last thing I want to mention is a fun and interesting fact. If you think that fasting these past few years has been hard because Ramadan has been in the summer, I would say that it could have been worse. Ramadan could have fallen during the summer every year. Let me explain. Ramadan, in Arabic, is from the root word “Ramada” which literally means “sizzling hot.” Before Islam, in the time of Jahiliyya, Ramadan correlated with the middle of summer, when it was extremely hot in Makkah. Before Islam, the Arabs used a lunisolar calendar, just like the Jewish calendar now. They intercalated the calendar by adding three months every seven years (3, 6, 8) to make up the difference between the solar year and the lunar year. They did that because it was to their advantage to correlate the months with the seasons. The most important month for them was the season of Hajj, in the month of “Thor Al Hijja.” They wanted Hajj to be in the fall season, after their summer trading journey to the north, which was the most important one. They wanted the trade season to precede the Hajj season so they would have goods to trade during Hajj, a big commercial event. In the year 9 Hijra, Surah At-Tawba (#9) was revealed to Prophet Muhammad, especially Ayah 37, where Allah prohibited the Muslims from doing any future intercalation. Since then, the months of the Hijjra calendar rotate through the different seasons. Ramadan now falls in summer, spring, winter and fall.