In the Name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful The Holy Prophet (as) has said: “Whoever…
The Philosophy of Fasting in Islam
Human beings are composed of a physical body and a spirit, both of which have essential needs not only for the maintenance of life, but also for growth and repair. For example, the body requires nutrition, rest, and protection against harm and diseases. The same is true for preserving the spirit, which requires a special form of nourishment and safeguarding to ensure that it flourishes. If a person balances the fulfillment of both the body’s and the spirit’s needs, they will achieve higher degrees of wisdom and will lay the ground work for acquiring greater mental, psychological, and emotional insight. Conversely, imbalance in either of these factors, or focusing on one over the other, can lead to serious deficiencies and disparities in the individual. For example, over-satisfying spiritual needs at the expense of the physical body can cause a person to become reclusive or socially isolated resulting in cognitive impairment, emotional instability, and sometimes a complete disconnect from reality. On the other hand, solely fulfilling the needs of the physical body and neglecting the spirit leads to a paralysis of will power, a weakened personality, dullness, and lifelessness.
Therefore, God, who is the Creator of everything, has legislated acts such as prayer and fasting, to ensure balance between the body and the spirit, and thereby guarantee the perfection of humanity. God says in the Holy Quran, “Help yourselves (in your affairs) with patience and prayer”1, emphasizing the need to employ patience, which in this verse means fasting, and prayer as a means of both physical and spiritual elevation. Narrations tell us that our beloved Prophet Muhammad (pbuh&hp) said “fast and you will be healthy,”2 Thus, fasting is beneficial for a person’s body, spirit, mind, and thoughts. Furthermore, in a lengthy narration, the Prophet (pbuh&hp) asked God, “O Lord, what is the legacy (i.e., benefit) of fasting?” and God replied, “fasting fosters wisdom, and wisdom leads to understanding, and understanding leads to certainty, and if the servant is certain, the circumstances of his life and the situation in which he finds himself, whether difficulty or ease, will not matter to him.”3
Fasting has many physical benefits, since the body concentrates [both consciously and subconsciously] on preserving energy while at the same time ensuring that we can fulfill daily activities using the body’s reserves. Yet, this aspect of fasting (i.e., the conscious disconnect from eating and drinking) underscores its spiritual importance, because daily preoccupation with physical consumption can negatively affect the purity of the heart, spirit, and mind. Thus, Almighty God knows both the extrinsic and intrinsic needs of a person, and as the previous narration points out, He has prescribed fasting to reinforce [the subconscious awakening of] wisdom through which a believer’s understanding and spirituality can flourish.
Fasting fosters sincerity, which is a crucial quality in a successful believer. For a sincere person, only God and they are aware of the fast, thus making it a concealed and genuine act of worship. Moreover, it is the believer’s will to abstain from eating, drinking, and other routine activities for the sake of drawing close to God that makes fasting a special worship. Narrations state that the Commander of the Faithful (p) once said, “God has imposed fasting to test the sincerity of His servants,”4 and that Lady Fatimah (p) said in her famous sermon, “God has imposed fasting as an affirmation of [a believer’s] fidelity.”5
Fasting requires that a person must be conscious of consuming lawful food and it heightens this awareness in daily life (i.e., even when not fasting). Furthermore, it teaches moderation in eating, drinking, and avoiding extravagance and waste. Fasting also prepares the person for unexpected deprivation and periods of shortage and scarcity the likes of which occur for many people in many regions of the world. Perhaps this is what the answer of Imam Ali al-Rida (p) indicates when he was asked about the wisdom behind fasting, “so they can experience the pain of hunger and thirst and thereby understand the difficulties and poverty of the Day of Judgment.”6
Consequently, the benefits of fasting extend beyond the individual to include tangible positive effects on social well-being. There are various communal benefits for fasting which stem from the arousal of empathy and compassion in a believer. Imam Hussain (p) described it when he was asked about the wisdom behind fasting, he said, “so the rich can feel the pangs of hunger and therefore provide assistance to the poor.”7 Moreover, fasting promotes patience, which is not only the key to achieving success in various walks of life, but in dealing fairly and kindly with others. A person who is capable of controlling his desires and mental tendencies for long hours during the day for a whole month is capable of doing so in any circumstance and at any other time. This is important because many of today’s social problems exist because of the greed, whims, and inequities of people.
The Holy Quran tells us the story of Saul who faced the tyrant Goliath. Saul wanted to strengthen the degree of steadfastness and patience in his soldiers, because might and power lies in steadfastness and not in the number of soldiers. The Almighty says, “When Saul set forth with the army he said, ‘God will test you with a river. Those who drink its water will not be of my people and those who do not even taste the water or who only taste some of it from within the hollow of their hand, will be my friends.’ They all drank the water except a few of them. When Saul and those who believed in him crossed the river, his people said, ‘We do not have the strength to fight against Goliath and his army.’ Those who thought that they would meet God said, ‘How often, with God’s permission, have small groups defeated the large ones?’ God is with those who exercise patience. Advancing towards Goliath and his army, they prayed to God for patience, steadfastness in battle, and for victory over the unbelievers. They defeated their enemy through God’s will. David slew Goliath and God granted David the kingdom and wisdom and also taught him whatever He wanted.”8
Patience is a process of regulating emotions, deliberating for the best course of action, and not losing control of one’s responses when circumstances are difficult. Thus, we see how a few of Saul’s soldiers were able to withstand Goliath and persevere. From an Islamic perspective, patience helps control emotions by building a strong will and deliberative thinking, planning, and decision making at the right time and place. Fasting, which promotes self-control and discipline, is a key and fundamental tool in achieving this. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh&hp) once said, “the one who preserves patience will prevail.”9
Therefore, fasting is a blessing and a gift from God to us that we should practice with passion, and we should recognize that God does not need our worship but rather that we are in need of Him at all times. So, when iftar time arrives, we must ask ourselves what we achieved on that day. Was it merely an exercise in deprivation of food and drink or did we accomplish a deeper transformation? God reminds us in the Holy Quran “Believers, fasting has been made mandatory for you as it was made mandatory for the people before you, so that you may have fear of God.”10 The benefits of fasting are solely for us, because when implemented correctly and with true sincerity they provide a standard for higher degrees of piety, faith, and other benefits. For that reason, it is prudent to fast throughout the year, particularly when one feels the strains of life and lack of patience. Historically, some people practiced fasting for purposes other than pleasing God, such as to extinguish their temper or to achieve a specific wish. Islam offers a different approach to the worship of fasting, a worship which aims to discipline the basic urges of the servant, foster selflessness, and promote spiritual ascension. May God accept your deeds and bless you in this holy month of Ramadan.
1. Quran 2:45
2. Al-Sayyid al-Khoei, Mujam rijal al-hadith, vol 12, p.14.
3. Rayshahri, Mizan al-hikmah, vol 2, p.1689.
4. Rayshahri, Mizan al-hikmah, vol 2, p.1685.
5. Rayshahri, Mizan al-hikmah, vol 2, p.1685.
6. Al-Hurr al-Amili, Wasail al-Shia, vol 10, p.9.
7. Ibn Shar Ashoob, Manaqib al-Abi Talib, vol 3, p. 223.
8. Quran 2:249-251
9. Al-Qummi, Tafsir al-Qummi, vol 1, p.291.
10. Quran 2:183
Leave a Comment:
You must be logged in to post a comment.