Ramadan is a very unique month, uniting families, friends and strangers in an experience that is both collective and personal. It is a colourful time of the year, as people hang fawanees (lanterns) from balconies and window sills at home, and decorative tents are set up across the city to capture the festive atmosphere. Public recitations of the Quran take place each evening at neighbourhood mosques that in some cases are so congested people will assemble prayer rugs under the open night sky for long nights of quiet reflection and prayer. The ambiance of Ramadan creates a multi-sensory environment for an individual’s quiet, very personal spiritual growth.
One of the base features of Ramadan is fasting from sunrise to sunset, which is obligatory for Muslims. In addition to forgoing food and drink throughout the day, other supplementary spiritual practices can be performed by individuals that are voluntary in nature. By virtue of this, the significance of Islam’s holiest month can change throughout one’s life depending on how one perceives and practices faith. We have the freedom to take as much or as little out of Ramadan as we choose to, depending on the amount of spiritual energy we are willing to commit.
Ramadan has been my favourite time of the year for as long as I can remember, although the reasons for this have evolved over time. When I was younger, I enjoyed Ramadan mostly for the sense of togetherness it encouraged. I would find myself spending quality time with loved ones and friends more often than usual as we gathered to break our daily fasts with a meal known as iftar, served at sunset. A long day of fasting emphasises appreciation for food, making meal times more flavourful and the presence of good company more enjoyable.
For a long time, I had only vague ideas and second-hand impressions of the historical and religious significance of Ramadan, which falls on the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. It is known most prominently for being the month that Prophet Muhammad ﷺ began receiving revelations from God.
As my interest and understanding of Islam has developed, the value of Ramadan has taken on a greater significance in my spiritual routine. Extracting the fullest experience out of Ramadan can be rigorous on the body and mind. This is not so much because of fasting – your body can quite quickly adapt to reduced consumption by refining your diet to bare essentials. Rather, it is taking part in spiritual routines that can be taxing physically and mentally. These include optional prayers, devoting more time offering supplications, giving charity, reading from the Quran, and spending extra time praying in the evenings and early morning hours.
The reason we exert this effort is because of the sacred importance of the month. Muslims believe each divine revelation by God to the great and revered prophets occurred during Ramadan, beginning with Prophet Abraham, whose scriptures were revealed by the Almighty God, otherwise known as Allah in Arabic, at the start of the holy month. According to Islamic tradition, it was during Ramadan that God revealed the Torah to Prophet Moses, the Psalms to Prophet David and the Gospel to Prophet Jesus. (عليهم الصلاة والسلام)
Islam, which means ‘submission’ in English, refers to individuals who live in a state of submission to God. As a Muslim, I espouse belief in one God, and believe wholeheartedly that God has sent a Guide to living to humanity through numerous prophets, the last of whom was Muhammad ﷺ. The Last Prophet’s revelations began in Ramadan and continued for more than two decades to form the Quran, or ‘The Recitation’ in English, God’s message for all of humanity.
It is He who sent down to thee (step by step), in truth, the Book, confirming what went before it; and He sent down the Law (of Moses) and the Gospel (of Jesus) before this, as a guide to humankind, and He sent down the criterion of judgment. (Quran 3:3)
For those who do have a sincere faith in God and varying degrees of spiritual practice, this time of year is momentous if purely for its historical significance. In the Quran, God obliges all believers to fast from the break of dawn to sunset during the sacred month, with exceptions made for those whose health prevents them from the fast. (Quran 2:185).
Ramadan is a lunar month measured by the Islamic calendar. Every year, the start of the month moves back about 11 days on the solar calendar so over the course of 33 or so years, Ramadan will fall on every day from January to December.
Spiritually, the month promises immense rewards. Year in and year out, Ramadan is the same, but the way we draw benefit from it shifts throughout our lives depending on how we approach it. God gives us a great deal of space to discover our personal relationships with Him on our own terms. Much of the benefit we can derive during Ramadan are uncovered at our own volition.
“The month of Ramadan is the month of God in which the doors of Heaven are open, which is full of His Mercy, Blessings and Forgiveness. It is the best of months, its days are the best of days, its hours the best of hours; the month in which one’s breath counts as an act of worship, even sleep becomes a gesture of worship and, most importantly, our prayers are answered and sins are forgiven.”
This passage by the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ encapsulates why Ramadan is so important for spiritually aware Muslims. Its importance far-surpasses fasting as there are a variety of optional forms of worship drawn from the practices of the Last Prophet that can deepen one’s experience during the month.
By showing us the difficulty one faces in refraining from food and drink, fasting helps promote kindness and generosity toward the poor. Many affluent Muslims will sponsor free meals, known as Mawaed Al Rahman, each day of Ramadan hosted at mosques or make-shift restaurants in cities and towns in Islamic countries. These meals ensure less-affluent Muslims are able to get a well-rounded meal, including meat or chicken. Poor citizens of countries like Egypt and Lebanon are unable to afford protein-rich foods throughout the year.
Each night, Muslims gather for voluntary prayers known as taraweeh, during which large portions of the Quran are recited. These prayers, which last more than an hour, take place every evening after the ‘isha prayer and are typically performed in congregation. However, some Muslims will perform them individually at home as well.
During taraweeh, the Quran is divided into 30 parts, which are read one after another each night so that by the end of the month, the entire Quran has been completed. Muslims are also encouraged to read the Quran’s 114 chapters on their own during the month, and many Muslims will pay their annual zakat, a form of charity whereby we give 2.5% of our assets to those who require financial support, during Ramadan. As a result, we need to manage our time wisely to be able to balance and commit sincerely to these practices.
The last ten days of Ramadan are especially sacred because on one of these nights, the Last Prophet ﷺ received his first divine revelation through the archangel Gabriel in 610 AD.
Known as Laylat al-Qadr, or the night of power or destiny, prayers during this night carry immense weight. Laylat al-Qadr is most-widely believed to be on the 27th night of Ramadan, although it could fall on one of the odd-numbered nights of the last 10. Many Muslims spend these nights in prayer, some secluding themselves in mosques in devotion to God. Again, this is a choice.
Last year I was in Cairo for the last 10 nights of Ramadan and it was the first time I spent these nights in prayer and reflection. For hours each night, I would offer prayers and supplications on the breezy balcony of our seventh-floor, Pyramids-area apartment. It was a magical and powerful experience to spend time alone with God in silent search of a night the Quran says “is better than a thousand months”. (Quran, 97:1-5)
The call to prayer at fajr, the sunrise prayer, breaks this silence, reminding us as we sit in quiet devotion that we are part of a community. From dozens of nearby mosques, the athan (call to prayer) would resound out of sync, yet in a way that is perfectly melodious and captivating in the crisp morning air.
Our experience during Ramadan, while seemingly collective on the surface, is immensely personal. We can choose to open doors to explore new levels of our relationships with the Almighty, or we can leave them closed for another time. Uncovering the enchanting and raw components of the month of Ramadan is in entirely up to us.