Originally Posted August 2011
A Look into the Secret of Ramadan and Fasting
Fasting is a devotional act performed by the followers of many religions. Christians, Jews, and Muslims all believe in the fundamental act of fasting, although they differ regarding its definition and details. The Qur’an and Sunnah (practice of the Prophet ﷺ, peace be upon him) affirm this fact, and provide a complete narrative regarding the history, purpose, and method of fasting. Fasting is an essential pillar of Islam, as clearly stated in the Prophetic narrations (hadith) and the Qur’an. At face value, it is an external act, but in reality its purpose is primarily to influence and affect the internal. Although fasting is always encouraged and recommended, God has chosen a specific month where man has been commanded to fast and advised to perform a number of additional devotional acts. As will become apparent, in the fasting of Ramadan, Islam has transformed fasting from a simple, personally beneficial act into a complete, intensive program designed to transform man’s character and his relationship with God and His creation. This fundamental pillar of Islam should be understood as an institution providing education, training, social programming, and spiritual and character development.
What is Fasting?
The Arabic term sawm linguistically means to refrain or abstain from something. Mary, the mother of Jesus, uses the word sawm when her people ask about her pregnancy:
“[…] ‘Indeed, I have vowed to the Most Merciful [God] abstention, so I will not speak today to [any] man,’” (Qur’an, 19:26).
The translation of this verse shows Mary’s linguistic use of the word. Here, we clearly see the literal meaning of the term sawm being used to describe Mary’s abstinence from speaking to anyone until after Jesus was born (so she wouldn’t have to defend herself from any allegations). The Arabs would also use the term when referring to a horse that refrained from running. It is from this linguistic root that Islam then religiously referred to fasting as a particular type of abstinence during a particular time period by a particular individual. This definition concisely states that fasting requires an intention to refrain from food, drink, and intercourse from the break of dawn until sunset. Furthermore, the individual who fasts must be in a state in which fasting is permissible for him. Although this explanation of fasting is what all Muslims do today, Islam acknowledges that other faiths and even the Prophet ﷺ and his companions initially fasted in a different way. This will be explained later in the history of fasting. However, what is important to understand is the purpose behind fasting, which will be discussed in the following section.
The Obligation and Purpose of Fasting
Fasting is always something commendable and recommended in Islam, and it has a clearly defined purpose. God says, “O you who have believed, decreed upon you is fasting as it was decreed upon those before you so that you may be protected through righteousness [achieve taqwa]” (Qur’an, 2:183). This verse states both the command to fast as well as the purpose of fasting: to attain taqwa (God consciousness). However, it does not state the exact time period, as this is explained in the following verses. God explains in the Qur’an that fasting is prescribed for a limited number of days, which He then explains as being in the month of Ramadan (2:183-185). He confirms the obligation to fast this month by stating, “[…] So whoever sights [the new moon of] the month, let him fast it […]” (Qur’an, 2:185).
The natural question that comes to mind is what is the meaning of taqwa? What is the aim of fasting? The term linguistically implies protecting and saving one’s self from harm. Possessing taqwa is also expressed as being God-conscious, pious, in awe of God, and being careful not to do anything contrary to what God loves. In regards to its meaning as the purpose behind fasting, taqwa means to protect one’s self. This protection is two-fold: protection from God’s punishment and displeasure by attaining a state of God-consciousness, awe, piety, and love for what God loves; secondly, to protect one’s self from the harms of heedlessness, lack of discipline, enslavement to one’s desires, and poor character. The individual who has achieved taqwa reaches a lofty spiritual state that deserves God’s love, mercy, and His promise of Paradise.
Some of the Ambitions Behind Fasting
- Developing sincerity in our actions. Fasting is one of the most pure and sincere devotional acts since no one knows if you cheat while fasting.
- Purifying the soul from lowly character, which is often the result of being a slave to one’s carnal desires.
- It overpowers Satan and his attempts to deceive man.
- It serves as a means to God-consciousness and staying away from sins.
- Leads to being merciful and compassionate to the poor.
Background about Ramadan
The linguistic meaning of the word Ramadan comes from the root ramad implying extreme heat. It is suitable for the month of fasting, as the name of the month refers to the dryness of the mouth that one feels when thirsty.
It has been narrated that all the divinely revealed scriptures came down during the month of Ramadan. The Qur’an descended from the highest heaven to the lower heaven in Ramadan, and then the initial revelation to the Prophet ﷺ was also in Ramadan. This important fact is highlighted as God mentions in the Qur’an: “The month of Ramadan [is that] in which the Qur’an was revealed, as guidance for people…” Thus, it is of significance to mention that one of the main reasons we fast the month of Ramadan is out of reverence for the Qur’an and with the intention to renew our commitment to it. This is exemplified in the night prayer, tarawih, during which large portions of the Quran are read every night. It is as if God is commanding people to the fast Ramadan as an expression of gratitude for the gift of the Qur’an to mankind.
The History of Fasting
Fasting the month of Ramadan was made obligatory upon the Muslims in the 2nd year AH.1 Fasting was also something obligatory upon the previous Prophets and their people. The scholars differed though upon the nature of their fasting as well as the initial fasting of the Muslims before the 2nd year AH. A number of scholars stated that the prior generations were obligated to fast three days a month, and were not commanded to fast the month of Ramadan. Others stated that the prior generations were commanded to fast the month of Ramadan and that their fasting began after sleeping after the night prayer and lasted until the following evening.
In regards to the history of fasting during the life of the Prophet ﷺ, we find that God employed a gradual method to introduce fasting and altered its details until the final command and timings were solidified. The initial obligation was fasting three days a month. Then, the fasting of the 10th of Muharram (the day of `Ashura) was added as an obligation. Then, fasting the month of Ramadan was introduced; however, people were given the choice to either fast or to feed a poor person each day of the month. Then, fasting became obligatory upon those capable, and would start from the time one slept or after the evening prayer. Finally, the timing was changed to start at dawn and end at sunset. These five stages show the gradual implementation, thus giving Islam a unique implementation of fasting different from other faiths.
The Ramadan Program
The month of Ramadan is intended to be a complete program for reformation of the mind, body, and soul. It includes a number of obligatory, recommended, and prohibited acts, all seeking to improve man’s character and relationship with God. When we see Ramadan as a program for purification, our attitude will be different. We will no longer see it as a difficult obligation whereby God is simply testing our ability to obey him, but rather as a unique opportunity to achieve a state of peace, spiritual and physical health, love for God, and realize our full potential in life. For if we see how capable we are of controlling our natural desires and pushing ourselves to higher limits in Ramadan, we will realize the strength we possess to achieve our highest ambitions in life.
When we seek to improve our physical health, we know we need to change our diet and exercise routine. We may consult a number of nutritionists and fitness experts to put together a program that will help us achieve our goals. These programs often define essential foods that should be eaten and others that must be avoided, and exercises that must be performed daily or weekly. For example, a particular program may mandate eating a particular amount of proteins, limiting the amount of saturated fats, performing a defined number of push-ups and sit-ups, and running in the morning or evening. Interestingly, we find new programs every year, whether it be the latest diet fad or exercise routine. Some of these turn out to be of value, and people continuously invest their time and money in these fitness and health programs.
God has similarly given us the program of Ramadan, although its ambitions extend beyond mere physical health, and the Designer of the program possesses infinite knowledge. Ramadan is an intensive program designed by the Creator of mankind, who knows best how His creation should live and knows best what is beneficial to them. For this reason, we welcome Ramadan as an annual retreat and perfectly designed program; we recognize its ability to purify, reform, and improve ourselves through the acts that God has legislated for our benefit. It is thus the ultimate prescription and program for taqwa, the most noble goal and aim in life. By achieving this state of consciousness, we protect ourselves from harm in this life and the next.
An important point to be understood is that a particular program or medication doesn’t always feel or taste good immediately. The first few days, or weeks, of dieting and exercise can be extremely painful as one gets used to limiting his food intake, stressing his muscles, and dealing with the burn and soreness of working out. However, once he gets used to the program, he begins to notice improvements in his health and his body becomes accustomed to the new regiment. Another example of this initial discomfort is when a sick patient is given medication. The taste of the medication or food eaten may be bitter or sour, but the patient continues to take it knowing it is of extreme benefit. The reality may even be that the food or medicine prescribed is sweet, but due to his sickness everything tastes bland or bitter. Likewise, the initial adjustment period to fasting and the Ramadan program may be tiring and difficult, but we should always keep in mind that as we get used to it we will both enjoy it and tremendously benefit from it if performed properly.
10 High Priority Acts to be Performed in the Month of Ramadan:
- Recitation of the Qur’an (in Arabic)
- Studying the Qur’an (reading the translation and explanation)
- Tarawih Prayer (Recommended Ramadan prayers)
- Qiyam al-Layl (Voluntary night prayers)
- Performing all five prayers on time
- Praying in congregation when possible
- Refraining from lying, backbiting, gossiping, and cursing
- Refraining from excess television and social media
- Fixing our relationships with family and friends
- Giving as much charity as possible
- AH means after hijrah (migration), which refers to the migration of the Muslims from Makkah to Madina. [↩]