The Reasons for Fasting and Its Benefits
Fasting was made obligatory for every Ummah
The second ‘Ibadah made obligatory for you by Allah, is fasting. Fasting means abstinence during the day from eating, drinking and sexual intercourse. Like Salah this ‘Ibadah has remained obligatory in the Shari’ahs of all the Prophets from the beginning. All the past Ummahs used to observe fasts in the same way as the Ummah of Prophet Muhammad (saw). However, in regard to rules of fasting, the number of fasts and the periods required for fasting, there has been a difference among various Shari’ahs. Even today we see that fasting is ordained in most of the religions in some form or other although people have mutilated its shape by adding to it many things of their own. It has been stated in the Holy Qur’an:
“O Muslims! Fasting has been made obligatory for you in the same way as it was made obligatory for Ummahs before you” (al-Qur’an 2:183)
It appears from this verse that all those Shari’ahs which were sent by Allah have never been devoid of the ‘Ibadah of fasting.
Why was fasting made obligatory?
Please ponder as to what importance is there in fasting for Allah made it obligatory in each and every period:
1. Aim of life - Servitude of Allah
…The real aim of Islam is to make the whole life of man transformed into ‘Ibadah of Allah. Man is born as slave, and slavery, i.e. servitude is ingrained in his very nature. Therefore, he must not be far for a single moment from ‘Ibadah, i.e. servitude to Allah, in thought and deed. He must check up at every move in the affairs of his life as to which step he ought to take so as to earn the pleasure of God and which one will entail His displeasure and wrath. The principle, therefore, is that the path leading to Allah’s pleasure must be followed and that leading His displeasure must be eschewed just as embers of fire are avoided. A man must adopt the course approved by Allah and keep away from that disapproved by Him. When his whole life is suffused with this colour then only can he be considered as having discharged his obligation of servitude to his Master and as having fulfilled the purport of:
“And I (Allâh) created not the jinns and humans except they should Worship Me (Alone).” (Al-Qur’an 51:56)
2. ‘Ibadah - Training of servitude
I have stated this point before that the real purpose of the religious duties like Salah, Hajj, fasting and Zakat having been made obligatory for us, is to train us for a big ‘Ibadah. The fact of these acts being obligatory does not mean that you have acquitted yourself of what you owe to Allah if you have done Ruku’ and Sujood five times in a day, have suffered hunger and thirst from dawn to dusk for thirty days in Ramadan and, in case you are wealthy, have given Zakat every year and have performed Hajj once in a lifetime, and that having done all this, are now released from His servitude to be free to do what you like. In fact, the underlying purpose of making these religious duties obligatory is to train a person in such a manner as to enable him to transform his whole life into a regular ‘Ibadah of God. Now let us see, with this aim in view as to how fasting prepares a man for this full-time ‘Ibadah.
3. Fasting is a hidden ‘Ibadah
All religious duties except fasting are performed by some outward movement or the other. For instance, in Salah a man stands, sits, and does Ruku’ and Sajdah which is visible to everybody; in Hajj he goes on a long journey and travels with hundreds of thousands of people. Zakat is also given by one person and received by another person. All these religious works cannot be concealed. If you perform them, other people come to know about it; if you do not perform apparently then also it becomes known to others. As against this, fasting is an ‘Ibadah which is not manifest. All-Knowing Allah alone knows that His servant is observing fast. One might partake of Sehri before others and abstain from eating and drinking anything openly till the Iftar time but if he stealthily eats and drinks anything in between, then nobody except God can know about it. The whole world will be under the impression that he is observing fast while in reality he will not be fasting.
4. Fasting - Sign of Strength of Iman
Keep this nature of fasting before you and ponder over the fact that how strong is the faith of the man, who keeps fast, in Allah being the Knower of the unseen. He actually observes fast; he does not stealthily eat or drink anything; even in the severest summer, when the throat dries due to extreme thirst, he does not drink a drop of water; even in the worst condition of hunger, when life seems drooping, he is not inclined to eat anything! See what firm conviction he has in the fact that no action of his can be concealed from Allah, though it may be concealed from the whole world! How his heart is full of fear of Allah that he undergoes a severe agony but simply out of fear of Him does not do anything which will result in breaking his fast! How profound is his belief in the reward and punishment of the Hereafter that for full one month he fasts for at least 360 hours and not for a moment does an iota of doubt enter his mind about life after death! Had he the slightest doubt about the future life, where reward and punishment will be meted out, he could have never completed his fast. When doubt arises, it is not possible for a man to stick to his resolve of not eating and drinking anything in obedience to God’s commandment.
5. One month’s continuous training
In this way, Allah puts to test a Muslim’s faith for full one month in a year and to the extent a man emerges successful from this trial, his faith becomes firmer and firmer. This is as it were, both a trial as well as training. When you deposit anything as a trust with somebody, you are as if testing his integrity. If he proves successful in his test and does not commit breach of trust, he develops greater strength to bear the burden of trusts and becomes more worthy of trust. Similarly, Allah puts your faith to severe test continuously for one month, twelve to fourteen hours a day, and when you emerge triumphant from this test, further ability develops in you to refrain from other sins due to fear of God. Therefore, realising that Allah is the Knower of the unseen, you should abstain from breaking His law even covertly, and, on every occasion, you should duly remember that day when everything will be exposed, and, without any consideration, you will be requited good for good and evil for evil. This is the purport of the following verse:
“O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you, just as it was prescribed for those before you, that ye may ward off evil.” (al-Qur’an 2:183)
6. Long practice of obedience
There is another peculiarity of fasting. It makes one obey the injunctions of Shari’ah without break for a long period of time. The duration of Salah is not more than a few minutes at a time. The time for paying Zakat occurs only once in a year. In Hajj, however, the time spent is long but its opportunity comes once during lifetime, and that too not for all. As against these, fasting is an exercise in following the Shari’ah of Muhammad (saw) for full one month in a year, day and night. You have to get up for Sehri early before dawn, stop all eating and drinking precisely at the breaking of dawn, do such and such work and abstain from such and such work during the day, take Iftar in the evening exactly at the time of sunset, then have dinner and relax, then hurry up for Tarawih. In this way, every year for full one month, from dawn to dusk and from dusk to dawn, a Muslim is kept continuously tied up with rules and regulations like a soldier in an army, and then he is released for eleven months so that the training he has received for one month may show its effects, and if any deficiency is found it may be made up in the training of the next year.
7. Favourable collective environment for training
It is not expedient in any manner to impart training of this type of each and every person separately. You see in the army also that every individual is not ordered to do parade separately. All have to rise simultaneously on the sound of the bugle and have to work together on hearing the bugle so that they may develop the habit of working unitedly as a team and along with it all may assist in the training of each other, i.e. whatever is wanting in one person’s training may be made up by other and the deficiency in the second person may be removed by the third person. Similarly, the month of Ramadan was earmarked for fasting and all Muslims were ordered that all of them should fast together. This order has turned individual ‘Ibadah into collective ‘Ibadah. Just as number one when multiplied by a million becomes a formidable number of one million, in the same way the moral and spiritual benefits accruing from fasting by one person are increased a million fold if millions of people fast together. The month of Ramadan fills the whole atmosphere with the spirit of piety and virtuousness. In the whole nation, the farming of piety flourishes. Every person not only tries to avoid sins but, if he has any difficulty, his many others brothers who are fasting like him come out to help him. Every person feels ashamed to commit a sin while he is fasting, and the desire automatically arises in everybody’s heart to do some good work, to feed a destitute, to clothe a naked man, help one in distress, to take part in some good work being done anywhere and prevent evil if it is being indulged in openly at some place. A general environment of goodness and piety is created and the season starts for the flourishing of beneficial activities just as you see that every crop grows luxuriantly at the peak of its season and is found covering the fields all over. For this reason Prophet Muhammad (saw) said that:
“Every deed of man gets some increment or other from God. One good deed flourishes ten times to seven hundred times. But Allah says : fasting is exempt from this. It is exclusively for Me and I give reward for it as much as I want” - al-Bukhari, al-Fath, no. 1904; Saheeh al-Targheeb, 1/407
From this Hadith we come to know that all deeds flourish both in proportion to the motive of the doer of the good deed as well as its results, but there is a limit to their development. In the case of fasting, however, progress is unbounded. Ramadan is a season for the flourishing of goodness and piety, and in this season not one but thousands and millions of persons jointly water this garden of virtue, the compass can expand immeasurably. The more you perform well-motivated deeds in this month, the greater will you avail yourselves of its blessings, and radiate their benefits to your other brothers; and if you maintain the effects of this month at a high pitch during the subsequent eleven months, to that extent this garden will flourish, and thus developing process will go on infinitely. It will be your own fault if you circumscribe it by your own lack of action.
Where are the results of ‘Ibadah now?
On hearing the above results of fasting the question will arise in the mind of everyone of you that where are these results to be found today? ” We observe fasting and offer prayers but the results you describe are not visible”. I have already told you the reason for this situation that after separating the component parts of Islam from each other and after mixing with it many new things, you cannot expect those results as can be obtained when the whole system is intact and unimpaired. Besides this, the second reason is that your point of view regarding ‘Ibadah has changed. Now you believe that mere abstention from food and drink, from morning till evening, amounts to ‘Ibadah and accordingly you perform this ‘Ibadah this way. Similarly, you regard only the outward shade of the kinds of worshipping also as, ‘Ibadah, and 99% or even more among you are unmindful of the real spirit of ‘Ibadah which should permeate each one of your deeds. That is why these ‘Ibadaat do not produce there a full benefit since everything in Islam depends on intent, power of understanding and perception.
A Purpose for Every Work
There are essentially two component factors in any work which a man has to perform. The first thing is the purpose for which a work is done and the second thing is the particular shape of that work which is chosen to achieve that purpose. For instance, take the case of food; your object in taking food is to remain alive and maintain your strength. The method of achieving this object is that you take a morsel, put it in your mouth, masticate it and push it below the throat. This method is adopted by you since it is the most effective and proper one to achieve this object. But everyone of you knows that the main thing is the purpose for which food is taken and not the form and procedure of this action. What will you say if anybody were to make a morsel of saw-dust or cinder or mud, put it in his mouth, chew and gulp it? You will say only this that his brain is out of order. Why? Because this idiot did not understand the real purpose of eating and is suffering from the misunderstanding that only the aforesaid four component acts constitutes eating. Likewise, you will call that person also mad who soon after taking the food vomits it by thrusting his fingers into his throat and then complains that the benefits said to accrue from taking food have not been availed of by him and that, contrarily, he is daily getting lean and is on the verge of death. This fool blames the food for his growing weakness little realizing that it is due to his own stupidity. He imagined, due to his intellectual deficiency, that life vitality could be got by fulfilling those requirements which constitute the act of eating. As such, he thought why should he sustain the load of food in his stomach? “Why not throw it out so that the stomach may become light? I have already fulfilled the requirements of eating”, he surmises. Naturally he has himself to suffer the penalty of harbouring such a foolish idea and then implementing it also. He ought to have known that until the bread gets digested after entering the stomach and having transformed into blood, is diffused into the whole body the vitality of life cannot be obtained. Although outward actions are also necessary, because without them the bread cannot reach the stomach, yet the object cannot be achieved by merely fulfilling the outward actions. There is no magic in these actions that by merely fulfilling them, blood starts running in a wizardly manner in the veins of a man. Blood will be obviously produced according to the law prescribed by Allah. If you break it, you will kill yourself by your own hands.
Consequences of considering the outward as real
If you ponder over the example I have just placed before you in detail, you can understand why your ‘Ibadaat have become inefficacious today. As I have already pointed out repeatedly, the greatest mistake of all is to regard the acts of Salah and fasting and their outward shape as real ‘Ibadah and you suffer from the delusion that whoever fulfilled these requirements performed the ‘Ibadah of Allah. You are just like that person who thinks that performance of four acts, i.e. making the morsel, putting it in the mouth, masticating it and pushing it below the throat makes up the process of eating, and that whoever did these four things has eaten the food and so should receive the benefits of eating irrespective of whether he pushed down in his stomach mud and stone, or vomited the bread soon after eating it. If you have a little sense then tell me how a man who is fasting and is thus engaged in the ‘Ibadah of God from morning till evening, can in the midst of that ‘Ibadah utter a lie and indulge in backbiting? Why does he quarrel at the slightest pretext and utter abuses from his mouth? How dare he encroach on other people’s rights? How does he indulge in acquiring illicit money and giving money to others illicitly? And having done all these things, he still thinks that he has performed ‘Ibadah of Allah? Does this not resemble the work of that person who eats cinder and mud and thinks that by merely completing the four requirements of eating he has actually done the job of eating.
Again freedom from restrictions after Ramadan
Then tell me how is it that when you are relieved after doing Allah’s ‘Ibadah for about 360 hours throughout Ramadan all the effect of this whole exercise in piety disappears on the 1st of Shawwal? You do during the ‘Id days all that Hindus do in their festivals, so much so that in the cities even adultery, wine-drinking and gambling are resorted to on ‘Id day. And I have seen some wretched people who keep fast during the day and drink wine and commit adultery in the night. The general Muslims, by the grace of God, are not degenerated to that extent but after the end of Ramadan how many of you are there who retain some effects of piety and virtuousness on the second day of ‘Id also? Which law of God is left inviolate? What part of your time is devoted to good deeds, and how much is selfishness reduced?
Result of wrong conception of ‘Ibadah’
Think and ponder as to what after all can be the reason for this? I assure you that its only reason is that the very meaning and purport of ‘Ibadah has become twisted in your mind. You think that mere abstention from eating and drinking throughout the day is called fasting and that this alone is ‘Ibadah. Therefore you observe it meticulously. You feel the fear of God to that extent that you avoid every transgression which even slightly endangers the break-up of the fast so much so that even if the life is at stake, you are not prepared to break the fast. But you do not know that being merely hungry and thirsty is not real ‘Ibadah’ but only a form of it. And the purpose of prescribing this form is to create in you the fear of God and love of God, and thereby develop in you so much strength that by repressing yourself, you are enabled to avoid the seemingly profitable things but which actually displease Allah, while, on the other hand, by controlling your self you make yourself agreeable to those things which possibly entail risks and losses but definitely please God. This strength can be developed only when you understand the purpose of fasting and make use of the practice you have gone through for curbing the corporeal urges, under fear of God and love for God, and then making these urges work according to the pleasure of God. But soon after Ramadan you throw to the winds this practice as well as the virtues acquired from it just as a man after taking food vomits it by thrusting his fingers into his throat. In fact, some of you spew the virtuousness of the whole day soon after breaking the fast. Now you yourself decide, is there in Ramadan and fasting a magic that by mere completing their outward shape you can acquire that strength which in reality should emanate from genuine fasting? Just as physical strength cannot be obtained from the bread until it is digested after entering the stomach and until it is transformed into blood and penetrates every vein, in the same way spiritual power cannot be obtained from fasting until the person who keeps fast does not fully comprehend the purpose of fasting and allows it to permeate his heart and mind and dominate his thought, motive, intention and deed.
Fast source of becoming pious
This is why Allah said after ordaining fasting : “La’allakum tattaqoon”
i.e. fasting is made obligatory on you, may be you become pious and virtuous. It is not said that you will certainly become pious and virtuous because this outcome of fasting depends on the perception and intention of the man concerned. Whoever will understand its purpose and will try through it to achieve its objective, will become pious to the desired extent, but one who will not comprehend its purpose and will not even try to get at it, cannot hope to gain any thing out of it.
Real Aims of Fasting
1. Abstention from lying
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) has drawn attention in various ways towards the real aim of fasting and has explained that to be hungry and thirsty without keeping in view the objective is in no way useful. He said:
“Whoever did not give up lying and practising falsehood, Allah is in no need of his giving up food and water.”
In another Hadith he said:
“Many are the fasters whose fasting does not bring them anything except hunger and thirst and many are those who keep standing in the night but their standing does not bring anything except being awake in the night”.
The purport of both these Ahadith is quite plain. It means that being merely hungry and thirsty is not by itself Ibadat but an instrument of performing real ‘Ibadah. And real ‘Ibadah consists in not violating the law of God for fear of God, and for the love of God an eager pursuit of every such work as would please Him, and lastly, avoidance of satisfying corporeal urges as far as possible. Whoever remained heedless of this real ‘Ibadah, unnecessarily caused inconvenience to his stomach with hunger and thirst. Why should Allah need to make him merely give up food and water for twelve to fourteen hours?
2. Faith and self-scrutiny
The Prophet has drawn attention to the real aim of fasting thus:
“He who observes the fast of the month of Ramadan with sincere faith and hope for the reward of Allah will have his past sins forgiven” Bukhari and Muslim
The reference to faith implies that the belief in God with a Muslim should remain fully fresh in the mind of a Muslim, Ihtisab denotes that man should be desirous of only Allah’s pleasure constantly keeping an eye on his thoughts and actions to check if he is doing anything against the pleasure of Allah. If, in accordance with these two principles, a person were to observe all the fasts of Ramadan, he will have all his past sins forgiven because even if he was once an unruly and disobedient slave he has now turned fully repentant to his master—and “A penitent is like one who has, as it were, never committed a sin at all” this the Prophet said.
3. Shield for protection from sins
In another Hadith it is said:
“Fasts are like a shield (just as a shield is meant for protection from the enemy’s assault, so is fasting for protection from Satan’s attack). Therefore when a man observes fast he should (utilize this shield and) abstain from disorderly behaviour. If anybody abused him or quarrelled with him, the person who keeps fast should tell him: I am fasting (do not expect from me that I shall take part in such activities of yours”).
Temptation of goodness
The Prophet (saw) has directed in other Ahadith that man while fasting ought to do more and more good works and should be eager to perform benevolent acts. Particularly during fasting, he must develop with full intensity a sympathetic sentiment for his other brothers because being himself in the throes of hunger and thirst he can all the more realize what is befalling other slaves of God in their plight of destitution and misery. It is related by Ibn ‘Abbas (Allah be pleased with him) that the Prophet (saw) used to become especially kind and benevolent during Ramadan. No beggar in that period went empty-handed from his door, and the slaves secured emancipation.
Reward for providing ‘Iftar’
According to a Hadith the Prophet (saw) said:
“Whoever in Ramadan provide a person who is keeping fast with Iftar, this act will become a source of forgiveness for his sins and safety from Hell Fire and he will get as much reward as will the keeper of fast get without any reduction in the recompense of the latter.”
[Source: Let us Be Muslims]