By Adil Salahi
Fasting in the month of Ramadan is one of the five pillars upon which the structure of Islam is built. The other four are the declaration of one’s belief in the Oneness of Allah and in the message of Muhammad (Pbuh), regular attendance to prayer, payment of Zakah and pilgrimage.
If we examine these five pillars, taking into account the fact that Islam aims at improving the quality of human life at both the individual and social levels, we find that the first of these five pillars is concerned with beliefs which influence man’s conduct.
The second, i.e. prayer, aims at providing a constant reminder to man of his relationship with Allah. The third is a social obligation which reduces the gap between the rich and the poor, while the fifth, i.e. pilgrimage, has a universal aspect which unites the nation of Islam.
Fasting in Ramadan, which is the fourth of these pillars, has a particularly high importance which is derived from its very personal nature as an act of worship.
It means that although fasting is obligatory, its observance is purely voluntary. The fact is that fasting cannot be used by a hypocrite in order to persuade others that he is a devout Muslim. If a person claims to be a Muslim, he is expected to fast in Ramadan. If he is fasting voluntarily on other days, he should not go around and tell people that he is fasting. If he does so, he detracts from the reward for his voluntary worship. In fact, people will find his statement very strange and will feel that there is something wrong behind it.
This explains why the reward Allah gives for proper fasting is so generous. In a qudsi Hadith, which means that it is a statement by Allah but not part of the Qur’an, the reward of fasting is explained in the following way: “All actions done by any human being are his own except fasting which is Mine and I reward it accordingly.” This is a mark of special generosity, since Allah rewards every good action with at least ten times its value. Sometimes He multiplies that reward to seven hundred times the value of that action, and even more. We are also told by the Prophet that the reward for proper fasting is heaven.
It may be noted that we have qualified fasting which earns such great reward with the adjective “proper”. This is because every Muslim is required to make his worship perfect. Perfection of fasting can be achieved through restraint of feelings and emotions. The Prophet said anyone who is fasting should not allow himself to be drawn into a quarrel or a slanging match.
He teaches us: “On a day of fasting, let no one of you indulge in any obscenity or enter into a slanging match. Should some one abuse or fight you, respond by saying: “I am fasting; I am fasting.” This high standard of self-restraint fits in well with fasting which is, in essence, an act of self-discipline. Islam asks us to practise voluntary abstention from indulgence in physical desire.
This is indeed the purpose of fasting. It helps man attain a standard of sublimity which is very rare in the practical world. In other words, this standard is actually achieved by every Muslim who knows that purpose of fasting and strives to fulfill it.
There is also a special aspect of fasting. It makes all people share in the feelings of hunger and thirst. In normal circumstances, people with decent income may go from one year’s end to another without experiencing the pangs of hunger which a poor person may feel every day of his life. Such an experience helps draw the rich nearer to the poor.
Indeed we are encouraged to be more charitable in Ramadan in order to follow the example of the Prophet who was described by his companions as “the most generous of all people.” Yet he achieved in Ramadan an even higher degree of generosity. His companions say of him that he was in Ramadan “More generous and charitable than unrestrained wind.”
Fasting has also a universal, or, in Islamic sense, a national aspect. As Muslims all over the world share in the blessed act of worship, they feel their unity and equality. Their sense of unity is enhanced by the fact that every Muslim individual joins voluntarily in fulfilling God’s commandment. The unity of Muslims is far from superficial; it is a unity of action and purpose, since they all fast in order to be better human beings.
As one restrains himself from the things he desires most in order to earn Allah’ pleasure, self-discipline and sacrifice become part of his nature. He learns to give generously for a good cause.
The month of Ramadan is aptly described as a “festive season of worship.” Fasting is the main aspect of worship in this month, but people are more attentive to their prayers in Ramadan than they are on other days. They are also more generous and charitable too.
Thus, the month is, to them, one of endless benefits and blessings.
Indeed, nothing describes our great month better than the words of the Prophet as he addresses his companions and all generations of Muslims on the eve of Ramadan: “A great and blessed month is approaching. One of its nights is better than a thousand months. Allah has made fasting in it obligatory, while worship in its nights voluntary. He who fulfills one religious obligation in it receives the reward of 70 such obligations fulfilled in other times. It is the month of perseverance and endurance which can be rewarded only by admission into heaven. It is the month of comforting in which the means of a believer are improved. He who gives food to another to break his fast is forgiven his sins and he saves his neck from hell.
He is also given a similar reward to that given to the fasting person without detracting anything from the other’s reward. God gives this reward even to a person who offers another a piece of date, a drink of water or milk. The beginning of this month is compassion, its middle is forgiveness and its end witness people’s release from the fire.”