The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said:
Islam is built on five (pillars): bearing witness that there is no god except Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, establishing prayer, paying zakah (a form of alms-giving), Hajj (pilgrimage) and fasting Ramadan (Sahih Al-Bukhari).
This hadith subtly presents the meaning of Islam and its relationship with life. We can understand that the pillars of Islam are one thing and its edifice another, the latter resting and depending on the former. They together form such a formidable unit that neither can exist without the other.
No submission to, and worshiping of, Almighty Allah is possible on the basis of pillars and principles other than the five mentioned. In equal measure, the five pillars cannot generate, nor support, a behavioral pattern, or a life paradigm, other than Islam.
The hadith also reveals that the five pillars, central and ultimate as they are, denote just the pillars, or the foundation, of Islam. They alone are not exclusively Islam; nor do they thus constitute its whole and comprehensive nature.
All-inclusive Islam, rather, is something more. The pillars are Islam only inasmuch as they function as its foundation and support. In a subtle conceptual and functional relationship, the two aspects form the comprehensive edifice of Islam as a philosophy, worldview, religion, law and civilization.
The foundation is a means of the main structure of Islam, which is viewed as the end, and which accounts for the whole life involvement, contribution and experience.
That being said, in the context of Ramadan and fasting, as one of the five pillars of Islam, fasting Ramadan is not an end in itself. It is a means whereby a higher set of goals and experiences are pursued and achieved:
…so that you may become righteous (pious, God-fearing or God-conscious) (la’allakum tattaqun)” (2:183).
It does not mean that a fasting person by means of merely abstaining from eating food, drinking liquids, smoking cigarettes, and engaging in any sexual activity, from dawn to sunset, will automatically procure all the benefits of fasting. That will all depend on what happens during fasting and afterwards in other existential spheres, which rest on fasting as one of the five pillars of Islam.
Fasting will be rewarded proportionately with its effects on a person’s behavior and overall productivity in those spheres. Such is the meaning of taqwa as the ultimate objective of fasting. Also, such is the meaning of Islam as total submission to Almighty Allah, and the meaning of living life solely according to His Will and Decrees, which is called ‘ibadah (worship). Indeed, Islam is life, and life, as perceived and created by Allah the Creator and Master, in essence, is Islam.
It is thus grossly inappropriate if a fasting person’s tongue is not guarded against idle chatter, lying, gossiping, obscenity, rudeness, arguing and controversy; and his ears against everything reprehensible, for everything unlawful to utter is likewise unlawful to listen to; and his limbs and organs against all categories of sin. Imam al-Ghazzali reported that the Prophet said that “five things break a man’s fasting: lying, backbiting, gossiping, perjury and a lustful gaze”.
This means that it is not right that a person’s stomach fasts, but his talk, thoughts and some other vital organs and limbs do not. Nor is it right that a person’s physical part fasts, but his psychological and spiritual ones do not. Nor is it right, furthermore, that a person is good and pious during Ramadan, but adopts another contradictory both attitude and lifestyle after it.
Finally, nor is it right that a person is devout and God-fearing in pure religious matters and when dealing with pure religious institutions – whether during Ramadan or beyond it — but adopts another incongruous demeanor when dealing in other worldly matters and with other non-religious institutions.
This obvious inconsistency, containing unambiguous elements of hypocrisy, is unacceptable a course of action in Islam. It is an incomplete, yet outright wrong, Islam. It sends out all the wrong signals as much to fellow Muslims as to non-Muslims. It is set to confuse and mislead, rather than enlighten and guide.
No misconception about Islam will ever be thus removed, and no bad image about Muslims corrected. On the contrary, not only will the same be further enhanced, but also new falsehoods and misjudgments will be created and caused to thrive.
Fasting, it follows, is to inspire — together with the other pillars of Islam — a new comprehensive life approach, whose ethos will be distinguished by the Islamic precepts of unity, comprehensiveness, universality and all-inclusive excellence. Moreover, fasting is to help in the expansion of Islamic normative teachings and values from the realm of the personal life to the realm of institutions and social engagement and participation.
Every successful civilizational project starts with individuals, but quickly morphs into, and is only sustained by, institutions. Needless to recall, for example, that the “humanity project” started with Prophet Adam, and the last and most consequential prophethood mission “project” started with Muhammad and in a cave called Hira’. Having received his prophethood calling, Muhammad (peace be upon him) for obvious reasons never returned to the cave.
To some researchers, this discrepancy between the personal and social institutional engagements and interests is one of the main reasons for Muslim religious, cultural and civilizational decadence.
It is therefore high time that Muslims understand that Allah is the God, not only of Ramadan, but also every other month. He is the God both of the powerful and weak, of the rich and poor, of the educated and those uneducated, of the leaders and their subjects, and of the oppressors and those oppressed. Likewise, He is the God, not only in mosques and other places of worship, but also everywhere else, such as in offices, factories, banks and other financial institutions, parliaments, schools, shopping centers, entertainment centers, houses, parks, on the streets, etc.
The whole earth has been rendered a mosque and a place of prostration (sujud), and the whole life a ceaseless system of worship (‘ibadah) and submission. Fasting is only a segment, or a support — albeit one of the most critical ones – in the entire metaphysical scheme of things.