What Fasting Means to Us
  • Mon, 07/07/2014
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Fasting is meaningful. It is prescribed for us so we can benefit in many ways. If we pause to contemplate on this matter, we will find much to enrich our thoughts and we will better appreciate the greatness of Islam, and that Allah wishes to benefit us through the worship that we perform. He has no need to impose hardships on us.

Once Prophet Muhammad saw an old man walking supported by his two children. He asked: “What is going on here?” They told him that they had sworn an oath to perform the pilgrimage on foot. The Prophet ordered them to ride and said: “Allah has no need for you to punish yourselves.” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī (1865) and Sahīh Muslim (1642)]

Indeed, Allah has no need for any of our deeds. The Prophet relates that Allah says: “You do not have the ability to bring Me any harm or any benefit.” [Sahīh Muslim (2577)]

The purpose of our worship is to benefit and purify our souls. It also serves to develop our community life and instil within it a wholesome character and brotherly love. Fasting provides many benefits, among which are the following.

1. Love and Devotion to Our Lord

Fasting increases our devotion to Allah and strengthens our ability to obey Him in all aspects of our lives. It reminds us that we are His servants and that we serve no one else. This is why Allah has commanded us to eat on certain days, so that fasting on those days becomes a sinful act of disobedience. This is the case with the days of Eid.

We see this meaning in the state of ihrām that pilgrims enter into when they undertake the Hajj. Pilgrims in this state are prohibited from engaging in a number of otherwise lawful acts, and even some acts that they would otherwise be obliged to carry out. This reminds them that they are Allah’s obedient servants, subject to His commands at all times.

This is a profound understanding to have. If we appreciate this fully when we engage in acts of worship, the effects of our worship would be felt in all aspects of our lives. Its impact would not be restricted to the time we are engaged in our ritual devotions. Rather, we would be prepared at all times to do what pleases Allah. If we slip up at any time, we would immediately hasten to seek Allah’s forgiveness and make amends.

Strengthening our devotion and obedience to Allah are among the main reasons we engage in acts of worship. Some Muslims lose sight of this fact. The perform their acts of worship mechanically, without spiritual feeling. Their hearts are not into it. As a consequence, their worship has little impact on their lives, and it does not reflect positively on the way they treat others.

Our servitude to Allah is our truest freedom. We are only completely free when our commitment to Allah is at its most complete.

2. Expressing Our Inner Faith

Fasting is a hidden act. Only Allah knows for certain whether we are fasting. It is easy for a person not to fast but merely abstain from eating in the presence of others, so that they think he or she is fasting. Therefore, when we deny ourselves food and drink which we could easily have, it means that we really believe that Allah is watching us and that He is aware of what we do. If we think about it, this meaning is present in all our acts of worship. For instance, we need to be in a state of ritual purity for our prayers to be valid. If someone offered prayer in congregation without ablutions, no one else would know it. Likewise, if they made the motions of prayer without reciting the prescribed remembrances, no one else would be aware, because those remembrances are made silently. Our faith is only thing that brings us to perform these unseen aspects of prayer.

3. Strengthening Our Piety

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]

Here Allah explicitly states that we fast in order to develop our piety. When we fast, we abstain from the most essential acts of eating and drinking due to our hope of receiving Allah’s blessings, which He has promised us. Every time we think about food, we are reminded of the fact that we are denying ourselves otherwise lawful food and drink for Allah’s pleasure. Therefore, we will be less likely to commit sinful acts which Allah has forbidden us to commit at all times.

This is why Prophet Muhammad said: “If people do not abstain from falsehood in their words and deeds, Allah has no need of their abstaining from their food and drink.” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī (1903)]

This does not mean that those people are free from the obligation to fast in Ramadān. It means that Allah only. prescribed fasting for our benefit, in order to help us learn how to abandon falsehood in our words and deeds. Therefore, if we do not abandon falsehood, then we are not benefiting from our fasts. If fasting does not awaken our God-consciousness, then it has no real meaning for us.

This should be obvious to us. Fasting is prescribed for us in order to develop our piety and make us more God-fearing. It trains us to abstain from sin by making us stay away from our food and drink. If we can fast, we should be able to avoid backbiting, slander, and unethical behaviour.

4. Strengthening the Community

When people see everyone around them fasting, it develops their sense of community. This is one of the reasons it is easier to fast in Ramadān than at any other time of year. The participation of everyone else is a form of moral support which makes fasting easier for each individual. This is not the case when someone offers a voluntary fast on their own.

Fasting strengthens the Muslim community, including those societies where religious conviction is weak. This is why we rarely find any Muslims openly eating or drinking during Ramadān even in the most permissive of Muslim cultures.

5. Focusing Our Attentions on the Hereafter

When we fast, we give up doing things that we enjoy, seeking Allah’s rewards and blessings. This means that we are taking account of the next life in the actions that we do. This focuses our hearts on our faith in the Unseen and the life of the Hereafter. It turns us away from worldly pleasures which tie us down to our present lives. At the same time, fasting benefits our health and gives our hearts the chance to rejoice in faith and obedience to Allah.

By contrast, people who are concerned only with material things find fasting to be nothing more than the denial of pleasure and a physical chore.

6. Fortifying Our Willpower

Fasting exercises our willpower and teaches us to be patient. This is why Ramadān is also referred to as “the month of patience.” Also, Allah says: “Seek help in patience and in prayer. Indeed, it is a difficult thing except for those who are humble.” [Sūrah al-Baqarah: 45] Some of the commentators on this verse have said that “patience” here refers to fasting.

This is one of the great benefits of fasting, since most of us are in constant need of developing our willpower. Success requires three things:
A. The desire to succeed. All of us have this to some degree. We all want to be prosperous. We all have dreams we want to realise.

B. The ability to achieve something. We all possess this as well. We all have our minds, our bodies, and talents that will bring us to success if we only employ them properly.

C. Willpower. Strengthening our willpower is a key ingredient of success. This applies equally to our worldly goals and our spiritual development. Willpower is what allows us to use our abilities to their optimal effect in the ways that will benefit us the most in this world and the next.
Fasting develops all three of these key ingredients of success, training us in self restraint, coping with difficulty, and taking charge of our bodies and our lives. These are the skills of successful people who know how to use the gifts their Lord has blessed them with to achieve their dreams.

Patience is necessary for our spiritual salvation and our worldly success. It is indispensible for dealing with other people, so it is also a social necessity. It is one of the best personality traits, not only enabling us to realise our dreams, but allowing us to deal with the failures and pitfalls along the way. This applies to all aspects of life. A successful marriage requires patience. Raising children requires patience. It is necessary for maintaining friendships. We also need it when dealing with our enemies.

Allah says: “Repel evil with that which is better. Then, the one with whom you had shared animosity will become like a dear friend.” [Sūrah Fussilat: 24]

7. Reining in the Passions

Fasting helps keep our passions and desires at bay. Prophet Muhammad said: “Young people, those of you who are able to marry should do so. Those who can’t marry must fast, because it reduces desire.” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī (5065) and Sahīh Muslim (1400)]

This is proof that fasting reduces our innate urges and lusts. Some scholars have understood this hadīth in the context of another, where the Prophet said: “Satan circulates through the human body the way blood circulates.” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī(2038) and Sahīh Muslim (2175)]

Some narrations of this hadīth conclude with the phrase: “So constrict his path of circulation through hunger and fasting.” However, this addition is false and cannot be substantiated.

However, even without the added phrase, the relevance for fasting is understood, since fasting brings about the described effect of cooling the blood’s passions. Moreover, since fasting is an act of worship that takes up all the daylight hours, it contributes psychologically to the ease with which we control our desires. Moreover, we know how easy it is to engage in extra worship throughout the night in Ramadān. We all find it easier to offer prayers and supplications at this time. This helps to distract us from our baser inclinations.

8. Providing Psychological and Physical Health Benefits

These benefits are numerous. Doctors inform us of healthy effects of fasting, as well as its use as an aid in weight control. These are, no doubt, secondary benefits of fasting, just like the similar health benefits we get from our physical exertions in prayer. We engage in fasting to worship our Lord, even if we receive no health benefits from it. Nevertheless, we know that Allah does not command us to do what brings us harm, unless there are other benefits that far outweigh that harm. Islam’s teachings are meant to benefit us and protect us from harm.

A pure heart is the source of all human good. It is the secret to all positive change. Political and economic reform require sincerity and integrity. When people are free from base motives and truly seek what is best, Allah will be with them and bless their efforts with success. Allah says: “If they wish reconciliation, then Allah will bless them to be successful.” [Sūrah al-Nisā’: 35]

He also says: “Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.” [Sūrah al-Ra`d: 11]

We should not take a narrow view of what conduct is appropriate for a fasting person. We are supposed to refrain from all sins when we are fasting. Yes, we all know that we should not utter sinful words or engage in sinful deeds. However, just like stealing from your neighbour is sinful, so is stealing from public funds. Fraud, bribery, and deception are sinful, even if we excuse our deeds by arguing that we are securing our “rights”. Likewise, stealing time from your employer by slacking at work is sinful, and claiming that fasting makes you tired does not make it right. Worst of all is when people in positions of authority use their influence to misappropriate the entitlements of those who are poor and weak.

Fasting demands from us to refrain from all of that. We need to ask Allah to give us the strength to abstain from all sins, and we to ask Him to accept our fasts from us.