Philosophy of fasting and the command to fast, whatever its details may be, is to be found in all religions in one form or another. Fasting is a colossal spiritual institution that helps people achieve divine as well as non-material, social, cultural, economical and healthy physical development.
In the context of fasting, the Holy Quran reveals, “O you who believe! fasting is prescribed for you , as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may guard against evil. (The Holy Quran 2:183-184)
The early devotions and fasting of Gautama Buddha (Buddha charithaya, Laalitha vistara), the fasting of Moses before he received the Ten Commandments (Exod.34:28Deut9:9), the fasting of Jesus before he received the Heavenly call (matt 4:2), all testify or substantiate to the importance of this institution.
Both Jesus and the Christians took to fasting as a mere mode of expiation or penitence or for purposes even narrower and strictly formal. During ancient times fasting was also instituted as a sign of mourning or when danger threatened or when the seer was preparing himself for a divine revelation.
However, fasting was not prescribed for the Muslims in the same form which was prescribed for the people of earlier faiths. Islam has introduced absolutely a new meaning into this theological institution of fasting. Islam exceedingly spiritualized this institution by attaching a number of highly practical and beneficial regulations and restrictions
It was during the month of Ramadhan that, Allah’s biggest favour to mankind, began to be revealed. Fasting thus represents thanksgiving on man’s part for being blessed with such perfect guidance, as it is contained in the Holy Quran, which introduces itself as the eternal guidance for the whole of mankind. Outstanding features demonstrated in this sacred Book are reflected in its categorical commands which help man derive auspicious directions and discern between good and evil and right and wrong.
The objective of fasting is to achieve Taqua (inspiring awe) and curb the selfish soul (nafs), to discipline it and bring it under control. Hence discipline commands and dominates in all aspects of human activities in promoting righteousness, in his or her worldly affairs, as well as the Hereafter. Fasting in the real sense will definitely facilitate to evoke discipline and indoctrination, into the life structure of man.
How do we fast?
Fasting is observed physically where one has to abstain from food, drinks, conjugal relations and other such involvements. This practice is followed during the time of fasting from dawn to dusk. By doing so we seek the protection of the soul from all animal like desires and inclinations, while perceiving thoughts and aspirations tend towards spiritual obsession. Travelers and the sick can differ fasting during Ramadhan and make up for it later.
The command to fast in reality is attained in two ways. In the first place, when a man commits morally wrong deeds and becomes deserving of Allah’s punishment on account of those deeds, but later feels ashamed of them and turns to Allah in repentance, in such an instance, fasting serves as atonement for his sin. Secondly fasting not only makes a man fit and able to bear hardships, but also makes him realize the suffering of his brethren in distress and has sympathy towards them. Fasting goes a long way to remove and minimize the pains and sufferings of humanity.
Fasting also develops self control and helps a man to overcome selfishness, greed, lusty emotions, laziness and many other immoral defects and imperfects that take root in a human being. This great auspicious observance will also enable the individual to eliminate, vengeans, hatred, hostility, incredulity and similar detrimental forces that ruins peaceful attitude an individual possesses.
It is also an annual training programme that refreshes the man, enabling him to carry out his or her obligations to Allah, the Creator and Sustainer Sawm (fasting). Fasting accredits us to experience the pains of hunger and thirst. It empowers us to understand for ourselves the sustainability and the physical existence of an empty stomach. We can begin to comprehend and assimilate the real situation when embracing this concept. Spiritual men of all religions unanimously endorse and testify, on the basis of personal experience, that a certain degree of severance from physical relations and worldly connection is essential for spiritual advancement and has a powerful purifying effect on the mind. Besides, it cannot be denied that carrying such severity too far is sure to weaken the body to such an undesirable extent as to render a person unfit, not only to fulfill his social and religious obligation, but also to withstand temptation which requires a certain amount of strength. Islam therefore has gifted to mankind the path of the golden mean.
The month of Ramadhan is like the season of spring where the trees bloom and greenery is visible. Similarly, the dry trees of faith find life in Ramadhan, through the sprinkling moisture of good actions. Those who do not know the value of Ramadhan are in great loss, as communicated by Prophet Muhammed (PBUH), in his sayings.
"Fasting also develops self control and helps a man to overcome selfishness, greed, lusty emotions, laziness and many other immoral defects and imperfects that take root in a human being"
While it does prescribe a certain degree of abstaining from material pleasure, it does not permit the weakening of the body. Fasting allows the body to perform its normal functions. This is why Holy Prophet has forbidden continuous fasting saying, ‘you have a claim upon yourself and your family has a claim upon you and your guests have a claim upon you (Thirmidhi). On another occasion he is reported to have said “verily I am the most righteous of you all; yet sometimes I fast and sometimes I abstain from fasting” and so must you (Bukhari)
Islam does not manifest any commandment which is impossible of compliance. Hence, while referring to its injunctions about fasting, the Holy Quran makes it clear that, whosoever is ill or on a journey should not fast, but redeem the omission by fasting an equal number of days at some other time, when the sickeness is cured or the journey is concluded.
Aged men and women, weak persons, pregnant women and mothers breastfeeding their infants may make amends for their non-observance of fasting each day by feeding a poor man, in accordance with the criterion of food.
"Fasting in Islam appears as an intensive spiritual exercise, touching upon every aspect of man’s life in this world and devoted entirely to Allah, the Creator and the Sustainer as thanksgiving"
In the wake of the fasting period, legitimate and truthful obedience and piety are developed. The month of Ramadhan is the month of forgiveness, mercy and solace and the religious practices during this period helps avoid the punishment of hell. The obligation of fasting is for Allah’s sake alone and there is a delightful and attractive reward for this, in the life hereafter.
Fasting in Islam appears as an intensive spiritual exercise, touching upon every aspect of man’s life in this world and devoted entirely to Allah, the Creator and the Sustainer as thanksgiving. This conception in Islam is a voluntary and cheerful renunciation, for a definite period, of all the appetites of flesh lawful in themselves, and as well a salutary exercise of both body and spirit, declares a saintly intellectual.
Naturally it is a reasonable part of preparing the soul for the maintenance of self-control in times of strong temptations.
In reference to comparative religions, the Islamic concept of fasting entices the following substantial accolade, according to well versed intellectuals, from all corners of the world.
This is a remarkable discipline, exclusively in places where the temperature becomes very hot during the day, and it gives an unique unification in Muslims throughout the world, because they know they are engaged in this fast together. It represents a sacrifice, a limitation upon indulgence, and a kind of purification.
Factors that nullify the fast
Deliberate eating or drinking, anything entering the body through the nose or mouth, including smoking, sniffing and powder substance, and having conjugal relations (sex between husband and wife or by any other means) will nullify the fast.
A Muslim is expected to keep away from all forbidden actions while fasting. Deceitful acts of any kind are forbidden during a fast. Patience is one of the most significant possessions that Islam has instituted. This concept is one of the most righteous characteristics that fasting has introduced. While fasting, man has to sometimes experience a few unusual difficulties, where intolerance and anger may be provoked. Patience against these common elements are taught and practised through fasting. Patience is a contribution of faith and it is the main source of salvation. Spiritually acclaimed righteous persons, attain a high degree of excellence and benefit from Almighty through patience, after following the guidance of the Prophet (PBUH). And if patience is established, a great reward awaits in return.
Charity during fasting is instituted as the next valuable deed. Hence, helping the disadvantaged sector of the society, such as the orphans, the widows, the needy the sick and the poor are recommended in collaboration with the institution of fasting. These groups of people in the society have to be supported financially and in kind, and they should be given a helping hand to free themselves from the embarrassing and pathetic situations they are in. We should show sympathy and move with them in harmony, as they are our brothers and sisters. These sort of charitable approaches would enable us to embrace the forgiveness of The Almighty.
(The writer is a retired school principal)