As the sacred month of Ramadan draws to a close and Eid ul Fitr approaches it is useful to remind ourselves what these important events in the lives of all Muslims signify. Eid is a celebration of the end of Ramadan. So to understand Eid one must first understand Ramadan.
Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar. In etymology the word comes from the Arabic verb ‘ramida’ which alludes to extreme or scorching heat. Ibn Manzoor (d. 711 H) in his epic Lisaan ul Arab, thought to be the most comprehensive Arabic dictionary ever written, suggests several origins of the word. He writes: One of these origins is attributed to Ibn Duraid who says: “When the names of months were transcribed from an ancient language (to Arabic) they named them as per the seasons in which they fell at the time. Ramadan corresponded with the extreme heat of the summer and so it was named such. Mujahid, on the other hand, would refuse to suggest a plural for Ramadan saying that it is come to his attention that it is one of the names of Allah.”
In terms of its significance to Islam: We are told that on a Ramadan night, described as Lalyat ul Qadar, literally ‘the night of power’, the Quran, in some form, descended from above the seven heavens to the Samaa ad Dunya literally ‘the Earthly sky’ – suggesting perhaps that there are other skies in other realms. And from here – the Sama ad Dunya – it was revealed piecemeal to the Prophet (SAW) by the angel Gabriel over a period of some twenty years in accordance with the need of the the time.
Ramadan then is a tribute to the momentous descent of the Quran, and the fast represents the gratitude of mankind for this Divine Gift of guidance but for which we would have fallen astray. Allah has decreed it to be an enchanted time. A Hadith tells us that during this month the doors of Hell are shut and the doors of Heaven are opened. Prayers are answered and sins are forgiven. And this is why Muslims are urged in Ramadan to pray earnestly and seek forgiveness for their wrongs. All we have to do for the Divine Mercy to flow is to seek it with pure hearts.
The word Eid is related to the Arabic verb a’ada meaning to return. So it is a day that returns every year. And Fitr is from the same root as Iftar – fatara – which among its varied meanings also means to break open or cleave. So one breaks the fast at Iftar.
Eid ul Fitr is the first day of Shawwal, the tenth month of the Islamic calendar. It signifies the end of a month of fasting, of prayer and submission and seeking forgiveness. It is a day of joy and celebration. The day begins with a prayer, said just as the Sun appears over the horizon, in which the whole community is encouraged to participate.
In Madina, during the time of the Prophet(SAW), all Muslims in the city – men, women and children would walk in the morning twilight to the city’s open air prayer ground. Here, under the sky, the men would sit in front, while they waited for the Sun to rise, and the women at the back. It is a measure of the inclusivity of the event that even menstruating women, who are normally not required to pray, would attend though not participate in the prayer.
The Hadith tell us that we should dress in our best clothes. It is reported that the Prophet (SAW) even encouraged music and singing to signify the joy of the occasion. It is a day when we are encouraged to renew our relationships with friends and relatives. People go house to house greeting their neighbours and wishing them well. We are especially encouraged to renew our links with relatives we’ve not met for a long time.
But perhaps, most important of all, is that we are urged to remember the poor. It is to this end that the Zakat ul Fitr is mandatory for all people living in any household. It is the equivalent of an agreed amount of a common commodity such as wheat or rice or dates per person. It must be given before the Eid prayer. It differs from the normal Zakat ul Mal which is applicable to ones wealth.
The word Zakat comes from the Arabic verb zaka which means to purify. So the Zakat ul Mal* ‘purifies’ one’s wealth. Zakat ul Fitr on the other hand, by its application to the number of people is intended to purify the soul of those who have completed the month of fasting. In both cases the objective is to help the poor.
This issue of remembering and helping the poor is especially relevant to our situation in Pakistan today. Widespread unemployment and the recent outbreak of devastating inflation has meant that this Eid will be difficult for the poor. And here, the well to do in society, should be guided not only by the obligation of Zakat ul Fitr, which in the scheme of things turns out to be a relatively modest amount, but by the verses of the Quran that enjoin the rich to spend on the poor.
There is for example verse 180 from Sura Aal Imran, which should stop those with wealth in their tracks, and which says in meaning: “Let those who are miserly with the (wealth) that Allah has given them not think that it will benefit them. Instead it will harm them (and) they will be collared on the day of resurrection by what they have grudged (to the poor)”. And then there is verse 219 of Sura Al-Bakara which says in meaning: “And they ask you (Mohammad): what should they spend (of their wealth)? Say: All that is a’fu (surplus to your needs).”
These verses, and others with similar meaning, neatly summarize Islam’s approach to wealth: Of all that you possess only that is for you which you need. Everything else that is surplus is not really yours and needs to be given away to the poor.
So there is clear exhortation not to hoard wealth but to spend it on those who need it most. And this is what we need to remember as we approach Eid. There are too many people – men, women, and especially, children – who will not be able to celebrate this wonderful and delightful occasion unless we open our hearts and wallets. Let’s not disappoint them.
*Mal is Arabic for wealth. Originally it was the name used for cattle, which at the time in Arabia, was the gauge of of an individual’s wealth.