The history of fasting goes back as far as human civilization, with various societies and religious groups partaking in some version of fasting all across the globe. Recent scientific research has shown that intermittent caloric restriction is one of the few practices that can contribute directly to increasing the longevity of life. Fasting is one of the five pillars of the Islamic religion and acts as a cornerstone of faith for devout believers in Allah and His Last Messenger, Muhammad (pbuh). But what did the very first Ramadan look like ? When did it become obligatory for Muslims to fast the entire month ? And, how many Ramadans did the Prophet himself fast ?
Ramadan became obligatory on the second Monday in the month of Sha’ban in the second year of the Hijra from Mecca to Madinah. Prior to this, the day of Ashura had been made obligatory. According to Aishah (may Allah be pleased with her), while fasting Ashura had been made mandatory in Madinah, it soon became optional after the month of Ramadan was made fard (obligatory). The revelation about Ramadan’s status came from Ayat 185 of Surah Al-Baqarah in which Allah (swt) says, The month of Ramadhan (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…
Pre-Islamic Arabs were known to fast, particularly on the day of Ashura in celebration of Allah saving Moses (pbuh) and his companions from the pursuit of Pharaoh. They also used fasting as an act of penitence or in preparation for some other religious rites such as mourning or initiation. Some had the added feature of including a vow of silence, which was referenced by Allah in regards to Maryam. Many early Makkans called the Prophet a Sabian because his rituals took on a similar appearance to theirs, particulary prayers and fasting. Harranians were a group of Sabians from an area between Syria and Iraq who used to fast an entire month according to the state of the moon. It is thought that they introduced the Ramadan-style of fasting to the Arabian peninsula where it would be taken up and adapted by Muslims. It should be noted that the Qur’an cites the Sabians as “People of the Book” and believers in monotheism.
When fasting was made obligatory for Muslims, it took on similar appearances to previous methods which limited food, water and sexual intercourse. The latter stipulation comes from a narration by Abu Huraira who reported that a person had been with his wife during Ramadan and as he was unable to free a slave or fast two consecutive months, the Prophet ordered him to feed sixty people. Over the nine years that the Prophet would fast Ramadan, a deeper understanding as to the benefits of the fast for the believers would arise. Fasting became known as a “shield” for those who practiced it and the smell emanating from the mouth of a fasting person was declared as better in the sight of Allah than musk.
Additionally, Muslims celebrated the special day Laylat-ul-Qadr (The Night of Power) as one of the holiest days in the Islamic tradition. In the Qur’an, it is cited as being better than a thousand nights, however, scholars still dispute as to whether this surah was revealed in the time of Mecca or Madinah. Ultimately, the day is celebrated to mark when the Qur’an was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in the Cave of Hira. This days falls sometime in the last ten days of Ramadan and has traditionally been a night of extra prayers, continuous Qur’anic recitation, and the seeking of forgiveness of all sins.
For early muslims, Ramadan was the ultimate representation of Allah’s Mercy – a month when the gates of Paradise are opened, the gates of Hell are closed and the devils are chained- and few missed the opportunity to raise their level of self-control and devotion to Allah by abstaining from the tempations of this world.