As for the men of knowledge of the hereafter, what they mean by the correctness of fasting is its acceptability; and the acceptability of the fast is whether or not it has enabled one to reach one’s objective. They understand the objective of fasting to be the taking on, as much as possible, of a character which contains one of the characteristics of Allah – the Self-Sustainer* – and which resembles the angels in their having no desires.
(Muhsin Fayd al-Kashani, from Leaves from a Sufi Journal)
* Al-Qayyoum, one of the Names of Allah – see Qur’an 2:255, 3:2, 20:111
This evening, just prior to sunrise, members of my mosque in Los Angeles gathered round to raise the flag of the United States of America. Due to fortuitous timing, just as the flag was unfurled, a squadron of planes flew overhead in formation, cast in rose hues from the setting sun.
30 minutes later, as night fell, I stood in prayer, near the open windows of the mosque, blessedly cool air finally washing over me as respite from the Valley heat. Children played outside the window, and fireworks blossomed overhead, beyond my line of sight but making their presence known from the sound of their thunder and the chatter of the kids.
This is the convergence of freedom – the First Amendment, freedom to pray, freedom to believe and to speak; the Fourth of July, a celebration of our nation and pride. In my prayer I am literally living the dream that is America – here and only here am I free to practice my faith without fear or compromise.
1400 years ago, a Prophet was commanded to Recite. 200 years ago, a group of prophets of another sort made a Declaration. Across centuries, the traditions that I honor intertwine.
He who has fasted for Allah, the Glorious and Mighty, and is in the discomfort of heat and struck by thirst, will have his face wiped and be given the good news by a thousand angels whom Allah has entrusted to him until he breaks his fast; at that point Allah will say: “How sweet is your odor and your soul. Oh angels witness that I have forgiven him.”
(Imam Ja’far al Sadiq, as compiled in Leaves from a Sufi Journal)
There are a lot of articles written during Ramadan about what Ramadan means, about what we as Muslims should be “getting out” of Ramadan, what the benefits of Ramadan should be. But I think that these sorts of articles miss the point of ibadat. What does ibadat actually mean? The word connotes worship with submission – not just prayer, but acts of piety in which we submit ourselves to Allah. In a more technical sense, ibadat is the liturgical aspect of orthopraxy – physical actions that are prescribed by the faith. The purpose of ibadat first and foremost is to Do.
Fasting is the singular act of ibadat that truly defines Ramadan. And there are certainly no shortage of analyses as to its effect – medical literature, Qur’an verses, poets, bloggers – fasting is such a distinctive ibadat that it is natural to want to understand it. All of these things boil down to “why should I bother?” But in truth – fasting is in a way an end in and of itself. The reason we fast is because we are commanded to. We entrust to Allah that there is a reason and that there are benefits and we are eager to seek and learn what those are. But that is not the reason we fast. We fast because we submit to Allah, as Allah commands (2:185). That submission is ibadat.
The other great pillar of Ramadan is the Qur’an. In a very real sense, the Qur’an is the foundation of ibadat in Ramadan. Reading a translation of the Qur’an is useful for attaining insight into what the Qur’an teaches, and makes the message more accessible at a basic level to everyone. However, the Qur’an is not just a text containing information to be consumed or processed. It is also a divine revelation in a language chosen by Allah. There is simply no substitute for reading the Qur’an in Arabic, regardless of your comprehension. Sitting with the Qur’an and reading it aloud in the original Arabic is ibadat – you submit yourself fully to the rhythm and the music of the verses, as laid down by the Creator, exactly as given to the Prophet, during that first Ramadan. You needn’t be a master of the art of reciting Qur’an (Tajweed) like Husary – you can learn how to read Qur’an in Arabic quite quickly – there are even apps for Android and iOS
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to understand our faith or seeking meaning. But that is secondary. Ibadat is its own reward.