Fasting is a school for the training of both the physical body and the soul, and it has numerous merits and benefits. However, just as with any other act of worship, Muslims observe the fast not for the benefits, but rather because they wish to totally submit to the will of God. Believers are aware that worldly benefits are not the goal of any kind of worship. Muslims draw closer to God by abandoning the things they enjoy, and this makes the sincerity of their devotion to God all the more evident. They know that God will be pleased with them if they abandon worldly comforts for His sake. The reason for their worship is the Divine command and its result is God’s good pleasure.
Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam. Concerning the fast of Ramadan, the Qur’an declares:
The month of Ramadan, is the month in which the Qur’an (began to be) sent down as a pure source of guidance for people, and, when practiced, as clear signs of guidance and the Criterion between truth and falsehood. Therefore, whoever is present during this month must fast and he who is so ill that he cannot fast or he who is on a journey must fast the same number of days on other days. God desires ease for you, and desires not hardship for you, so that you can complete the number of the days required, and exalt God because He has guided you, and it is hoped that you may give the thanks due to Him. (Baqara 2:185)
How does Hunger Accomplish What Abundance cannot?
Human beings have both carnal and spiritual sides. The physical body of a human is comparatively small, but the soul is infinite, allowing them to embrace the whole universe. Human beings are not only material objects, a creature consisting of a stomach, nor do they only have a limited, cumbersome, simple, or transient corporal body. Human nature is so universal that in themselves human beings contain some aspect of all that exists in the universe. The countless tendencies, desires, feelings, dreams, thoughts, and ideas of humanity are like an index of the universe.
God Almighty has ornamented the Earth with countless blessings and has given it to humanity, the vicegerent of God on Earth. Each day they receive lavishly prepared dining tables, one after another. Their sustenance is sent to them from the Heavens via the trees, each of which gives a different fruit in a different season of the year and the Earth nourishes them with every kind of delicious provisions.
He has granted you all that you would ask of Him. Should you attempt to count God’s blessings, you cannot calculate them. But humankind is innately inclined to extreme misjudgment and ingratitude. (Ibrahim 14:34)
Both the Earth and the skies were created to serve humanity, and the main reason why human beings exist is to worship God, making worship a fundamental aim in itself. God Almighty says in the Qur’an: I have not created the jinn and humankind but to know and worship Me alone (Dhariyat 51:56). God, the most Gracious, gave us countless favors but unfortunately, for the most part we are unaware of and thus not thankful for these bounties. We are like a fish that is in the sea but unaware of the water as a blessing.
One of the signs of a person being mature is the subjugation of the bestial characteristics of the brain and the soul. Human nature is difficult to deal with; it is sometimes excessive and sometimes regressive. Severe measures are sometimes needed to suppress the excesses. In this sense, it is very difficult to satisfy the carnal soul; the more you give the more it demands. The carnal soul continuously commands human beings to commit sins. According to a Qur’anic decree, the Prophet Joseph describes the carnal soul in the most eloquent way saying,
I free not my own self of blame, for the human soul is certainly prone to evil, except to whom my Lord has granted His Mercy. Surely my Lord is All-Forgiving, Most Merciful (Yusuf 12:53).
Repentance after committing sins and the redemption of sins through fasting strengthen the free will of humanity and purify the soul.
God Almighty has provided humanity with the willpower to ascend from the lowest rank to a most exalted one, or vice versa. Therefore, sometimes humans can surpass the angels and become closer to God, while at other times some people are worse than any devil.
Surely We have created human of the best stature as the perfect pattern of creation; then We have reduced him to the lowest of the low. Except those who believe and do good, righteous deeds, so there is for them a reward constant and beyond measure. (Tin 95:4-6)
Since the excess of animality hinders the emergence of angelic aspects, it is necessary that human beings should try to dominate their animalistic side. When the dominance of the soul over the body weakens or when the body becomes dominant, human beings become slaves to their carnal desires. They pay no heed to the intellect or to religious admonitions and spend all their energy trying to quench their thirst and hunger for worldly delights. Their only concern is to find new ways of satisfying their carnal desires. They have to invent substances that increase the appetite, that aid digestion, or even act as stimulants. “Such people are like a donkey or an ox, even if they are at the peak of science, culture, and civilization. They will commute between the dining room and the toilet all their life and will have no time for any principles or for the eternal life. All their faculties will die, except for those pertaining to lust, food, drink, and foolish entertainment.”1 No depiction can be more precise and more elegant than that of the Qur’an:
… as for those who disbelieve, they shall enjoy this world and eat as cattle eat; and the Fire shall be their abode (Muhammad 47:12).
Fasting is the reins and bit that restrain the carnal self. It hinders human beings from becoming arrogant like pharaohs. It is reported that the Prophet said: “God inflicted certain sort of punishments upon the carnal self. First, He put the carnal self in the fire and asked: ‘Who are you, who am I?’ The carnal self said: ‘You are you, I am me.’ Then, God restrained the self with hunger and asked again: ‘Who are you, who am I?’ The final answer of the self was: ‘You are the Owner of the worlds and I am Your humble servant.’”
Fasting Helps us to Become Aware of God’s Blessings and to Appreciate Them
As for spiritual merits and therapeutic benefits that may be gained from performing the fast, these cannot be considered to be the sole results, irrespective of how satisfactory the fruits are. Since believers fast to seek the pleasure of God and to gain salvation in the Hereafter, it is clear that the fruits and benefits of the fast are in the Hereafter. Nevertheless, exploring the wisdom behind the act of fasting strengthens the faith of Muslims who are aware that whatever God commands is always good and whatever He prohibits is always bad and harmful. This helps them proceed in the awareness that God, Who is so compassionate and generous, rewards good deeds both in this world and the Hereafter.
Fasting is a school for the training of the spirit, the purification of the heart, and protection from committing sins. No matter whether one fasts only for a day or a month, the person fasting cuts themselves off from worldly comforts, including food, drink, and sexual relations, that are otherwise lawful in the ordinary course of life, at the behest of God, Who shall give a reward for it. Although everything done for the sake of God has a reward, none of the good deeds or acts of worship can be compared to fasting when it comes to God’s pleasure and reward. As reported by Abu Hurayra, God’s Messenger stated that God said, “Every act of the humanity is for themselves, except fasting. It is for Me, and I shall reward it. That is because they abstain from food, drink and carnal desires for My sake.”2
Fasting forms a private connection between the Creator and the creation, and it has deep inner aspects along with its more obvious benefits and merits. Thus, fasting has a special quality that is not found in anything else and that is its close connection to God; this is so much so that He says: “Fasting is for Me, and I shall reward it.” God has chosen fasting for Himself, and He will reward it and multiply the reward without measure.
Sincerity is very important when one observes an act of worship. Sincerity means doing something only for God’s sake. Fasting reflects this characteristic well, for it cannot be known whether a person is actually fasting or not. Only God and the person fasting can know this. Moreover, there is no need to make the fact that one is fasting known to other people.
Therefore, believers must observe fasting in complete cordiality and refrain from actions that may harm their sincerity. They should not depress or annoy others, or expect anything from them while observing the fast, as this is only for God.
People of deep perception think that, “fasting is for me,” means “I am Samad,” the One to Whom all created beings turn to for all their needs, and Who is not dependent on anything or anyone for any need. God is not in need of anything, and He does not need our fasting, either. It is an act of worship observed for God alone; fasting causes a positive change in the nature of the person fasting and brings about perfect moral values that God will reward in a way beyond the imagination of human beings. Fasting is a worship that is not evident to other people and therefore there is no ostentation. Therefore, in the second part, God says: “and I will reward it.”
The teachings of Jesus concerning this issue are stated in the Bible:
Whenever you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with sad faces. For they disfigure their faces, that they may be seen by men to be fasting. Most certainly I tell you, they have received their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face; so that you are not seen by men to be fasting, but by your Lord who is in secret, and your Lord, who sees in secret, will reward you (Mathew 6:16-18).
The Bible alone has 74 references to fasting.3 The Bible mentions that the Prophets Jesus, John (the Baptist), Moses, Daniel, Elijah, and David, peace be upon them, all fasted. Prophet David fasted every other day. This fast of David is one of the most virtuous of the recommended fasts in Islam as well. Prolonged fasting was practiced by the Biblical saints, Ahab, Anna, Esther, Hannah, Ezra, and the apostles.
Fasting is not only mentioned in the Bible, both the Old and New Testament, but also in the Mahabharat of Hinduism, and in the Upanishads of India, as well as being observed among the Jains. The original significance of fasting as a form of spiritual devotion was the same among the nations and communities of such ancient civilizations as the Celts, Aztecs, Babylonians, ancient Peruvians, the Assyrians, the ancient Greeks, and the Egyptians. Namely, fasting as an institution for spiritual reasons is common to all religions and faiths.
The life accounts of all the prophets in revealed scriptures and in popular knowledge show that they were actually leading a holy way of life for a certain period of time, even before they started receiving Divine Guidance. During this period, they abstained from food, drink, and other human needs, and they enabled their souls to have communion with God and finally were rewarded with His revelation. Prophet Moses, Prophet Jesus, and Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon them all), who are guides for the purification and perfection of the soul, observed fasting during the preparation phase of their difficult missions. Prophet Moses spoke with God and received the Law after fasting for forty days:
And he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28).
The Bible also mentions that Jesus fasted for forty days in the desert before starting his ministry. Similarly, Prophet Muhammad was called to the prophethood at the age of forty while fasting and worshipping during the month of Ramadan in the Hira cave on top of a mountain in solitude. This is another proof of the fact that fasting is an influential factor in the maturation and purification of human beings.
The Qur’an is the greatest evidence concerning the order of fasting prescribed for modern and ancient people alike:
O, you who believe! Prescribed for you is the Fast, as it was prescribed for those before you, that you may deserve God’s protection against the temptations of your carnal soul and attain piety. (Baqara 2:183)
Fasting entails abstinence not only from food, but also from all kinds of empty talk, obscene language, backbiting, slander, as well as unlawful looks, and etc. That is, a perfect fast means refraining from committing all kinds of sins along with abstaining from carnal desires. People of deep perception have said that fasting is invalidated not only by eating, drinking, or sexual intercourse, but also by malicious or evil actions, such as lying, backbiting, and slander. The following saying of the Prophet supports this idea: 'Many an observer of fasting will not receive any reward from their fast but the pain of hunger ...'4 In another tradition that highlights the greatness of the reward awaiting those who fast, Abu Umama reports, 'I asked the Prophet to tell me a religious practice I should perform. He said: "Observe the fast, since this unique act of worship has no equal." I repeated my question and he again said: "Observe the fast, since it has no equal." I asked the same question for the third time and he answered as he did before: "Observe the fast, since it has no equal.'5
Fasting: The Physical Dimension
Some people claim that fasting is a harmful practice that poses medical risks. First of all, it is not true that fasting, as has been observed by Muslims, is harmful to the body. Changing the normal habits from time to time is a form of rest for the body. Students, for example, have holydays after studying for several months continuously. Similarly, employees get a day for leisure and rest after working during the week. Is it therefore not reasonable to think that the stomach and the digestive system also require a rest? It is a well-known fact that all animals fast instinctively when unwell. It is a highly potent natural anti-inflammatory therapy. Also, in winter most animals find very little to eat and therefore they fall into a state of hibernation, which is a kind of fasting. When they awake in spring, after their first meal they are physically renewed, more energetic, and full of strength. This demonstrates that a living organism can survive for a long time without food or water without suffering any serious harm. The human body and in particular the digestive organs of the human body need rest. In 1975, Allan Cott in his Fasting as a Way of life noted 'fasting brings a wholesome physiological rest for the digestive tract and central nervous system and normalizes the metabolism.'6 In 1994, fifty studies concerning the medical benefits of fasting were presented by both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars at the 1st International Congress on "Health and Ramadan" in Casablanca, Morocco. Improvement in many medical conditions was noted. None of these studies were able to come up with any findings concerning the negative effects of fasting upon body.7 Fasting in Ramadan is voluntarily undertaken. Muslims during the Islamic fast are not subjected to a diet of selective food only, as with fruit or protein-only diets. The breakfast taken before dawn (sahur) is eaten; at sunset the fast is broken with something sweet like dates, fruits, or juices to regulate any hypoglycemia followed by a regular dinner (iftar). In the brain the hypothalamus has a "lipostat" which controls body mass. When severe and rapid weight loss is achieved by a starvation diet (not fasting in Ramadan) the center does not recognize this as normal and re-programs itself to cause a rapid weight gain after the fast. However, fasting as is prescribed by Islam is different from such diets as crash diet or starvation diet prescribed by a physician. Fasting in Ramadan does not cause malnutrition and does not deprive the body of calories. Calorie intake of people fasting in Ramadan is either in line with what is recommended or just below this. Additional prayers are prescribed after the dinner, which helps metabolize the food. Islamic prayer called salat uses all the muscles and joints and can be placed in the category of a mild exercise in terms of caloric output. It is common to burn ten extra calories for each posture of prayer, although this is not the purpose of the prayer. Ramadan is a month of cross-examining oneself and of restraining the carnal desires. This state of purity prevails even after Ramadan, guiding the believer to be more able to lead a life full of happiness and good deeds. In this sense, fasting for a Muslim is an exercise in self-discipline. A person who is trained through fasting, especially in the month of Ramadan, learns to resist their physical desires, not only when fasting, but also when they are not observing the fast. For those who smoke heavily, are constantly snacking, or drinking coffee every hour, it is an opportune time to break such habits and hopefully continue to be moderate after Ramadan ends. Fasting is good for certain diseases such as stress related illnesses, Diabetes (although not advised if the patient is taking insulin), Hypertension, Migraine headaches, Chronic overweight and obesity, and Insomnia. The most important benefit of fasting is that it thoroughly cleans and purifies the bloodstream and reestablishes proper pH balance in the blood.
Fasting Sharpens Mental & Physiological Awareness
As the body cleanses and heals itself through fasting, keener mental concentration and clearer spiritual perception develop. As is known, the brain is the physical instrument of the mind. As the mucus and toxic waters are flushed from the brain, worries and frustrations leave the mind. It becomes free and clear; the creative powers expand. The memory becomes sharp and keen. Reciting the Qur'an more while fasting not only produces a tranquility of heart and mind, it also improves the memory. Fasting has been found to be an effective treatment for psychological and emotional disorders. It helps those fasting to firm up their will, cultivate and refine their taste and manners, strengthen their conviction of doing good, and avoid controversy, petulance and rashness, all of which contribute to a sane and healthy personality. Fasting also helps Muslims feel the peace that comes from spiritual devotion as well as kinship with fellow believers. This feeling of inner peace and tranquility has positive effects on the psychology of the believers. In a tradition the Prophet said, 'Fasting is a shield or protection from the fire and from committing sins. If one of you is fasting, they should avoid food and drink, sexual relations, and quarreling, and if somebody should fight or quarrel with them, they should say, "I am fasting."'8 'Fasting is a shield' here has been interpreted to mean that a wall is built between a person and everything except God through the observation of the fast. The believers that make all their limbs and organs fast become more diligent and decent. They are even able to avoid those who upset them, saying, 'I am fasting.' This is the recommendation of the Prophet and is the main reason for the fall-off in the amount of crimes during Ramadan. To conclude, fasting not only purifies the mind and the spirit, but the body as well. Those who want to improve their spiritual faculties should observe the fast. In other words, those who do not fast become captives of their body and cannot renew their body and mind and excel their soul.
- Nadwi, Dort Rukun (Four Pillars), p. 194-195.
- Bukhari, Sawm, 2; Muslim, Siyam, 152; Tirmidhi, Sawm, 54; Nasai, Siyam, 41; Ibn Maja, Siyam, 1.
- Bragg, C.P. & Bragg, P. (1999), The Miracle of Fasting, Santa Barbara, CA: Health Science.
- Ibn Maja, Siyam, 21.
- Nasai, Siyam, 43.
- Cott, A., Fasting Is a Way of Life, New York: Bantam Books, 1977.
- Shahid, Athar et al., 'Health and Ramadan,' Proceedings of 1st International Congress, Casablanca: 1994.
- Bukhari, Sawm, 9; Nasai, Siyam, 42; Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Musnad, 2/273.