As yet another blessed month of Ramadan unfolds, the perennial, and somewhat disturbing, truth re-emerges. That truth is that a great many Muslims fast. In many countries, overwhelming majorities – perhaps all — do so.
In some countries, it is an anomaly to see or discover that any Muslim, from any societal stratum, does not fast, even for legitimate reasons. Heavy penalties are imposed on those who openly violate the sanctity of Ramadan and fasting.
It is illegal in most Muslim counties to drink or eat in public during Ramadan. A person — sometimes even a non-Muslim — can be sent to jail, heavily fined, or may yet be beaten by vigilantes.
However, the overall situation of Muslims as the best and standard-setting ummah (community), and the supposed history and civilization makers, does not improve. Yet, one gets a feeling that it is getting worse by the day, despite the apparent prevalent faithfulness and virtue which, by the letter and spirit of revelation, guarantees prosperity and happiness.
At the collective level, Muslims are losing respect in the eyes of most of the world, so much so that it seems that there is hardly anyone who genuinely respects them, or takes them seriously. It is as if Muslims do not do enough with reference to the proposition of changing what is in themselves and their hearts, so that Almighty Allah could take care of and change their condition as a community.
Why is it so when the primary objective of Ramadan and fasting is the increase in piety, God-fearing and God-consciousness (taqwa), intended to inspire a person to be on guard against wrong and immoral actions and keen to do things that please Almighty Allah alone?
Why is it so when fasting, as a revolutionary experience, is designed to make us better and more enlightened people, closer to Allah and each other?
Why is it so, furthermore, when fasting and everything that goes with it, such as collective prayers, sharing meals, brotherhood, universal kindness and benevolence, as well as outpouring philanthropy, are as much personal experiences as co-operative engagements and missions?
Finally, why is it so when fasting is a means to boost Muslim civilizational consciousness and output? In passing, some of the most ground-breaking events in the history of Islamic civilization took place during none other than the month of Ramadan. Fasting then was not perceived as an impediment, nor as a source of concern, or deterrence. Rather, it was recognized as an incentive, as well as a source of motivation and zeal.
The answer to these questions will be three-pronged, or tripartite, dwelling firstly on the purpose of fasting, secondly on the relationship between fasting and culture, and thirdly on the relationship between Islam, as well as fasting, and life.
The Purpose of Fasting
Almighty Allah says in the Quran:
O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may become righteous (pious) (2: 183).
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said:
Whoever fasts during Ramadan out of sincere faith and hoping to attain Allah’s rewards, then all his past sins will be forgiven (Sahih al-Bukhari).
Fasting is a shield with which a servant protects himself from the Fire (Musnad Ahmad).
Accordingly, a fasting person is expected to markedly enhance his spiritual state, making him ever conscious of Allah’s presence and His infinite Knowledge. That, in turn, should motivate him to constantly perform righteous deeds and shun all sorts of forbidden activities: physical, mental and spiritual.
A person is to emerge from Ramadan and its demanding fasting process as showered with divine mercy, lavished in heavenly love and gifted with grace and endless blessings. He is to emerge as forgiven and almost assured of Jannah (Paradise).
He is furthermore to come out as a winner against all evil temptations and whispers within and without his self. He is to become kinder, more generous, more productive and generally more useful to his surroundings that include both Muslims and non-Muslims.
If not, a person who fasts is set to become a big loser, as proclaimed by the Prophet on numerous occasions, for the purpose and goal of fasting revolve around each and every component mentioned above.
In short, the life of a fasting person, in the end, is not to be the same again. Every single day of the month of Ramadan — and every Ramadan as a holy month as well — ought to signify a person’s upward spiritual movement and progression towards his ultimate spiritual fulfillment.
Every Ramadan is to set a new benchmark. Surely, that the first third of Ramadan is mercy (rahmah), the second forgiveness (maghfirah), and the third salvation or ransom from the Fire (‘itq min al-nar) — as revealed by the Prophet in a weak hadith — clearly indicates the fasting person’s gradual spiritual growth, and its foremost stations, throughout the month of Ramadan.
Fasting also tames one’s ego and extinguishes his negativities and failings. It dramatically improves his attitude, worldview and character.
If such is not the case, however, the validity and correctness of one’s fasting may be in serious doubt. It may not be accepted by Allah, and thus, all the renowned and abundant benefits and boons associated with fasting may eventually evade a person, partly or completely.
The Prophet said:
Whoever does not give up false speech and evil actions, Allah is not in need of his leaving his food and drink (i.e., Allah will not accept his fasting) (Al-Bukhari).
The Prophet suggested in many hadiths (tradition) that the one who is truly deprived is the one who is deprived of the goodness of Ramadan and the obligation of fasting, and the one who is truly a loser is the one who has not been forgiven by the end of Ramadan.
The Prophet is reported to have said, for example:
May his nose be rubbed in the dust, a man for whom Ramadan comes and then goes before he is forgiven (Jami’ Al-Tirmidhi).