Ramadan is the Muslim month of fasting. It is the ninth month of the lunar-based Islamic calendar during which Muslims are supposed to refrain from eating, drinking and sexual activity from dawn till dusk. Instead, the faithful are required to observe patience, kindness, humility and forgiveness and conduct their affairs in a way that promotes harmony and precedence among people.
While a Muslim fasts to seek the acceptance of God, he/she is bound to please the people around by acts of charity, courtesy and good faith. The basic requirement is also to offer the prayers five times a day in a congregation to foster the idea of brotherhood and community. Congregation prayers in a neighbourhood mosque also promote unison and equality among people and help them seek the guidance of one God.
The month of Ramadan is the pinnacle of community spirit and spirituality. It is the time when the faithful is put to test his/her belief and reflect upon life and its meaning. By fasting, a Muslim strives to practice self-control, discipline, empathy for the under-previleged and altruism. The guidance to seek the above mentioned goals not only comes from core human nature and values, it also draws its inspiration from the divine teachings.
The Quran is the Muslim holy book which literally means ‘the recitation’. It encompasses the basic fundamentals of the Islamic faith and is believed to be the final word of God. It was revealed for the first time on Prophet Muhammad during one night in the month of Ramadan while he was contemplating in the cave of Hira, near Makkah, today’s Saudi Arabia. According to tradition and history, it is this night that came to be known as Lailat al Qadr, literally meaning ‘Night of the Destiny’.
One evening, Prophet Muhammad was sat in a cave in Mount Noor, pictured above, where according to traditions, angel Gabriel came with a revelation and asked him to read after him. According to historians, it was 21 August, 610 when the first revelation came on Prophet Muhammad who was 40 years-old at that time.
At the time of the first revelation, Gabriel made Prophet Muhammad recite the following verses of which English translation is produced below:
In the name of God, the most beneficent, the most merciful
Read! In the Name of your Lord, Who has created (all that exists)
Has created man from a clot (a piece of thick coagulated blood)
Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous
Who has taught (the writing) by the pen
Has taught man that which he knew not
The companions of Prophet Muhammad followed the divine revelations. Many of them learnt them by heart while some others, who could read and write, inscribed the text on reeds, dried bones, stone tablets and vellum, and kept copies of it for reference.
Many of the early followers of Prophet Muhammad were inspired by the fact that people from Biblical times had long lives and got more opportunities to pray and engage in good deeds. The Muslims expressed their awe and envy to their Prophet and asked how they could match their deeds and service to God. It is said that God, upon hearing their curious request, revealed a chapter titled ‘Al-Qadr’ which means destiny. Following is the English translation of the verses of the chapter Al-Qadr of Holy Quran (Arabic text pictured above):
1) We have indeed revealed this (Message) in the Night of Destiny
2) And what will make you comprehend what the Night of Destiny is
3) The Night of Destiny is better than a thousand months
4) The angels and the Spirit descend therein, by the permission of their Lord, with all decrees
5) (The night is) Peace until the rising of the dawn
The revelation came as a gift of God to the believers of Islam who could devote their time to fast, pray, recite the Holy Book, meditate and engage in charity work. Islamic jurisprudents are of view that any good deed done on the Night of the Destiny will be rewarded a thousand times as God Himself regards the Night better than one thousand months.
The Muslim fast is a rigourous physical, mental and spiritual exercise that sees many restraints and restrictions on the acts of the observant. The person who is fasting has to offer prayers right after the pre-fast meal at dawn to mark the start of the fasting. The call of prayer is raised again at mid-day as well as in the afternoon. Educational institutions and public and private offices have their opening times curtailed to accommodate the people who observe fasting and prayers.
The Iftar, an evening meal to break the fast, is the main ritual of the day where Muslims gather at homes, mosques, community centres, cafes and hotels to have meal with their family and friends. People are invited to attend the ceremony which is often sumptuous and grand. It is a way of showing generosity and hospitality which is at the heart of a Muslim society. Snacks, both light and heavy, along with different local and international delicacies are served. People also prepare special desserts and exotic drinks.
Soon after breaking the fast and offering evening prayers, people get back home to have some rest and get ready for the night prayers. The night-time prayers called Isha are complimented with Taraweeh prayers in which the Quran is read in its entirety. An Imam, the prayer leader, recites the parts of the Holy Book and the faithful behind him listens attentively. Women also attend the congregations though they’re accommodated in another part of the mosque separate from the men.
The Muslim prayer comprises of different positions of which standing still is the dominant one. The faithful stands straight but humbly in a row, shoulder-to-shoulder, with other people. His/her duty is to listen attentively to what the Imam (prayer leader) is reciting and follow his actions. It is then followed by bowing, prostration and sitting.
In many countries across the Muslim world, Taraweeh prayers are often concluded on the 27th of Ramadan to coincide with Lailat al-Qadr or Night of Destiny. Large number of people gather in the mosque to listen to the last part of the Quran. The event is wrapped up by special supplications led by the Imam who asks the God for forgiveness of sins, strength of faith, prosperity in the world and success in the life hereafter. Often, the prayers are said with such passion and intensity that many people weep and cry out of modesty and are left overwhelmed with gratitude and devotion.
Many people stay in the mosque where religious scholars address the gathering, reading passages from the Quran and highlighting the significance of the Night of Destiny. The public address continues till late and often ends on collective meditation and prayers.
Faithful gather in the mosque to offer the late night prayers. They are specially held in congregation form during Ramadan to promote togetherness and draw crowds to the mosques. Prayers in congregation are easier for many people as it is a collective and group-based activity. Some people offer their prayers from the privacy of their homes which is again acceptable and valid.
Many people keep themselves engaged with the recitation of the Holy Book. It is a tradition that the person reading an alphabet of Quran will get a reward 10 times more in Ramadan if compared to an ordinary day. It is an added incentive to attract more followers to reading the Holy Quran in Arabic and understand its meaning.
An important aspect of the community-centred life in Ramadan is the services of volunteers who help people get up for the preparation of the pre-fast meal. They use drums and other acoustics to make noise and wake up the sleeping ones. Despite the use of alarm clocks and other technology, the charm of these volunteers prevails.
People gather around the dinner table to have their pre-fast meal. The meals are often nutritious and heavy in order to accommodate the fasting person the whole day.
As far as determining the Night of Destiny is concerned, it has been reported to be during one of the odd numbered nights of the last ten days of Ramadan, i.e. 21st, 23rd, 25th, 27th or 29th. Most scholars are of view that the 27th night is most likely to be the one.
One of the clear signs of the Night of Destiny is its peaceful nature. The weather stays calm and pleasant. The Muslim Holy Book says that the night is abuzz with angelic activity with faithful getting instant rewards for their prayers and devotion. Their movement comes to an end at sunrise when they ascend to the heavens and report to the God the spiritual festival they witnessed on earth.