Essay for Non-Muslims on Ramadan Fasting
as-salaamu alaykum asyaadi al-Haba’ib,
i just wanted to share with everyone a short essay i wrote for my classmates in school about Ramadan and Fasting. i invite any comments and inputs from the members for improvement.
thank you and Ramadan Mubarak!
Fasting in Islam
Ramadan 13, 1424 OR November 8, 2003
In Islam, the Qur’an is the primary source of guidance for the Muslim, so we begin with it to understand what fasting in Islam is all about. “O you who are confirmed in faith, fasting is prescribed upon you as it was prescribed on those before you, that (through it) you may attain to taqwa.” (Quran 2:183). I have purposefully left the final word un-translated; we will return to it later.
Fasting occupies a key position in Islam. It is common knowledge among Muslims that Islam is based on five principles, among which is fasting. Also, the Prophet Muhammad (blessings and peace be upon him) said to his companions, “Marriage (and all that goes with it) is half of this religion, and the best man among you is the one who is best and kindest to his wife and women of his household.” They asked him, “what is the other half?” and he replied, “purity.” He later explained that half of that purity is contained in fasting. More on this later…
Some people think that “Ramadan” means fasting, but actually that’s just the name of the lunar month in which fasting is obligatory on adult sane able-bodied Muslims. (It is not obligatory on pre-adolescents, the insane, women who are pregnant or on their period, those who are too sick to fast, or those who are travelers). Actually, Ramadan means “intense heat,” and it was given that name because when the ancient Arabs were naming the months, that month was particularly hot. The actual word for fasting in Arabic is “sawm,” which literally means to both “abstain from and rise above.” So, for example, soon after Mary (blessings and peace be upon her) gave birth to Christ (blessings and peace be upon him), she undertook a vow of silence that day, “fasting from speech” (Qur’an 19:26 – where the same word “sawm” is used).
This key term sums up the nature of what fasting entails. During the days of the lunar month of Ramadan, Muslims are commanded to abstain from the following things:
- drink (even water)
- sexual intercourse (these three are allowed after sunset)
The idea is, if you can refrain from eating and drinking (which are fundamental needs), then your will-power should be strong enough for you to abstain from bad habits such as those mentioned in the above list. (Sexual intercourse is not considered bad in Islam, but is actually encouraged, as long as certain limits are met…namely, no extra-marital intercourse whatsoever).
(As a side note, in the Islamic calendar, which is a lunar calendar, the day ends when the sun sets. This makes an interesting situation for Muslims like myself living in America for example. So when its 9 pm, I could be speaking with a non-Muslim American and it could be Monday, and at the same time it would be Tuesday if I was speaking with a Muslim).
The Prophet Muhammad (blessings and peace be upon him) said, “if, during Ramadan, someone does not refrain from backbiting, lying, slandering, arguing, or fighting with someone, then Allah is not interested in his keeping himself hungry and thirsty. And be certain that a Muslim is one from whose hand and tongue other people are safe.” And he said, “there are many a Muslim man or woman who obtains nothing from Ramadan except an empty belly and a dry mouth,” meaning the whole point of fasting was missed. In other words, there is a great difference between fasting and merely keeping oneself hungry – something essential to understand.
From this concept, the Muslim saints and scholars have developed the understanding that there are levels of fasting:
1) Abstaining from just food, drink, smoking, and sex. This is the basic level, which is ok but doesn’t carry with it much reward or benefit or purification.
2) Abstaining from the above, in addition to lying, backbiting, fighting, cursing…etc. In this level, the eyes abstain from looking at what is forbidden to look at (e.g., the private parts of a non-related man or woman), the ears abstain from what is forbidden to hear (e.g., eavesdropping, gossip, backbiting), the hands abstain from the forbidden (e.g., taking bribes, taking another’s possessions without permission, hitting someone unjustly), and the feet abstain from walking to where it is forbidden to walk (like bars). This is the second broad level, and carries with it a greater magnitude of resultant purity and sublimity. Most Muslims fall in this level or the previous one.
3) Doing all of the above, in addition to maintaining a meditative or contemplative state of mind, in such a way that the heart and intellect “fast” from thinking of or reflecting upon anything besides God Himself. This is the level reached and occupied by saints.
One can see how fasting is like a training ground, with the goal that by the end of the fasting month, a new human is formed. Bad habits are broken, and good habits are confirmed, and higher domains of holy purity are opened before one.
So why do Muslims fast? Let’s go through some of the reasons:
- To develop Taqwa
This all-important Qur’anic term was mentioned as the intended goal behind the prescription of fasting mentioned above. It is difficult to translate exactly into English, but I have personally found the closest rendition to be “god-wariness.” Some translate it as the fear of God, but this is not entirely accurate. It could mean fear, but more in the sense of fear of being banished from the Divine Presence, and thus acting and living in such a way to ensure one’s seat on His carpet.
Taqwa is a way of living where God is always invoked and on one’s mind, where one thinks twice before doing anything wrong because one knows that He is watching, though no one else may be in sight; and where one develops such a strong will-power that acts of goodness flow from one’s hands as second-nature impulses, where the overflowing of hearts is greater than the deliberation and rationalization of intellects. The Prophet Muhammad (blessings and peace be upon him), it is said, was usually very generous, and in Ramadan was “more generous than the blowing wind,” a common Arab saying. The second two of the 3 levels previously mentioned give more explanations on what taqwa is. Fasting, in this sense, helps to develop character traits such as: patience, gratitude, contentment, humility, generosity, hightened consciousness, purity, and other qualities. By the end of Ramadan, a Muslim should be a better human, and that much closer to what is possible of human perfection, if such a thing can be imagined. Suffice it to say that fasting is meant to train one to realize that ideal in one’s day-to-day life.
- To internalize the Qur’an
Why was Ramadan specifically chosen as the month of fasting? Because that is the month in which the Qur’an began to be revealed. Muslims have been fasting ever since then (1424 years now) to catch and absorb that echo of Qur’anic descent.
Everyone knows that “you are what you eat,” and how food becomes transmuted to the matter of our bodies. When one is fasting from food and drink, however, the human is forced to look elsewhere for nourishment. In this case, the spirit is given free opportunity to take in and digest its nourishment: the Qur’an.
During Ramadan, Prophet Muhammad (blessings and peace be upon him) was frequently heard making this supplication: “O All-Merciful One, cause Your words to intermingle with our flesh and bones and blood, and to penetrate and enliven our intellects, hearts, and spirits. Remind us with it what we forgot, and teach us through it what we don’t know, and make its light, which is Your light, to shine on our faces and in our beings…”
Christ (blessings and peace be upon him) frequently undertook this kind of fast, and Moses (blessings and peace be upon him) fasted both during and for 30 days before the Torah was revealed to him. One time, Christ reached such a state of fasting that for 40 days straight (he did not eat or drink at all), his mind was thinking of nothing but God, and he was in communion with Him, being fed by His words. Then, for a short second he thought of food, and immediately God told him, “your fast is over, because you have allowed other than Me to enter your mind, and have started to take your nourishment from food again.” It is a high state, yes, but Islam is meant to ennoble people as much as possible.
One might ask, “so we know what Muslims are not supposed to do during Ramadan, but what should they do?” And the answer is, to develop a connection with the Qur’an and internalize it, for Ramadan is as much the month of the Qur’an as it is the month of fasting. Since the Qur’an can be divided into 30 sections, it is a common practice among Muslims to complete a reading of it during the month by reading a section each day.
- A healthy body
The Prophet Muhammad (blessings and peace be upon him) said, “Fast, and you will gain health.” This simple truth has been confirmed again and again over the centuries by both Muslim and non-Muslim scientists. Fasting gives the body respite and allows it to work on removing the toxins and other impurities, which develop from unsound eating habits and eating less than wholesome foods.
It’s a sad fact, however, that in the Muslim countries, more food is consumed in Ramadan than in other months. People think that once the sun sets, they have a license to engorge themselves with food again…but this is not what we are taught. This ruins every health benefit gained, and in that case, it is as if they are only keeping themselves hungry throughout the day, and letting the animal instinct resurface again in all its might. We are taught to eat small moderate meals, and not extravagant feasts…and this rule holds true for all months of the year.
- A sense of social consciousness
When you yourself experience firsthand what it’s like to be hungry and thirsty, you can identify that much more with what poor people go through in many parts of the world. Hunger moves from being an abstraction to a tasted in-your-face reality. It always saddens me to see people (especially here in America, who are so blessed) who go to restaurants or cafeterias and pile their plates with mountains of food, only to throw away 90% of it in the trash. Or when people throw away perfectly good left-overs just because it is “left-overs,” as if somehow only the freshest food is worthy of their mouths. Fasting demolishes this social blindness, and makes generosity and consideration of others more natural to the heart and the hand.
It is my personal opinion that fasting, when done correctly and moderately and communally, can help solve many of the social ills of this country, such as widespread obesity and widespread poverty (which are contradictory, aren’t they??)
The social brilliance of Islam’s prescription of fasting can be further observed in the fact that at the end of the fasting month, when the new crescent moon of the next month is sighted, every household (that has the means) is asked to donate a certain weight of staple foodstuffs (rice, wheat, fruits…), which are then collected and distributed to those who need it. This is the day of ‘Eid al-Fitr (the holiday of feasting), one of the major Islamic holidays.
To conclude, one can realize after considering the above how fasting trains the Muslim in a certain way, so that he or she can achieve true freedom. Freedom from bad/harmful habits, freedom from selfish desires and capricious impulses and unbridled animal instincts, freedom from social blindness, and freedom from being stuck to this earth so that one is free to enter the Divine domains. It returns the human to his/her pristine noble state of being, with one foot firmly placed in the heavens, and the other foot firmly placed on earth; since what is the human except the bridge between the two?