Ramadan in Jordan 2011, an Outsider’s Perspective: Ramadan Origins (part 2)

Previous Post: Ramadan Basics

All of the major religions advocate fasting in some form or another, but fasting plays a particularly special role in the life of Muslims.  The month-long fast during Ramadan punctuates the rhythm of the Islamic calendar, serving as a spiritual focal point for many.  The scope of the fast (an entire month), the communal nature of it (all Muslims should participate), and the intensity of fasting (no food or drink during daylight hours) set it apart from the fasting practiced in Islam’s monotheistic cousins Judaism and Christianity.  So, what are the origins of this important religious practice that roughly 1.5 Billion people worldwide are currently observing (as of August 2011) ?

Possible Linguistic Roots

If one consults the venerable Hans Wehr Arabic-English dictionary one finds under the root (ر م ض ) two major meanings.  The first is  from the Form VIII verb (irtamaDa) meaning to be consumed with grief or sorrow.  The second seems to be a masdar or verbal noun (ramd) meaning the condition of parchedness or scorchedness.  When the month of Ramadan falls in the summer months, a correlation with these two terms might seem apparent.  However as the timing of Ramadan changes eac year (sometimes falling in winter) it is not likely that either of these words is related and that the origins of the name for the month are lost in the annals of history.  Of course the “alif noon (-an)” ending in arabic can indicate the dual in Arabic, so perhaps it is the month of double parchedness.

Quranic References

As with most religious practices it is helpful to start with the most relevant religious text.  As it turns out the Quran contains 14 references to fasting in 8 distinct passages.

  • 5 passages offer fasting as an option for believers to make up for or redeem a shortcoming of one sort or another (accidental murder of a believer, inability to make sacrifice on hajj, breaking an oath, killing game near the kaabah in Mecca, divorcing and remarrying the same woman.)
  • 1 passage about Mary the mother of Jesus
  • 1 passage about fasting and forgiveness
  • 1 passage about fasting during Ramadan

As a point of reference, here is the Quranic passage re.  fasting during Ramadan

Note that the bracketed words in the English translation are not in the original text, but are added by the translator for the sake of clarity

Al-Baqara 2:183-187 (English Translation – Sahih International)

يا أيها الذين آمنوا كتب عليكم الصيام كما كتب على الذين من قبلكم لعلكم تتقون

183 O you who have believed, decreed upon you is fasting as it was decreed upon those before you that you may become righteous –

أياما معدودات فمن كان منكم مريضا أو على سفر فعدة من أيام أخر وعلى الذين يطيقونه فدية طعام مسكين فمن تطوع خيرا فهو خير له وأن تصوموا خير لكم إن كنتم تعلمون

184  [Fasting for] a limited number of days. So whoever among you is ill or on a journey [during them] – then an equal number of days [are to be made up]. And upon those who are able [to fast, but with hardship] – a ransom [as substitute] of feeding a poor person [each day]. And whoever volunteers excess – it is better for him. But to fast is best for you, if you only knew.

شهر رمضان الذي أنزل فيه القرآن هدى للناس وبينات من الهدى والفرقان فمن شهد منكم الشهر فليصمه ومن كان مريضا أو على سفر فعدة من أيام أخر يريد الله بكم اليسر ولا يريد بكم العسر ولتكملوا العدة ولتكبروا الله على ما هداكم ولعلكم تشكرون

185 The month of Ramadhan [is that] in which was revealed the Qur’an, a guidance for the people and clear proofs of guidance and criterion. So whoever sights [the new moon of] the month, let him fast it; and whoever is ill or on a journey – then an equal number of other days. Allah intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship and [wants] for you to complete the period and to glorify Allah for that [to] which He has guided you; and perhaps you will be grateful.

وإذا سألك عبادي عني فإني قريب أجيب دعوة الداع إذا دعان فليستجيبوا لي وليؤمنوا بي لعلهم يرشدون

186 And when My servants ask you, [O Muhammad], concerning Me – indeed I am near. I respond to the invocation of the supplicant when he calls upon Me. So let them respond to Me [by obedience] and believe in Me that they may be [rightly] guided.

أحل لكم ليلة الصيام الرفث إلى نسائكم هن لباس لكم وأنتم لباس لهن علم الله أنكم كنتم تختانون أنفسكم فتاب عليكم وعفا عنكم فالآن باشروهن وابتغوا ما كتب الله لكم وكلوا واشربوا حتى يتبين لكم الخيط الأبيض من الخيط الأسود من الفجر ثم أتموا الصيام إلى الليل ولا تباشروهن وأنتم عاكفون في المساجد تلك حدود الله فلا تقربوها كذلك يبين الله آياته للناس لعلهم يتقون

187 It has been made permissible for you the night preceding fasting to go to your wives [for sexual relations]. They are clothing for you and you are clothing for them. Allah knows that you used to deceive yourselves, so He accepted your repentance and forgave you. So now, have relations with them and seek that which Allah has decreed for you. And eat and drink until the white thread of dawn becomes distinct to you from the black thread [of night]. Then complete the fast until the sunset. And do not have relations with them as long as you are staying for worship in the mosques. These are the limits [set by] Allah , so do not approach them. Thus does Allah make clear His ordinances to the people that they may become righteous.

From these verses the following points seem obvious to me as an outside observer

  • The purpose: to become righteous (v. 183)
  • Exceptions: Those who are ill or traveling do not have to fast, but they have to make it up later (v. 184,185)
  • Prohibitions: Food, water and sexual relations  during daylight hours (v. 187)

But why the month of Ramadan?

Faithful Muslims would most likely answer this question by simply pointing to the Quranic injunction to fast during this specific month.  However, there is some additional information that is of interest.

Before the inception of Muhammad’s religious career, he worked as a caravan trader.  However, some biographers have noted that during this time period in his life it was common for Muhammad to spend  time during the month of Ramadan in fasting and prayer.  It was his habit to retreat to the solitude Cave of Hira in Saudi Arabia for this time of spiritual reflection.  Why Muhammad chose this particular month in unknown to me.

One year Muhammad was surprised to receive a vision of the angel Jibreel (Gabriel in English).  It was this Jibreel who revealed to Muhammad the message of the Quran.  The giving of the Quran during the month of Ramadan is one of the major events that the holy month commemorates and many Muslims seek to read the entire Quran during the month.  Indeed, the Quran contains the markings of 30 equal sections (juz in arabic) that facilitate this devotional activity.

So from the very foundation of the religion Muslims have been encouraged to fast for one month out of the year.  In Arabic the word “fast” is saum and the activity of “fasting” is sayyim. Observing the fast is one of the so-called 5-Pillars of Islam (or 5 obligatory practices for the Muslim believer).  The main support for the practice is found in the 2nd chapter of the Quran, but there are also numerous references to fasting in the Hadith (Islam’s other holy book – the sayings and actions of the prophet muhammad) and some of the more specific practices can be found there.  If you get a chance this Ramadan, be sure to ask a Muslim friend or neighbor where the custom of fasting during Ramadan comes from and enjoy the conversation that follows.

Next Post: Ramadan Goals

Other Ramadan Related Posts here at Pilgrim without a Shrine:

Ramadan in Jordan 2011, an Outsider’s Perspective: Ramadan Basics (part 1)

Ramadan in Jordan 2011, an Outsider’s Perspective: Ramadan Goals in Muslim Words (part 3)

Ramadan Breakfast at Hashem’s in Amman, Jordan

Haircut at Fawzi’s Saloon, a Ramadan Tradition 

Eid Mubarak!

Beginfast or Commensfast Anyone?

Ooops, I forgot Weekend Headlines from Jordan #4

Successful Ramadan Trip to the Saloon

Jordan Headlines #3

Looking for a Ramadan Special at the Local Saloon

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2 Responses

  1. www. iipctv.com/lectures/urdu/emaan-ki-simt/94-saum-fasting
    This is an extremely important lecture for Muslims who want to govern their lives in accordance with the Quran. Most Muslims know only one type of fasting which is observed during the month of Ramadan, while this lecture will point out various other types of fasting mentioned in the Quran (in addition to what we observe in Ramadan) and also the various reasons behind the different types of fasts, which ultimately increases our consciousness for Allah. This is a must watch as these other types of fast are also ordained by Allah which we are not told about as we are growing up, hence we are leaving a major practice that we as Muslims are suppose to do.

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