Ramadan and its Roots

Author: Dr. Rafat Amari/Thursday, August 17, 2017/Categories: Islam, History of Islam, Backgrounds of Islam, Islam in Light of History Book, Islamic Pillars and Practices, Sawm - Pillar, Ramadan, Article


By Dr. Rafat Amari

Ramadan has Pagan Roots in India and the Middle East

Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and the rigid observance of thirty days of fasting during the daylight hours, has pagan roots developed in India and the Middle East. The observance of fasting to honor the moon, and ending the fast when the moons crescent appears, was practiced with the rituals of the Eastern worshippers of the moon. Both Ibn al-Nadim and the Shahrastani tell us about  al-Jandrikinieh, an Indian sect which began to fast when the moon disappeared and ended the fast with a great feast when the crescent reappeared[i][1].

The Sabians, who were pagans in the Middle East, were identified with two groups, the Mandaeans and the Harranians. The Mandaeans lived in Iraq during the 2nd century A.D. As they continue to do today, they worshipped multiple gods, or “light personalities.” Their gods were classified under four categories:  “first life,”  “second life,” “third life” and “fourth life.”  Old gods belong to the “first life” category. They summoned deities who, in turn, created “second life” deities, and so forth.

The other group, considered as Sabians, were the Harranians. They worshipped Sin, the moon, as their main deity, but they also worshipped planets and other deities. The Sabians were in contact with Ahnaf, an Arabian group which Mohammed joined before claiming to be a prophet. Ahnaf sought knowledge by going to Northern Iraq, where there were many communities of Mandaeans. They also went to the city of Harran in the al-Jazirah district in northern Syria on the border between Syria, Iraq and Asia Minor.

In Mecca, the Ahnaf were called Sabians because of the doctrines they embraced. Later, when Mohammed claimed to be a prophet, he was called a Sabian by the inhabitants of Mecca because they saw him performing many Sabian rites which included praying five times a day; performing several movements in prayer that were identical with the Mandaeans and the Harranians; and making ablution, or ceremonial washing, before each prayer. In the Qur'an, Mohammed called the Sabians “people of the book” like the Jews and Christians.

Ramadan was a pagan ceremony practiced by the Sabians, whether they were Harranians or Sabians. From the writings of Abu Zanad, an Arabic writer from Iraq who lived around 747 A.D., we conclude that at least one Mandaean community located in northern Iraq observed Ramadan[ii][2].

Ramadan was Originally an Annual Ritual Performed at the City of Harran. Similarities Between the Ramadan of Harran and the Islamic Ramadan.

Although the fasting of Ramadan was practiced in pre-Islamic times by the pagans of Jahiliyah, it was introduced to Arabia by the Harranians. Harran was a city on the border between Syria and Iraq, very close to Asia Minor which, today, is Turkey. Their main deity was the moon, and in the worship of the moon, they conducted a major fast which lasted thirty days. It began the eighth of March and usually finished the eighth of April. Arabic historians, such as Ibn Hazm, identify this fast with Ramadan.[iii][3]

 Ibn al-Nadim wrote in his book, al-Fahrisit, about various religious sects in the Middle East. He says in the month in which the Harranians fasted for thirty days, they honored the god Sin, which is the moon. Al-Nadim described the feasts they celebrated and the sacrifices they presented to the moon.[iv][4] Another historian, Ibn Abi Zinad also speaks about the Harranians, saying that they fast for thirty days, they look toward Yemen when they fast, and they pray five times a day.[v][5]   We know that Muslims also pray five times a day. Harranian fasting is also similar to that of Ramadan in Islam in the fact that they fast from before the sun rises until the sunset, just as the Muslims do during the days of Ramadan.[vi][6] Still another historian, Ibn al-Juzi,  described the Harranian fasting during this month. He said they concluded their fasting by sacrificing animals and presenting alms to the poor.[vii][7]  We also find these things in Islamic fasting today.

Mythological roots concerning Harrans celebration of the moon explained the disappearance of the moon after it joined with the star cluster, Pleiades, in the constellation of Taurus. It occurred during the third week of March. The people prayed to the moon, pleading for its return to the city of Harran, but the moon refused to return. This is thought to be the explanation for why they fasted during this month. The moon did not promise to return to Harran, but it did promise to return to Deyr Kadi, a sanctuary near one of the gates of Harran. So after this month, the worshippers of Sin, the moon, went to Deyr Kadi to celebrate and to welcome the return of the moon.[viii][8]  According to Ibn al-Nadim, the historian mentioned earlier, the Harranians called the feast al-Feter عيد الفطر  , the same name by which the feast of Ramadan is named[ix][9].

 In addition to the feast during Ramadan, the Harranians had five prayers which they repeated day and night. Each had to be preceded by ablutions, which were ceremonial washings.[x][10]  The same system of five prayers each day, preceded by ablutions, was embraced by Mohammed.

The fasting of Ramadan spread from Harran into Arabia. This may have occurred after the occupation of Nabonidus, the Babylonian king, to the north of Arabia, around the year 552 B.C., during his sojourn in the city of Teima. Nabonidus was from the city of Harran. He was a fanatic worshipper of the moon, Sin, and his mother was a priest of Sin. He disagreed with the priests of Babylonia who considered the god, Marduk, as the chief of the gods of Babylonia. Nabonidus was eager to spread the worship of Sin, the moon, as the main deity. So he left his son in charge of Babylonia and went to live in Teima in North Arabia.

In pre-Islamic times, Ramadan became a pagan Arabian ritual and was practiced by the pagan Arabians with the same features and characteristics as the Islamic Ramadan.

Ramadan was known and practiced by the pagan Arabians before Islam. Al-Masudi says that Ramadan received its name because of the warm weather during that month.[xi][11]

The pagan Arabians in the pre-Islamic Jahiliyah period fasted in the same way Muslims fasted, as originally directed by Mohammed. Pagan Arabian fasting included abstinence from food, water, and sexual contact – the same as practiced by Islam. Their fasting also was done in silence. There was to be no talking, not even for a short period of time such as one day, or a longer period of time of a week or more.[xii][12]  The Qur’an points to the same kind of fasting when, in Surah 19, it describes God instructing the Virgin Mary to say that she vowed to fast before God, which also meant she couldn'tt speak to anyone[xiii][13]. The Arabian practice of keeping silent during the fast noticeably influenced the customs of the Qur’an. We are told that Abu Baker approached a woman among the pagan worshippers in Medina. He found her fasting, included abstinence from speaking.[xiv][14]  Fasting was a serious matter for the Arabians, enforced with laws requiring severe penalties for failing to abstain from talking. Ramadan in Islam is a continuation of this kind of fasting.

Mohammed imposed on his followers many religious rituals from the two tribes of Medina who backed him in subduing the Arabians to Islam. Among such rituals was Ramadan.

It seems that Ramadan was practiced in many cities in North Arabia where Nabonidus, the Harranian king of Babylonia, ruled. One of the cities he occupied was Yathrib, which later became al-Medina. Mohammed imposed Ramadan fasting, as well as the ritual of praying toward Mecca instead of Jerusalem, after he emigrated to al-Medina, whose Arabian tribes used to pray toward Mecca, just as it seems they used to fast during Ramadan.[xv][15]  Mohammed adjusted his ceremonies to fit the religious rituals and customs of Oas and Khazraj, the two tribes from al-Medina who backed Mohammed in his wars against the Arabians. One of their ceremonies was a weekly religious feast each Friday. Mohammed made this day the religious day of Islam.


Muslims Can't Gain the Favor of God by Practicing Religious Ceremonies Such as Ramadan.

Ramadan is not true fasting, because the participants still eat their meals during the night. Since the ritual allows them to eat while it is dark, they simply eat a large meal in the late evening and wake up early in the morning for another big meal. In other words, they simply change the time of their meals from daylight to darkness.

The hypocrisy continues during Ramadan in the kind of meals they eat. Rather than simple meals which they have during the year, they arrange for elaborate meals, spending sometimes triple or more money on food during Ramadan than in any other month. In reality, its not true fasting, but an excuse for eating extra in the month they claim to be fasting.

Fellowship with God is not based upon arduous or deceptive religious practices. Neither is fellowship with God granted through religious practices. A criminal who is required to appear before a court to receive justice doesnt gain the judges favor by practicing religious rituals. Being religious doesnt annul the criminal act he committed. In the same way, as a sinner, man doesnt obtain the favor of God by doing religious rituals or by fasting.  He cant avoid the justice of God and the condemnation that awaits him because of his sins. A Holy God refuses to have fellowship with sinners, even though they perform many religious practices.

However, God has provided salvation to mankind when He sent His Son in human flesh to die on a cruel cross in order to pay the penalty demanded for sin. The only way for a person to have fellowship with God is to believe in the redemptive work of Christ. In so doing, the repentant sinner finds that his sins will be removed, and the righteousness of Christ will be imputed to him. Then the Spirit of God is given to him so that he can fellowship with God spiritually, and for eternity.





[i][1] Ibn Al Nadim, Al-Fahrisit, page 348

[ii][2] Abdel Allah ibn Zakwan Abi al-Zanad. See  Ibn Qutaybah,op.cit.page 204;Cited by Sinasi Gunduz, The Knowledge of Life, Oxford University, 1994, page 25

[iii][3] Ibn Hazm, I, page 34; quoted by Sinasi Gunduz, pages 167-168

[iv][4] Ibn Al-Nadim, Al-Fahrisit, pages 324- 325

[v][5] Quoted by Rushdi Ilia'n, Al Saebiun Harraniyen Wa Mandaeyn, Bagdad, 1976, page 33

[vi][6] Quotation from Arabic historians by M.A. Al Hamed, Saebat Harran Wa Ikhwan Al Safa, Damascus, 1998, page 57

[vii][7] Ibn Al Juzi , Talbis Iblis, prepared by M. Ali, Kher, page 84; Quotation   by M.A. Al Hamed, Saebat Harran Wa Ikhwan Al Safa, Damascus, 1998, page 57

[viii][8] Dodge, B., The Sabians of Harran, page 78

[ix][9] Ibn Al Nadim, al-Fahrisit, page 319

[x][10] Ibn Al Nadim, al-Fahrisit, page 319

[xi][11] Masudi, Muruj Al-Thaheb, 2, page 213

[xii][12] Jawad Ali, al-Mufassal, vi, page 342

[xiii][13] al-Allusi, Ruh' al-Maani 16; page 56 ; Tafsir al-Tabari, 16, page 56

[xiv][14] Qastallani Ahmad ibn Muhammed, Irshad al-Sari, 6: 175; Ibn Hagar, al-Isabah 4:315

[xv][15] Al Masudi, Muruj Al-Thaheb, 2, 295



Copyright 2004 by Dr. Rafat Amari. All rights reserved.


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Dr. Rafat Amari
Dr. Rafat Amari

Dr. Rafat Amari

Scholar in comparative religions and Author of over 30 books

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