As this most sacred of months, Ramadan, continues, we think about what its true meaning is. It’s about more than fasting from food and drink, because one must also abstain from bad behaviors, such as lying, slander or profanity, and obviously from committing any crimes, or from acting with cruelty to others such as bullying or mocking others, in person or online, openly or in secret. Not only must one abstain from sexual activity of any kind (and one considers that for Muslims this will be marital, lawful), but refrain oneself from any sexual thoughts or innuendos or behaviors that approach this area, including viewing sexually explicit materials online or elsewhere. Even excess anger is prohibited. One strives, in other words, to be a truly good person, thinking about it, being aware of Allah. So it is a kind of emptying out of those things of this world that lead us away from thikr Allah, actively remembering Allah and calling upon Him and invoking His name while alert. It is a kind of purification of the heart. We also strive to be compassionate and kind and thoughtful to others. So it is an emptying out of the selfish part, our tendency to be driven and moved by our selfish desires.
The word zakat, which refers to the obligatory charity to be paid and distributed to the needy (who are defined specifically in the Quran), means “purification.” The idea is that one’s wealth or possessions, in excess of survival needs, should be shared with those who do not have the means to survive or who are in a state of deprivation of basic needs, such as food, clothing, shelter, and medical care. If one has excess wealth and does not spend it on the needy in due proportion, one incurs Allah’s wrath.
Surat Fussilat 41:7 –
الَّذِينَ لَا يُؤْتُونَ الزَّكَاةَ وَهُم بِالْآخِرَةِ هُمْ كَافِرُونَ
Those who do not give zakat, and in the Hereafter they are disbelievers.
The preceding aya concludes with the condemnation of idolaters, which the above aya completes.
Ramadan has its own special zakat to be paid during the month, often towards the end of the month. This emphasizes the importance in this month of purification.
And what is exactly purification? It is a clearing up, an emptying out of our lower desires and impulses, a reining in of that which could separate us from Allah. Because in the Hereafter, there will be no more free will, no more time to do what would help us meet Allah on that Day, that unimaginable reckoning when all we will have are our deeds, and thoughts are counted as well, including intentions, so that those who worked hard and struggled to be accepted by Allah will find themselves in an unimaginable paradise from which they can never be deprived or removed. Those who rejected Allah’s presence and His revelations, whose attitude was to serve their own self-interests without compassion for others, those who worshipped anything other than Allah, including their own selves and desires as well as idols or saints whom they call upon instead of Allah, all those will be separated from Allah. And the Hereafter is a timeless realm where they will be locked into the consequences of what they did in their time of free will.
So purification is crucial to our ultimate survival. Of course one can deny that there is a Hereafter. But they won’t make it not come true. And the rewards of fasting in Ramadan are palpable even in this life: when we spend time in prayer and reading Quran, and rein in even the basic desire for food, there’s a bright spirit of support that comes from the ever-present Allah to shore us up and give us a taste of the joy and fulfillment of the believers when they find Allah has accepted them. And so it is indeed a holiday, a holy month where we put in our account for the next life what we have in this life, actions we take for Allah alone. And He has made it obligatory as a gift, to ensure that we may be motivated enough in this life with its temptations to purify ourselves for the next.