There is great wisdom in why fasting has been prescribed for us. We might only be able to appreciate a fraction of this wisdom, the rest of it being beyond the scope of our knowledge.
Fasting strengthens our devotion to Allah
Fasting brings to fore the reality of our subservience to Allah and it helps in our submission to Him. This is why fasting has been made one of the pillars of Islam, so that Islam itself is incomplete without it. Fasting conditions the worshipper upon obedience and upon carrying out his religious duties. It also reminds him that he is the servant of Allah Almighty and of no one else.
We see that Allah orders His servants to eat at certain times, so that if they were to fast at those times, they would be sinning. This is the case for the two `Id celebrations. This is also the case for someone who fasts consecutive days without breaking his fast at night. At other times, by contrast, the worshippers are ordered to fast, so that if they were to eat at those times, they would be sinning.
We see the same thing when a pilgrim enters into the sacred state of ihrâm. While he is in that state, he is prohibited from certain things that he is commanded to do at other times. In this and many other ways, the worshipper continually reminds himself that he is the servant of Allah who complies with his Lord’s command and who keeps to the limits set by his Lord.
This is a concept of great significance that if people would only realize it in their worship, their devotions would then have a far greater impact upon them. The state of a believer should be that of a dutiful sentinel standing at attention, whose hand is ever poised to action and who is ready to advance and go forth whenever he is commanded to do so.
The importance of our worshipping Allah is one of the greatest objectives behind our fasting and behind all of our acts of devotion. Unfortunately, many Muslims fall short in their appreciation of this fact. Though they adhere to the performance of these acts of worship, their devotions are bereft of spiritual meaning and consequently fail to have the desired effect of bringing about true devotion and subservience to Allah.
Fasting strengthens our fear of Allah and gives us self restraint
Fasting conditions us upon the fear of Allah. This is why Allah says: “O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may guard against evil.” [Sûrah al-Baqarah: 183]
When a person fasts, whether it be a voluntary fast or an obligatory one, he is constantly reminding himself not to eat or drink This is in spite of the fact that eating and drinking are perfectly lawful for him at other times. He abstains from these otherwise lawful acts on account of Allah’s promise, in hopes of attaining Allah’s reward. It naturally follows that he will abstain from sin, from those acts that are prohibited to him at all times.
A Muslim needs to understand that this is the whole idea behind fasting. How can a person abstain from food and drink – though they are lawful to him at other times – and then go on to backbite people, spread rumors, tell lies, and engage in all sorts of other sins?
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “Whoever does not leave off false speech and evil deeds, then Allah has no need of his leaving off his food and drink.” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî (1903)]
We know that Allah has no need for us to leave off eating and drinking in any case, even when we abstain from false words and false deeds. What this means is that fasting has not been prescribed because Allah needs us to do so, it has only been prescribed to assist us in restraining ourselves from false words and evil deeds. Therefore, if we do not abandon these things, then to what avail is our fasting?
If fasting does not awaken in us this consciousness, then it is to no purpose. We must work to cultivate this consciousness. Fasting needs to bring us to the point where we can easily give up sinful deeds like backbiting, spreading rumors, slander, licentiousness, and all ignoble, destructive traits.
Fasting builds character
Another benefit of fasting is that it develops our character by strengthening our willpower and bolstering our patience. This is why fasting is sometimes referred to as patience and Ramadan is sometimes called “the month of patience”.
Allah says: “Seek help in patience and in prayer.” [Sûrah al-Baqarah: 45]
Some commentators of the Qur’ân have said: “The word ‘patience’ here refers to fasting. It means ‘Seek help in fasting and prayer’.”
This is because fasting forces us to exercise our willpower and practice patience. Many of us need to constantly exercise our willpower to keep it strong.
There is a psychological benefit in operation here. Researchers into the causes of success say that success requires three ingredients:
1. Desire: All people wish to be strong, successful, and financially well of. Desires like these exist for everyone.
2. Strength or ability: Most people have the mental and physical wherewithal and the skills that they need to succeed if they properly put their minds to it.
3. Willpower: Strong willpower is one of the greatest reasons for success in both this world and the next.
Fasting strengthens the will and conditions a person to cope with difficulties in all aspects of his life. It helps to develop the very quality that only successful people possess, the quality of those people who can turn their desires into a reality by using skills and abilities that they have.
Fasting puts our passions and our vain desires in check
This is why the Prophet gave the following advice: “O assembly of young people, whosoever among you has the wherewithal to marry should do so, as it will help him to lower his gaze and safeguard his chastity. And whoever is unable to do so should fast, because it diminishes sexual desire.” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî (5066) and Sahîh Muslim (1400)]
The Prophet (peace be upon him) points out that fasting withholds a person from responding to his passions.
Some scholars have discussed this hadîth in conjunction with another, where the Prophet (peace be upon him) says: “Indeed, Satan circulates through the descendant of Adam as blood circulates through the body.” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî (2039) and Sahîh Muslim (2174)]
Even though the phrase “…so restrict his circulatory paths by fasting” that is sometimes quoted along with this hadîth is baseless, the fact remains that fasting does put our passions in check, and it is quite possible that one way in which it does so is by restricting Satan’s ability to circulate within our persons, as stated by some scholars.
What is more likely is that fasting keeps our compulsions in check by keeping us involved in a specific act of worship. This continuous connection with an act of worship helps us to refrain from unlawful acts, including those acts, like the forbidden gaze, that incite our desires.
Fasting provides numerous and varied spiritual and physical benefits
Doctors have discussed the health benefits of fasting and how it can help us in learning to manage our diets. At times, doctors even prescribe fasting for various reasons. Without a doubt, these are at most secondary benefits of fasting. The same can be said for the physical benefits of prayer, pilgrimage, and other aspects of formal worship.
Still, the real reason that a Muslim does any of these things is for the sake of worshipping and obeying Allah. He would do so even if there were no health benefits. Indeed, were it proven to be injurious to his health, he would still do so. However, Allah never commands us to do anything that would harm us in the least except when the benefits of doing so far outweigh the harm.