Fasting and the blessed month of Ramadan

The month of blessings, forgiveness and salvation from Hell-fire, the month of Islam’s first victory over the pagan Arabs, and above all, the month of Al-Qur’an, has a distinctive significance for Muslims all over the world. Allah, in His infinite mercy upon the Muslim ummah, has awarded this month for their moral and spiritual replenishment. This is the month of harvesting the worldly and spiritual reward from Allah, not only for an individual Muslim but for the community as a whole.

Fasting, one of the five pillars of Islam, is the only ritual that represents un-noticed self-surrender to Allah. Other rituals could easily be noticed by people, as they are in fact meant for public performance. Fasting is for Allah alone – only He knows whether someone is fasting or not. The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) mentions this in a hadith al-Qudsi about fasting, where Allah declares:

“Fasting is Mine and it is I who give reward for it” (Sahih al Bukhari).

The five pillars of Islam strengthen a Muslim’s conviction in life, encourages positive attitude and prepares them to lead a life commensurate with their position on this earth, i.e., Allah’s vice-regents. A month of fasting consolidates and deepens their faith, prepares them physically and emotionally for the common good of all and helps them become dynamic and proactive. To an outsider, Islamic rituals such as fasting may seem daunting. But to practicing Muslims, fasting is a unique opportunity to go into the deeper meaning of faith.

Islamic ‘rituals’ are not a set of dull and monotonous practices forced upon Muslims, they are psychologically challenging, spiritually intense and rewarding to the human intellect. They bring in enormous wealth within one’s perception of life. As human beings are prone to making mistakes, Allah wants us to cleanse ourselves of sin so we can meet our Lord with cleaner hearts:

“and whoever fasts in the month of Ramadan out of sincere faith and hoping for reward from Allah, then all his previous sins will be forgiven” (Sahih al Bukhari)

Obligatory fasting in Islam means wilful abstention from food, drink and sex between dawn and sunset by able-bodied adult Muslims during the Arabic month of Ramadan. In addition, fasting restrains our temper, helps us in keeping away from backbiting and inappropriate behaviour:

Whoever does not give up forged speech and evil actions, Allah is not in need of his leaving his food and drink” – Sahih al Bukhari.

Fasting is waived from those who are ill, and include nursing mothers and menstruating women, or those in long-distance travel. They are asked to make up their fast later on; if they cannot for health reasons, they are asked to carry out certain charity work prescribed by the Sunnah. Fasting thus accommodates the vulnerable and weak section of the community as well as those who are temporarily displaced:

But any of you who are ill or on a journey should fast a number of other days” (Al-Qur’an 2:183).

As the lunar year is shorter than the solar year, Ramadan comes forward a number of days every year. This has a divine purpose and is taken as a blessing on the Muslim ummah as a universal community. As summer and winter days in different parts of the world vary in length, Muslims all over the world have a taste of experiencing fasting in various seasons of the year.

The prime objective of this whole month of fasting, according to the Al-Qur’an, is to acquire God-consciousness (taqwa). Taqwa is at the root of all good deeds acceptable to Allah. It is the inner feeling, of love and fear, for Allah. It cannot be seen or measured by anyone except Allah, but it has its manifestation in a person’s appearance, attitude, behaviour and actions. Taqwa is an inner psychological awareness of a servant for his/her Lord. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was once asked about it and he pointed at his heart and said that taqwa is there.

In explanation of the verse regarding fasting, the renowned exegete of al-Qur’an, Muhammad Asad, mentions that the extreme rigour and the long duration of the Islamic fast fulfils a three-fold purpose – 1) to commemorate the beginning of the Qur’anic revelation; 2) to provide an exacting exercise of self-discipline; and 3) to make everyone realise how it feels to be hungry and thirsty, and thus to gain a true appreciation of the needs of the poor. This is in addition to the general aim of spiritual purification.

Is fasting self-torture or starvation, as some cynics may suggest? In an extreme materialistic and permissive environment it is difficult to imagine otherwise. The perception of fasting as a severe ritual can prompt people to believe that it is designed to weaken the body so as to emancipate the soul. Fasting is also sometimes compared to a hunger strike that is aimed to achieve some worldly goal by some people. But what makes fasting different from other similar actions are the very objective and prescribed rules behind it. Fasting has an intention and demands conviction from Muslims, whereas starvation is forced on people and hunger strikes are for a political or social purpose. While attaining spiritual height is coveted by Muslims, and asceticism is often required for that, self-chastisement does not have any place in Islam. That is why Muslims are strongly encouraged to replenish themselves between sunset and dawn, without, of course, eating too much! The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) advised Muslims to eat something in the dawn and break the fast immediately after sunset. Gluttony is something that is alien in Islam.

During the whole month, the Muslim community reverberates with the physical, moral and spiritual bliss of fasting. Mosques are packed with young and old, men and women. Communal feeling is heightened as the community passes through a resoundingly spiritual and festive mood. What makes this joy and happiness singular is its intended absence of vulgarity and meaninglessness.

Creating and promoting communal solidarity is at the heart of Islam’s rituals. The month-long fasting with its extra prayers at night (tarawih), special food with family, friends and relatives during the breaking of fast at sunset (iftar) and celebration on the first day of the following Arabic month (Eid al-Fitr) are instrumental in building and strengthening this communal feeling.  The compulsory contribution to the poor before the celebration of Eid al-Fitr (Fitrana) is meant to recompense any shortcoming while fasting and include the poor Muslims on this joyous day. This has its significance in the western countries where the Muslim communities are scattered and in need of further bonding. The Qur’anic injunction: “Hold fast to the rope of Allah all together, and do not separate” (Al-Qur’an 3.103) becomes more relevant to Muslims because of this sense of fellow feeling.

The necessity of self-discipline in achieving higher objectives in life is accepted by all. But we all know that the instinct of having food, drink and sex is inherent in human nature. Islam’s beauty lies in the fact that fulfilling all of these needs in a prescribed manner is treated as an act of worship, provided they are met in lawful ways. By abstaining deliberately from them for a certain period, Muslims train themselves to an unprecedented, but natural, level of self-control and discipline. This is the best way to train oneself in controlling temptations, whims and desires – by ‘burning’ one’s excessive sense of need, ego and passion. This month-long training has a long-lasting effect; it is expected Muslims continue this in the next eleven months.

Human superiority over other creatures lies in their giving preference to, or even sacrificing for, others. Empathy with others, feeling for the poor and destitute, in addition to participation in a prescribed and voluntary charity, is imbued in the spirit of fasting. It is a disgrace that in a world of unprecedented wealth, so many people are impoverished and malnourished. The Muslim ummah now makes up a big chunk of them. As virtue proliferates and sin is curtailed in this month, the passion for charity spreads among Muslims. Most of them distribute their compulsory charity, the zakah, in this month. At the same time, voluntary charity multiplies manifold and the Muslim ummah goes through a month of vibrant and productive economic activity.

Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) has mentioned that ‘Fasting is a shield’ (Sahih al Bukhari). Fasting protects true servants of Allah from sin in the same way a shield protects a soldier from an enemy. Since the beginning of human creation, the army of Devils is ever active in attempting to deviate human beings from the straight path shown by Allah. In the spiritually heightened atmosphere of Ramadan, the Devil finds little opportunity to influence Muslims through whispering and other crude means: “When the month of Ramadan starts, the gates of Heaven are opened and the gates of Hell are closed and the devils are chained” (Sahih al Bukhari). This has a special meaning in societies where the concept of sin and virtue may be different. It is vividly apparent that the special mercy and love of Allah showered on Muslims leads to rewards multiplying manifold in this month.

The celebration of Eid-al-Fitr is a phenomenal event in the world of Islam. Men, women and children attend the communal gathering, preferably in an open field, with their best attire in order to express their gratitude to Allah for His mercy. Muslim celebration on this day starts with a short prayer for a better worldly life and salvation from eternal Hell-fire. It is a ceremonious occasion, but there is no room for a meaningless ‘eat, drink and be merry’ funfair on the day. The exchange of greetings, visits and other acts of hospitality make the day exceptionally blessed with fellow-feeling among Muslims, irrespective of their ethnic and cultural background.

Ramadan, with all its goodness and blessings, visits the ummah every year. Most Muslims fast in the month and many go to mosques and engage in positive works such as charity. The number of Muslims participating in the rituals of Ramadan is also increasing. But the big question lies – is the ummah getting required benefits from this month? The question is oft-repeating in the minds of conscious Muslims.

With a disproportionate level of ignorance, complacency and indifference prevailing among many Muslims today, any meaningful change needs a high level of commitment from conscious Muslims. Although it is heartening to see an increasing commitment of Muslims to Islam; what we need is the true spirit behind Islamic practices. Questions, particularly to the young Muslims, need to be asked whether lavish food, dazzling clothes, trivial display and excessive wastage of Allah’s provisions in this month are taking us anywhere. In order to get most out of this month the spirit of fasting, rather than a cultural habit, must be at the root of our practice. The message that must cream out among Muslims in this momentous month is – let us all genuinely be remorseful for our failings and turn back to the divine mercy through deeper knowledge and sharper commitment to Islam. Knowledge is the ‘lost camel’ that can guide us in our challenging days.

Ramadan is just the month when our Lord revealed His Majestic Qur’an through His beloved Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). No wonder the first word was, ‘read’ (Iqra).