Among the greatest blessings of Ramadan is that it introduces a routine that has direct spiritual, physical, and, yes, intellectual benefits. Think about it. When do you think more clearly? When your stomach is full or when your stomach is somewhat full? I do not say the stomach is “empty” because let's face it, although in Ramadan during the daytime there is no intake of food and drink, you have to admit that we Muslims do our fair share of eating and drinking at sahur and at iftar. You know well that when you have eaten just enough, you feel energized and your mind is alert. When you have overeaten, you feel lethargic, about to fall over, making du'a to Allah that the imam leading Taraweeh Prayers does not prolong the ruku' or the sujud. When you have overeaten, the blood rushes to your stomach and there is little or no intellectual activity you are willing to undertake.
So if you can focus on eating just right during the sahur and the iftar, then, insha'Allah, you will find that Ramadan is the ideal time to focus on learning something every day. We learn from Ibn 'Abbas, whose youth was literally spent in the company of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) that, “Allah's Messenger was the most generous of all the people, and he used to reach the peak in generosity in the month of Ramadan when Gabriel met him. Gabriel used to meet him every night of Ramadan to teach him the Quran. Allah's Messenger was the most generous person, even more generous than the strong uncontrollable wind (in readiness and haste to do charitable deeds)” (Al-Bukhari, Book 1, Hadith 5).
What an amazing model we have in the life of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). Reviewing this hadith brings to light the tremendous love for learning that Islam instills in us. The whole religion is about learning, about striving to improve oneself, about being more, about doing more, and about keeping in focus that we do all this to seek the pleasure of Allah through our daily existence. While the days of every other month blend into one another and are somewhat indistinguishable from one and another, each day of Ramadan is special and deserves to be celebrated! We owe it to ourselves to spend each day of Ramadan increasing our knowledge and practicing what we learn.
The month of Ramadan is divided into three parts, corresponding to approximately 10 days per part. The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) taught us that Ramadan is a month whose “beginning is mercy, its middle is forgiveness, and its ending is liberation from the Hellfire.” (Ibn Khuzaymah Vol. 3, Hadith 191).
We may further approach the month on at least three levels: individual, family, and community. And so it is that in this particular essay, we will focus on learning something in each of the three 10-day periods and at each of the corresponding levels of individual, family, and community.
Fasting is by far the most intimate of the acts of worship because Allah Most High tells us clearly that the fasting is for Him. We learn from Abu Hurairah (may Allah be pleased with him) that Allah's Messenger said, “Allah said, ‘All the deeds of Adam's sons (people) are for them, except fasting which is for Me, and I will give the reward for it.' Fasting is a shield or protection from the fire and from committing sins. If one of you is fasting, he should avoid sexual relations with his wife and quarreling, and if somebody should fight or quarrel with him, he should say, ‘I am fasting.' By Him in Whose hands my soul is, the unpleasant smell coming out from the mouth of a fasting person is better in the sight of Allah than the smell of musk. There are two pleasures for the fasting person, one at the time of breaking his fast, and the other at the time when he will meet his Lord' then he will be pleased because of his fasting” (Al-Bukhari, Book 31, Hadith 128).
Precisely because fasting is a shield for us, it becomes imperative that we perfect our self-control. Each day, try to focus on one aspect of yourself. Is reading the Quran not part of your daily routine? Start this Ramadan to read the Quran daily. A little bit at a time. Read a page only per day at the least, but much more if possible. If praying on time is an issue for you, use Ramadan to understand what about your daily life keeps you from praying on time.
Is your problem internal? Do you lie? Backbite? Gossip? This is the best month to work on such issues because without ridding ourselves of negative habits, we risk not having our fasts accepted by Allah. We learn from Abu Hurairah (may Allah be pleased with him) that Allah's Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Whoever does not give up lying speech, false statements and acting on those (lies), and evil actions, then Allah is not in need of his leaving his food and drink” (Al-Bukhari, Book 3, Hadith 127). What more important lesson could we learn in Ramadan than that if we do not engage in a plan to assess ourselves thoroughly and then do go about making changes in our lives to please Allah, then Allah will not accept our fasting!
Everyone has a favorite Ramadan-related memory when it comes to the family level. What is yours? Is it being woken up early in the morning by your mother or father so that you could eat sahur? Is it waiting at the dinner table with a date in one hand and a glass of milk in the other, praying for the minute when you can make iftar? Is it going to Taraweeh Prayers? Is it staying up all night on the 21st, 23rd, 25th, 27th or 29th night of Ramadan in case that was Laylat Al-Qadr (the Night of Power)? Is it the foods associated with Ramadan that your family makes? What is it? Whatever the memory, remember to be grateful this Ramadan that you have a family with whom you can share such memories.
Even as this essay is being typed out, there are news flashes from India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan noting that thousands of people have died as a result of a recent earthquake. The tsunami, the hurricane, the earthquake, the unending wars are all tests from Allah. Sometimes a mother dies. Sometimes a father dies. Sometimes, as in the case of an entire school that collapsed because of the earthquake, hundreds of children die. Within the blink of an eye, we are tested by Allah with the loss of family members, relatives, and friends. Isn't it time we use Ramadan to be grateful to Allah for our families?
Learn to put aside petty differences between you and your brothers and sisters during this month so that you all can get along. If you made a mistake, go and apologize to your brother or sister or mother or father. If you were wronged, even then be the first to apologize for any part you had in the incident. Go one step further this Ramadan and learn to serve your parents better by doing things that they always ask you do—but now do them before they ask you! Surprise them with increased acts of obedience, of sharing, of caring and of love! Volunteer to make the iftar preparations. Clean up the house in preparation for 'Eid. Call or write people close to you with whom you have not had communication throughout the year. Learn to renew ties, to strengthen ties, and if possible, build new ties! Ramadan is a month in which we should come closer together as families and friends, insha'Allah.
What is life like in your community during Ramadan? It cannot possibly be business as usual. The whole community seems to be transformed during Ramadan as people see each other consistently for almost 29 or 30 days. Whether the event is the iftar or the Taraweeh Prayers, people find themselves coming to the masjid daily and with each event, the collective bond is strengthened. This Ramadan, learn something new about your community members. Meet new members with whom you have not had contact before. Greet them, introduce yourself, and get to know one another. Many people emerge from Ramadan having made new friends, having strengthened existing friendships, and most of all, having repaired friendships broken because of fights and misunderstandings.
In addition, one can focus on learning more about charity. We recall from the hadith mentioned above, narrated by Ibn 'Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him) that our beloved Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) “was the most generous of all the people, and he used to reach the peak in generosity in the month of Ramadan when Gabriel met him.” Go to your masjid and learn about the social service program, about the zakah program, about how the masjid plans to distribute the zakat al-fitr. Do you need to read more and learn about zakat al-fitr? This would be as good a time as any to find out all the beautiful acts of charity possible in Ramadan and indeed throughout the year. Even community service events are acts of charity. Why not gather your friends together and talk to the masjid administration about cleaning the masjid on the weekend?
This Ramadan, let us strive to learn. There is so much to be learned and practiced, but if we never start, we will continue with each year of our life to fall farther and farther behind, lamenting how much more we have to learn! Let us not let this Ramadan slip away from us. Let us use this Ramadan as a starting point to take account of our lives at the individual, family, and community levels. The month, as we know, is full of mercy, forgiveness, and an opportunity for us to be liberated from the Hellfire. Learning that alone should make us want to do everything in our power to draw closer to Allah through our fasting, our praying, our reading of the Quran, and our giving of charity! Only Allah knows if we are to live to experience another Ramadan. Let's make the most of this Ramadan!