Fasting in the Holy Month of Ramadan is incumbent on every Muslim man and woman, meaning every male and female who has reached the age of puberty. The fast involves keeping away from food, drink and sexual relations from dawn to dusk during the entire lunar month of Ramaḍan. All this at a time when we have all the food and drink in the world and yet we willfully abstain from them for the sake of God. Call it our little sacrifice for God if you will!
The purpose of this moon-long fast is to achieve piety or consciousness of God. God Himself tells us:
Fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that you may become pious
So what we understand from this is that fasting, like many other duties in Islam, was universally practiced in the days before Islam. When you read the Bible you will realize that the ancient Hebrews observed an annual fasting on the day of atonement in commemoration of Moses’ descent from Mount Sinai after spending forty days of fasting in order to receive revelation. The Jews to this day fast on Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement from sunset to sundown. Says the Bible of Moses:
And he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments
Likewise Jesus fasted forty days in the desert before he began his mission:
When he (Jesus) had fasted 40 days and 40 nights he was afterward hungered
That Jesus expected his followers to fast is seen from his saying:
Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly
Jesus is saying to his disciples when ye fast. He is not saying if ye fast. This is why the traditional Christian churches like the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches observe a sort of fast where one abstains from meat and milk, though this does not come anywhere near the total fasts observed by Jesus which not Christians but Muslims follow to the word.
While folk of other faiths may at their own urge, whim and fancy attempt to achieve spirituality through such self-denial, we Muslims are obliged to observe it as a community without exception, all for a prescribed period in unison so that none can shirk this duty easily. It gets all the more recognition because everybody fasts and all at the same time. Thus fasting exemplifies the unity of the faithful since it is a time when the entire community, male and female, young and old, rich and poor, fasts together. This is both its strength and its beauty.
Thus all Muslims, men and women, are obliged to fast. But there are exceptions and this Islam recognizes. Thus those who are ill or on a journey must make up for the missed number of days while those who are unable to fast are exempted, provided they feed the poor as ransom for every day missed In this manner, elderly and sick persons as well as pregnant and nursing women could seek exemption provided they feed a poor person for every day missed (Aboo Dawood). Menstruous women are not required to fast, but have to make up for the missed days later (Saheeh Muslim).
So what are the benefits of fasting, you may ask. I’ll say countless like the stars in the heavens, for the blessings one earns for this little sacrifice to the Almighty is beyond compare. Why, because God Himself says of it:
All the deeds of Adam’s sons are for them, except fasting which is for Me, and I will give the reward for it
As we read in the Qur’an, the primary purpose of fasting is to make us pious. It earns us God’s Grace because we do it for His Sake and for Him alone. It compels us to reflect how helpless we really are in this world we live in, dependent on food and water for our very survival. It also kindles in us a feeling of gratitude towards God, for the manifold blessings He has provided us with during this short worldly existence. The great variety of food we have is such a blessing and so often taken for granted that we think little of it in our daily lives. But deprive all of it for a time and contemplate how blessed we indeed are!
But there’s more to it. Fasting arouses empathy with the poor. We can now feel how it is like to go hungry without a meal. We see people going hungry and often pay lip service to their plight, little realizing what it’s really like. Fasting obliges you to undergo that experience and live it to really understand it.
Fasting also teaches us self-control, to master our nafs or selfish soul for the greater good of ourselves and the larger community. It enables us to cultivate a strong will and not succumb to our base desires so easily. The animal desire for food, drink and sex is strong in man and to control it for a while helps us establish a balance with our godly nature. When man exercises such self control, he also reaches a higher spiritual state, so distinct from other creatures that are endlessly occupied with food and drink from birth to death. While food nourishes the body, fasting nourishes the soul. By emptying our stomachs of material things, we fill our souls with love, piety and compassion.
Fasting also teaches us to make sacrifices for the larger good. Suppose you have a meal for yourself and you see a hungry man coming your way. You are faced with this predicament of not having a full meal, and yet your God-given conscience tells you cannot let the poor man starve. So what you do is share your meal with him. This is the kind of control and selflessness fasting teaches. Through it we learn to master the yearnings of our selves and not become slaves to our animal passions.
Control after all, is the first impulse of civilization, the very foundation of human culture and the wellspring of all that is good and noble in man. By controlling oneself through fasting, one also controls the devil that flows through our veins, for as the Prophet said Satan circulates like blood through the son of Adam. Why, because when one eats and drinks without restraint, one becomes bouncy and haughty, thinking that worldly food alone suffices to sustain us, ignoring the spiritual food so vital for our souls. What fasting does is it starves the ego and feeds the soul. Since the blood through which devilish thoughts flow have their origins in food and drink, depriving oneself of these, narrows the passage of the flow, thus controlling the arrogance building up in man that this material world is enough for him and he needs no more. In this sense, fasting controls the devil in us!
It was in similar vein that the Prophet Isaiah declared:
“Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?”
Yes, fasting purifies the soul as the furnace does iron ore by taking away its dross. Fasting imbues one with piety, overcoming one’s carnal pleasures for a more pristine blissful love of God. It gives one a clear conscience as there is no worldly authority to impose it since one can if he or she so desires keep his or her fast in public but break it in secret. Thus one keeps it as one keeps the faith, to please God, very well aware that God is ever watching over you. Can there be a better way to cultivate God consciousness than this?
Fasting is also good for your health and is even better than dieting as any good scientist will tell you. Our stomachs, like everything else in our body, needs a rest. Take your eyes, don’t they need a rest after watching a long movie or some heavy reading. The same holds true of our other organs, not the least our stomachs and digestive system which is continually engaged in the task of breaking up the food we consume. The role of fasting in reducing weight is obvious. When one fasts, one naturally takes less sugars, and this results in the level of sugar in the blood falling. The body then comes to rely on getting its calories by burning sugar stored in the body. This includes glycogen which is stored in the liver as well as fats in tissues, which are decomposed and turned into the much energy needed by the body, resulting in reduced body fat while at the same time protecting muscle mass. Cholesterol levels in the blood also fall when one fasts, helping reduce the chances of heart disease or stroke.
But there’s more to it. Researchers today have found evidence that prolonged fasting is beneficial to the body as it helps fight the negative effects of aging to the immune system. As you know, white blood cells protect the body from harmful disease-causing microbes, engulfing them and swallowing them whole. But as we age, these cells decline, weakening the body’s immune system and making it hard for older people to fight off infection, putting them at risk even to common diseases. Fasting reverses these ill effects as it reboots the immune system by a wonderful mechanism that was only recently discovered by some researchers from California.
They found that fasting for even a couple of days drives the human body into ‘survival mode’ causing it to use up stored fat and sugar while at the same time prompting it to break down old, weak and damaged cells. While fasting initially lowers the body’s white blood cell count, the body soon begins producing white blood cells in greater number once feeding is resumed, in the process regenerating the body’s immune system. Thus fasting cycles could literally generate a new immune system by kick-starting stem cells into producing new white blood cells, so necessary for fighting off infection. It was also found that long periods of fasting reduces the level of a hormone known as IGF-1 which is associated with aging and cancer risks. In Islam, since all Muslims are obliged to fast for a month, the entire community benefits from its health benefits, which, coupled with the spurt in activity in the post-fasting days, leads to a rejuvenation of the community as a whole.
Just as Islam requires fasting, it also permits us to enjoy our God-given provender at other times unlike some Christian monks who feel that even enjoying food is a sin and so swallow it whole without as much as chewing it in spite of the ill effects it could have on their health. This is illustrated in an interesting incident that took place in the lifetime of the Prophet. Once three men went to see him and wished to express their devotion to God. The first man said, “I will fast everyday and never eat during the day again.” The second one said, “I will remain celibate to worship God for the rest of my life” And the third one proclaimed, “I will pray all night every night and never sleep again “The Prophet was not impressed with their zeal. He told them, “I am the Prophet of God, and I eat and fast, I also marry and sleep at night. Whoever does not follow my path is not of my followers” (Saheeh Al-Bukhari).
To enjoy our food and thank God for it is after all the sign of a believer. This is why you will find that in Muslim countries the month of Ramadan is a month of joy and thanksgiving, especially after the fast is broken at sundown when everyone partakes of the cheer of the season. You will see large happy families gathered together in their homes or picnicking in parks to break their fast. You will see merrymaking with happy faces everywhere and streets and shops and every nook and corner gaily adorned with brightly lit lanterns and golden and silver tinsel decorations of stars and crescents like a fairytale coming to life.
The festival that follows the moon-long fast is still grander with people in festive mood gathering in the evenings to enjoy communal meals with cookies for little children filled with nuts and coated with sugar, musical shows and other forms of entertainment including a few fireworks every now and then. And none are so happy as the little children who would be gifted special gift bags of toys and candy and money to spend time at amusement parks. In fact the children here have it better than the kids in the West celebrating Christmas.
Unlike in the West where Christmas is seen more as a guilty pleasure – which is why Oliver Cromwell and his roundheads in their puritanical fervour banned Christmas celebrations in England –Islam allows you ample scope to get into festive mood without feeling guilty about it. It happened that one day, when an over-zealous companion found some little girls singing in the Prophet’s house and cried out: “Musical instruments of Satan in the house of the Messenger of God!”, the Prophet rebuked him “Leave them alone, Abu Bakr, every nation has a festival, and this is our festival” (Saheeh Al-Bukhari).
What all this teaches us is that there needs to be a balance in everything we do. You need not cause harm to yourself by depriving yourself of food because you need it to live, stay well and serve God better, but at the same time, you need not indulge in it too much so that it eats into your piety and consumes your spirituality. You fast and you feast, each in its own time. This is the kind of balance Islam aims at; the golden mean through which we enjoy our best relationship with God, indulging in, and being thankful to the bounties He has blessed us with while at the same time being mindful of our obligations to He who sustains us in every moment of our lives.