In the Islamic calendar, Ramadan is a holy month commemorating when Muhammad received the first of the revelations from the Angel Gabriel that make up the Quran. This year Ramadan began at the end of June and will continue until July 28. It is appalling that this period, traditionally set aside for prayer and reflection, has been turned on its head by Muslim extremists in Iraq, in Nigeria, in Gaza and beyond as they wage violence and destruction in the name of Islam.
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Tradition has it that the first of Muhammad’s revelations occurred toward the end of Ramadan, circa 610 in the Western calendar and likely the 27th night of the month, known as “the night of power” (al qadr), or destiny. Even before then, among the Arabs of the desert, Ramadan was a month set aside for peaceful retreat, with a truce among warring tribes. As Muhammad’s renown as the messenger, or the Prophet, advanced, Ramadan became known as a sacred time. The significance of Ramadan as a month for prayers and meditation would be confirmed in the Quran’s second chapter, known as Surah al Baqarah. The relevant verse declares, “Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may learn self-restraint.”
Ideally, then, Ramadan is the month for Muslims to turn inward. Fasting should be an act of remembrance with gratitude for what God has provided, and of striving through prayers and meditation so that the heart may be illuminated by God’s mercy. As the Quran states, “Not blind are the eyes, but blind are the hearts within the breasts.” And the Prophet, according to tradition, said: “For everything there is a polish that taketh away rust, and the polish of the heart is remembrance of God.”
In recent years, especially since 9/11, the world of Islam has become a strange and fearful place. Muslim extremists avow their faith even as they violate the sacredness of Ramadan, perverting a month meant for prayers and contemplation with warfare and wanton killing. Those who do not speak out against this unholy violation are also turning away from God’s gift.
Violence is not a monopoly of any one people or culture. But many Muslims have given it a new meaning by making their violence inseparable from their belief. This then is a measure of how great the distance is now between many of those who wear the mantle of Islam and the message Muhammad delivered. The Prophet likely foresaw the time ahead when some followers would make a mockery of Islam and warned, “Islam began as a stranger and will become once more a stranger.”
Yet within Islam itself lies the cure for the malady that grips those Muslims and their leaders who think that through violent jihad, or holy war, they will reconstruct their imagined glorious past.
The Quran reminds its readers that God is closer to man than his jugular vein, but that it is man’s forgetfulness, ingratitude and worse that keeps him distant from his Creator. In a story from Muhammad’s early childhood, told by his earliest biographers, he was playing with children of the same age when the future Prophet was visited by two men dressed in white, carrying a golden basin filled with snow. According to his biographers, the Prophet later recalled that “they laid hold upon me, and splitting open my breast they brought forth my heart. This likewise they split open and took from it a black clot which they cast away. Then they washed my heart and my breast with the snow.” In narrating this story, the Prophet also said: “Satan toucheth every son of Adam the day his mother beareth him, save only Mary and her son.”
The story, whatever one makes of its veracity, bears a lesson for Muslims. In recounting this event the Prophet was telling his audience that no one, not even he, is born free of the mark of sin, except for Mary and her son Jesus, and that only with God’s mercy might this mark be erased. For those Muslims who dig deeper into the Prophet’s remarks there is the unmistakable message to make and keep peace with the people who revere Mary and Jesus—and similarly with the people among whom the sinless mother and son were born.
Ramadan is the month of blessings for Muslims, should they seek to earn God’s mercy. The path of bigotry and violence in the name of Islam that many have taken is unmistakably that of Satan dressed in religious garb. Yet Ramadan reminds us that even for those who have taken that terrible path, God will not abandon them provided they repent and polish their hearts with remembrance of him.
Mr. Mansur teaches in the department of political science at the University of Western Ontario, London, Canada.