The prime goal of Islamic spirituality is to establish an intimate and personal closeness to God. While the beliefs of Islam direct a Muslim along a wide path towards God, the five pillars of Islam provides a regimen to traverse the path, removing the barriers between a Muslim and God.
While the shahadah, the testimony of faith, detaches one from finite and false masters, the salat, the ritual prayers, detaches one from worldly affairs, zakat, charitable alms, detaches the worshipper from the pangs of material wealth, and hajj, the pilgrimage, is a means of detachment from the burden of sins and racism or nationalism, and sawm, fasting, detaches the worshipper from physical desires and emotional impulses.
What appears to be a self-inflicted ordeal to some is really a profound human experience. Fasting addresses a fundamental weakness in the human self-the tendency to act on impulse. The constant exercise of willpower to refrain from eating, drinking or having sexual relations, even though the body is constantly sending impulses to the human self, means that the will is in control. Fasting is not just about staying hungry or thirsty; it is also a struggle to refrain from any destructive impulses of the human self. Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, remarked, “If one does not abandon lies and acting on lies while fasting, then God has no need for him to give up food and drink.” So the main outcome of fasting is the curbing of all physical impulses that do not originate consciously from the person. In this way, one’s absolute dependence on these desires and impulses is detached and transformed into a relative dependence and one is guided only by God, which leads the worshipper closer to God.
Therefore, the fundamental spiritual benefit of fasting is to exercise the willpower and to attain the self-control that we need for success in every part of our lives. Fasting consecutively for 30 days truly sharpens the willpower and makes self-control a habit; this is true to such an extent that at the end of Ramadan most people feel as if they are still fasting. The benefit of attaining such a razor-sharp willpower extends its positive impact to every part of human life. It is important to maintain this newly gained ability throughout the year until the next Ramadan. The Holy Prophet used to fast on Mondays and Thursdays every week outside of Ramadan. He recommended Muslims to do the same or come up with other formulae for regular fasting, although this was not made compulsory.
An interesting experiment was done in the 1960s at a preschool on the Stanford University campus when the ability of four-year olds to resist temptation was tested. A marshmallow was placed in a room and the children were told that they could have the marshmallow immediately, or if they waited until the tester had run an errand and returned, then they could have two marshmallows. Some children waited for two marshmallows, while others ate one immediately. These same children were followed over 14 years to see how they managed in life.
Those who had resisted temptation at four were now, as adolescents, more socially competent, personally effective, self-assertive, and better able to cope with the frustrations of life. The third or so who grabbed the marshmallow, however, tended to have fewer of these qualities and shared instead a relatively more troubled psychological portrait. Even more surprising, those who had waited patiently at four were far superior as students to those who acted on whim. Most astonishingly, they had dramatically higher scores on their SAT tests. There is perhaps no physiological skill more fundamental than resisting impulse. It is the root of all emotional self-control, since all emotions, by their very nature, lead to one or another impulse to act.1
Naturally how one is raised in childhood has a great bearing on the skill of self-control. If our parents do everything we want and bring us everything we ask for our self-control will be low. Fortunately, Islam’s practice of fasting can break this negative childhood conditioning.
Mehmet Ozalp is the Executive Officer of the Affinity Intercultural Foundation, Auburn, Australia. He is the author of 101 Questions About Islam.