Making Sense of Ramadan

Henrik Ræder Clausen of Europe News has posted an informative article about Ramadan at Jihad Watch. With his permission, I am republishing it here.

Making sense of Ramadan
by Henrik Ræder Clausen

Ramadan is, originally, one of the four holy months of Arab paganism, but is today, along with the fasting ritual, one of the five pillars of Islam. In these months, Arabs would abstain from bloodshed and plunder, postpone any outstanding acts of revenge, and if possible perform the small pilgrimage (Umra) or the large (Hajj) visiting Mecca to worship Allah and the other gods of the Kaaba. Ramadan was not originally tied to fasting. It is worth the effort to examine the historical background of Ramadan fasting and the Eid festival. This gives the required context and leads to an understanding of just how important Ramadan and Eid are to the Islamic tradition. [1]

As for the five pillars, let us refer to Bukhari, who quotes Muhammed explaining the five pillars:

Bukhari:V1B2N50: ‘It means:

1.   To testify that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and Muhammad is Allah’s Apostle.
2.   To offer prayers perfectly.
3.   To pay the Zakat obligatory tax.
4.   To observe fast during Ramadan.
5.   And to pay the Khums (one fifth of the booty to be given in Allah’s Cause) to Allah’s Apostle.’


Where did the booty enter the picture? That is not very religious, at least as seen from a Jewish/Christian perspective (“You shall not steal”). And where did the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) go? No holy person would think like this. Fortunately, the (Sunni) tradition has a different view of the five pillars, also based on Bukhari:

Shahadah   Profession of faith
Salah   Prayer
Zakâh   Paying of alms
Sawm   Fasting during Ramadan
Hajj   Pilgrimage to Mecca

That’s better. We will ignore the contradictions of the hadith, rely on the tradition, and look at details of the fourth pillar.

There is plenty of literature and articles about Ramadan fasting, its purpose and its execution. This one is representative and clear:
– – – – – – – –

Ramadan (the ninth month in the Muslim year) is the month of fasting. It is one of the most important months in the Islamic calendar because it was during Ramadan that the Qu’ran was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Also the first battle between the idol worshippers of Mecca and the Muslims of Medina took place during this month. The result of the battle was a devastating defeat for the invading army from Mecca, and a glorious victory for the Muslims of Medina. It is knows as the Battle of Badr. [2]

Note in particular the reference to the Battle of Badr. This is what makes Ramadan different from the other three ‘holy’ months and is a subject we shall return to.

The idea of fasting has been present in various forms in almost all religious systems. In Mecca, fasting not being part of Arab pagan religion, there was little inspiration regarding fasting to draw from, and Muhammad never mentioned it in any form. Muhammad in Mecca was more preoccupied with his squabbles between Muhammad and his Quraysh over his religion. The pagan Arabs, who had worshipped Allah and the other stone idols in the Kaaba for generations, (al-Tabari VI pages 19 ff [3]) did not like that Muhammad brought along a different religion. That had good reasons:

Being custodians of the Kaaba, they were also overseeing the pilgrimages from other parts of Arabia, where pilgrims would come for the smaller Umra pilgrimage or the larger Hajj pilgrimage, which includes the still-familiar rituals of [running, stoning, touching black stone, animal sacrifice]. The constant inflow of pilgrims provided the otherwise quite barren area around Mecca with vital income. The fact that Muhammad was scorning the religion of their grandfathers, potentially destroying their livelihood, was unsettling.

Were the Arabs worshipping Allah before the time of Muhammad? Indeed. As noted in the footnote on page 2 of al-Tabari VI, they did so, as also recorded in the Quran (29:61, 39:38 etc.), and indicated by pre-Islamic use of the name ‘Allah’. Even Muhammad’s’ father was named Abdallah, which translates into ‘Slave to Allah’. Since the generic Arabic word for ‘god’ was Ilah, Allah might be a contraction of Al-Ilah, meaning ‘The highest god’. In any case, worship of Allah was widespread for generations before Muhammad.

Many quarrels between Muhammad and the Quraysh are recorded in the Quran and the Sirat. The quarrels were largely peaceful and in words only. They were even suspended entirely for a three-year period, when Muhammad agreed to worship the gods of the Kaaba (Allah, Al-Uzza, Manat etc), and the Meccans would accept the god (gods?) of Muhammad to their collection. After those three years of truce, Muhammad was forcibly expelled from Mecca. The reason for the Meccans to do this is unknown, for as Ibn Hisham states: He omitted certain passages “about which the Quran says nothing,…, things which are disgraceful to discuss; matters which would distress certain people.” In any case, Muhammad emigrated to Medina, an event now known as the Hijra (AD 622), the basis for the Islamic calendar. In context, it might be worthwhile to review the second pledge of Al-Aqaba (al-Tabari VI page 130 ff), which may be considered the founding moment of Islam.

Conflicts with the Jews

The origin of Islamic fasting thus lies in Medina. There Muhammad saw that the Jews were fasting (Ashura). He then declared “We have a better right to Moses than they have”, and he fasted and ordered people to fast with him (al-Tabari VII p. 26). This, however, was not enough for the Jews to accept Muhammad as a prophet. The Jews mocked Muhammad for his fickle understanding of their holy books, which he does not seem to have known to their full extent, or even enough to differentiate the canonical legends of the Torah from the apocryphal tales from the Talmud.

Settling in Medina

As recorded in the Sirat, the newly-founded Muslim community in Medina constructed a mosque (the first ever) and a house for Muhammad and his wives. The location for the mosque was selected by Muhammad’s’ camel, whom they let wander around in Medina until it settled down in a place that was part date-palm plantation, part graveyard.

That patch of land, unfortunately, belonged to two orphans, and in Mecca, Muhammad (himself being orphaned at the age of five), frequently and on the authority of his god, commanded that one must not devour the wealth of the orphan. Would this not making usurpation of orphan property in Medina a very significant sin? In reality not, for in awe of the coming of Muhammad and the first Muslims, the two orphans voluntarily gave up their ownership of the land, demanding nothing in return but what Allah would give them.

Mosque and house constructed, one might expect the Muslims to get to work in Medina, which unlike Mecca was a large township, rich in farming, craftsmanship and trade. Curiously, the Sirat describes no productive work or trade performed by the early Muslims or even Muhammad, who was an experienced caravan leader and trader. Instead, the Muslims decided to look for other opportunities. Taking revenge over the Quraysh tribe seemed sensible. They were traders, their caravans passed Medina, and would be easy targets for the anger that Muhammad considered justifed. The Quraysh, not thinking of Muhammad as a holy person, would probably differ.

The skirmish at Naklah, sura 8: The Spoils of War [4]

Muhammad sent the Muslims in search of the Quraysh caravans on several occasions, but the first several of these expeditions were unsuccessful. In some cases, the sides would face off, but not engage in battle. The translator in his foreword indicates that possibly some of the Muslims would inform their clansmen in Mecca about the danger. Only when Muhammad gave orders to do so in form of secret instructions did the Muslims succeed in their intention to plunder.

At Naklah, the Muslim expedition encountered a small caravan of four Meccans, carrying raisins and leather. Now, they were sent in the holy month of Rajab, and it was traditionally forbidden to assault others in this month. On the other hand, if the Muslims respected the holy month and waited, the caravan would escape into the holy area around Mecca. The Muslims decided to attack the caravan, under the pretence of heading to pilgrimage (Umra) to Mecca. They killed one caravan guide, took two prisoners, and one managed to escape. The camels and the goods carried by the caravan was taken as booty.

That constituted a problem. For Muhammad and the Muslims might become complete outcasts due to the violation of the sacred month. The issue caused much anguish, to the Muslims and to Muhammad in particular. Eventually, however, new Quran revelations resolved the matter. In Sura 2:217 [5], it is declared that plunder and killing in the sacred month is bad, but keeping Muhammad and the Muslims away from Allah and the Kaaba was worse. Also it was established that Muhammad would get a 20 % share whenever the Muslims plundered anyone (Quran 8:41 [6]). This share is known as ‘Khums’. There was no doubt that it was a great relief to have a prophet so holy that they could be allowed to take booty, provided he got his fair share.

As an aside, it would seem a bit of an exaggeration, in the title of sura 8, to call the situation ‘War’, as only the Muslims had taken up arms, and only on a very small scale, 8-12 persons assaulting a caravan of 4. But that situation was soon to change. Having discarded the respect for the pagan holy months of peace, the step was not far to what would follow:

The battle of Badr [7]

The battle of Badr is a pivotal element in establishing early Islam, and its significance in establishing the authority of Muhammad can hardly be overstated. The Muslims had, at the Second pledge of Al-Aqabah, promised to wage war against all mankind, no matter how evil the circumstances or how many of them would be killed. But many of them probably had expected only defensive battles, not offensive ones, and were reluctant to join expeditions merely for the cause of booty. The expedition to Naklah and the Quranic revelations provided the foundation for a new attitude regarding this, as we will see in the justification given by Muhammad for Badr.

The expedition to Badr (technically the second, as a small one preceded it) took place during the holy month of Ramadan, and just at the time when Muhammad was breaking with the Jews and replaced the Ashura fasting with the Ramadan fasting. It is not known whether the Muslims on the raid were fasting. Since travellers are exempted from fasting, and it is not mentioned, they probably did not.

The events at Badr were set in motion by Muhammad setting out to intercept a significant caravan, which (in contrast with the tiny one at Naklah) would have the value to make the Muslims rich. News had come that Abu Sufyan was leading such a caravan heading back to Mecca, and Muhammad led the expedition (called a ‘Gazwa’ because it was led by the prophet) to find it. As explained by Tabari (VII, page 29):

When Muhammad heard about them, he called together his companions and told them of the wealth they had with them and the fewness of their numbers. The Muslims set out with no other object than Abu Sufyan and the horsemen with him. They did not think that there would be anything but (easy) booty and did not suppose that there would be a great battle where they met them. It is concerning this that Allah revealed: “And ye longed that other than the armed one might be yours.” (Quran 8:7)

However, Abu Sufyan also had his sources, and got information about the pending attack. Likewise in Mecca, where the citizens scrambled to send an escort to rescue the caravan (which would be carrying much of their wealth) from Muhammad and the Muslim raiding party. Abu Sufyan, examining the camel droppings he found [8], determined that the camels had been eating dates, and therefore probably came from Yathrib (Medina), and thus could be a Muslim raiding party. He changed the route of the caravan to a longer but safer one, and returned without incident to Mecca.

The Muslims, trying to figure out where the caravan was, captured a black slave whom they interrogated about the whereabouts of the booty [9]. The slave knew not about the caravan, but he did know about the rescue force sent out by the Quraysh. The Muslims subjected him to intense torture in order to extract information about the caravan, and only when the slave started lying to satisfy his tormentors did they stop beating him. This, incidentally, shows one of the bad effects of torture: The ‘information’ you extract may be constructed to end the torture, not to be truthful. Al-Tabari VII p. 44: “When the slaves tell you the truth you beat them, and when they lie to you you leave them alone.”

Muhammad and the Muslims, based on the somewhat confusing information they had extracted, decided to fight the Meccans at Badr. One may wonder why the rescue force, caravan safe, did not return to Mecca? They were lured by the market of Badr, to enjoy the food, drink and company of the ‘singing girls’. [10] That did not go quite the way they had expected.

There is no need to go into the gory details of the battle itself. Muhammad gave some directions as to who were to be spared in battle, and that caused some concern:

“Abu Hudhayfah said: “Are we to kill our fathers, our sons, our brothers and our clansmen, and leave al-Abbas alone? By Allah, if I meet him, I will hack him with my sword!” These words reached Muhammad, and he said to Umar b. al-Khattab: “Abu Hafs, have you heard what Abu face Hudhayfah says? He says: “I will strike the uncle of the Messenger of Allah with my sword!”

It is indeed strange that the Muslims were to kill their own kin, while that of Muhammad was to be spared. That would probably be because Muhammad is a holy person and that those protecting holy persons get protection in return. Others, of course, may assert that all killing is unholy. It is said that angels were fighting on the side of the Muslims, and that this was the reason that the Muslims, outnumbered 3 to 1, won the battle. A more rational account may attribute this to the fact that the Muslims were more used to battle than the Meccans, or that the ferocity of the Muslims simply scared the Meccans.

In any case, Muhammad and the Muslims won the battle. The leader of the rescue force, Abu Jahl, was found mortally wounded by Ibn Masud. He promptly cut off the head of Abu Jahl, took it to Muhammad, and said:

“Oh Messenger of Allah,this is the head of the enemy of Allah, Abu Jahl. […] Then I threw down his head in the front of the Messenger of Allah. He said: ‘Praise be to Allah!’“ [11]

This was a significant vindication for Muhammad, who had never forgiven his kin that they expelled him from Mecca. He made his point clear to the dead member of his clan:

When the Messenger of Allah ordered the dead to be thrown into the well, all were thrown in, except Umayyah b. Khalaf. He had swollen up in his coat of mail and filled it. They went to move him, but he fell apart, so they left him where he was and flung upon him enough earth and stones to cover him. […] The companions of the Messenger of Allah heard the Messenger of Allah saying in the depths of the night, “O people of the well, O ‘Utbah b. Rabiah, O Shaybah b. Rabiah, O Umayyah b. Khalaf, O Abu Jahl — and he enumerated those who were in the well — have you found what your Lord promised you to be true? For I have found what my Lord promised me to be true.” The Muslims said: “O Messenger of Allah, are you addressing people who have been putrefied?” He replied: “You hear what I say no better than they, but they cannot answer me.” [12]

This scene defies comment.

After the battle, there was quite a lot of booty to share. Equipment and steeds of a thousand persons, plus many captives to free for ransom, should provide enough for everyone. Still, bad-tempered quarrels broke out among the Muslims over the split. Muhammad resolved this by means of revealing sura 8, The Spoils of War, and the spoils were distributed in accordance with that.

At the return to Medina, there was much celebration. Salamah b. Salamah asked:

“What are they congratulating us on? By Allah, we met nothing but bald old women like hobbled sacrificial animals, so we slaughtered them.” The Messenger of Allah smiled and said: “My nephew, those were the mala. (the chiefs of Mecca).” [13]

Muhammad knew that the result of the battle was a severe weakening of the Quraysh, for they had lost the best and most experienced among them. The Meccans agreed, as in this verse:

Does she weep because a camel of hers is lost, and does sleeplessness prevent her from sleeping? Do not weep for a young camel, but for Badr where our good fortune deserted us. For Badr and the chiefs of the Banu Husays, and Makhzum and the clan of Abu al-Walid. And weep, if you must weep, for Aqil, and weep for al-Harith, the lion of lions Weep for them all without tiring, and there is no equal to Abu Hakimah Indeed, men have become chiefs after them who would never have become chiefs if not for Badr.

Much deliberation over booty, prisoners and ransom follows, with Quranic revelations regulating the conduct of Muhammad and the Muslims. Among them is Quran 8:67, where it is made clear that prophets must not take captives before making a great slaughter in the land.

The Sirat records that the first Eid al-Fitr was celebrated after this Ramadan. The successful fighting in the holy month and the booty taken by the Muslims probably made this a highly festive event. Here the significance of Ramadan and Eid were founded, and they remain intact to this day. This is worth knowing for anyone who considers taking part in Eid al-Fitr celebrations today.

Turning from historical background to the present-day Ramadan fasting, we start with the Quran. Obviously, any religious duty would need a Quran reference to be valid and enforceable. Ramadan and the associate fasting is prescribed in sura 2:183-185:

Ramadan is the (month) in which was sent down The Qur’an, as a guide to mankind, also clear (signs) for guidance and judgement (between right and wrong). So every one of you who is present (at his home) during that month should spend it in fasting, but if any one is ill, or on a journey, the prescribed period (should be made up) by days later. Allah intends every facility for you; He does not want to put you to difficulties (He wants you) to complete the prescribed period, and to glorify Him in that He has guided you and perchance ye shall be grateful”.

Or, without the translators’ comments:

Ramadan is the in which was sent down The Qur’an, as a guide to mankind, also clear for guidance and judgement. So every one of you who is present during that month should spend it in fasting, but if any one is ill, or on a journey, the prescribed period by days later. Allah intends every facility for you; He does not want to put you to difficulties to complete the prescribed period, and to glorify Him in that He has guided you and perchance ye shall be grateful”.

Actually, even those these verses claim clarity, they offer little. The translator kindly helps fix the worst grammatical errors of Allah, but even given the helping hand, the verses do not specify the fasting in detail. This sets us in a bit of a quandary, for only the Quran is the word of Allah, while the hadith is the word and example of Muhammad. If the fasting was entirely prescribed by Allah, it should be described in sufficient detail in the Quran, which is not the case. One could then suspect that the fasting is not really ordered by Allah, but instead by Muhammad personally, without sufficient explanation being ascribed to Quranic revelation. Such an interpretation would, however, constitute heresy and a violation of basic Islamic tenets.

There’s another trouble spot in the sentence “Ramadan is the (month) in which was sent down The Qur’an”. This is so obviously false that one wonders how to deal with it. We saw above at the skirmish of Naklah how Quranic revelation came in the month following (the holy) month of Rajab, Sha’aban. While it precedes Ramadan, it certainly is not Ramadan. Quran revelations did not come all at once, and they always came as needed, not restricted to any of the four ‘holy’ month, nor Ramadan in particular. The statement is so obviously false (as in ‘not true’) that one wonders how to deal with it.

The better solution is probably to declare the whole thing a ‘Miracle’ and move on.

The tradition of Islam is rich in interpretations of this and rules based upon it, and easily fills the void (even to excess) that the somewhat limited Quran verses left behind. There is an endless amount of articles, guides and books available about Ramadan and fasting. Today, with Internet and the extensive research tools, one can bring up mountains of relevant resources in minutes, such as this.

The uncertainties and the great amount of hadith concerning Ramadan produces ample ground for speculation and discussing on how to implement Ramadan fasting in practice. One of the trickier problems is to ascertain when the month of Ramadan actually starts. Muhammad prescribed the use of the lunar calendar at a time where almost everyone else decided on the solar calendar. It is more practical to have the year follow the solar seasons. On the other hand, doing impractical and unproductive things is a great way to show your submission and obedience to your god, and thus the use of the lunar calendar does serve a purpose. Further, debating which day the month of Ramadan starts is a subject that keep scholars nicely busy. The net result is that the Ramadan can start on different days according to the divisions into Sunni, Shia and their sub-branches, and that descriptions between the branches differ in detail. Here is one sample article.

One may wonder, then, what benefit the Ramadan fasting brings. One explanation [14] goes:

There are 2 basic ways that fasting trains us:

1. It develops our belief in Allah with a certainty that no other type of worship can do, for one abstains from food and drink for an entire day with the realization that he/she is doing it for Allah and that Allah is watching.

Belief in Allah — or at least the outward expression of having this belief — is vital in Islam. Any action that shows the belief to others will be considered holy — and conversely, any action showing lack of belief risks condemnation, not least by those eager to demonstrate their own religious zeal. While Allah is said to be watching, it is in most cases your family, neighbours or others. They sure will notice if you eat or drink during daytime, and may take action on it.

2. No human being is complete in his humanity unless he has concern for his fellow man, and the hunger and thirst of fasting in a very concrete way connects us with our fellow human beings who are less fortunate than us.

What is unexplained, unfortunately, is how this self-deprivation of natural needs — like abstaining from drinking in hot weather — benefits those less fortunate. Some may say that building desalination plants or wells might be a better way of helping them. But then, this is Islam, and one is requested to believe in irrational things. In any case, after a day of self-imposed deprivation, it is no wonder that Muslims tend to indulge in food after nightfall. Holy thoughts deserve real-world rewards.

Another, more extensive [15], explains things in greater detail. We will use this source in the following pages.


Fasting is an act of deep personal worship to Allah in which Muslims seek to raise their level of Allah-consciousness. The act of fasting redirects the heart away from worldly activities and towards the remembrance of Allah. Muslims focus during this month on strengthening their relationship with the Creator. It is a time for spiritual reflection, prayer and doing of good deeds. Fasting is intended to inculcate self-discipline, self restraint and generosity.

Being more aware of Allah and his state of mind may or may not be a good thing. For Pagans, Jews, Christians, hypocrites and others condemned in the Quran, this might make things worse, not better. The self-discipline mentioned here looks unreal when one counts the number of work and road accidents, which increase significantly in the supposedly ‘holy’ month. If the Ramadan fasting worked the way it is explained here, the number of accidents should decline, not increase. But at least one thing is positive: We do good (whatever ‘good’ really means — one might recall how Muhammad spent his time in Ramadan at Badr) deeds this month, so the remaining months one doesn’t have to think so much of it.

The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said, “Indeed, anyone who fasts for one day for Allah’s Pleasure, Allah will keep his face away from the (Hell) fire for (a distance covered by a journey of) seventy years.”

That’s a good deal. If one believes in Hell, of course. Muhammad and Allah seem to have extensive knowledge of this place, given its frequent mention in the Quran.

“The sleep of a fasting person is regarded as an act of worship, his remaining silent is regarded as glorifying Allah, the reward for his good deeds is multiplied, his supplications are accepted, and his sins are forgiven.”

This is complicated, and apparently very holy. Sleep is worship, which is nice. Then we don’t need to work so hard, which is a nice change from those religions, where worship requires some awareness in the process. Silence is also considered a glorification of Allah. Great, for then one can think of anything else and still be considered holy.

Cheap shots aside, here’s something difficult. ‘Good deeds’ — great, but what exactly is defined as ‘good’? The Quran, the Hadith etc. are unclear, except in one respect: The example of Muhammad. Study the life of Muhammad, do as him, and one should be in the clear. Unfortunately, that includes Jihad and even possibly plunder, killing of infidels and other acts that other religions would consider unholy, even roads to perdition.

Anyway, it would be nice to have a clear accounting for the ‘reward for his good deeds’, as multiplying with an unknown factor will, by definition, return an unknown result. Buddhism, for one, states clearly that killing causes rebirth with much disease, that treating women badly causes rebirth in desert-like places, and that confusing and deceiving others causes rebirth as animals. A similar stringent system of good (or bad) deeds and their rewards (or punishments) would be very nice. The Quran is severely lacking in this respect. The clarity of guidance is implied, but never explained through the 114 suras.

What concerns ‘supplications’, there is some disagreement whether Allah can be influence by prayer or not. The issue is delicate. For if Allah is not influenced by prayer, there’s no benefit to them, and they’re merely a religious obligation. On the other hand, if prayer can make Allah do something, they are a short cut from decent work and human responsibility. I believe the most common interpretation is that Allah cannot be influenced, and that prayer is nothing but an obligation.

Forgiving of sins is probably the most important here. Islam does not have the same clear-cut moral code as Christianity and Judaism, and in particular things done in the Cause of Allah are considered holy, even if other religions (or secular legal systems) would consider them criminal. As above, it would be nice with a clearer definition of ‘sin’. But there is another point of view which makes this point a stroke of genius: If fasting causes ones’ sins to be forgiven, a detailed definition of sin is not required in the first place. Why even bother detailing what is acceptable behaviour and what is not, when anything unacceptable is forgiven through the fasting anyway?

This is beginning to look like a pretty good deal. Not only does one get to look forward to nightly great meals after a day full of desire. When this washes away sins and wrongdoings also, it gets quite attractive, even meaningful. Compare to Christianity, where one actually has to declare ones’ sins to the priest, repent them and do things to make up for them. Or Buddhism, where elaborate meditations are required to clean out the negative consequences of past behaviour, including having sincere regret and doing the opposite. Joining friends and family in a 29-day fast-feast cycle sure is much more attractive and satisfying to the senses, too.

Fasting makes the individual more aware of the many bounties of Allah. The hunger and thirst remind the fasting person of the poor who may rarely eat well. Fasting re-enforces the concept that wasting the Creator’s bounties is a sign of ingratitude to Him.

More religious material here. Now, it’s a fundamental concept in Islam that all things come from Allah, and in turn ultimately belong to Allah. That is similar to classical Asian despotism, where everything would belong to the despot, including the lives of his subjects. The despot deserved gratitude for not always taking what was rightfully his, and this is mirrored here. Others may complain that Allah never provides anything, not even a set of technical drawings for a locomotive, a nuclear reactor or genome mappings. But surely, Allah is much higher than these earthly matters and deserves praise in spite of not providing any material return. Right?

In any case, we return to the poor, who surely are feasting on the thought sent to them. Wrong? Oh, sorry. Teaching them to farm or helping them with some other education would probably be more effective in real life. But that is not the concern of Islam, which is more preoccupied by the hereafter. Thinking of the poor, then after this holy deed enjoying lavish evening meals is no bad trade. Waste does not happen when the food is well-prepared and both visually and taste wise attractive. This care of material things is a nice touch.

Muslims are reminded to be extra-generous during the month of Ramadan and to share the bounties that Allah has provided them, giving generously in charity. Our wealth is regarded as a trust from Allah, not really our own; will we be greedy with it and spend it only on ourselves, or will we strive to please Him by sharing it with others?

Again, generosity. A bit unfortunate that material generosity is emphasized, where generosity in knowledge really brings much more long-term advantage. But that was probably not recognized in the time of Muhammad, 500 years before the institution of the University was invented in Europe. The text goes on to underline that, as above, everything belongs to Allah and one should feel gratitude towards Allah for what we have in this world. Christianity is fundamentally different. It is good to be aware of these differences, for they make for a radically different attitude towards life and responsibility in material matters.

A person who carefully observes the month of Ramadan becomes closer to Allah. The self-restraint of Ramadan make the heart and mind accustomed to the remembrance and praise of Allah and to the obedience of His commandments. It is therefore a spiritual regime and a re-orientation process for the body and mind — the extent of the benefit depends on the performance and sincerity of the individual Muslim.

(Note: For clarity, occurrences of ‘God’ have been replaced with ‘Allah’ in the text above. Since they are supposedly the same, this should be inconsequential.)

It should be clear from the above that Ramadan fasting is a very holy and unselfish act. In the West, we would probably think of benefiting others by building schools or constructing irrigation projects. But this is Islam, and there must be some miraculous explanation of this. Since miracles are by definition great, let’s move on.

For there are some undesirable side effects of doing this kind of fasting. Road and work accidents increase significantly, an event easily attributable to the distracting effect of hunger and in particular to the dehydration taking place by not drinking in the warmer countries. Not all Islamic countries publish sufficiently detailed statistics to document the effect. Jordan is one country that does, and the 70 % spike in accidents cause concern and countermeasures. Which in a sense is odd, for according to Islamic doctrine nothing happens without the will of Allah, and the increase of accidents and deaths sure must be the will of Allah. If one followed that line of thinking logically, it would be a thing to be celebrated, not prevented. This, of course, is absurd, and taking countermeasures against the Ramadan accidents make sense.

Another averse side effect of Ramadan fasting is weight gain. Gain, not loss. If one thinks about it, it is quite logical. Going through the whole day without eating or drinking, one naturally looks forward to the evening and the satisfaction of ones’ desires. The efforts of fasting are usually celebrated with special foods, sweets and general indulgence after having spent the day in such a spiritual way, and the festive activities tend to continue long into the night.

Which, in turn, can be bad for productivity the following day. Muslim workers often make demands that their religious customs should be respected, to which factory owners routinely reply: “At your own expense”. This is cause for some controversy (like at the Nebraska Swift plant), for Muslims get angry that we do not consider their holy customs holy, factory owners do not like the decline in productivity from Muslim workers, and non-Muslim workers complain about unfair discrimination if special privileges are bestowed on the Muslims. Even at my own workplace, the head of the cleaning staff was lamenting about her poor choice of hiring Muslims due to their somewhat erratic behaviour during Ramadan.

From a physiological point of view, the Ramadan fasting is not that well designed. Other religions have other kinds of fasting, and experience shows that it takes roughly three days to break the natural craving for food, after which healthy persons can keep fasting for a while (from food, not drink) without adverse effects, and with some weight loss, too. American Indians with their Shamanistic ‘Vision Quest’ can even fast from food and drink for an entire week, but that is a more serious challenge with very acute risks.

The daily starve-indulge-sleep cycle of Ramadan, on the other hand, implies a serious risk of weight gain. In the Gulf states in particular, weight gains of an impressive 4-7 kilograms during Ramadan are common. Less activity during the day, excessive eating during the evening and sleeping during the digestion time is the cause for this increase in fat depots during the Islamic variant of fasting. Fortunately, the literature and Internet is full of advice on how to eat and exercise properly during Ramadan to solve this problem. [16]

There are other health hazards related to the Ramadan pattern of eating. A typical list [17] gives advice on the following:

Constipation Indigestion and wind Lethargy (low blood pressure) Headache Low blood sugar Muscle cramps Peptic ulcers, heart burn, gastritis and hiatus hernia Kidney stones Joint pains

One might consider it odd that something holy should cause so many problems. But Ramadan fasting is not meant to bring egotistical benefits, it is for the benefits of others and the glory of Allah.

One might just as well consider the weight gains and the other health hazards to be the will of Allah and accept it. Ramadan is a religious duty anyway, not something to be bargained about.

Recently a new Ramadan problem is arising, the price of food [18]. Not only is more food consumed during Ramadan, the food is also designed to be more attractive, visually and in taste, than during the non-holy months of the year. With the recent worldwide spike in food prices, purchasing the attractive ingredients for the Iftar (fast-breaking) dinner for each evening in the Ramadan is becoming more difficult for those whose economies are already stretched, and purchasing the special Ramadan pastries may be out of reach for many. On the other hand, television broadcast companies have been sighted offering ‘Ramadan special’ offers for those who want to watch the special Ramadan soap operas on the screen.

After all these deliberations of thirst, hunger, accidents, indulgence, health hazards and food fascination, one may wonder where the religious aspect enters? In other fasting system, where one simply abstains from eating for a week or so, the time saved by not shopping, cooking and eating can easily go into study, prayer and meditation, but this is not quite as easy with the Ramadan fasting. Actually, many Muslims seem to spend more time debating the proper details of eating and non-eating (and how to do both right) than doing prayer. On the other hand, it surely is a miracle that such complex rituals can be designed, and are followed. and miracles are nothing to scoff at.

One final issue deserves attention, that of compulsion in religion. Sura 2:256:

“Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth has been made clear from error. Whoever rejects false worship and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy handhold that never breaks. And Allah hears and knows all things.”

While it might or might not be true that Allah has preceded modern surveillance with quite a few centuries, that is not the most important here. “Truth has been made clear from error” may be somewhat of a tall statement, given the many unclarities and contradictions, also regarding Ramadan fasting. But on the other hand, disputing the clarity of the Quran might constitute a more acute health hazard than Ramadan overeating, thus most people prefer to stick to the latter.

What really matters is the sentence “Let there be no compulsion in religion.” This is oft-quoted as evidence that Islam is a tolerant religion. Problem is, even though the scripture says so, this verse is neither followed nor enforced. On the contrary, religious customs are being enforced with fervor, even among children:

According to tradition [19], fasting is compulsory:

It is compulsory for all Muslims over the age of 12 to fast during Ramadan.

Exceptions are explicit, and temporary:

Elderly, sick, pregnant women, nursing mothers, travelers do not have to fast but they must fast at a convenient time later on.

What we see here, of course, is compulsion. 2:256 is powerless and irrelevant — the reality is that a systematic enforcement of Ramadan takes place, by official or self-established religious police, and anyone not visibly adhering to the regulations will face bullying, social exclusion or punishment. There is no freedom in religion when ritualism is enforced like this. Additionally, it is a very visible way to tell non-Muslims (or bad Muslims) apart from Muslims. Have a glass of water during the day, and the non-obedience is made clear. Submission to the religious rules is an easier way for the individual, and making it a family event makes it joyful as well, except if squabbles about the exact details take their toll. Taking the extra effort to make the food attractive removes attention from the compulsion, but also encourages overeating.

This occupation with food, however, seems to undermine the stated purpose of thinking of Allah during Ramadan. But then, most decent people probably prefer thinking of food anyway.


As a secular society, we should not make any special allowances for the Ramadan fasting rituals. The ritual is not considered holy outside of Islam, and there is no need to pretend that we hold any such opinion. We respect the Muslim’s desire to eat in this pattern once a year, but expect that it will not make any impact on his effort at work. Any days off can be taken just fine at the Muslims’ own expense, and any sudden increase in sick leave can be handled according to normal procedures. Should any accident occur that might be caused or increased by the effects of Ramadan, one should look at holding the Muslim responsible for this.

One problem is particular galling to the Western observer: The enforcement, particular upon children, of a unnatural fasting system that causes unrest, damages their ability to learn at school, and in general is a violation of the integrity of the children subject to this enforcement (or intimidation / bullying, to use more honest words). Schools should protect children from this behavior and take disciplinary measures against those who perpetrate it.

Patients in hospitals are by default permitted not to fast, and for obvious health reasons they should not do so. Thus, there is no reason for hospitals, homes for the elderly etc. to take Ramadan rituals into consideration. Any special rituals should be done at the Muslims’ own effort and expense.

It has become customary for Islamic organisations to invite representatives for other faiths, politicians and other dignitaries to the celebration of Eid ul-Fitr, the celebration that marks the end of Ramadan. However, considered the rather unpleasant and intolerant symbolism of celebrating the Battle of Badr, it would seem unfitting for non-Islamic leaders to be present at a celebration of a battle where Muslims, at their own initiatives, killed ‘infidel’ kin and leaders, gloated over their death and took plunder for them.

Should non-Islamic leaders want to participate in the festivities, it is recommended that the first obtain a public statement declaring the behaviour of Muhammad and the Muslims at the Battle of Badr to be non-religious, not an example to be followed by Muslims, and that any use of violence in the cause of religion is fundamentally wrong. If that is made clear, publicly, there should be basis for common religious celebrations. Otherwise, it is wiser to stay away.

[1]   The historical information presented below is taken from Al-Tabari’s account of the rise of Islam, which in turn draws on Ibn Ishaq’s similar work. These are the earliest Islamic sources that exist. Non-Islamic sources for the events are not to be found. But since the objective of this essay is to examine the Islamic background for Ramadan and Eid, not to establish indisputable historical fact, the lack of secondary sources is not really a problem. Using Al-Tabari instead of the better known Ibn Ishaq has two advantages: First, the translation into English of Al-Tabari is better. Second, more variants and thus more details of the events. The events here are largely described in volume 7, “Founding of the Community”. It is also worthwhile to read the translators’ foreword, as he provides a very useful overview of the events.
[3]   These pages (19 through 26 in the English translation) are of great importance, for they describe the Hajj ritual performed by the pagan Arabs and later incorporated into Islam. The Quran does not. The fact that one has to turn to the hadith to find descriptions of this and the other four pillars of Islam serves to establish the religious authority of the hadith. Without it, the fundamental items of Islamic practice would have no scriptural foundation.
[4]   Al-Tabari VII, pp 19-23.
[5]   2:217: They ask you about the Sacred Months and fighting therein: say, “Fighting therein is a sacrilege. However, repelling from the path of GOD and disbelieving in Him and in the sanctity of the Sacred Masjid, and evicting its people, are greater sacrileges in the sight of GOD. Oppression is worse than murder.”
[6]   “You should know that if you gain any spoils in war, one-fifth shall go to GOD and the messenger…”
[7]   Al-Tabari VII, pp 26-85
[8]   Al-Tabari VII p. 45.
[9]   Al-Tabari VII pp. 30-31.
[10]   Al-Tabari VII p. 45.
[11]   Al-Tabari VII p. 62.
[12]   Al-Tabari VII pp 62-63.
[13]   Al-Tabari VII p. 65.
[16]   One (surprisingly honest) example.

5 thoughts on “Making Sense of Ramadan

  1. Mohammed may have protected his own relatives, but the question arises (and lot of muslims got real problems with their own people asking that question) about the mother and the father of Mohammed awho are now in hell. There is no evidence it could be otherwise.
    Most women are also in the hell, we might start calling the muslim women dhimmis and stop counting them in muslim crowd.

    “There is no compulsion…” This abrogated verse is (as in many other cases) bound to a very specific solution of specific situation. According to a source I cannot find again, it was directed towards local Jews who adopted or were in charge non-Jew Arab kids.
    Following verses utter some threats against the Jews. I was trying to find it again, because this is a pivotal verse supposedly protecting us non-believers (see any TV news with a smiling guy). Muslims use it also quite often among their own – a liberal/educated father exhorting his son to do something quotes this and feels well.

    Is there any source describing the Arab polytheism in detail? The reason muslims run around Kaaba only dressed in a sheet is that they did so in preislamic times naked (fertility cult_). Lot of sexual harassments takes place in our times during hajj.

    I am not sure Allah was a pre-islamic dominant deity. He must be however very frustrated for the loss of his wife and two daughters…a family god is much more benign.

    Robert Spencer is not sure how and when Allah became the God for Arab speaking Christians and Jews. In malaysia the authorities try to ban the word Allah from non-muslim usage. This is interesting, because it contradicts and nicely undermines the Western official approach to the “Abrahamic religions” (same for claims for islam/democracy). We should learn to warn and rebuke the Westerners for possibly “insulting and distorting” “islam”, using the islamic tool/threat in opposite direction.

    “You have to make a clear choice: you cannot have both (democracy and islam)”.

    There is also a nice contradiction: being pious and heavily influenced by allah one would probably not create “a human democracy”. It states clearly the people whatever they do have nothing to do with allah. The strait-jacket seems to be the only link to poor allah.

    Thanks for a detailed account. Such a work prepares the ground for real “Auseinandersetzung” as the Germans say (discussion and polemic, no friendliness required, some similar term in Danish???). Not a “dialogue”!.

  2. Welcome, Czechmade.

    I am not sure Allah was a pre-islamic dominant deity.

    Read the Sirat (Al-Tabari Volume 6). These Islamic sources provides lots of examples, small and large, of Allah being worshipped by all Arabs before Muhammd. They had their local ones, and then a top dog.

    For a ton of (useful) entertainment, read Prophet of Doom. While I didn’t use it directly here, that work has been an immense inspiration for getting into the detail and getting all these embarrasing things right.

  3. Then I declare here for all I am the only pre-islamic allah polytheist worshipper and want my Kaaba back through legal action at some international court. Who is in charge of my stone? Some family?

    I am ready to replace it with a nice copy not to offend anyone and hope for an interreligious dialogue AFTERWARDS. Muslims who prefer the stone to islam are free to join my resurrected religion…feel free to worship my idol.

  4. For ex. in India Brahmins avoid sexual intercourse during a season when animals do so. It is every year the same season.

    Ramadan shifting every year I cannot imagine farmers toiling on their lands and starving in the name of god. The quality of sleep is down, when someone eats in the evening/night only. After one month your biorhythm adjusts with this peculiar change to get reversed again. With the water – it is esp. insane.

    Is there any evidence that pre-islamic ramadan did not have this mandatory fasting? If they had 4 holy months (a new info to me), I guess it was without fasting. Buddhist monks do not eat in the afternoon and evening time. Makes more sense, you can be active and clean your mind when your body stops daily activity.

  5. Czechmade, the evidence that the four ‘holy’ months were not about fasting is that they’re mentioned in the Sirat, but never associated with fasting. Fasting entered Islam by way of Jewish inspiration in Medina.

    Islam steals its theology from all religions around it. Hanif (from Yemen), too.

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