Consider this scenario.
A 60-year-old Muslim patient with diabetes makes an appointment with his physician to come up with a plan for adjustment to his usual insulin dose for the next month.
“I won’t be eating anything in the hours between dawn and dusk for the next thirty days,” he explains.
The physician reluctantly admits that it is possible, but proceeds to probe the necessity of such a change, especially for the whole thirty days.
“Of course, the best thing is to leave the dose as is,” the physician says, switching to a practiced authoritative tone reserved for such moments. “Your blood sugars are doing great. Perhaps consider taking every other day off.”
The well-meaning physician is certain that a few more such statements will steer the conversation away from making any significant changes to the patient’s insulin regimen. But, to the physician’s surprise, the patient politely refuses the compromise, stating that he wants to give it his best shot, and if a true medical reason were to come up over the course of the month, he will revisit the physician’s suggestion. 
As a practicing physician, I can tell you that in the months leading up to Ramadan, such a scenario is anything but uncommon. My non-Muslim colleagues are often perplexed after these patient encounters, wondering why Muslims are so adamant about observing the Ramadan fast, which requires them to abstain from any food and water from sunrise to sunset—a period of over twelve hours in most states across the United States.
In all honesty, even as a Muslim physician, I have found it difficult to answer this question in a way that truly encompasses the spiritual and emotional reasons behind why so many Muslims cannot fathom letting go of a Ramadan fast, even those who may otherwise struggle with the basic obligation of observing the five daily prayers (May God forgive us all, ameen).
As is the promise of God, when we sincerely seek, He uncovers for us the answer, often in a way that leaves us wondering how we never perceived it before. The secret of Muslims’ collective devotion to Ramadan permeates innumerable verses in the Qur’an, makes up the foundation of frequently cited Ahadith (traditions of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him), and comprises the subject matter of many famous works by the great scholars of Islam.
It is a collective devotion tethered to the feelings of peace and tranquility so many Muslims enjoy in the month of Ramadan, feelings borne out of a source that somehow becomes elusive outside of this month, and feelings that become the reason for the reluctance of Muslims everywhere to miss even a single fast.
Largely unbeknownst even to them, Muslims naturally begin tapping into this secret source of tranquility as soon as the Ramadan moon is sighted. In a flurry of excitement and newfound motivation, members of the family wash themselves for wudhu, gather the young and old alike, and drive to the masjid, ready to stand for the first taraweeh prayer with the community. Suddenly, gone are the excuses of just one night ago, when staying out to pray in the masjid past midnight seemed like a near impossibility.
And what’s more, this despite being fully aware that in only a few hours, a morning meal will need to be consumed while it’s still pitch-dark outside. Those, like myself, who aren’t used to eating anything until mid-morning, simply ignore the otherwise rock-solid inclinations and sit down for the only meal until evening.
No matter what the day’s schedule looks like, Muslims make their best efforts to perform the obligatory daily prayers at a higher level than outside of Ramadan, both in the quality of the prayers, and in the extra consideration for their prescribed times. With no meals to prepare or share, their attention automatically diverts towards other things to fill up the hours, gravitating to that scholarly lecture series a family member recommended. The scholar’s words in turn inspire recitation and reflection of the Qur’an, replacing mindless internet surfing or watching the news.
Despite a lack of sleep, food, and drink, Muslims the world over experience a sense of fullness beginning to take place that is hard to explain. It is situated above the gut and the private parts, in the center of the chest, and it is far more satiating than the fulfillment of carnal desires could ever be. This addictive tranquility of the heart is so deeply felt in the month of Ramadan that fasting believers gladly give up the comforts of a consistent schedule, undisturbed sleep, and instant gratification of bodily impulses, in exchange for humanity’s most sought-after treasure that no amount of money can buy.
What then, is the key to this treasure of tranquility, and why is it accessible only in the month of Ramadan?
For those whose hearts are ready, the answer is as simple as it gets. It is in the shunning of the inclinations of the self, battling base desires for sleep and hunger, increasing the threshold for discomfort in performing acts of worship that are pleasing to God, that Muslims discover the only currency with which tranquility can be purchased: complete obedience to the command of God, in the way most pleasing to Him.
Allah says in the Qur’an:
“O believers! Enter into Islam wholeheartedly and do not follow Satan’s footsteps. Surely, he is your enemy” (2:208)
Scholars of Tafsir have explained this verse to mean that as slaves of God, the submission required from Muslims is one that is complete, independent of reason, logic, convenience and preferences of the self, all of which can be deceptions of Satan. In the month of Ramadan, when the apparent logic against staying up late into the nights is pushed aside, preferences for eating at specific times of day are disregarded, reasons for delaying obligatory prayers in the face of a full work schedule are challenged, all for the pleasure of God alone, the key to the ultimate treasure every human being yearns for is granted to the believer.
Is this to say then that the secret of tranquility lies in the subduing of the human intellect, in conquering our ability to reason, in vanquishing our natural instincts of reflecting on the wisdom in the commands of God?
Absolutely not. It does not befit the infinitely merciful God to first bestow upon humanity the very thing that sets us apart from animals, the intellect, and then reward us for repressing its natural inclinations to think, question, and reflect. In the Qur’an, Allah (swt) Himself says:
“No soul can believe except by Allah’s will, and He places a blight on those who do not use their intellect” (10:100).
Using the intellect therefore is in itself a command of the One Who created it, a means for us to strengthen our faith by understanding the many benefits for us in the required acts of worship. For instance, the scientific community has only just begun to scratch the surface of the health benefits of fasting, benefits that wouldn’t have become apparent without using the God-given powers of the intellect, and benefits that undoubtedly deepen our commitment to fasting regularly.
This is indeed from the Mercy of the Master, that He has not imposed His laws on humanity, but rather illuminated the path to faith through the intellect. What must be recognized by the slave, however, is that the intellect itself is a creation of God, and can never surpass the perfect wisdom of the Creator Himself. With this framework, the believer escapes the predicament of conditional faith, present when the intellect agrees with revelation, absent when a clash occurs.
This is the precise position in which fasting Muslims find themselves in Ramadan when they are commanded to adopt a new, much different, daily schedule than what satisfies their own preferences and logic. It is here, at the limits of reason, that Muslims choose divine revelation over their own intellect; instead of questioning the timing of the Ramadan meals, or arguing the inconvenience of the nightly prayers, or reasoning their way out of performing the obligatory prayers whilst enduring hunger, thirst, and lack of sleep, they make the choice to submit, wholeheartedly, to the commands of God.
In return for giving up the need to satisfy the intellect at the expense of the unlimited wisdom of revelation, God hands fasting Muslims the key to unconditional tranquility, peace, and contentment of the heart.
The real question then becomes: which of us will let go of this key when the month of Ramadan ends, and which of us will guard it beyond the thirty days, striving to live up to the title of the muslim—one who surrenders to God?
The choice is open to all of us.
- This scenario does not include the patient with uncontrolled or complicated diabetes who is advised against fasting by a physician for true medical reasons. According to Qur’an and Sunnah, such a person is exempt from fasting, as Allah only wants ease, not hardship, for us.