Every Muslim knows that emulating the Prophet (peace be upon him) in any action he did during the 23 years of his mission is strongly recommended. It goes without saying that some of these actions we must do, since they are Islamic duties. What is not obligatory and has been done by the Prophet constitutes a recommended practice, which earns reward if done by any Muslim. When we look at what the Prophet did in Ramadan, we find that he was exceptionally charitable in this blessed month. In order to appreciate his generosity, we need to remember that the Prophet was the most generous of people at all times. He never hesitated to give away whatever he had, trusting always that God will give him more for his charity. In Ramadan, however, he was exceedingly charitable, with no limits to his generosity.
Moreover, prayer, which is the mainstay of Islamic worship, and indeed the Islamic faith, receive even stronger emphasis in Ramadan. When you go anywhere in the Muslim world in Ramadan, you find that mosques witness some unusual activity in this month. Worshippers gather for a late congregational prayer, which is offered after Isha, the night prayer, and takes much longer than any of the five obligatory prayers offered daily. Nevertheless, this worship exercise is not obligatory. We do it, following the guidance of the Prophet. It is authentically reported that he came out into the mosque one night in Ramadan and a group of his companions joined him in a congregational prayer. He did the same on the following two nights with the congregation increasing every night. On the fourth night, the mosque was overcrowded, but the Prophet did not come out. In the morning, when he came out for the obligatory dawn prayer, Fajr, he said to his companions that he was aware of their presence. He simply did not want to come out because he feared that this worship might become obligatory to them. He wanted to keep it voluntary. However, the indication is clear that a congregational night worship in Ramadan is strongly recommended.
This understanding was put into practice by the second Caliph, Umar ibn Al-Khattab. He came out one night in Ramadan to the mosque and found that there were many people praying individually or in small groups. He thought that it was far better if they joined together in one congregation led by an imam who recited the Qur’an well. He chose Ubayy ibn Kaab who was known to be one of the best reciters of the Qur’an among the Prophet’s companions. This was how the Taraweeh prayer started in congregation.
Prayers are a devotional practice, which is aptly described as an action, which breathes life into souls. This applies particularly to night prayers. At night, the worshipper feels himself much closer to God. Prayers help him to purify himself and strengthen his resolve to fulfill all the duties God requires of him, especially in relation to the conveyance of the divine message to mankind.
It is noteworthy that such long and late night prayers were obligatory in the very early period of Islam. The Prophet and his few companions in Makkah were required to stay up nearly half the night every night in total devotion to God. After a couple of hours sleep they would rise and offer their devotion. They continued to do so for a whole year. Later, the obligation was relaxed. The action itself remains strongly recommended. It does not require a far stretch of imagination to visualize the strong effect such night prayers have in educating the believers and building their characters. The self-discipline involved, the feeling of proximity to God night prayer imparts, and the acceptance of the supremacy of His will are all important factors which help to shape the character of the Muslim community. Hence, night prayers were made obligatory in the formative period of the first Muslim generation. When we consider the remarkable achievements of that generation, we have to remember that it was a generation molded by the Prophet himself, and that the fact that long hours were spent in worship every night was an essential element of the molding process.
The fact that obligation was later relaxed does not alter anything of the value of spending half of the night in honest worship. Indeed, Muslims have had to resort to this unique method to re-educate themselves in their faith and to rebuild their truly Islamic character every time that character was weakened by any particular set of circumstances. It remains today our invaluable training, which acquires for us the habit of opting for the hard but right course in preference to the wrong one, which may be easy, comfortable or even enjoyable.
There is no doubt that the month of Ramadan with its strong emphasis on night worship, in addition to the day worship of fasting, enables us to maintain our ideological character. It helps us to hold on to the standard of truth and evaluate everything through that standard. Hence, when Muslims say that Ramadan is a month of endless blessings they speak from personal experience, because they see the effects of this blessing in their daily lives. It is only natural, therefore, that we always thank God for giving us the month of Ramadan and for making it what it is in reality for our own benefit.