We all know Ramadan as a sacred month of fasting and worship, of purification, of compassion and contrition. Looking at the meaning of the word “sacred” in English, it is not an exact translation of the Arabic word haram, which means “prohibited” or “protected by prohibitions” in a sense, but also it means “sacred” in the sense of being reverenced, which brings us to another word, taqwa. This word is mentioned frequently in varying grammatical forms, sometimes translated as “fear of God,” or “reverence.” I like the word “reverence,” because although there’s an element of fear and respect in reverence, it is of a particular kind, a willing attitude of one who appreciates the value and power and importance of that which is revered. It acts as fear of God in causing one to avoid doing anything that would incur God’s wrath, so it is a directed fear, and that involves the mind. The Quran also uses the word taqwa in the sense of “beware” or “be aware,” invoking mindfulness, whereas fear itself, expressed in a very different Arabic word khauf, is an emotional reaction that does not involve thinking or the mind.
For example, in Surat Al-baqara 2:48,
وَٱتَّقُوا۟ يَوْمًا لَّا تَجْزِى نَفْسٌ عَن نَّفْسٍ شَيْـًٔا وَلَا يُقْبَلُ مِنْهَا شَفَٰعَةٌ وَلَا يُؤْخَذُ مِنْهَا عَدْلٌ وَلَا هُمْ يُنصَرُونَ
And beware of a Day when no soul can avail another soul, nor will any intercession be accepted from it, nor will any ransom be taken, nor will they have supporters
Taqwa is a deeper voluntary awareness which adds mindfulness to fear, not merely reacting but an attitude, stronger than fear alone. For this reason the other word for fear, khauf, is mentioned in the Quran often in the sense of “fear not”— telling, for example, prophets and people of faith not to be afraid (have khauf). Yet Allah in the Quran always enjoins people to have taqwa. Khauf is involuntary, simply fear as an emotional response; taqwa, on the other hand, is voluntary, an act of the mind, which could be either the sense of “beware” or the sense of “revere,” the latter having an element of adoration-love, respect, and honor in it…expressed as honoring prohibitions or making sacrifices. Ramadan is the month that teaches us how to reverence Allah in the very physical act of fasting, a sacrifice of one’s “daily bread” quite literally during daylight hours, a way that involves the whole person: body, soul, and mind or intellect.
From Surat Al-Bawara (the cow) 2:183:
يَٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ كُتِبَ عَلَيْكُمُ ٱلصِّيَامُ كَمَا كُتِبَ عَلَى ٱلَّذِينَ مِن قَبْلِكُمْ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُونَ
(183) O you who believe, fasting has been decreed for you as it was decreed for those before you, that perhaps you may [be righteous][learn self-restraint] have taqwa.
Note that I have inserted two alternate translations for “have taqwa” in its verb form to show how translations vary in context. Also, in order to bring to the reader visually that this word is coming from taqwa, I did not use its actual verb form which is in bold in the original Arabic above. Note there is no English equivalent covering the range of meanings here. One could say “perhaps you may be mindful” or “that perhaps you may fear/ revere (Allah)”. Being righteous or practicing self-restraint are acts of reverence or mindfulness, but it is important to get a sense of the root word. Fasting then is a means of achieving taqwa, which is in this case an attitude. This attitude opens up, in the hearts of those so inclined, room for compassion and thoughtfulness, of being mindful of what is beyond one’s immediate needs or desires. It opens up room for self-restraint and self-discipline, to think of a larger picture. To think of consequences before taking action, to not be merely reactive but proactive, and thus gain more control over one’s life.
To fast every day for one whole month is more effective in breaking habits and self-centeredness than fasting only occasionally. This is further supported by restraints on sexual activity (only allowed at night), profanity, and other undesirable or prohibited activities such as smoking, rudeness, fighting, etc.; the fast, in other words, extends beyond food and water (drinking is also prohibited in daylight hours) to a complete behavioral restraint from dawn to dusk (the Quran refers to it literally as “night,” not using the word for dusk). Such self-discipline is also augmented by increased worship, prayer, and also a special Ramadan charity payment or zakat (which means “purification”) by giving from what one has to the poor. Charity is also a way of expiation for those who are unable to fast, although fasting is preferred, indicating that fasting is a stronger teacher of taqwa. That makes sense if one considers the nature of human beings is to learn best by experience, in this case the experience of hunger and self-restraint.
And in fact, taqwa is the essential attitude of faith. The English expression “the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom” is relevant here. If one indeed has faith in God, it must encompass both heart and mind, both of which are affected by and derive their sense of reality from the body’s physical existence, its needs and desires. Control of that must come from the mind or intellect; but freely of one’s own volition. Just as the Quran sets certain important prohibitions against mind control or the oppressive and forced curtailment of another’s free will, so too Allah restricts the destructive power of fear by encouraging the development of an attitude of reverence, of taqwa, of mindfulness, thinking before acting, of being considerate of others, and also of differentiating between emotional fears that can create wrong or unbalanced behavior, and fear of the Almighty, a fear tempered with reverence and common decency. It also encourages self-examination, assessing one’s own faith and behavior with s critical eye in an effort to gain more taqwa and hence become a better person.
From Surat Al-Hashr 59:18
يَٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ ٱتَّقُوا۟ ٱللَّهَ وَلْتَنظُرْ نَفْسٌ مَّا قَدَّمَتْ لِغَدٍ ۖ وَٱتَّقُوا۟ ٱللَّهَ ۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ خَبِيرٌۢ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ
O you who believe, be aware of God, and let every soul examine what it has put forth for tomorrow. And be aware of Allah; for Allah is fully aware of everything you do.
For believers, faith means having an attitude of reverence for Allah, which in turn means working toward self-awareness and self-examination of one’s deeds with an eye to future consequences. If one indeed thinks of Allah’s omniscience in terms of being unable to hide or deny one’s mistakes and faults, this would be a deterrent against bad behavior. Wisdom then here is achieved by self-discipline which in turn creates an awareness of a larger picture involving past and future deeds, an awareness of Allah’s ever-presence, and this in turn makes us better and more trustworthy human beings.
From Surat Al-Imran 3:102
يَٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ ٱتَّقُوا۟ ٱللَّهَ حَقَّ تُقَاتِهِۦ وَلَا تَمُوتُنَّ إِلَّا وَأَنتُم مُّسْلِمُونَ
O you who have faith! Reverence Allah as He should be reverenced, and do not die except as ones who have surrendered (Muslimeen or “Muslims” means “those who have surrendered [to Allah]”).
Here I define “Muslim” as “one who surrenders to God” to make it clear thst Islam is not a club to which one belongs by inheritance or by saying a word or phrase (password) indicating one’s faith in a separate religion called “Islam,” but rather a Muslim is anyone who surrenders to Allah, the name of the same God worshipped by any who have faith in an Almighty and all-Merciful supreme power. The first commandment is of particular value and clarity to those who accept that Mohammad is God’s prophet as was Jesus and Moses and Noah, to mention only three. All brought the same religion to humankind. But each subsequent prophet, the last of whom is prophet Mohammad, brought a message appropriate to subsequent eras. The Quran being the final message is appropriate to all eras that follow into the future. It still exists in its original language. Its language is still used in the modern world in Arabic “formal” news broadcasts as well as books on all subjects. And thus the message is accessible as of this moment, and its interpretation can develop as the contemporary world develops. Certainly the wisdom of Ramadan and taqwa remain highly significant and essential, forming part of a system by which humans can achieve their higher more transcendent nature, one we have sought and struggled with during our long history. And it transcends today’s petty conflicts and political posturing, crimes and cruelty. Ramadan reminds us we were created to be so much better.