Every year, as the blessed month of Ramadan draws near, Muslims around the world await in joyous anticipation for the opportunity to observe fasting— the fourth of five foundational pillars of the Islamic faith. The opportune arrival of Ramadan each year sparks an interest and awareness that gives rise to several questions— what exactly is fasting? Is it an aimless exercise of austerity or a religious discipline promising moral, physical, and spiritual development? Is this a novel practise introduced by Islam? How do various world religions inculcate fasting and what is the true concept of fasting within Islam? Consequently, what is the significance of Ramadan itself and what are the objectives that a Muslim strives to achieve in this month?
First and foremost, fasting is commonly defined as ‘Abstaining from all or some kinds of food or drink, especially as a religious observance.’ In principle, this definition is descriptive of the act of keeping a fast, but fails to grasp the depth and essence of the concept. The incorporation of fasting in world religions signifies that the scope of this practice reaches well beyond the simplicity of abstention from food and drink. Historically, fasting has also been used as ‘an expression of protest against what they believe are violations of social, ethical, or political principles.’ For example Mahatma Gandhi’s use of fasting to exert moral pressure on his political opponents was often an effective and widely publicized tactic. But generally, fasting is regarded by world religions primarily as a mode of self-reflection, moral conditioning, and spiritual advancement.
Interestingly, fasting is not a novel practice introduced by Islam. In fact, the Holy Qur’an acknowledges this and declares ‘O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may become righteous.’ Thus, the practice of fasting in Islam is an extension of the practice found in earlier religions.
In Hinduism, fasting is known as Upavasa. It is a common expression of religious commitment and is undertaken as part of an ascetic routine. A fast may range from complete abstinence from all food and water, to avoidance of specified foods, to reduced consumption of food for a certain time period. Full fasts are generally practised by ascetics and devout worshippers, whereas the simpler and more flexible forms of fasting exist for other believers. Upavasa can also refer to an all-inclusive abstention from all forms of sensual gratification.
Jews observe several annual fasts during certain periods. The great fast of Yom Kippur entails abstention from eating and drinking, washing, use of ointments and creams, wearing of leather shoes, and sexual relations. The fast is framed by two family meals, which discourage asceticism and teach that it is just as praiseworthy to dine well beforehand as it is to fast. Worshippers are urged to abandon the comfort of their homes and instead remain in prayer in Synagogues.
Fasting is termed as ‘afflicting one’s soul’ by the Torah and is practised for several reasons i.e. commemorating the deliverance of the Jews from Pharaoh, to atone for sins, and in hope of obtaining favorable judgment. Moses(as) is said to have fasted twice in his life for a period forty days each— the first time prior to receiving the tablets on Mount Sinai and the second time upon discovering that the Israelites were practising idolatry.
Biographical traditions of Buddha(as) generally agree that after exploring and experimenting with extreme austerities, Buddha(as) remembered a prior meditative experience as a child and realised that extreme asceticism to the point of bodily harm was futile and not necessary for spiritual attainment. After systematically cutting down his food consumption to only a few drops of soup a day, Buddha(as) resolved to resume eating, in moderate amounts, to adopt a diet that would not be indulgent but would be adequate to sustain the body. Although various forms of fasting are found among Buddhist schools of thought, they are not prescribed as an obligation upon followers of the faith. Some Buddhist monks and nuns believe extended periods of fasting to be beneficial to their practice and thus choose to undergo a minimum 18-day fast in which only small amounts of water is taken. In contrast to this extreme, other Buddhists consider simply removing meat and dairy from one’s diet to be a form of fasting. A more moderate form of fasting also exists in which Buddhists practise abstention from food and drink after noon on certain days of the month.
In Christianity, fasting is observed during Lent, the period of preparation before Easter, and during Advent, the period before Christmas. Lent provides for a 40-day fast (excluding Sundays) in imitation of Jesus Christ’s(as) own fasting in the wilderness. In early Christianity, fasting rules were strict— one meal a day was allowed in the evening and meat, fish, eggs, and butter were forbidden. These fasting rules were dispensed with by the Roman Catholic Church during World War 2 and now only two days are practised as Lenten fast days— Ash Wednesday (marking the beginning of Lent) and Good Friday (the day commemorating the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ(as)).
In Islam the practice of fasting is not only a physical exercise but a spiritual one; the ultimate aim of which is the attainment of God’s pleasure through regulation of one’s life in accordance with His ordinances. If a Muslim merely observes the outward requirements of the fast, they will simply succeed in making themselves hungry and thirsty and nothing more. Explaining the true essence of fasting in Islam, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the Promised Messiah and Founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community(as), states:
“Fasting is not merely staying hungry and thirsty; rather its reality and its impact can only be gained through experience. It is human nature that the less one eats, the more one’s spirit is purified and thus his capacity for [spiritual] visions increases. The will of God is to decrease one kind of sustenance and to increase the other. A person who is fasting should always be mindful that he is not just required to stay hungry. On the contrary, he should remain engaged in the remembrance of God so that he can cut asunder ties of worldly desires and amusements and is wholly devoted to God. Hence, the significance of fasting is this alone that man gives up one kind of sustenance which only nourishes the body and attains the other kind of sustenance which is a source of comfort and gratification for the soul.”
Indulgence in unbecoming speech and inappropriate actions nullifies the very objective of fasting in Islam. This is why the Holy Prophet of Islam(sa) has taught that “He who does not shun telling a lie by word and deed, should know that God needs not his abstention from food and drink.” Furthermore, fasting aims to teach Muslims to control their passions and lead productive lives. It is with this intent in mind that the Holy Prophet Muhammad(sa) taught a simple lesson regarding fasting:
“Fasting is a shield; so the day one of you fasts, he should not indulge in foul talk nor should he shout. And if someone abuses him or fights with him, he should simply say to him, ‘I am fasting, I am fasting.’”
According to Islam, every action man carries out is for his own sake— except fasting, which is for the sake of Allah and Who is Himself the reward for it. Thus, a Muslim who is observing a fast is advised to spend most of their time executing their duties toward God and His creation. They should give more attention to the five obligatory prayers and strive to offer supererogatory prayers like tahajjud (after midnight) prayer. The Holy Prophet Muhammad(sa) has emphasised the observance of the tahajjud prayer during Ramadan saying
‘Whoso stands in tahajjud prayer in Ramadan with firm faith and with the intention of achieving the pleasure of God, all of their previous sins are forgiven.’
In addition to prayer and spirituality, Islam is a religion that makes the welfare of society a matter of concern for each and every Muslim. To strive for the prosperity of mankind is an ambition that Islam wishes to instil within Muslims at every moment of their lives, and the essence of fasting in Ramadan entails this very spirit. Expounding upon the blessings of fasting and its importance to the welfare of today’s society, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad(aba), the Khalifah of Islam and the Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community states:
“When fasting is based on taqwa (righteousness) it produces a beautiful society, creating a spirit of sacrifice for each other. One is drawn to the needs of one’s under-privileged brothers and this is very important because it was the blessed model of the Holy Prophet(sa) that during Ramadan his alms-giving and charity would gain intense momentum like a gale storm. This becomes a source of removing anxiety from society and creates feelings of empathy for the less fortunate among those who are well-off; and feelings of love and gratefulness in the hearts of under-privileged believers for their well-off brothers.”
Islam prescribes fasting for all Muslim adults because it is a religion that wishes for every Muslim to attain spiritual heights and be recipient of the Grace of God. Islam does not desire the practise to become a burden on those who are not able to fast. Thus, those who are incapable of fasting due to sickness or travelling are exempt from fasting in the month of Ramadan and are required to complete the missed fasts later on. Pregnant women, menstruating women, and suckling women are also exempt from fasting. Further concession is made for those Muslims who cannot complete missed fasts later on; hence they are obliged to pay fidya (a compensation for not fasting— feeding the poor and destitute).
This compensation is not to be considered a penalty for the inability to fast, rather it is prescribed as a small sacrifice so that God may bestow them the capacity and the strength to observe the fast themselves.
The wisdom of fasting, when practised in all sincerity and fulfilling all conditions, is that if one is able to renounce the lawful satisfaction of his desires for the period of one month, he certainly acquires the power and will to renounce the unlawful gratification of his senses as well. It is for this very reason that fasting in Islam is not only promoted and limited to the month of Ramadan. Voluntary fasts, as kept by Prophets and Saints, have proven to be a source of great blessings and divine favours from God Almighty. The Holy Prophet Muhammad(sa), the Promised Messiah(as), Jesus(as), Moses(as), David(as)— that is to say, almost all prophetic and saintly personalities have kept voluntary fasts and demonstrated that doing so is particularly favoured by God and allows one to attain spiritual prominence in His sight.
The fasting of Ramadan is essentially a basic and minimal requirement for the fulfillment of one’s faith in Islam. Supplementing this, it is the voluntary fasts kept by those seeking nearness and additional favour from God that grants them approval as truly righteous servants. Such struggles and sacrifice are recompensed with equal rewards. Thus, in a Hadith-e-Qudsi (revelation to the Holy Prophet Muhammad(sa) which was not included in the Holy Qur’an by God Himself) God the Almighty discloses the rewards of one who strives to advance in spirituality through voluntary acts, saying:
“The most beloved things with which a servant of Mine comes nearer to Me, is what I have made obligatory upon him; and My slave continues to advance closer to Me through voluntary effort beyond that which is prescribed until I begin to love him [with a particular love]. When I love him, I become his ears by which he hears, and his eyes with which he sees, and his hands with which he grasps, and his legs with which he walks. When he asks Me, I bestow upon him and when he seeks My protection, I protect him.”
Keeping in mind the potential spiritual results promised through fasting, eager Muslims are permitted to fast whenever reasonable; although voluntary fasts are prohibited from being kept on significantly blessed and joyful occasions in Islam such as Fridays and during the two annual celebrations of Eid.
Voluntary fasts are essentially kept in the same manner and with the same intentions as those fasts kept during the month of Ramadan.
The word ‘Ramadan’ is derived from the Arabic word Ramdh (رمض), which means, ‘intensely hot’ or ‘burning’. The month of Ramadan is named as such for three reasons:
Ramadan was chosen as the month of fasting and spiritual advancement due to its association and close affinity with the revelation of the Holy Qur’an. The Holy Qur’an states,
‘The month of Ramadan is that in which the Qur’an was sent down as a guidance for mankind with clear proofs of guidance and discrimination.’
This can either mean that the revelation of the Holy Qur’an began in Ramadan or it can refer to the fact that the Holy Qur’an would be repeated to the Holy Prophet Muhammad(sa) every Ramadan by the Archangel Gabriel. It is in this month that Muslims especially strive to lead and regulate their lives according to Qur’anic injunctions and guidance.
The blessings of the month itself can be understood by this saying of the Holy Prophet(sa):
“When the month of Ramadan enters, the gates of Heaven are flung open and the gates of Hell are shut, and Satans are chained.”
That is to say, when the essence of the month enters one’s heart, then the gates of Hell are shut and the Satan that invites one to evil is chained. Such a blessed time and opportunity comes with equal responsibilities. Thus, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the Promised Messiah(as), states:
“During that month one should discard one’s preoccupation with eating and drinking; and cutting asunder from these needs should address oneself wholly towards God. Unfortunate is the person who is bestowed material bread and pays no attention to spiritual bread. Material bread strengthens the body, and spiritual bread sustains the soul and sharpens the spiritual faculties. Seek the Grace of God, as all doors are opened by His grace.”
A typical day in the life of a Muslim during Ramadan is active, engaging, and disciplined. Below is a list of the components of Ramadan that a Muslim observes, practises, and looks forward to experiencing during the month and thereafter.
Tahajjud (Supererogatory) prayers: Prayers offered individually after midnight and before the dawn prayer, early in the morning.
Taraweeh (Supererogatory) prayers: Prayers offered at night in congregation. These can be offered in place of tahajjud.
Suhoor (Sehri): The traditional Islamic meal taken before beginning a fast.
Iftar (Iftari): The traditional Islamic meal taken upon opening a fast.
Dars-e-Qur’an: Special sermons on verses of the Holy Qur’an given in Mosques during Ramadan. Attending these special sermons gives one insight into Qur’anic teachings and complements one’s spiritual journey during the month.
I’tikaaf (seclusion): Observed during the last ten days of Ramadan, preferably in a Mosque.
Laylatul Qadr (the night of destiny): A particularly blessed night among the odd nights of the last ten days of Ramadan.
Eid-ul-Fitr: The Islamic festival to mark the completion of Ramadan. It is celebrated by congregational prayers followed by a sermon. Muslims rejoice for having been given the strength to fulfill their obligation of fasting.
Fasting in Shawwal (the month following Ramadan): One may follow the day of Eid-ul-Fitr with six days of voluntary fasting, during the Islamic month of Shawwal. The Holy Prophet(sa) is reported to have said that whosoever does so will be rewarded as if they had fasted perpetually.
May God Almighty enable Muslims to benefit spiritually during the month of Ramadan. Ameen!