The demand for discipline, otherwise seen only in the military, is the hallmark of Islam and not merely limited to Ramadan fasting. Every Muslim is a soldier himself, required to believe in one god, one book and one true prophet. Muslims constitute the army of Allah (jundAllah).
Ramadan is, without doubt, the nicest month in the Islamic calendar. One fasts, and one feasts. This corresponds, in a way, to celebrating Christmas, New Year and Easter all at once. For a full month, one eats festive meals twice a day: In the morning before daybreak and once again after sunset, when breaking the fast (iftar).
It is impressive that Muslims all over the world meticulously follow exactly the same rituals during the fasting: One does not eat, drink, smoke, and any kind of sexual activity is prohibited. In the evening, one takes revenge and does everything much more than in an ordinary month.
Ramadan is also the month to visit family and friends, invite each other, illuminate bazaars, mosques and homes, and one is in general having a good time. Also for the children, Ramadan is feast. Some children, not even old enough to be required to fast, do so anyway, and in the evening they play at home or in town, and in particular they indulge in the amazing variety of cakes and sweets, some of them created only in the context of Ramadan.
The advantage of Ramadan is that it crosses social borders and are practised in all social classes; even poorer families celebrate in their ways, getting some help and assistance from others. Muslim governments, governors and mayors hold lavish celebrations.
Ramadan is also the most important Islamic month, which apart from the fasting also implies a series of other rituals. One reads the quran and other religious texts more than usual. One participates in religious ceremonies, where the preachers are holding sermons fit for the occasion. The most important about Ramadan is that the quran was revealed to Muhammad on a night called "Night of Destiny" (Laylat ul-Qadr), which is more valuable than a thousand nights.
Possibly the most interesting here is the purpose of Ramadan. Some Muslims believe that it is for health reasons, that is some kind of weight loss diet. This thesis, however, does not quite hold up under scrutiny. First, it turns our that Muslims eat a lot more during Ramadan, and further it probably wasn't very popular, at the time of Muhammed, to be slender particularly for women.
Ramadan had a different and more serious purpose, namely to create a stringent discipline, a moral and physical preparation among the men and women who more or less voluntarily had become part of the newly created Umma.
The demand for discipline, which is otherwise found only in the military, is a hallmark of Islam and not restricted to Ramadan fasting. Every Muslim is a soldier in himself, required to believe in one god, one book, and one true prophet.
Muslims constitute the army of Allah (jundAllah). This starts out with submission, implying that one submits fully to the orders of Allah and his messenger, and always is ready to mobilize. And, as demanded by the quran, believing Muslims must be prepared to sacrifice everything they own in the name of Allah: Their property, their families, and ultimately their own lives.
According to the quran, Shaheeds (those who died for the Cause of Allah) are not dead, but instead gain V.I.P. status with Allah. A Muslim has not much freedom for himself, for around the clock he is to fulfil a series of duties ordained by Allah, and all the time have Allah and the prophet Muhammad on his mind. Body and soul are to be permanently at the service of Allah.
It is with a similar purpose that prayers are to be made five times a day. Once before sunrise, once at noon, once in the afternoon, once at sunset and once in the night, Muslims are to submit themselves in a certain direction: Towards Mecca. Further, it is recommended to pray at night, and not to forget Allah while sleeping.
Drinking alcohol, gambling, drawing humans or animals, or creating sculptures is all prohibited, for the exact reason that consuming alcohol and gambling can influence and distract one into forgetting Allah. Drawing and sculpturing is a crime against Allah, who is the only creator.
Before the modernization of Muslims countries, legalizing soccer, volleyball etc., the only legal sport was horse racing, which had the dual purpose of making Muslims a better cavalry.
In a way, one can say that the original training of Muslims was even harder than what the US Marines are taken through.
In this entire process, the mosque plays a central role. 'Mosque' (masjid) literally means 'Place for submission'. Originally, the mosque was both the seat of government, barracks where weapons were stored and booty shared, as well as the place for prayer (salat). Minarets were used both for call to prayer and to defend the mosque against intruders.
To be a Muslim, a soldier of Allah, is definitive.
The door into Islam is wide open. It is fully sufficient to publicly declare belief in Allah as God and Muhammad as the Messenger of God (shahada). It is striking that the same word, shahada, which is the Islamic declaration of faith, also means martyrdom. This also implies that Islam has but one door, that of entry. There is no corresponding door of exit, nor even an emergency exit. Leaving Islam corresponds to a soldier deserting from the battlefield, the punishment for which is execution.
The entire system is based on reward, punishment and fear. For the good Muslim, the reward consists in being admitted to Paradise in the life after death. Conversely, the punishment is harsh, in this world as in the next, where one will burn in the eternal fire.
This is a threat supposed to have significant dissuasive effect. The eternal hell (jahannam) is mentioned 72 times in the quran, and some believe that Dante got his inspiration from this. This eternal hell whose systematic torture and painful burning ('azab) is mentioned 145 times in the quran. In brief, everyone not submitting to and not participating in the army of Muhammad bad Muslims as well as non-Muslims are destined to a painful burning, a Holocaust of sorts.
It is beautiful that all 114 suras of the quran, except for sura 9, has the positive and peaceful opening verse: "In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful". It can be hard to understand how it could be the same 'gracious' and 'merciful' God who let those not believing in him burn in the eternal fire.
It is encouraging, however, that not all Muslims are literal, and that many Muslims have changed. As long as Muslims use Ramadan as a feast, a time to socialize and enjoy each other, it can be beautiful. Ramadan is also an occasion to reflect on the message of Muhammad, his strategy and his aims.
Any attempt to demilitarize the original message of Islam can only be of benefit to Muslims and the world at large. Just imagine if one day we could condense the message of Muhammad and the quran in one single sentence, stay with that, and leave behind the rest.
A beautiful sentence, full of significance, love and tolerance:
"In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful."