Fasting is an exercise in self-discipline. During the month of Ramadan, the believer abstains from food and drink in the daytime of his own free will. It is only after sunset that he satisfies his hunger and quenches his thirst. In this way, he builds up his self-control. By practicing restraint for one month in a year, he is able to lead a life of self-discipline in all matters for the rest of the year.
Apart from man, there are innumerable other things in the universe, all of which—having no free will of their own—adhere strictly to God’s law. Man, however, is not in the same category as these things, for God has given him the freedom to choose the path that he wants to tread. Notwithstanding this divine gift of freedom of will, it is still the desire of the Almighty that man should, by his own choice, tread the path of obedience.
It is therefore to condition him to follow the path of restraint that the rule of fasting has been laid down. No mere annual ritual, fasting is a form of training undergone every ninth month of the Muslim year. It is not just a matter of temporarily enduring hunger and thirst; it is a lesson in the permanent practice of patience and tolerance throughout one’s entire life.
While on a fast, a man may have food and water before him but, despite his hunger and thirst, he will make no move to eat or drink. He exercises self-control. God desires that he should also exercise the same restraint whenever he gets the opportunity to display his ego and his arrogance. He must not fall into unjust ways just because the bait is tempting, and all doors have been opened for him. If man is to earn God’s favour, he must eschew the path forbidden by Him, and set his feet firmly on the path of modesty and humility.
The path followed perforce by the universe has to be adopted by man of his own free will. That is why it is desirable that he should lead a life of self-imposed curbs. The unflinching self-restraint, which prevents him from eating or drinking while on a fast, is the virtue which will guarantee moral behaviour throughout his life.
In the Hadith, Ramadan is called “the month of patience” (Mishkat al-Masabih, 1/613). This month is meant to serve as a training course which will enable the individual to lead a successful life in this world by keeping his negative feelings under control. Negative feelings, it must be remembered, present the greatest obstacle to human progress. Fasting is the pious way to solve this biggest of human problems.
As the Hadith says: “There is a Zakat for all things, and the Zakat of the body is fasting.”(Mishkat Al-Masabih, 1/639). Here, the expression Zakat is used in the sense of purification. There is, indeed, a way of purifying everything. Just as bathing purifies the body, so fasting purifies the soul.
According to a Hadith, Prophet Muhammad observed: “Whenever one of you is invited to a meal while he is on a fast, he should inform his host that he is fasting.” (Mishkat, 1/651). According to another tradition the Prophet gave this very sound advice: “Whenever one of you is on a fast, he should be soft in his demeanour. In the event of being abused or provoked, he should simply say that he is on a fast.” (Mishkat, 1/611).
Leading a life of restraint for a whole month produces a transformation in one’s thinking. It enables one to offer a positive response even to another’s negative behaviour. Even strong abuse and other types of provocation will not goad the fasting believer into retaliating in the same coin. Rather than sink to that level, he will simply explain that he is on a fast. His own heart tells him that by observing a fast he has pledged himself to piety and in view of that, he cannot contemplate any evil action.
In this way, fasting inculcates in man the necessity to abstain at all costs from anti-social activities, and from all ungentlemanly words and deeds. He is thus brought to a life of moral restraint in this world.