"O you who believe! Fasting
is prescribed for you as it was for those before you, so that you may learn
<Qur'an, The Cow 2:183>
The fast of Ramadan is Islam's Fourth Pillar. Between first light and sundown, adult Muslims in good health abstain from food, drink, cigarettes, and sex. Vices, such as lying and backbiting, are regarded as particularly abhorrent during Ramadan, which is also a traditional time for charity and visiting the sick and the poor. The fast lasts for an entire lunar month of between 28 and 30 days, and ends with one of the religion's major festivals, Eid al-Fitr.
Many people are aware that Muslims observe an annual fast, during the month of Ramadan. Why they do so however, is not always so well known. Fasting, in the various forms men have observed throughout history, is known to have beneficial effects on one's health. But in a religious context, it is primarily a technique of seeking proximity to God. It is described in the Quran thus "so that you may attain taqwa or God-consciousness" and is another instrument for bringing us closer to our natural state, our state of fitrah and for cleansing this state from the dross of any disobedience and corruption.
It seems that every religious dispensation before Islam knew the practice of fasting in one form or another. In the archaic practices of Hinduism there were certain days of the year set aside for Fasting by women, and others for men. In our day, the Brahmin caste in India still observes a complete abstinence from food and drink on the eleventh and twelfth days of every Hindu month.
Fasting was also known to the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. Similarly, the ancient scriptures of Persian advocate Fasting and affirm its value as a means of spiritual purification. The Jews of the Old Testament were known to observe fasts on days of danger and misfortune and on several fixed days in their calendar, of which the best known to non-Jews in the fast of Yom Kippur.
Jesus is said to have fasted forty days and nights before his final entry into Jerusalem. The early Christians, most of whom observed the Mosaic Law, also fasted on the Day of Atonement. But as history rolled on, less emphasis was placed on exact adherence to the practices observed by Jesus, and the Lenten fast assumed a largely symbolic role, involving abstention from certain types of food only.
Fasting, then, is as old as religion itself. When Islam appeared, its scripture acknowledged and continued this ancient practice. The Quran taught the early Muslims to fast on any day, but stated that as a minimum they were to observe the month-long fast of Ramdan.
The "outward fast" where one abstains from food, drink and sexual intimacy.
Secondly the fast of the senses and the tongue, whereby one is to avoid looking at or hearing anything which might turn the attention to material things, and where the Fasting person refrains from backbiting and hostile language
The third and highest grade of fasting is the "fast of the soul," where the above practices are perfected by an abstinence from any thought which might impair one's awareness of God's presence.
The basic mandatory elements of the Muslim fast however, are straightforward. As the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet (pbuh) expound, it consists in the simple abstention from food, drink, and sexual relations during the hours of daylight. Just before the call for the Dawn Prayer is given, the Muslims gather to share the meal called suhur, then after the Prayer, they fast through the day until sunset, when they take another meal ending the day's fast.
"Fasting is a shield"
- Saying of the Prophet (pbuh)
Muslims say that when they fast they feel that a barrier has been erected between them and the world. No longer are they constantly absorbing sustenance from their surroundings. One of the effects of this is to compel them to realise their total dependence upon food and drink, so that they fervently thank their Creator for His unfailing provision of their daily needs.
In addition, they will come to know hunger. We read so often that one-quarter of the world's population is in a state of constant hunger, yet how many of us realise the true meaning of hunger? If our lunch is two hours late most of us feel extremely uncomfortable. But to grasp the true meaning of hunger, it is necessary to go without food for a longer time. By the end of a day's fast, the Muslim usually feels hungry, but not unbearably so. Thus we are awakened in the most real and direct way to the plight of millions of our fellow human beings, and will be more willing and ready to extend to them our assistance.
However, Fasting has another and far more transformative effect. It engenders a sense of detachment from the world. Physical separation, as a powerful symbol, brings about in the mind and the heart that appreciation of distance which is one of the states most cherished by spiritual seekers everywhere.
When Fasting, the Muslim acts with a new sense of confidence, able more fully to concentrate his attention on his material as well as his spiritual life. Temporarily despairing of food and drink, he is able to devote himself more fully to the One who is the source of all his sustenance.
Thus during Ramadan, the Muslim finds that his religious life takes on new meaning. The Quran yields new secrets and treasures; in fact, every devotional practice functions more efficiently during the Fasting months until the whole day becomes infused with religious meaning. This is why in Ramadan Muslims spend long hours in Prayer. They strive to obey God in everything they do, endeavouring to please Him by visiting relatives and the sick, by serving the neighbourhood in some way, and by avoiding even more than usual any act of injustice or dishonesty.
Ramadan is thus traditionally the time of reconciliation, of love and forgiveness, as well as of spiritual ascent. It purifies the soul and whole communities of the misdeeds and the misunderstandings of the past year, and acts as a powerful energy for reform, so that when the month is over, and the season of festivals begins, the Muslim may face the future with new determination and strength, repentant for his former bad habits and resolute that he will never again return to them. Thus men and women and whole societies purify themselves during this month that becomes the turning point of the year; and, for many people, it is the turning point of their lives.