The Inner Reality of Fasting

The month of Ramzan is the month in which the Quran was revealed. The Qur’an makes special mention of its revelation in the month of Ramadan, while making it obligatory upon the followers. This indicates that there is a close link between Ramadan and the Qur’an. In the words of the Qur’an:

In the month of Ramadan the Qur’an was revealed, a book of guidance with proofs of guidance distinguishing right from wrong. Therefore whoever of you is present in that month let him fast. But he who is ill or on a journey shall fast a similar number of days later on. (2:185)

The revelation of Qur’an started in 610 A.H., in the month of Ramadan according to the lunar calendar. The first revelation was made to the Prophet when he was in the cave of Hira, and it continued for the next 23 years, finally reaching completion in Madinah.

The guidance given in the Qur’an is the best blessing to the mankind from God, because it shows man the path to ultimate success. It tells man how to conduct himself so that in his eternal life he can gain entry into paradise. Paradise is the goal of man. Fasting is the path to it.

The month of Ramadan is the annual reminder of this blessing. The celebration of the revelation of the Qur’an is not observed in the usual way but by abstinence and being thankful to the Almighty. Fasting in this month is acknowledgment of the divine blessings. It is like saying, ‘O Lord I have heard and I accept it.’

The term ‘Roza’ is of Persian origin. In Arabic, it is known as ‘Soum’ meaning abstinence. Therefore, fasting is an exercise aimed at controlling our desires. In other words, it is the Art of Desire Management. Therefore, Roza literally means that every believer, in spite of being filled with desires, leads his life – not by following his own whims and doing whatever he feels is correct – be it taking revenge, conducting robbery, indulging in corrupt practices, getting angry or being selfish – because all of these are actually desire; but by leading a life whereby these desires are willfully managed. Thus the essence of fasting thus is to eschew all evil ways throughout the year. The true fast is that from which one learns a lesson.

Also this is a month during which the Qur’an should be read and understood. The Qur’an is specially recited in this month. In the night the Qur’an is also recited during the Tarawih prayer. This month has been made special so that the blessings of God may be counted even more.

When the Qur’an is read during the month of its revelation, it reminds us of the time when the divine light from heaven fell upon the earth. Man remembers this and cries out, ‘O Lord, fill my heart with your divine light!’ He cries out, ‘Make me among those who are near you!’ When he reads about Hell and Paradise, his inner self cries out, ‘O Lord, save me from Hell, and let me enter Paradise.’

In this way the Qur’an becomes a guiding force in man’s life. He earns his livelihood according to its dictates. He bathes in the ocean of its life to cleanse his soul. The Qur’an is a reward to His servants from God. And fasting is acknowledgment of the reward. Through fasting man makes himself worthy of being thankful to God. He obeys the command of God and thus revels in the supremacy of God. Having gone through a month’s fasting, he creates an ability in himself to lead a life of piety as ordained in the Qur’an.

According to the Qur’an, there are two purposes of fasting:

  1. To make one cautious in life
  2. To make one thankful to God

(Qur'an, 2:183,185)

Food and drink are man’s most basic necessities. When he is consumed by hunger and thirst, he understands how weak he really is; he realizes how much he is in need of God’s succour. In the evenings, after a whole day of fasting, people eat and drink their fill: that is when their hearts are flooded with a sense of gratitude to God for His having made complete provision for their needs. That is when they praise God and offer up their thanks to Him. This feeling of dependence on God’s bounty also makes them adopt a properly cautious attitude to life.

The Prophet is reported as saying that God rewards good deeds from tenfold to 700 fold. His reward for fasting, which is especially for Him, will be infinite. In another Hadith he is reported as saying, “There are many who fast and receive nothing in return, but hunger and thirst.” What is the difference between one fast and another, while in appearance both are alike? In actual fact, the appearance is not all that there is to it. The act serves only as a symbol of the essence. One who observes the fasting in its essence as well as in its outward form will deserve the promised reward. On the other hand, one who attaches importance to symbols alone, will have nothing to his credit when he comes before God. Fasting of the latter type is of no value in the eyes of God, since the true value of something, which is symbolic in its nature is always determined by the will to virtue which it represents. But there is much more to fasting than the caution and gratitude induced by the purely outward, physical forms of abstention. Its greater significance lies in its symbolism of an inner, spiritual eagerness to make all kinds of sacrifices. Obviously, one who refrains from taking food and water on specific days, but who goes throughout his life without any qualm about telling lies, persecuting his fellow men, thwarting justice, and so on, has missed the whole point of the fast of Ramadan. He has concerned himself all along with outward forms and not with inner realities. Such a man cannot expect to find favour in the eyes of his fellow men and will certainly incur the wrath of God, his Maker.

One who fasts in all sincerity takes care to cast his entire life in the one consistent mould. In all of his affairs, he applies the constraints laid down by God. He checks himself from abusing others, stays his hand from persecution and halts in his steps towards injustice. As the Prophet said, “Such a man can be likened to a tied-up horse which can go only as far as its rope permits: in that way, he cannot transgress.” Fasting is an Exercise in Self-Discipline During the month of Ramadan, the believer abstains in the daytime from food and drink 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 practising 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 in the universe innumerable other things, 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 which path he will 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 has 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. Moral Piety 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, the 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 that, 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.

A Month of Sympathy and Compassion According to a tradition, the Prophet Muhammad observed: “The month of fasting is the month of compassion.” (Mishkat al-Masabih, 1/613). That is, it is a month in which people are helped and shown compassion. This is the human aspect of fasting. That is why the Prophet and his followers used to be generous in giving alms to the poor and needy during this period. No one who asked for anything was ever turned away without his needs being met. One Hadith is to this effect that whoever feeds the hungry in the month of Ramadan will be forgiven by God on the Last Day. According to another Hadith, one who feeds the fasting person at the time of breaking his fast will share his spiritual reward.

One very significant thing about the month of fasting is that it affords a personal experience of the nature of hunger and thirst. Rich and poor alike go through this trial. And it is not a temporary, one-day rigour; it amounts to a special training course which one has to go through, without a break, for a whole month.

In this way, through fasting, one experiences what it is like to be in need. One finds out what hunger and thirst are like. The well-off who, in normal circumstances, are never obliged to suffer the pangs of hunger and thirst undergo this experience personally in the month of Ramadan. In this way, fasting brings everyone to the same level. The rich, for a time, descend to the level of existence which is the normal lot of the poor. Ramadan, as a training course, awakens the sense of humanity in all human beings. People are then able to share their feelings and have the urge to do the utmost to assist their fellow-men in distress. In this way, fasting for the month of Ramadan produces a general awareness of the necessity to extend a helping hand to others. This consciousness lasts for many months until, on the completion of the year, another month of Ramadan is before us once again to renew and refresh our humane inclinations.

The rationale behind fasting for a month is made clear by psychological studies. It tells us that for a habit to be inculcated, 30 days are required. It is not an overnight miracle but a lengthy process. The practice becomes a part of the personality only when it is observed every day for at least 30 days and it is only then that it may continue for rest of the year. Fasting is, therefore, a form of training to create the capacity in a man to become the most devoted worshipper makes him most grateful to God and creates a fear of Him, which makes him shiver. The very hardship of fasting carries a man from the material world to the plain of spirituality.

Therefore, Ramadan is a month of spiritual activism when devotees try to awaken their spirituality. It is a scheme to improve human beings. Roza is for personality and intellectual development. This is done by desire management, experiencing helplessness, and connecting to God with true prayers. Fasting produces an atmosphere of generosity, well wishing and compassion—an atmosphere in which people’s needs in society may be happily fulfilled. It is a means by which society may be turned into a truly human brotherhood. This eventually becomes the way of life for the whole year.

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