رمضان – Ramadan

The name of the month Ramadan is related to the root verb رَمِضَ ramida. It is interesting to reflect upon the various meanings associated with this verb as they seem to reveal something about the month of fasting.

رمض من الأمر ramida min al-amr implies that somebody is worried or anxious about something. The long days in some northern latitudes, for example, have sparked a debate about fasting hours which is ultimately rooted in worry and anxiety.

The verb ramida is also used to describe earth or rock that has been scorched in the sun to such a degree that it burns the feet when walked upon. It has been said that the month of Ramadan is so named because it burns away a person’s sins in the same way that the scorching hot earth burns the feet.

The fasting of Ramadan is therefore both a fat-burning and sin-burning exercise. Unfortunately for many, it remains nothing more than the former. The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said: “Many a fasting person gains nothing [from his fast] but hunger and thirst” (reported in al-Tabarani and others).

It has also been said that Ramadan received its name due to it being extremely warm during that particular time of the year when the Arabs first named their lunar months. In this case, the name simply reflects the outward circumstances that were present when the month was named.

But if we return to the first explanation, we can see a clear parallel being drawn between the outer and the inner world. Feet burning in the outer world relates to the inward burning away of sins. This parallel (between the outward and the inward) also applies to another of the root verb’s meanings. Ramida can also mean “to return from the desert to cultivated land”. Outwardly, this implies a return from a dead and barren landscape to a lush and bountiful one. Inwardly, it implies a revival of the soul, as it returns from spiritual death to spiritual life.

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Actions affect us in different ways. Generally good actions bring positive effects and bad actions bring about negative effects on the soul. It sometimes happens that the positive effect of an action becomes null, or even damaging because of something we do. Fasting in Ramadan is a good example. To fight the desires of the ego is good and it will in sha Allah affect us in a positive way, but if we totally give in to our desires by Maghrib, then the effort made during the day obliterates the good effects. Imam al-Ghazali writes:

“It is well known that the object of Fasting is to experience hunger and to check desire, in order to reinforce the soul in piety. If the stomach is starved from early morning till evening, so that its appetite is aroused and its craving intensified, and it is then offered delicacies and allowed to eat its fill, its taste for pleasure is increased and its force exaggerated; passions are activated which would have lain dormant under normal conditions.” (Inner dimensions of Islamic worship p. 78, translation by Muhtar Holland)

In the Quran Allah uses the word حبط to describe the obliteration of previous actions:

They are those who deny the Signs of their Lord and the fact of their having to meet Him: vain will be their works, nor shall We, on the Day of Judgement, give them any weight. (Q. 18:105, Yusuf Ali)

According to Ahmad ibn Faris the root ح ب ط has one original meaning referring to a state of being null or in pain. “Being null” has been mentioned above, i.e. good works being null or in vain. As for pain the origin comes from the physical pain that is experienced by an animal that eats too much and, as a result, becomes swollen or inflated by the food.

The link between pain and being null is obvious. The good effect that food usually has, turns into something bad and causes pain when it’s not eaten with moderation.  

The same is true for fasting. Even though the fast is valid from a fiqhi-perspective, the positive effects are obliterated by excessive eating.

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The Arabic word for humbleness is tawaadu’, and it’s derived from the letters waw, dad and ‘ayn. The original meaning of this root is “to lay down”. Tawaadu’ belongs to the verb pattern tafaa’ala. One of the meanings of this verb form is “to behave in an unnatural manner” (takalluf).

A person who is not sad, but pretends to cry is described by the verb “tabaaka” and a person who pretends to be ignorant is described by the verb “tajaahala”. In both cases a person is expressing something that is not real. A natural reaction emanates without effort and crying is natural for someone who is sad. To cry when you aren’t sad is unnatural and thus it requires some sort of effort.

But why then is the verb tawaadu’ in this specific verb form? Some scholars say that it is because of the human nature. The human nafs has a natural inclination towards striving to be better than anyone else. This inclination fuels an inner disposition called haughtiness (kibr).

To be humble is therefore unnatural for the nafs and it requires an effort to be humble. The humble person is the one who has pulled down his nafs to the ground by showing it that it hasn’t anything to be arrogant about. 

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hypocrisy – Nifaq

Hypocrisy and spending

The word for hypocrisy is nifāq and its derived from the letters nūn, fa, qāf. A burrow is called nafaq. The burrow is a kind of tunnel that is used by the desert rodent, Jerboa, to escape from its enemies. The hypocrite, al-munāfiq, is like the Jerboa. He hides his true nature under the surface and he chooses where he is going to come out and how he is going to present himself, depending on the audience. He always has an exit plan, and he always lives in fear of being exposed. One of the meaning of the verb form fa’āla is continuance. The word munāfiq comes from this form and it implies that he is always on his guard. This can be seen in the following verse:


And when you see them, their forms please you, and if they speak, you listen to their speech. [They are] as if they were pieces of wood propped up – they think that every shout is against them. They are the enemy, so beware of them. May Allah destroy them; how are they deluded?

From the same root we find the verb anfaqa and the verbal noun infāq. Infāq is spending and the verb is used many times in the Quran. Here is one example:


Who believe in the unseen, establish prayer, and spend out of what We have provided for them,


The verb anfaqa belongs to the verb form af’ala. This form has many meanings; one of them is the removal of something. Qadha is the name for something that gets in the eye, the verb aqdha (in the form af’ala) means to remove that thing from the eye. The verb anfaqa can have the meaning of removing nifāq, i.e. hypocrisy. Giving to other is thus a means of removing hypocrisy from the heart. 

The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessing be upon him, said: Two characteristics are not gathered in a believer: miserliness and ill conduct. (al-Bukhari)

This meaning is also manifested in origins of the word for alms, ṣadaqah. ṣadaqah is derived from the verbal noun ṣidq meaning to be sincere.

People with pure hearts give alms, but the giving of alms is also a way of purifying the heart from hypocrisy.  

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It is well known that the drinking of intoxicating beverages is forbidden. The Arabic word for wine, khamr, denotes – according to Ibn Fāris – the root meaning “to cover”, and the scholars explain that the prohibition of wine is based on this quality of it “covering”, or incapacitating, the intellect. The scholars have also, by way of this analogy, been able to determine that the prohibition against wine also applies to other drinks or substances that have the same effect on the intellect. As the hadith reported by both Bukhari and Muslim states, “All that intoxicates is forbidden”.

It is not only alcoholic beverages that lay themselves like a cover over the intellect. A person can also be intoxicated by overpowering emotions such as anger, love or other desires. The Prophet – peace and blessings be upon him – says in a hadith: لا طلاق في إغلاق (Abū Dāwūd & Ibn Mājah). The word إغلاق  here has been interpreted in different ways, but some of the scholars hold that it refers to extreme anger and therefore that the meaning of the hadith is, “A divorce is not valid if given in extreme anger”. The divorce is not valid because the person is not conscious of what he is saying. In another hadith, the Prophet – peace and blessings be upon him – mentions that God’s pleasure when one of his servants repents unto Him is greater than the pleasure felt by a man who finds himself in a barren and desolate place with his camel carrying his food and drink. The man falls asleep and when he wakes, finds that his camel has left. After searching for it he becomes thirsty and says to himself: “I shall return to where I was earlier and lie there until death take me”. Then he lies down, resting his head upon his arm, awaiting his death, only to wake and find that his camel has returned. In a sudden rush of ecstasy, he exclaims: “God, You are my slave and I am Your Lord!” (Muslim) In his confused state, the jubilant man muddles his words.

The Qur’an states:

يَا أَ يُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا لَا تَقْرَبُوا الصَّلَاةَ وَأَنتُمْ سُكَارَىٰ حَتَّىٰ تَعْلَمُوا مَا تَقُولُونَ

O ye who believe! Draw not near unto prayer when ye are drunken, till ye know that which ye utter (Qur’an 4:43; Pickthall’s translation)


Imam Ghazāli, may God be pleased with him, says this verse also refers to those who, drunk in their love for this life, come to the prayer without knowing what they are saying. (Iḥyā’ ʿulūm al-dīn)

The above examples show that man tends to lose control when intoxicated, whether by way of alcoholic beverages, anger, love, or other strong emotions. We find another example in the Qur’anic account of the people of Lot, peace be upon him. God describes them in the following terms:

لَعَمْرُكَ إِنَّهُمْ لَفِي سَكْرَتِهِمْ يَعْمَهُون

By your life, [O Muhammad], indeed they were, in their intoxication, wandering blindly. (Q. 15:72)

God says that they are intoxicated and wandering blindly, i.e. their intellects have been incapacitated and they follow their whims, without any intellect present to restrain them or guide them. It is the word سَكْرَة  which is translated as intoxicated, and the verb sakara has the meaning “to dam up” or block a water-flow, i.e. stop it from flowing freely. Like a dam, unchecked desires block the intellect and prevent it from working as it should.

In another passage, the people of Lot are described thus:

وَجَاءَهُ قَوْمُهُ يُهْرَعُونَ إِلَيْهِ وَمِن قَبْلُ كَانُوا يَعْمَلُونَ السَّـيِّـئَاتِ 

And his people came unto him, running towards him – and before then they had used to commit abominations (Q. 11:78)

The verb يُهْرَعُونَ  which Pickthal, may God be grant him mercy, translates as “running” has the fuller connotation of hurrying along, and was originally used to describe the way in which jailers would force a captive to hasten onward (Ibn ʿĀshūr, Tafsīr al-taḥrīr wal-tanwīr). The captive does not go on of his own free will, but is forced forward by another force, and the same is true of Lot’s folk. The verb is given in the passive, meaning they did not hurry themselves along. Rather, it was their desires that drove them on in the same way that a jailer drives a captive forward.

That they had become used to committing abominations, evil deeds, is also significant. In the usual case, order is upheld in a society through social control. A person who is prone to anger may not be able to control it when he or she is at home, but in a public place he or she is forced to stifle the anger. In the case of the people of Lot, the intoxication meant that the inner restraints were broken, while the habitually with which evil deeds were committed in their society meant that the outer restraints had also been undermined. Thus, both inner and outer control was lost.

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Spiritual states

The idea that words derived from the same root-letters are also semantically related is evident in the following hadith[1], The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, has said: ‘The heart (qalb) takes its name from its constant turning (taqallub). The likeness of the heart is that of a feather in the desert, caught in a tree, being turned over and over by the wind.’

In this hadith, the human heart is likened to a leaf blowing in the wind[2]. Our emotional states fluctuate constantly and are affected by external circumstances that we have no control over. One minute we can be filled with joy and enthusiasm, and in the next we feel miserable and depressed.

Some spiritual states are fleeting, i.e. they come and go, and some of them arise or disappear in spite of our efforts. Our scholars and elders have written extensively about spiritual states and divided them into various groups. For example, spiritual states can be divided into two basic categories: stations (maqāmāt) and conditions (aḥwāl). The first category consists of different spiritual states that (generally) are acquired in a sequence one after the other. These stations are not brief experiences but relatively long lasting and are achieved through difficult spiritual labor. The latter category includes several spiritual conditions that all share two characteristic traits: they are fleeting experiences, and they cannot be acquired or avoided through our actions.

The Arabic word for a state or condition is ḥāl. This word is derived from the root-letters ḥā’ wāw and lām, and all words derived from this root point back to the fundamental semantic meaning of “a circular motion”. A year is called ḥawl, for example, as it can be seen as a cyclical rotation. The root meaning of the word ḥāl reveals something about the nature of our emotional conditions. Whenever they disappear, we can be fairly certain that they will return. Enthusiasm and vitality can easily change to apathy and lethargy. This is natural and difficult to avoid. Rather than wasting time trying to change these conditions, we should instead be focusing on how we behave in the presence of Allah when we are full of energy as well as when we feel empty and helpless.

[1] This is another example: Allah the Exalted says in a hadith qudsi, ‘I am al-Rahmān (the All-Merciful); I created the rahim (womb, i.e. family ties) and derived a name for it from My name. Hence, whosoever keeps it, I will keep ties to him, and whosoever severs it, I will sever ties with him.’

[2] The Arabic words for wind and passion stem from the same root. Our passions are capriciously directed towards different objects just as the wind blows in different directions.

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Namīmah –

The word namīmah is usually defined as malicious gossip, referring in particular to the spreading of rumours in order to ruin the relationship between two people. Al-Ghazali, may God be well-pleased with him, argues that this definition of namīmah is too narrow and that the term also includes the spreading of secrets and the disclosure of things that are disliked by anyone, regardless of whether it is the person being talked about, the listener, or any other person who is offended.

Those who spread namīmah are driven by various motives, one of which, according to al-Ghazali, is that they find enjoyment in empty and meaningless chatter. Some people have a tendency to spread everything they hear, although the Prophet – peace be upon him – has warned us against this: “It is enough falsehood for a man to relate everything he hears.”

The word namīmah is related to the word nammah, and this latter word is used, among other things, to refer to a waterskin that leaks water. One who goes around spreading rumours and revealing secrets is like a leaky waterskin, because he lacks the vital attribute of being able to contain the things he has heard within himself. On a symbolic level, this inability to “hold it in” can be likened to wetting one’s pants in public.

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