Imam Malik was rebuked for not spending his nights in prayer. He was rarely seen performing prayers apart from the usual five. In response to this rebuke, Imam Malik said, “I saw that God has divided and distributed virtue as He has divided and distributed wealth. Everyone is given a specific portion of virtue which he loves. Some are given the virtue of prayer; they love prayer and find their heart in it. Some are given the virtue of charity; they love charity and find their heart in it. I have been given the virtue of knowledge; I love knowledge and I find my heart in it. So let every person do the virtue that his heart inclines to and all of us, despite our differing virtues, are virtuous.” This admonition struck me deeply twelve years ago when I saw my friend in Ramadan.
I had finished Tarawih in the mosque. Looking around, I did not see my friend who lived on the same street as I. I walked back home and knocked on his front door. His mother, a close family friend of mine, opened the door and welcomed me in. I was used to my friend’s house, having spent countless nights in it. I went to his room and opened the door without knocking. If he was up to something bad, I thought, he would have at least locked his door. His mother wouldn’t approve of Bukake, though his father might be more appreciative. I found my friend sprawled on his bed, one leg in the air as it rested on the knee of his other leg. He had a book in his hand. “What are you reading?” I asked. Thus our conversation started.
I won’t give the transcript of the speech, but I will summarise it. My friend was reading the book Khatm Al-Wilaya by Al-Hakim Al-Tirmidthi. I asked him if it wasn’t better to have prayed Tarawih instead of reading. After all, he could read in any other time in the year but he could only do Tarawih in Ramadan. He went into a long monologue:
“Knowledge is more important than anything else. Ramadan is a time for worship, and worship is not limited to just prayer. There was more benefit in him spending two hours reading than spending two hours praying. Tarawih, no doubt, is important. But his personality inclined more to knowledge than to any other type of worship….”
And on and on.
After I returned home I realised that my friend had a point even though he might have over embellished it. Ramadan was a month of worship, and seeking knowledge is a great way of worship. Instead of missing Tarawih as my friend did, I prayed Tarawih then added a new item to my daily Ramadan schedule: one hour of reading.
Ever since that fateful day twelve years ago, I have made sure every Ramadan I read at least one book on knowledge. Everyday during the month, I will spend an hour sitting on my sofa or bed reading. It strikes me as odd that many Muslims fast and pray the entire Ramadan yet do not learn even one new thing about their religion during Ramadan. They exit Ramadan with the same knowledge of Islam that they had when they entered Ramadan. The great scholars of Islam would not read any book apart from the Quran during Ramadan. This was because these scholars had such penetrating minds that when they read the Quran, they unearth new wisdom in its pages.
In a famous story, Imam Shafi’ee spent the night at the home of his student Imam Ahmad. Imam Ahmad had told his family that Imam Shafi’ee was the most pious person alive; so, at night Imam Ahmad’s wife put a bowl of cold water next to the bedroom that Imam Shafi’ee slept in. Through the entire night Imam Ahmad’s wife sat watching the bedroom of Imam Shafi’ee. But he never once used the water in the bowl to purify himself for prayers. In fact, he spent the entire night sleeping. In the morning, after Imam Shafi’ee left, Imam Ahmad’s wife said, “You told me this was the most pious man alive! He spent the whole night sleeping while you spent the whole night praying!” Imam Ahmad said, “Do not be too hasty to judge. He slept all night but in his sleep he derived over one hundred wisdoms from a single hadith, while I prayed all night and did not derive even one wisdom.”
If this is what the great scholars of Islam can do while asleep, then imagine what they can do while awake, focusing all their attention on the Quran for one month. Imam Shafi’ee, as is well known, used to recite the Quran completely 60 times during Ramadan. As for us, even after reading the entire Quran once during Ramadan, we rarely increase in knowledge and wisdom. This is due to the lack of insight we have. It is unreasonable to think that after spending eleven months divorced from the Quran, we will suddenly be able to explore its depths on the twelfth month. For that reason, in my opinion, it is necessary that we, average Muslims, dedicate one hour a day during Ramadan to read a book on Islam. At least in this way we can leave Ramadan more knowledgeable than when we entered it.
This is all the more urgent since most Muslims do not read books on Islam at any other time in the year. I could rant at the general decline of reading among millennials, but I do not want to sound like an ancient librarian, warts and all. Rather I want to focus on this fact: only in Ramadan do most of us have the energy and enthusiasm to learn more about Islam. If we cannot read even one book on Islam during Ramadan, then we won’t have read even one book on Islam during the entire year, and on and on. Almost all the Muslims I know have not even read one book of Islam in their entire lives so far.
What books, then, should we read in Ramadan? There are multitudes of books written on all aspects of Islam. You have Islamic philosophy, theology, history, literature, geography, science, culture, jurisprudence, politics, spirituality, family matters, personal development, sociology, psychology, art, etc…To read a book on any of these aspects will increase a person’s knowledge of Islam and his appreciation for the vastness of Islam.
On a practical level, however, a few barriers exist when wanting to read such books. The first and most influential barrier is language. Most of the books on Islam are in Arabic. There have been good translations into English of a few Arabic classics. Even for those who know Arabic, language is a barrier. For example, even though I know Arabic I feel somewhat crippled by not knowing Persian. Many of the great books on Islamic spirituality were written in Persian, which I have no access to. Another barrier is technical familiarity. Each aspect of Islam has a certain framework. This means if a person tries to read the major books in this aspect without being familiar of the framework, then the person will end up more confused than before. For example, the same word or phrase can mean one thing in Islamic philosophy, another thing in Islamic jurisprudence, and a totally different thing in Islamic culture. That said, these two barriers are not too much of a difficulty except for bookworms. Since the average person will read maximum one book during Ramadan, these barriers won’t be too taxing on them. Unlike my friend who read ten books in Ramadan, most people have lives outside the pages of books.
I would suggest that Muslims try to read a book on the life of the Prophet, or Seerah, during Ramadan. Reading this will increase their appreciation of the Quran which they hear constantly during this month. And when Ramadan ends, they will know more about the religion than when it started.