To the unacquainted, fasting for a month every year may seem like an odd and painful thing to do in the name of religion. Is there a rationale behind it? What are the benefits?
The Rationale of Islamic Law
Most scholars agree that much of Islamic law is based on a rationale which we can understand; there is a wisdom and reason behind legal rulings. They also agree that every single legal ruling of shariah (Islamic law) either brings some kind of benefit (maslaha) or wards off some kind of harm (mafsada). In Madkhal ila Maqasid al-Shari’ah by Dr. A. Raysuni, the author explains how Ibn Abbas radi Allahu`anhu (may Allah be pleased with him) advised Muslims to listen intently whenever they hear Allah, subhanahu wa ta`ala (Exalted is He), calling “O You who believe,” as He is either directing them to a benefit or warning them of a harm.
Muslim scholars recognised this underlying rationale and thus summed up the goal of Islamic shari`ah in one condensed sentence: “The attainment of benefit and prevention of harm.”
Some of them reduced it even further: “The attainment of benefit.”
Ibn al-Qayyim (ra) points to this fact: “The Qur’an and the sunnah (traditions) of the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) are full of rationale for legal rulings.” He further affirms, “These rationales are to be found in over a thousand places (in the texts) expressed through various means.”1
Definitions of Maslaha and Mafsada
What exactly is meant by maslaha and mafsada? Imam al-Razi (ra) in al-Mahsul succinctly defined maslaha as nothing but pleasure or that which leads to it; and mafsada as pain or that which leads to it.
Imam `Izz al-Deen (ra) b. Abd al-Salam in al-Qawaid al-Kubra further defines maslaha as
- Pleasure and its causes and
- Happiness and its causes.
He defines mafsada as
- Pain and its causes and
- Sadness and its causes.
Pleasure and its opposite, pain, allude to physical realities, whilst happiness and sadness allude to emotional or psychological realities. He further divided each of the above categories into those related to the earth and those related to the hereafter.
Fasting to Break the Two Desires
So what has this to do with Ramadan?
Fasting in Ramadan is also an Islamic legal command and therefore the act must have associated benefits and must somehow prevent harm. One of the purposes of fasting in Ramadan according to the Qu’ran is to gain taqwa (piety) by training the nafs (self) in self-control.
Imam al-Ghazali (ra) called it “breaking the two desires”:
- The desire for food and drink.
- The desire for sexual relations.
Although these desires are not actually intended to be broken literally or eliminated completely, as they are inextricable parts of human nature and we depend on these basic appetites for survival. However, they can be tamed, regulated and controlled so that the self can escape from being a slave to these two desires and protect itself from both temporal and eternal harm: pain and sadness – whilst striving to acquire both temporal and eternal benefit: pleasure and happiness. Amazingly, that is what the root word of taqwa literally means: to protect and save oneself from harm. The word to save/protect (quw) is used in the Qur’anic verse: “Save yourselves and your families from the hellfire…” [66:6]
The fact that a whole month is dedicated to taming and controlling these two desires indicates to us their significance to the spiritual well-being of man. These two desires are the most pleasurable and at the same time potentially the most destructive. They appear to offer the greatest immediate pleasure or happiness, but they can also lead to greatest pain and sadness— both temporal and in the hereafter.
This is illustrated in the following hadith:
“Paradise is surrounded by difficulties and the Fire is surrounded by pleasures.”
But the “difficulties” surrounding Paradise only appear as harmful (mafaasid) in the sense that they incur hardship and pain; however they ultimately lead to a greater benefit (maslaha). Whereas the “pleasures” surrounding the fire are beneficial (masaalih) in the sense that they are enjoyable and desired; however, ultimately they lead to a much greater pain and harm (mafsada).
One of the major challenges of living in Western societies is the relentless all pervasive appeal made to these two desires. Food and drink is everywhere, in limitless varieties and consumed in fatal quantities. We are literally eating ourselves to death, and in the process starving other parts of the world. Healthy sexual desires are aggressively being targeted and distorted by internet porn, films, fashion and media advertising that is available everywhere to everyone.
Most people on a daily basis are in pursuit of fulfilling these two basic desires either through permitted means (halal), or through illegal means (haram). Islamic law distinguishes for us which is beneficial and which is harmful.
Fasting and its Rewards
Fasting is the ultimate training in strengthening our ability to control our most powerful desires. The ability to control and regulate these desires and the nafs is the essence of the test of life, in which Allah (swt) wants us to attain servitude to Him alone, as opposed to servitude to our base desires. Fasting trains us not only to keep within the permitted means, but it teaches us that even moderation within the initially halal means can lead to our harm and destruction.
Fasting is one of the greatest acts of worship, and one of the most highly rewarded – probably because it addresses the very thing that will determine our eternal success or failure: self-control in accordance to Islamic law. The promise of high reward, or pleasure and happiness, motivates all sane human beings to strive for its attainment.
The month of Ramadan, amongst many other immense blessings, grants us the best opportunity to strive for attaining the self-control that will lead to eternal pleasure and felicity. Allah, subhanahu wa ta`ala (Exalted is He), guarantees paradise as a reward for the one who resists following his/her desires.
وَأَمَّا مَنْ خَافَ مَقَامَ رَبِّهِ وَنَهَى النَّفْسَ عَنِ الْهَوَىٰ
فَإِنَّ الْجَنَّةَ هِيَ الْمَأْوَىٰ
But as for he who feared the position of his Lord and prevented the soul from [unlawful] inclination,
Then indeed, Paradise will be [his] refuge.(Quran 79:40-41)
How Merciful is Allah (swt) who not only rewards us when we control our nafs, but He rewards us immensely whilst we are learning how to control our nafs in fasting. May Allah (swt) grant us all the ability to earn His pleasure and not waste this magnificent opportunity.
As Ibn Rajab said: “For every month that passes, you may hope to find a substitute; but alas, for the month of Ramadan, from where do you hope to replace it?”
- Madkhal ila Maqasid al-Shari’ah, Dr. A. Raysuni [↩]