Religion Islam: Ramadan - Purpose of Fasting
Wednesday, December 28, 2005 6:38:53 AM
The evening prayer has attracted a larger than usual number of worshippers. Today, the advent of the new moon might herald the start of the holy month of Ramadan - the Muslim month of fasting. In an effort to observe the Sunnah of the Muhammad (PBUH), some worshippers are busy trying to sight the new moon when the call to prayer is made. After the prayer, the Imam is informed that the new moon has been sighted. Members of the council also confirm this news. This prompts worshippers to congratulate each other and the mosque is filled with the chants of Allahu Akbar (God is great).
For this group the holy month of Ramadan has begun. Yet Muslims in many other mosques are still debating whether or not the new moon has been sighted. Sunni Muslims generally look to Saudi Arabia for answers to this, as well as many other religious matters. Although ISNA (Islamic Society of North America) has established for North American Muslims, a Shura (or consultation) council for dealing with controversial religious issues (such as moon sighting), many Imams in local mosques decide such matters on their own.
Year after year, this story is repeated among Muslims in many towns around the world. This pillar of Islam begins with controversy among Muslims and ends with controversy. Shi‘as have their own clerical system and their Imams look to Iran in this matter rather than Saudi Arabia.
One wonders if this is the way our messenger Muhammad (PBUH) and his companions started and ended the holy month of Ramadan.
In any case, within a day or two of each other, the holy month of Ramadan generally begins for every (Sunni as well as Shi‘a) Muslim community around the world. The standard sermon for Ramadan goes something like this:
“Dear brothers and sisters! Allah Almighty open's the gate of Heaven in this month. Satan is locked up in Hell so he cannot mislead those who are fasting. The reward for good deeds is multiplied 10 times in this month. Allah Almighty becomes very generous in this month and forgives the previous sins of those who fast.” And so on.
Obective of Fasting
Is fasting just about having sins forgiven and getting rewards multiplied in the Hereafter? What about the problems of life here in this world? Is fasting just a ritual or does it have some other significance?
Modern Islamic scholars draw attention to the physical and spiritual benefits of fasting. But since physical and medical benefits of fasting accrue to anyone who fasts, regardless of one's faith in God, it is obvious that the physical and medical benefits are not the primary purpose of fasting in Islam.
What about spiritual benefits? Since different religions have different concepts of spirituality, what does spirituality mean in Islam and how can it be developed through fasting? The proponents of other religions, including many Muslims, claim that spirituality is an individual and subjective experience. How then can one know that one's spiritual development is taking place due to fasting? In addition, would a Hindu's or a Buddhist's spiritual development, due to fasting, be as significant as a Muslim's? In fact, Buddhist monks and Hindu saints go through much more rigorous rituals than Muslims. Does this mean that their spiritual development is of a higher level? Obviously, no Islamic scholar would be prepared to accept this.
According to the Quran, every Muslim (who can) must fast in the month of Ramadan 2:183-185. And fasting has to be done collectively at the community level. Unlike a Buddhist monk or a Hindu saint, a Muslim does not have to go to a mountain or a forest retreat to develop their spirituality through fasting and prayer. Moreover, it is not necessary for this type of retreat-based, solitary spiritual development to be done in Ramadan. That can be done in any month. This shows that a Muslim cannot advocate a spirituality that is based on individual and subjective experience. Therefore, in Islam, individual and subjective spiritual development is not the purpose of fasting in the month of Ramadan.
Since the Quran prescribed fasting specifically in the month of Ramadan, it is important to know the significance of this special time. A special feature of the Quran is that whenever it gives a command for action, it also provides the wisdom behind it. It tells what the final result of that action will be in this world, if it is successfully carried out. In this way the Quran provides a pragmatic test for people to see whether or not they are moving toward that desired result. Regarding fasting, the Quran says:
O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may (learn) self-restraint . [al-Baqarah 2:183] Translation: Yusuf Ali
Ramadan is the (month) in which was sent down the Qur'an, as a guide to mankind, also clear (Signs) for guidance and judgment (Between right and wrong). So every one of you who is present (at his home) during that month should spend it in fasting, but if any one is ill, or on a journey, the prescribed period (Should be made up) by days later. God intends every facility for you; He does not want to put you to difficulties. (He wants you) to complete the prescribed period, and to glorify Him in that He has guided you; and perchance ye shall be grateful . [al-Baqarah 2:185] Translation: Yusuf Ali
In the above verses, three results of fasting in Ramadan have been mentioned:
1) Taqwaa : learning self-restraint
2) Takbir : glorifying Allah Almighty because of being guided
3) Shukra : being grateful .
Part 1 of this article will focus on Taqwaa or self-restraint. For More Reading Click