God is the source of light and true love. All other forms are but derivative, incidental and temporal, but the love of God and love that comes from God is unbounded, unrestricted and universal. We turn to God who is the source of all goodness.
God gave us the month of Ramadan as a way to discipline and teach ourselves to have sovereignty over our willpower. From the minute human beings are born on this earth, they are tempted by dependency – first, dependent on parents; then soon enough, on friends; then on spouses; then on their children. Then soon enough, they depend on society and then they die. From one dependence to another.
But as you move from one stage of dependence to another, you might never get to know your true self; it is lost in the stages of dependence, going from one state of reliance and weakness to another. The only liberation is, if at some stage in your existence, you learn to depend on the truly dependable, God. Your parents, friends, spouse and others are frail and human, struggling with their own dependencies and addictions. Eventually as a senior citizen, the society you depend on is insensitive and uncaring, cold and dogmatic.
Along this journey, God consistently extends the Divine hand to you. God is always there with you and consistently sends you glimmers of lightning, little flashes of light in your heart, soul and mind that say, "Turn towards me, learn to depend on me before it's too late." I see your pain, suffering and confusion; extremes of self-adulation, irrational self-idealization, and complete despair and hopelessness. Turn towards the True and Only, the One who doesn’t change, doesn’t need, doesn’t covet, who is outside the bounds of time, space and logic.
This is among the reasons we have Ramadan. No wisdom comes to those who do not deny themselves what they desire. When you learn to deny yourself, you begin to discipline the ego, and begin the process of understanding how you should depend on the Almighty.
We must always try to understand from the precedents set by our Prophet – what type of moral character and model of morality and ethics the Prophet followed and taught to his companions. We have all the rituals that existed from the time of the Prophet: the same prayers, fasting, and such. The rituals are there, but what is missing is the spirit; understanding the transformative impact to the spirit that these rituals are designed to support and nourish.
This story of the Prophet shows us the type of society early Muslims had, how it transformed them, and what type of moral character it induced within. Among the companions of the Prophet was Bilal, who became famous for his beautiful voice and call to prayer (adhan) in Medina. He was a slave in Mecca who converted to Islam early on. The person who owned Bilal was incensed that his slave would become Muslim, defying his orders, so Bilal was savagely tortured. Abu Bakr Sadiq bought Bilal's freedom, turning Bilal into a free man living in Medina. It was known how much Bilal valued being a free man and hated being a slave. He was traumatized from the days of his slavery, so he held a deep love for Abu Bakr Sadiq and the Prophet for setting him free. Bilal became a close associate of the Prophet and was tasked with being responsible for the Prophet's public treasury in Medina.
The Prophet lived a life of complete austerity, regardless of what existed in the public treasury. He was not like the rulers of today, spending absurd amounts of money on frivolous luxury items. He would eat simply, slept where available and kept his wardrobe simple. Anyone in need could request aid from the Prophet and Bilal would give them money from the treasury. The attitude that Muslims learned towards money is that money is there to help others, to be circulated and shared, not coveted and monopolized.
The public treasury would be especially full in Ramadan, meaning more people asked for aid at this time. One night in Ramadan, a man came to the Prophet asking for financial assistance. As the normal practice, the Prophet asks Bilal, can we help him out? Bilal, who was raised on the morality of the Prophet, said, "Insha'Allah, don't worry, we'll help him out." However, Bilal knew there was no money in the treasury and struggled to think who he could borrow from. He wanted to help this man and did not have the heart to tell the Prophet, “We have nothing.”
He goes to a merchant in Medina, who agreed to lend money, but stipulates that if the money is not paid back in a month, Bilal would become his slave. Bilal clearly remembered the sufferings and humiliations he suffered as a slave. Incredibly, because Bilal did not want to turn away a person in need, he agreed. As the month passes, Bilal does not have the heart to tell the Prophet of the situation. On the last day, the man tells Bilal to pay, and refuses a deadline extension. Finally, Bilal tells the Prophet what happened. The Prophet tells Bilal, "Let's pray fervently to God to give us a way out." But the Prophet knew if Bilal was enslaved, Muslims would raise money to buy his freedom. These Muslims had a different mentality, they did not philosophize how slavery could be okay, unlike the nonsense some modern Muslims believe.
Bilal spent much of the night praying. The next morning, a tribe sent the Prophet a gift of two camels' worth of material. Immediately, the Prophet tells Bilal to use the gift to pay off the debts of the Muslim treasury, which all had to do with helping people who sought help from the Prophet and his companions. After all the debt is paid off, about two ounces of gold is left. The Prophet tells Bilal to find individuals who need the money, as he hated for wealth to be saved if there was someone in need. Hardly a day passes before the money is spent.
Look at the nature of and the attitude early Muslims had towards money. A companion of the Prophet was willing to become a slave again to help someone he did not know. The Prophet had an almost allergic relationship to money. The leader of one of the greatest ummahs lived simpler than the lowest person financially. Look at the commitment towards being at people's service. This is the type of moral fiber that fasting is supposed to build. When we fast, we should start realizing, “I am different from what I consume, different from what I own. If I deny myself, I might gain perspective on what matters, and start realizing that what I own is not my own. And that it is my responsibility. If others need, I must feel personally responsible for that need.” This is the type of moral character that fasting builds. That is how early Muslims built a civilization.
The most basic sunnah is that responsibility begins at the top, not at the bottom. The moral example must be set at the top, and it is our obligation to make sure that those at the top act ethically. You cannot expect someone to feel moral responsibility for society if those at the top fail to set a good moral example. Compare the way Bilal acted as a public official to the way Muslims act as public officials today.
If you want to understand why Islam became a moral force in the world, reflect upon what Islam did to early Muslims. A man who hated slavery was willing to reenter slavery, just to help a person in need because he felt the sense of responsibility as a public official to take that huge risk. The Prophet refused to accept the idea of hoarding money if there is any person in need. This is the morality that Ramadan is supposed to build.
Islam came at a time when the richest people were the priestly class, who hoarded money. People had come to expect that the most corrupt institutions were places of worship. Then comes the Prophet Muhammad, restoring the message of Moses and Jesus, restoring proper morality to where it should be, not just by speech but by action. This is what created the moral force.
The Quran reminds us that our relationship to wealth is one of the biggest challenges there is to our faith. We cannot attain grace and goodness until we spend from what we love. If you do not spend, that is how you cast yourself into ruin. Many people today will feel that if you talk about their wealth, it is as if you have assaulted their being. Many Muslims, when they want to act cowardly, will recite the partial verse, "Don't cast yourself unto ruin”. The full verse tells us, do not cast yourself unto ruin by failing to spend in God's cause. Typical of modern Muslims, we have only focused on the first half, “Don’t cast yourself into ruin,” using it as a justification to not donate.
To understand the state the ummah is in today, recognize that we failed in spending in the way of God. If we love our money more than we love Islam, then it is our fault. We have failed to be like Bilal and failed to learn the lessons of Ramadan. God tells us in Surah Muhammad that if we do not spend in the way of God, God will stop supporting you. You will do du’a, but it will not be answered.
Recently, the ummah lost a great man and thinker, Abdullah al-Hamid, who is among the most brilliant people who wrote about constitutional monarchies. As a result of his work, he was arrested and sentenced in Saudi Arabia. This 70-year-old man needed a heart operation, the Saudi authorities refused, and let him suffer until he died. His death brought little outcry from human rights organizations. Where is the ummah? Instead of calling it injustice, some Muslims are calling the treatment of al-Hamid a “Saudi affair”.
The Egyptian government has a new law that you cannot broadcast Quran from mosques. In one of the noisiest countries in the world, with cars beeping, people shouting, nightclubs blasting music, it is forbidden to hear Quran in public.
The BBC and CNN are using images of Muslims while covering the pandemic, associating the two. As Ramadan approached, one of the biggest Islamophobes, Paul Sperry, sent out a tweet saying Ramadan is dangerous to Americans because Muslims will not respect social distancing and will become a source of infection and coronavirus will be jihadized. Trump retweets this, responding later, “... I've seen a very strong anti-Israel bent in Congress with Democrats… I don't know what happened with our country, but the Christian faith is treated much differently than it was, and I think it's treated very unfairly."
What is the relationship between all these stories? We would not be in these situations if we spent our money correctly. Scholars receive little support from fellow Muslims. Worse, there are young Muslims who want to help orphans, build institutions, who are brilliant and gifted, but they do not have resources because Muslims do not spend in the way of God. Arab governments spend their money on injustice instead of the way of God. What about us? If fasting fails to teach us the proper relationship to our wealth, then fasting has not done anything for us.
Despite all of these injustices, you still find Muslims who refuse to take a position on anything. To take no position on issues of morality or ethics means you are pointlessly taking up space and time as a burden upon moral communities. May God allow us to internalize the meaning of our fast and Ramadan, and to live a life acting upon it.