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Ṣawm (Fasting) of Ramadan
Mohamed Helal 281

Ṣawm (Fasting) of Ramadan

Fasting[1]
 

     Lexically, the Arabic word as-sawm or as-siyaam (fast or fasting) means to abstain, whether this is food, drink, speech, intercourse, etc. In the conventions of Shari’a, the meaning of fasting is to abstain from specific things from dawn to sunset with the intention of dedicating this act for the sake of God and seeking to achieve piety. Evidence for fasting from the Ever-Glorious Qur’an includes the following verses:

“O, you who have believed, prescribed for you is Fasting, as it was prescribed for (the ones) who were before you, that you could be pious.” (Qur’an, 2: 183)

“Whoever of you witnesses the month of fasting, then s/he should fast it.” (Qur’an, 2: 185)

     Evidence from the Sunnah includes what the Prophet (PBUH)) says, “Islam is built on five (pillars), i. e. the Oneness of God, performing prayers, paying Zakat, fasting (the lunar month of) Ramadan, and Pilgrimage (to Mecca).” [2]

     Fasting was ordained in the month of Sha’aban, the eighth month in the lunar calendar, in the second year of Hijra.[3]

     Fasting was prescribed also for the past nations, as it is understood from the Qur’anic statement:

“…as it was prescribed for (the ones) who were before you” (Qur’an, 2: 183)

     The Ever-Glorious Qur’an does not name the past nations for which fasting was prescribed before the Muslim nation of the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH). At-Tabatabaie makes the point that there is nothing in the Torah or the Gospel about the Jews and the Christian that proves the obligation of fasting. These two books only praise and glorify fasting”.[4] The Jews of today practice fasting for a week during the month of August to commemorate the anniversary of destroying and restoring Jerusalem. There are some other days that they fast as well. The Christian gospels do not mention anything related to the obligation of fasting. However, a fasting person is required to show sadness during the fating period, to comb and grease one’s hair and wash one’s face to conceal the effects of fast so that one would not nullify her/his devotion by showing off.

     The oldest and most well-known fasting among the Christians is “the Great Fast” before Easter which was observed by Moses, Jesus, and the disciples. Later, heads of churches innovated other kinds of fasting, including abstaining from eating meat, fish, egg, milk and every living animal”. [5]

     Fearing God and being pious is the objective of fasting in Islam. Undoubtedly, being close to God and being in contact with the world of purity necessitate refraining from overindulgence in fulfilling physical desires, including normally permissible means such as eating and drinking, which God has otherwise made lawful. Unless one is trained to avoid permissible desires, one cannot possibly abandon prohibited actions and thus won’t learn how to strengthen the will in order to avoid sins. One who responds to God’s commandment of avoiding permissible desires will much more readily respond to deserting the forbidden sins.

     Fasting is a counterpart of piety and the proper approach to attain this attribute. Although piety is the sole purpose of fasting, there are several benefits that fasting leads to. However, it should be remembered that these benefits are not the reasons for ordaining fasting. The following are some of these benefits:

     Fasting develops in man a quality of being patient in worship. It provides one with a spiritual power that enables her/him to withstand hardships, whether these are a result of being deprived of what one is accustomed to or a result of commandments and acts of worship. This benefit may be what is meant by the saying of the Prophet, “Fasting is half of patience.” [6]

     Fasting reminds people of the poor and the needy. It develops in the fasting person a feeling of mercy, compassion and sympathy towards the miser and the deprived.

     Fasting is a remedy for many diseases that result from overeating. In this regard, physicians and medical specialists have said much about the role of fasting in eliminating this kind of disease.

     Fasting produces a state of psychological calmness and sharp intelligence in the person committed to fasting, to the proper behavior it entails, and to the Prophetic guidance pertaining to this obligatory act of worship.

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What is the reality of fasting?[7]

     Fasting might seem to be an odd form of worship in the atmosphere of the materialistic civilization that dominates our world today. That is because this civilization does not believe in the soul; it only believes in the body and seeks to satisfy its needs. Furthermore, it only cares about this life and acts indifferently towards the Hereafter. Thus, it dislikes any form of worship that controls the worldly desires or restricts the free body by obliging it to follow an ideal example.

     In our contemporary world, both individuals and communities alike seek to increase their incomes and improve the quality of life without paying any attention to how to make use of this life to have a better life in the Hereafter. In so doing, they try their best to affirm that religion has nothing to do with poverty and abstinence. Statements such as ‘wealth is the secret of well-being’ and ‘the physically-strong body is the best means for fulfilling one’s duties and carrying out his tasks’ have become rules in our life. The question I would like to ask here is then: Do people treat their bodies in a suitable manner based only on facts?

     Nutrition experts say that food has two main functions: 1) it provides the body with the energy that helps it move around; 2) it renews the consumed cells within the body to make it able to grow through the different stages of childhood and youth.

     Well, should we only eat to fulfill these two needs? Those experts state that “The human body needs a certain amount of calories in order to survive.” Of course, the human body is like a machine in that it must have some fuel in order to work. Yet, there is a clear difference between the human body and the real machine; one the one hand, the car tank, for example, is made of steel to keep in a certain amount of fuel and it thus cannot take in any extra amounts beyond its capacity. However, the human stomach is made of flesh and stretchable tissues that make it able to take in double amounts of food more than the body really needs! On the other hand, the car tank provides it with fuel until the last drop but a stomach gives the body what it needs and the extra amount of food transforms into fat and weight in the body. Thus, a car does not have an internal surplus of fuel and if it has that surplus, it cannot transform it into a sort of steel layers to make its frame stronger or its wheels wider.

     Man is a very strange creature; he always looks for more food and sometimes even fights for it, though it might harm him. It does not matter for him to become a fat person rather than giving this extra food to a poor child or a needy laborer who needs food to be able to work and earn his living.

     Man is the only creature that knows what causes harm to him, yet he still has much desire to consume more of it. It is a fatal desire. Fortunately, the self that has a desire for what causes its destruction can be restricted to reasonable limits. What follows is a verse-to-prose translation of a poetic line composed by an ancient Arab poet:

The ego naturally wishes for more,

Yet if you restrict it to a small amount of anything,

It feels satisfied and gets accustomed to it.

     Here comes the role of fasting that restricts the ego and controls its desires to feel satisfied with a reasonable amount of any worldly pleasure and keep away from whatever causes harm. On the day when we fast, the temporary abstinence from food and drink should not be an excuse to consume larger quantities of food at the time of fast-breaking, like what most people would do. Perhaps the best benefit we get from fasting is to be able to cope with any sort of deprivation.

     The Prophet (PBUH) set a great example in this regard; he would ask his wives if there was anything to eat in the morning. If the answer was, ‘no’, then he would immediately intend to go on fasting that day and do his daily tasks very naturally. Moreover, he would receive the delegations coming to meet him and decide on the matters raised to him with total satisfaction. He would wait patiently until he was provided with something to eat for his first day meal. His actions were a practical response to these Qur’anic verses,

“So surely with difficulty comes ease. Surely with difficulty comes ease.” (Qur’an, 96:6-7)

     It is a unique human greatness where a person patiently endures the hardships he faces with complete confidence and a cheerful face. Individuals and communities are capable of acting in this way if they have enough determination.

     I think the Arabs had achieved great military victories in the early Islamic periods because they had less worldly lusts or because they had no bad habits that held them back from creating success and doing hard work; a Muslim in the earliest period of Islam would put a few dates into his pocket and run to the battlefield. On the other side, the Persian and Greek soldiers would have their carriages loaded with foods and supplies close to them.

     Having realized that the British economy relies heavily on the Indian markets, Gandhi decided to use the weapon of boycotting the British goods in his war against the Great Britain. He successfully trained his people to live without the British goods. He told the Indians, “We will wear rough clothes and boycott the clothes made in Manchester. We will eat our food without salt as long as the state monopolizes it. We will rather go on foot and never use their vehicles.” This half dress Indian man successfully led the boycott campaign against the British goods, while moving around the Indian cities and villages with only a cup of milk for his meal.

     Surprisingly enough, a great number of Indians responded to his call and supported him. Eventually, the British production stopped, the English factories were closed, and many British workers started to complain about unemployment. The British Government had to invite Gandhi to visit London to negotiate with him or rather let him make his conditions.

     It is a sign of human greatness that man restricts his worldly lusts to the least as this would give him a superior hand over his enemies because he would definitely not be in need for them. This was the honorable manner of ‛Ali ibn Abi Țālib as he said, “Do not ask anything from any person and you will be his equal. Be in need of any person and you will be his captive.” Only those who fast can adhere to such advice.

     I admire very much the following advice reported by Al-Jāḥiż from Abu Uthmān An-Nouriy who gave it to his son saying, O my son, eat from the dish which is near to you. Remember that whatever on the table of a desired food or something people very much desire is served for either a highly-revered sheikh or a spoiled child and you are definitely not any of them.

     My son, teach your ego to struggle against worldly desires. Do not eat your food as lions would eat their preys. Never put your mouth into your food as mules do, or gulp down a large mouthful of food as camels do. Allah created you an honorable human being; so do not eat like a beast would do. Be aware that eating to excess causes voracity. Voracity causes diseases and diseases cause death. Whoever dies of eating to excess has committed a grave sin because he would then commit suicide and committing suicide is a graver sin than a killing another person deliberately.

     My son, whoever eats to excess never bows or prostrates himself properly to his Lord in his prayer and never feels serene or humble. Surely, fasting is healthier for man; and eating certain meals with intervals in between is the style followed by all the righteous people.

     My son, I have become ninety years old but I have never lost a tooth, suffered pain in my nerves, had a bleeding nose, swollen eyelids, or suffered from incontinence; that’s all thanks to eating light meals throughout my life. If you wish to lead a happier, healthier life, I have shown you the way. If you wish to die cursed by Allah, then go the other way.”

     This was advice from an old man who does not recognize the worship of idolizing human bodies which has become common to contemporary people. Allah Almighty says,

“Leave them out to eat and enjoy (life), and let (false) aspiration divert them; then eventually they will know.” (Qur’an, 15:3)

“The ones who have disbelieved take their enjoyment and eat even as cattle would eat, and the Fire will be their lodging.” (Qur’an, 47:12)

     From time to time, people face extreme calamities that affect the whole nation where a shortage of agricultural crops and animal production causes famine. What people often do in facing such disasters? They unwillingly go on fasting with their hearts resentful. Conversely, the obligation of fasting in Islam is beyond all of this; it is a self-deprivation of what is abundant and available for the sake of Allah. It is a sort of endurance that a Muslim decides willingly by controlling his natural desire for food for a while, seeking abundant reward from his Lord on an otherwise extremely Difficult Day (the Day of Resurrection), Allah says,

“That is a Day humankind are to be gathered to, and that is a Day to be witnessed.” (Qur’an, 11:103)

     The cause and effect relationship between hard work in this life and abundant reward the individual receives in the Hereafter was further emphasized by the Prophet (PBUH) as he said, “He who observes fasting during the month of Ramadan with faith, while seeking its reward from Allah, will have his past sins forgiven.” The phrase “with faith while seeking its reward from Allah” indicates that the individual exerts an effort for whose reward he is not hasty. That is because the individual who performs such act of worship plans to have its reward kept for him until the Day of Judgment in response to the Qur’anic verse,

“That is the True Day. So whoever decides should seek a resorting to his Lord (i.e., by doing righteous deeds).” (Qur’an, 78:39)

     A fasting Muslim might meet some persons who neither respect the sanctity of the month of Ramadan nor see any wisdom behind fasting it; they eat and drink what they like. I wonder what those people will find in their records of good deeds in the Hereafter.

     To their total surprise, they will find those who used to do a lot of good deeds for getting abundant rewards on the Day of Judgment immersed in total happiness and eternal pleasures. The Glorious Qur’an shows to us how the state of both sides will be, in the following verses,

“And the companions of the Fire will call out to the companions of the Garden (saying), ‘Downpour on us some water, or some of whatever Allah has provided you.’ They will say, ‘Surely Allah has prohibited both to the disbelievers. They have taken (among themselves) their religion as a diversion and a plaything, and the lowly life has deluded them.’” (Qur’an, 7:51)

     Fasting is an act of worship that resists the materialistic movement we witness in this worldly life. The materialistic philosophies either in the East or in the West do not recognize the heavens, the soul or the Hereafter. They only believe in the mortal body and this worldly life.

     Let the followers of such philosophies rejoice at the temporary pleasures they get in this life since this is the farthest level their materialistic knowledge can take them to. For us, as Muslims, we have to know our Lord, adhere to His straight path, fast for his sake, and wait to receive great rewards from Allah Almighty in the Hereafter.

     However, the bitter reality remains that those who truly fast are very few, even if there are many people who superficially abstain from foods and drinks.


[1] Prof. Aḥmad Muḥammad Aṭ-Ṭayyeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, “Essential Features of Islam”, Al-Azhar Center for Translation (ACT), 2017, p. 125.

[2] Muslim, Book 1, Hadith 19.

[3] Badran, p. 12.

[4] Al-Mizan, 2:7

[5] Badran, Al-‘Aqidatu l-Islamiyyah. p. 122.

[6] At-Tirmidhi, Jami`, Book 48, Hadith 150.

[7] Muḩammad El-Ghazāli, “A Hundred Questions on Islam”, Al-Azhar Center for Translation (ACT), 2017, p. 391.

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