Ramadan: Time, Physical Worship and Limits


The days of Ramadan are flying by with so much to do, so little energy, and no time to write about it. Time and its fleeting nature is a topic the Quran discusses with some frequency, most often in reference to spending some of that time with thikr Allah, thinking about Allah, how we will meet Him in the Hereafter, and what we are doing to be better people, more compassionate and responsible. The difference between faith and denial is enormous——yet manifested in small ways, perhaps the change from one to the other could move a mountain, a change of mindset that may take a matter of seconds…

So as the days press forward, fasting remains constant, a new routine, a very physical change. We neither eat nor drink from the moment the “white thread of dawn” becomes visible as distinguished from the “black thread” of night, until “night.” Most Muslims today break the fast at sunset, reasoning that sunset is the beginning of the night. Others, far fewer, break the fast when it is completely dark, reasoning that “night” is a time of day distinct from “maghrib,” the twilight time. My point here is that the matter is a very physical one, with distinct perimeters. Being a fast from food and drink both makes it a full-on physical experience, whose purpose is only mentioned as a kind of purification of both mind/heart and body.

But it is also a fast from bad behavior, such as ill treatment of others, swearing, foul language, lying, smoking, etc., as well as sexual intercourse. All these elements are in fact physical, too, including behavior and speech. That gives another dimension to the idea of lying as a physical act, interestingly.

In the context of Islam as a whole, worship IS physical, as well as involving the mind and heart. Islam addresses the whole person rather than addressing a disembodied “faith” of “ideas” without physical acts to confirm them. For example, Salat, the form of worship involving bowing and prostration as well as “prayer” in the usual sense of supplication, is also very physical.

The perimeters are physical: qibla, the direction of salat, specifically towards the ka’ba in Makkah. It needs trigonometry to figure out accurately. It takes into account the curvature of the earth. Then we have physical bowing and full prostration, as well as standing: body language. This element, the physical element, distinguishes salat from “prayer,” or du’a, which has the exact same meaning as in English, whereas there is no English equivalent for salat.

And looking at the Quran regarding salat, one doesn’t find a set of detailed instructions as to how to perform this salat, how many rakaas (bowing) or how many prostrations, and how the salat might differ for different times of day. But it does mention zakat or sadaqa (charity, required or voluntary) almost every time salat is mentioned. Any quick search of the Quran will confirm this, so frequently are these two acts of worship linked together. This clearly indicates that to Allah, who sent this Quran, purification (the meaning of the word zakat is “purification”) by means of charity or giving to the poor is extremely important to support one’s worship. Zakat is the social-physical component of worship validating one’s sincerity in salat. In Islam, one cannot just go in a corner somewhere and pray and make declarations of sincerity without putting your money where your mouth is.

On the same train of thought, fasting (siyam) Ramadan is, among other things, a way of feeling what the poor feel: hungry and thirsty. It means we must think of others and their needs, not just our individual selves. It means that in Islam, worship is always a part of the drive and struggle toward compassion towards others. Worship is not to “impress” God, who already knows our intentions and thoughts. It is to prove ourselves actually, physically, by developing a sense of concern for others. Allah says in the Quran that He doesn’t “need” our prayers or worship. He needs nothing, provides everything. We do this for ourselves, for our betterment. And Allah is our witness. Al-Shaheed, the Witness to all things, as well as Creator, Almighty, Merciful.

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