Allah says: “O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you as it had been prescribed for those who came before you, that perchance you can be God-fearing.” [Sūrah al-Baqarah: 183]

31 July 2013

Allah begins by saying: “O you who believe…” He is addressing the believers here. Non-believers need to called to faith first. They need to believe in Allah, His messengers, and the Qur’an. Once they accept this, then they will be receptive to this verse about fasting.

This is why most of the earlier verses of the Qur’an which were revealed in Mecca begin with the address: “O humankind…” The later, Madinite verses are more likely to begin with: “O you who believe…”

Allah then says: “Fasting is prescribed for you…” This is rich in its implications. The moment we hear that fasting has been “prescribed”, we know that it is an obligation, and one that is incumbent upon all Muslims. Then, Allah tells us that it was also prescribed for the religious communities that came before Islam. It was therefore, brought by the messengers who were sent to them. Though we know this to be the case, we do not find fasting prescribed in the earlier scriptures as a direct command and obligation. It is rather presented in terms of encouragement and praise. This could possibly be on account of textual corruption.

The Arabic word for fasting, sawm, means to refrain from something, or to hold back from something. The word is used where Allah says: “Say: I have taken an oath to the Beneficent that I will refrain from speaking to any person today.” [Sūrah Maryam: 26]

Fasting, in Islamic Law, is to intentionally, as an act of worship, refrain from those things that break the fast for a specified period of time. The Arabs in pre-Islamic times understood fasting as abstaining from food and drink. They used to fast on Āshūrā’. `Ā’ishah tells us:
In the days of ignorance before Islam, the tribe of Quraysh used to fast the day of Āshūrā’. The prophet used to observe this fast as well. Then, when he came to Madinah, he continued to fast it and enjoined it upon others. Then, when the fast in Ramadan was revealed, it became the obligation instead, and fasting Āshūrā’ became optional for those who wished to do so.
It is not considered a fasting to abstain from certain foods or beverages. That had been a practice among the Arabs before Islam. It was also the practice of the Nabateans as well as some of the Jews and Christians.

Allah says: “…as it had been prescribed for those who came before you…”. The apparent meaning of the verse is that fasting had been prescribed for all previous peoples from the time of Adam onwards, and not only for the Jews and Christians. This may be true, but it does not mean that everyone fasted the way we understand fasting today, nor that they fasted in the month of Ramadan. It just means that some sort of fasting had been prescribed for them.

Then He says: “…that perchance you can be God-fearing.” This begins with faith, and with submission to Allah. Anyone who believes and embraces Islam has safeguarded themselves from unbelief and Allah’s punishment. By fasting, a person goes further and carries out one of the pillars of Islam. This is another measure of being God-fearing, even if a person’s observance of the fast has some shortcomings.

This is why the Prophet said: “Fasting is a shield” and then added: “as long as you do not breach it.”

There are numerous benefits we can take form this verse.

First, by declaring that fasting is prescribed, this verse establishes the obligation of fasting the month of Ramadan. Muslims are unanimously agreed that every able-bodied, legally accountable Muslim must fast for the duration of the month. This ruling is also attested by the Sunnah. Prophet Muhammad said: “Islam is built upon five pillars…” of which one is “fasting the month of Ramadan”. [Sahīh al-Bukhārī (8) and Sahīh Muslim (16)] There has never been any doubt among Muslims that fasting Ramadan is a legal obligation.

Second, the verse shows that the underlying purpose of fasting is to help Muslims in their spiritual development and become more God-fearing. Allah did not impose fasting on us to punish us or to make things difficult by depriving us of what we desire. Instead, He prescribed it for us to make us more God-conscious.

Fasting is likewise a chance for us to show our willingness to give up something we desire for His sake. Our moral development requires us to reign in many of our desires. This is not easy. It requires effort and takes patience. In this way, we strengthen ourselves so we can live ethical lives.

One of the most destructive ways to live is through the unchecked pursuit of our desires, without considering the harm that our actions can cause for ourselves and others. A person who lives in this way has no self-control and no ability to engage in anything that requires effort.

By depriving ourselves of food, drink, and other lawful pleasures for Allah’s sake as an act of worship and devotion, we fortify our hearts and triumph over our desires. It makes it easier for us to stay away from sin. What is the point in depriving ourselves from food and drink if we are going to persist in slander, suspicion, rumour-mongering, and cheating?

Third, if we look at the broader context, we find that Sūrah al-Baqarah provides a lengthy discussion on the behavior of the Jews of old, how they disputed with their prophets and acted belligerently with them. This verse comes in the middle of these discussions declaring: “O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you as it had been prescribed for those who came before you, that perchance you can be God-fearing.” Moreover, the Muslims were having difficulty with the Jews in Madinah at the time the verse was revealed, so what is the significance of the verse of fasting appearing in this context with this direct reference to the People of the Book?

It seems that the verse is providing a lesson to the Muslims in the need to behave equitably and justly with others, and to acknowledge their merits. This theme is found elsewhere in the Qur’an. For instance, Allah says: “O you who believe! Be steadfast witnesses for Allah in fair dealing, and let not hatred of any people prevent you from being just. Be just; that is nearer to righteousness. And fear Allah ; indeed, Allah is Acquainted with what you do.” [Sūrah al-Mā’idah: 8] Likewise, Allah says: “No bearer of burdens can bear the burden of another.” [Sūrah al-Isrā’: 15]

Likewise, we have where the Prophet said on one occasion: “Indeed that person has spoken the truth, though he is a consummate liar.” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī (2311)] This emphasizes how a Muslim must acknowledge the truth, whatever its source. Even if the other person hates you or you hate them, this does not give you the right to deny their merit or the good that they do.

We find the same lesson being given where Allah declares: “Lo! (the mountains) Safā and Marwah are among the rites of Allah. Therefore, it is no sin for one who is on pilgrimage to the House (of Allah) in the pilgrimage season or outside of it, to walk between them.” [Sūrah al-Baqarah: 158] The pagans in Mecca used to walk between Safā and Marwah, calling out to their idols. For this reason, the Muslims found it difficult to go between them when making pilgrimage. This is why Allah declares there is no sin in doing so, because passing between them during the pilgrimage was indeed the practice of the prophets.

The same can be said for fasting the day of `Āshūrā’. This was the practice of the Jews, who venerated the day. Prophet Muhammad said: “I have more rights to Moses than you do.” So he fasted `Āshūrā’ and enjoined it upon his followers. [Sahīh al-Bukhārī (2004) and Sahīh Muslim (1130)]

Fourth, when Allah says “as it had been prescribed for those who came before you”, it shows the greatness of the fast. Allah would not prescribe something for all the prophets and all the past nations if it were not of the utmost importance. All the prophets and messengers were united in the essential matters of faith, disagreeing only in the details of the law they were sent with. Prophet Muhammad said: “The prophets were all brothers from the same father. Their mothers were different, and their religion was one.” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī (3443) and Sahīh Muslim (2365)] Fasting was one of the essential matters of faith that all the prophets and messengers came with. It is therefore one of the greatest acts of worship.

Fifth, the verse makes the Muslims aware that they are not the only ones to observe this act of worship. All of the prophets fasted, as did all the religious communities of old. This is an encouragement to fast. It strengthens their hearts to observe what Allah commanded them as well as those who came before them to observe.

Sixth, when Allah says “Fasting is prescribed for you”, He is referring to the fast that is clearly defined in Islamic teachings. However, in this verse, its time and manner are not specified. Some of the early Muslim scholars have told us that fasting a general prescription at the beginning of Islam. It has been said that at first, fasting was enjoined upon the Muslims as three days in every month. We have already seen that before Ramadan was made obligatory, the Muslims were obliged to fast the day of `Āshūrā’. This may have been the first stage in fasting becoming obligatory for the Muslims.

Seventh, this verse shows us how Islamic Law came in gradual stages. Ibn al-`Arabī says: “Islamic Law did not come all at once, and its details were not explained in a single instance. It cam gradually, in increments, according to the needs of the community and with great wisdom.”

This is one of the unique qualities of Islamic Law. It applies to religious duties like prayer as well as religious prohibitions like alcoholic beverages. In the early days of Islam, prayers were all performed as two-units. Later, the number of units were increased for prayers offered at home and kept at two units for travelers.

`Ā’ishah said: “Allah first enjoined prayer as two units for residents as well as people on a journey. This remained the case for travelers, and the length of prayer was increased for those who were not travelling.” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī (350) and Sahīh Muslim (685)]

Likewise, the prohibition of wine did not happen all at once. It took place in three stages.

It is significant that the verse of fasting begins with an appeal to faith: “O you who believe!” This inspires the listeners to reflect on their faith in their Lord from the start, hearkening them to pay attention and take heed. Then, further encouragement comes in declaring fasting to be an obligation prescribed for them. Had fasting been presented as a recommended act, some people would be less vigilant in observing it.

Then Allah says: “as it had been prescribed for those who came before you”, telling the Muslims that this obligation has not only been imposed upon them.

Then they are told that they are the ones who are intended by this command, and they are the ones to benefit from it.: “…that perchance you can be God-fearing.””

In the very next verse, Allah makes it clear that the fast does not go beyond a limited number of days. It is only for a short period of time. Even then, there are concessions for those who find difficulty. At the beginning of Islam, those who did not wish to fast could pay an expiation instead. Evan after this ruling changed, many concessions remained which became a permanent part of Islamic Law. Like the concession for those who are sick or on a journey to refrain from fasting and make up the missed days later on. Allah concludes this exposition with the worlds: “Allah want to make things easy for you. He does not want things to be difficult for you.” [Sūrah al-Baqarah: 185]

Therefore, we see in this passage of the Qur’an many ways in which the obligation to fast Ramadan came gradually, taking into consideration the people’s needs and circumstances. There is a lesson in this for those who wish to call people to Islam. Here, Allah is calling the Muslims to an essential pillar of Islam, but we see over a dozen ways in which Allah uses a gradual approach, encouragement, and positive appeals to present this obligation. We see how Allah seeks to make things easy on the believers. This shows us that when we call people to righteousness, we should do so kindly and take it easy with them.

We find this in Prophet Muhammad’s life, and he is our best example. Anas b. Mālik relates the following:
Three men came to the Prophet’s households, inquiring with his wives about how the Prophet worshipped Allah. When they learned about his practices, it seemed that they did not regard it as enough for them. They said: “Where are we with respect to Allah’s Messenger, for whom Allah has forgiven all of his past and future sins?”

Then one of them said: “I will fast without breaking my fast.”

Another said: “I will pray throughout the night and not sleep.”

And another said: “I will forsake marriage.”

When the Prophet learned of what had transpired between them, he said: “What is the matter with some people saying this and that, while I pray as well as sleep, I fast and break my fast, and I marry women? Whoever desires something other than my practice is not from me.” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī (5063) and Sahīh Muslim (1401)]
We find among the Pious Predecessors some of them conducting themselves within the limits of the Prophet’s Sunnah, but doing things that go beyond what following the Sunnah entails. Some of them wished to hold themselves to more than what was required of them. They had different strengths. Some of them had a tendency to be ascetic or had an inclination to study, or to spend in charity. When you read their biographies, it is difficult to imagine how you could ever match their devotion. However, if you turn to the biography of the one they all emulate, and the one who is the best example for the believers to follow, you find that his example is within reach. This tells us something about moderation, especially in what we should expect from others. When we wish to encourage them to better their lives, we should not make the path before them appear difficult. We should rather bolster their spirits and inspire them. When they decide to do what is right, Allah will give them the help they need.

Eighth, Alllah says in the very next verse: “Whoever among you is sick or on a journey should make up the number of missed days later on.” [Sūrah al-Baqarah: 184] Sickness is defined as any state contrary to a state of health. A sick person is permitted to refrain from fasting if fasting will aggravate the illness, postpone recovery, or cause undue discomfort.

Travelers can refrain from fasting if the journey takes them away from their home town and its environs. Some scholars, like the four imams, define this by many days or kilometers are involved. Other jurists, like Ibn Taymiyah and Ibn al-Qayyim, see the determining factor to be what is customarily regarded as a journey.

Ninth, Allah says: “the number of missed days later on”, emphasizing that what needs to be made up is the number of missed days only. The days do not have to be made up in succession. Allah is demanding no more than the number itself. There are no other conditions. The days do not have to be made up as soon as the sick person recovers or as soon as the person returns from the journey. `Ā’ishah said: “I once had missed das to make up from Ramadan, and I only made them up in the next year in the month of Sha`bān.” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī (1950) and Sahīh Muslim (1146)]

In conclusion, a Muslim who goes through the day in Ramadan hungry and thirsty from fasting should recall to mind the reason why we fast. The best way to do this is to return to the verses of the Qur’an that speak about fasting, its benefits and virtues, as well and the words of the Prophet. We should do so feeling that these words are addressing each of us individually. This will help us to realize the benefits that fasting is supposed to have in developing our moral character and making us better people. “Allah want to make things easy for you. He does not want things to be difficult for you. So you should complete the number of days and glorify Allah for His guiding you, that perchance you may be thankful.” [Sūrah al-Baqarah: 185]