This well-known aya, translated below (Saheeh International), is the only aya where Ramadan is mentioned by name as the time when the Quran was sent, and therefore is very significant and worth analyzing. Surat Al-Qadr 97 is a shorter sura entirely about the night the Quran was sent, called laylat Al-Qadr 97 or the “night of decree,” which we thus know is in Ramadan. But the whole month is named in this single aya in Surat Al-Baqara, with its significance declared in two basic ways: as the month in which the historically important event of sending the Quran to humankind occurred, and as a month of fasting and repentance.
The month of Ramadan [is that] in which was revealed the Qur’an, a guidance for the people and clear proofs of guidance and criterion. So whoever sights [the new moon of] the month, let him fast it; and whoever is ill or on a journey – then an equal number of other days. Allah intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship and [wants] for you to complete the period and to glorify Allah for that [to] which He has guided you; and perhaps you will be grateful.Al-Baqarah 2:185
One can think of this aya as bringing to our notice seven points, which support each other. Although it is not a ring composition, there are chiastic-like elements in its meaning. Because this is only a single aya, its analysis is not delineated by any structural detail except that of the meaning itself.
2:185 Arranged in 7 Sections
- “The month of Ramadan [is that] in which was revealed the Qur’an.” So by fasting this month and spending it in prayer, especially at night, we are commemorating the major historic event of the Quran’s being given to humankind. No original book of religious guidance (not inspired somehow by the Bible or other older scripture) has been sent since.
- “A guidance for the people and clear proofs of guidance and criterion.” These are significant words; guidance is the overarching purpose of the Quran, to show us the best, most meaningful and rewarding way to live. The proofs are multi-tiered and discussed to some extent here, but the word “proof” is not possible to be taken in the scientific or mathematical sense as we know it, because God cannot be limited to human knowledge, for that is incomplete and therefore unjust. The Quran gives us Truth, the ultimate Reality beyond the reach of science, math, literature, or human knowledge. The word “criterion” means that the Quran contains the basic standard by which we can judge Truth, as revealed in all Divine scripture, and thus will be the criterion by which each human will be judged, although the original scriptures remain recorded with Allah and will also be presented to the people to whom they were sent. But the Quran is described as “musaytar” over all previous scripture, which means the Quran has a “controlling” or “overarching” role. For those who received previous scriptures before the Quran was sent, the messengers and scriptures sent to them will be witnesses in their case, as the Quran is a witness for those who were cognizant of it. Including those who rejected it.
- “So whoever sights [the new moon of] the month, let him fast it;” This is the decree making fasting for the month of Ramadan obligatory; the details of how exactly to do this are elsewhere in the Quran. But the importance of having an entire month devoted to fasting is best described in the video featured on this post, which shows how it takes at least a month to build in us true taqwa or mindfulness/ God-consciousness.
- “And whoever is ill or on a journey – then an equal number of other days.” This allows all adults of sound mind to participate. It shows us that it is the practice of fasting that we need, even if not all during the month of Ramadan, but of course within that month is preferable, but made-up fasting will be counted the same before Allah the All-Wise.
- “Allah intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship.” That Allah intends for us ease tells us that fasting is not an exercise in self-deprivation but has a higher purpose with greater benefits. In this context, it means fasting is not meant as a kind of self-denial or stoicism. Rather it is a practice which leads to making us more aware of Allah through His guidance in the Quran, raising our spiritual capabilities, an exercise for the betterment of the soul. All worthwhile things take a little effort and also self-sacrifice, which is far more rewarding than living by “default” or inertia.
- “And [wants] for you to complete the period and to glorify Allah for that [to] which He has guided you—“. Rather, here we are told the purpose is to fulfill the time of this month (to accomplish a complete task) in focusing on self-purification and remembrance of Allah by glorifying Him for this guidance to increase taqwa/ mindfulness, a practice that must be developed both physically and spiritually. The word translated “glorify” here is actually takbiru, which can also be understood as ”praise,” being from the same root as akbar meaning “Greater” in that Allah is greater than all else.
- “And perhaps you will be grateful.” The ultimate purpose is to create within us a sense of gratitude. As I explained here, gratitude is fundamental to trust, which in Arabic is the core element of faith. Such trust/faith is not based exactly on “belief” as used in English, derived from the Christian concept of a “leap of faith” that leapfrogs reason and intuition. Rather it is something one feels right about intuitively, and in Islam means one owns the truth of Islam and the Quran, fully trusting in its validity. The benefits of such trust are myriad, thus gratitude comes naturally to a person who lives it.
Sometimes the question arises, how does fasting create gratitude? Weight loss, yes, maybe health, ok, but after a month of deprivation, what’s gratitude got to do with it? The answer is in part above, emphasizing that it’s not about deprivation for its own sake. Instead, by voluntarily experiencing deprivation of food and water, we can feel what the poor and otherwise deprived feel of hunger and thirst, thus creating a greater capacity for compassion, being grateful for what we have. It helps to be reminded of this viscerally through experience.
And that in turn makes us less greedy, less ego-driven and ultimately bringing about a higher moral/ethical self and behavior. The discipline of fasting also helps with substance addiction. If one can control one’s need for food and water in this way, it can also help control the urges of addiction. The same taqwa that enables ethical behavior toward others can also enable it towards oneself. Gratitude as a core outlook and approach is the pinnacle of both acknowledging and receiving Allah’s mercy and guidance. One could even say it is a form of light.
Placement on Quran Chart
If one places Ramadan as a calendar month into the chambered nautilus architectural design above, it appears in the apex 9th chamber position in yellow at the top, concluding exactly on the winter solstice as shown. Nights, the most celestial time of the daily 24-hour period when we can see the stars and the “heavens” in all their magnificence, become longer during this month, making it also the most celestial month of the year in this symbolic position.
It’s associated with the sura Al-Tawba meaning “repentance,” certainly the most appropriate practice for Ramadan. Turning counterclockwise on this upper section of the circle, the nights increase in length as one approaches winter solstice, symbolically in line with our increase in taqwa as we fast towards the end of the month. We become more mindful of Allah as each day passes and we resist the need to eat and drink, becoming aware of and able to fulfill this practice over time. As all true learning takes time.
And time strengthens that which passes through it. Adam/Eve were sent down from the celestial realm (which is not “in time”) to earth’s time-bound realm, to give our free will time in which to practice and develop it. Hence those people who respond to Allah’s guidance can develop the ability to resist satanic influence and not be so easily fooled, in turn becoming a strong force for good. As demonstrated by prophet Mohammad and his followers in the conquest of Makkah (Mecca). So also repentance, the effort to overcome one’s weaknesses and improve upon past mistakes and bad behavior/attitude, is a central focus of the month as well.
One could then also reason that because night is the most celestial time, the winter solstice, as the longest night of the year, would also be the most celestial night. Which makes that the most likely original laylat-ulqadr or “night of decree” during which the Quran was sent. Also sometimes translated “the night of power,” it would certain obtain such power from time itself through which the Quran’s timeless message was sent.
It is also the likely night in which Isa (Jesus) was immaculately conceived by a word from Allah, since Jesus’ delivery 9 months later occurred during the date season (19:23), which is around September, thus counting back 9 months would place conception in late December — certainly the most celestial night! So December 25 would be close to the time not Isa’s birth, of his immaculate conception by a word from Allah as He created Adam by a word “Be!” (3:59, 3:45, 4:171). And indeed his conception is the true miracle and worthy of commemorating; his birth is more reflective of his mother Maryam’s patience and suffering.
In any case, Ramadan itself is determined by the lunar calendar, according to Quranic instructions, hence that timing (winter solstice) may be at this point symbolic. We can imagine Ramadan as a month of celestial nights which we spend in increased prayer, with the daytime spent in fasting and purifying ourselves spiritually as well by abstaining from bad behavior. But it wouldn’t hurt to also spend the winter solstice night in prayer and reading Quran as well. The lunar calendar may also be a means of testing and strengthening our resolve to fast even during the longer, hotter days of summer when it would be more difficult, not for the hardship again, but for the greater benefit and reward for those who persevere.
Al-Baqarah 2:185 arranged in 7 sections
شَهۡرُ رَمَضَانَ ٱلَّذِىٓ أُنزِلَ فِيهِ ٱلۡقُرۡءَانُ
هُدًى لِّلنَّاسِ وَبَيِّنَٰتٍ مِّنَ ٱلۡهُدَىٰ وَٱلۡفُرۡقَانِۚ
فَمَن شَهِدَ مِنكُمُ ٱلشَّهۡرَ فَلۡيَصُمۡهُۖ
وَمَن كَانَ مَرِيضًا أَوۡ عَلَىٰ سَفَرٍ فَعِدَّةٌ مِّنۡ أَيَّامٍ أُخَرَۗ
يُرِيدُ ٱللَّهُ بِكُمُ ٱلۡيُسۡرَ وَلَا يُرِيدُ بِكُمُ ٱلۡعُسۡرَ
وَلِتُكۡمِلُواْ ٱلۡعِدَّةَ وَلِتُكَبِّرُواْ ٱللَّهَ عَلَىٰ مَا هَدَىٰكُمۡ
Since this aya ends on gratitude, we should make it our goal to use this celestial time to reach for the ultimate goal, Allah’s acceptance. And when we fast, try to cultivate an attitude of gratitude. It may well be what makes the total difference in this life and the next.