The Philosophy of Fasting
When a person is overcome by material desires and cravings, he becomes negligent of his spiritual being and indifferent to the obligations imposed on him by his Creator. To help man in combating this onslaught, the Almighty has made fasting compulsory once every year for one whole month — the month of Rámádhân. With Rámádhân comes restriction on our eating and marital relationship. Compared with some other forms of worship subscribed by Islam, fasting is somewhat demanding because its aim is to discipline and channel our soul. This objective, obviously, can only be achieved by a tough training programme.
When we are having sehri, all of a sudden we hear the Adhan and we stop eating at once. Howsoever strong our need or want to do certain things may be, they are not allowed to us during our fast; we do not give in to our wishes and temptations. This restriction remains till the Maghrib Adhan as God has appointed this time for us to discontinue our fast. Therefore, as soon as the Mu’adhin begins his Adhan, we rush forth to eat and drink. After this, there is no restriction throughout the night. We spend the whole month of Rámádhân in the same way. There is no doubt in the fact that we feel a certain amount of weakness and inability to perform to our full capacity but the patience and piety we acquire in return is as essential to the soul as air, water and food are to the body, for man does not live by bread and water alone but also by that which comes from his Lord.
Fasting is obligatory for every adult and sane Muslim. If during Rámádhân, a person is ill or if he is traveling or if he is unable to fast owing to some reason, then he is required to keep the fasts he has missed whenever he is able to do so.
We gain a lot from fasting. The greatest achievement is that a man’s soul is liberated from the shackles of his wishes and desires and moves a step further towards the lofty summits of knowledge and intellect. He moves a step closer to the Kingdom of Allah by rising above all mundane needs. For this purpose, fasting puts a restriction on all such things that cause an increase in our desires and incline us towards pleasure. When a person endures such constraints, he is able to break his bond with this world and come closer to his Creator. It is this aspect of fasting because of which God says that fasting is for Him and He alone will bestow the reward for it.
The second achievement of fasting is that the doors of temptation and revolt are closed to a great extent. It is the tongue and the private parts on which the devil attacks the most. The Prophet (sws) said that whosoever could give him guarantee of the two things: one between the two cheeks and the other between the two legs, he would guarantee him Paradise. Fasting puts a check on both these instincts and weakens all inclinations of going overboard with these two. It makes it easy for a person to do all things that are pleasing to Allah and refrain from those which are displeasing to Him. It is this fact which the Prophet (sws) has stated by saying that Satan and his army are chained during the month of Rámádhân.
The third thing which a person gains from fasting is that his actual distinction — freedom of will — is given a great chance to develop and strengthen so that his character become adorned with the qualities of resolve and determination. He gets disciplined enough to control all sorts of emotions and reactions rising in his self. If a person’s will power is weak he can neither control his wishes from exceeding the limits nor can he remain steadfast on the Shariah. Moreover, he cannot keep such emotions as greed, provocation, hatred and love in check. This requires patience, and, to be patient, it is necessary that he possess a strong power of decision making. Fasting increases this power and disciplines it. It is this power that helps a person to stand for the truth instead of evil. This is the reason that the Prophet (sws) called fasting a shield and asked Muslims to use it in combating evil by just saying: ‘I am fasting’.
The fourth thing a person attains from Fasting is that it inculcates and strengthens the spirit of sacrifice in a person and urges him to show compassion to people who are less fortunate than he. To experience hunger and thirst in a fast brings him closer to the poor and makes him realise their needs. Fasting effects everyone according to his own disposition. People who are sensitive become even more sensitive to and aware of the suffering and sorrow around them.
The fifth thing that a person achieves in Rámádhân is that the solitude and isolation he has in this month inclines him to spend more time in reciting the Holy Qur’ân with a view to understand and practice its teachings. Allah revealed His Holy Book in this month and made this the month of fasting so that people could thank Him for this bounty. Different Ahâdîth have revealed that Gabriel used to come to the Holy Prophet (sws) in this month to hear and recite the Qur’ân.
It is this relationship of the Book of Allah with this month that pious people recite the Qur’ân in their late night prayers while the general masses hear the Qur’ân in the Taravih prayer said after the ‘Isha’ prayer. The Holy Prophet (sws) is reported to have given glad tidings of forgiveness of previous sins to whosoever fasts in this month and stands for prayers at night.
The sixth thing that a person gains from fasting is that if he so desires he can become attentive to his Creator with all his heart and soul. For this, the ‘ibadah of I‘tikaf has been prescribed in this month. Although this is not obligatory for everyone, it is a very essential form of worship to incline our hearts towards God. In religious parlance, I‘tikaf means that a person should isolate himself from everyone in the mosque for ten days or less according to his convenience and devote himself to the Almighty, and unless an indispensable need arises, he should not come out. The Prophet (sws) was very particular in observing I‘tikaf throughout his life.
All these things can be attained from fasting, but for this it is necessary that the person who is fasting should refrain from all wrong doings, which if present during a fast, obliterate all its blessings. Although these wrongs are many, but there are some about which everyone should be aware of at all times.
One of these wrongs is that people tend to make Ramadan a month of festivities and fun time. They think that they are not answerable for the extravagance made in this month. They relish everything they eat. The result is that instead of trying to discipline themselves they end up pampering themselves. Throughout their fasts they keep dreaming about the delicious things they will eat once the fast is over. The result is that they end up learning nothing from their fasts.
To prevent such a thing from happening, it is necessary that a person should eat just enough to keep him working and not make eating the sole object of his life. Whatever is obtainable without too much of an effort should be eaten with thankfulness to the Almighty. Whatever the family presents should be consumed without fuss even if it is not tempting. The rich instead of overindulging themselves should give more to the needy and the poor. This is something that increases the blessings of fasting and has been commended by the Prophet (sws).
The second wrongdoing one often comes across is that because hunger provokes anger, people instead of making fasting a way of correcting it give hunger as a reason to justify it. They tend to quarrel at the slightest pretext with their wives and children and those under them. They do not hesitate to utter any slighting remark which come to their mind and sometimes if matters get out of hand even resort to abusing and beating. After this they tend to defend themselves by saying that things like this happen during fasting.
The remedy which the Prophet (sws) of God has suggested in this regard is that instead of using fasting as instigation for anger one should use it as a shield and whenever a person is incited he should remind himself that he is fasting. If we can remember this every time we get angry, we will see that slowly and gradually the greatest provocation tends to lose its sting. Once we realise that we can conquer the Satan within our soul, this feeling of conquest gives us peace and a sense of greatness. Thus such a reminder becomes a means of our correction.
The third wrongdoing often perpetrated in fasting is that a lot of people, when restricted from eating and enjoying some other pleasures of life, tend to keep themselves busy with other things which they think would not harm their fast. They play cards, read novels, listen to music, watch movies, sit among friends and gossip, and even indulge in backbiting. When one’s stomach is empty, one tends to enjoy his brothers’ meat more. The result is that sometimes a person begins his morning with one of these pastimes and ends when the Mu’adhin announces the break of fast. It is obvious that all these things ruin a fast.
One solution to this problem is that a person should try to remain silent in respect of his fast and at least for this month put a lock on his tongue. Allah’s Prophet (sws) says that if a person keeps telling all sorts of true and false things during his fast, then God does not need his abstinence from food and drink.
The second remedy for this is that whatever time he has to spare, he should spend it in the study of the Qur’ân and Hadith and in understanding his religion. He should try to learn some of the supplications mentioned in the Qur’ân and also those narrated in the Ahâdîth. In this way, he will keep away from the above mentioned activities and later use this store of prayers to remember his God.
The fourth wrongdoing in this regard is that sometimes a person does not fast for God but just under pressure of his family or to prevent other people to think badly of him or just to put on a religious posture. This is also quite obviously something which negates the purpose of a fast.
The cure for this is that every person should keep reminding himself about the importance of fasting and think that if he is going to abstain from food and other things then why not for Allah. Apart from Rámádhân, he should keep additional non-obligatory fasts and try to conceal them and hope that the obligatory ones will also one day be for Allah alone.