Fasting is another form of worship found universally in the world religions. Although there are vast differences regarding the mode of fasting and the conditions applied to it, the central idea of fasting is present everywhere. Where it is not mentioned clearly, it is likely that it may have either been discontinued or have petered out through gradual decay in practice. The case of Buddha is an interesting example. He started his quest for truth with a severe form of fasting, but later on it is said that he abandoned this practice because it had adversely affected his health. In view of this one can understand why he discontinued, but this does not in any way indicate that he had ceased to believe in fasting. Perhaps that is why some Buddhists, here and there, still observe some form of fasting.
Fasting in Islam is a highly developed institution, and needs to be studied in depth. There are two types of injunctions with regards to fasting. One relates to obligatory fasting and the other to optional. Obligatory fasting is further divided into two categories:
There is one full month in every year in which fasting is prescribed for Muslims all over the world. As the month is a lunar month, so it keeps changing around the year in relation to the solar months. This creates a universal balance for the worshippers. Sometimes the fasting in winter months is easy as far as the days go, in comparison to the long winter nights, while during the summer months the days become long and exacting. As the lunar months keep rotating around the year, so Muslims in all parts of the world have some periods of easy fasting and some of arduous fasting.
Fasting in Islam begins everywhere at the first appearance of dawn and ends with sunset. During this period one is expected to abstain from all food and drink completely. It is not just physical hunger and thirst that constitute the Muslim fast, but the nights prior to the beginning of the fast acquire a far more important character and play a central role in the institution of fasting. The Muslims wake up many hours before dawn for individual prayer and the remembrance of God. Also the Holy Quran is recited in every Muslim house much more than in ordinary days. A greater part of the night is thus spent in spiritual exercises which make up the very essence of fasting.
During the day, apart from restraining from food and water, all Muslims are particularly exhorted to refrain from vain talk, quarrels and fights, or from any such occupation as is below the dignity of a true believer. No indulgence in carnal pleasure is allowed; even husband and wife during the day lead separate lives, except for the formal human relationship common to all people.
In Islam, alms-giving and care for the destitute is so highly emphasised that it becomes part of a Muslim’s daily life. However when it comes to Ramadhan, the month of fasting, Muslims are required to redouble their efforts in this field. It is reported of the Holy Prophet(sa) that spending in the cause of the poor was a routine daily practice with him which has been likened unto a breeze, never ceasing to bring comfort and solace to the needy. However during Ramadhan, the reporters of the Ahadith, the sayings of the Holy Prophet(sa) remind us that the breeze seemed to pick up speed and blow like strong winds. Alms-giving and care for the destitute are so highly emphasised that in no period during the year do Muslims engage in such philanthropic purposes as they do during the month of Ramadhan.
Other obligatory fasting is most often related to the condoning of sins by God. This also includes violation of the obligatory fasts.
The optional fasting is so well promoted that it becomes a part of the righteous Muslim’s way of life. Although a majority of Muslims do not go beyond the month of obligatory fasting, some keep fasts now and then particularly when in trouble. As it is expected that the prayers offered in fasting are more productive, some people keep extra fasts to ward off their problems, but some do it only for the sake of winning Allah’s special favours. There is no limit to this, except that the Founder of Islam strongly discouraged those who had vowed to fast continuously for their whole life. When the Holy Prophet(sa) came to learn of one such case, he disapproved of the practice and censured the man for attempting to achieve liberation as if by forcing his will upon God. He told the person concerned that, ‘By putting yourself to trouble or discomfort, not only will you be unable to please God, but you may even earn His displeasure.’ He pointed out that over emphasis on austerity is likely to make one negligent towards one’s wife and children, kith and kin, friends etc.
The Holy Prophet(sa) reminded him specifically of his responsibilities in the area of human relationship; ‘Do your duty to God as well as to the creation of God equitably’ was the advice. To some, after their insistent petulant begging, he permitted optional fasts only in the style of David(as), peace be upon him. The Holy Founder of Islam told them that it was the practice of David to fast one day and abstain from doing so the next. Throughout his life, after he made this vow, he kept the fast on alternate days. So the Holy Prophet(sa) said, ‘I can only permit you that much and no more.’
The institution of fasting is extremely important because it cultivates the believer in almost every area of his spiritual life. Among other things, he learns through personal experience about what hunger, poverty, loneliness and discomforts mean to the less fortunate sections of society. Abstention from even such practices during the month of Ramadhan as are permissible in everyday life plays a constructive role in refining the human character.