Ramadan Fasting in Islam: Spiritual Salvation and Noble Benefits

Ramadan is regarded as the most valuable and the holiest month in the Muslim faith because of the fact that the revelation of the divine book the Qur'an was initiated in a specially blessed night, the Lailatul Qadr, in this month.

The Muslims fast in this month with profound devotion, serenity and complete submission to the Lord, Allah the Almighty who ordered them to do it in the Qur'an. Despite the abundance of sufficient food and drinks the devout believers avoid it with great zeal.

Ramadan is a time when the Muslim devotees engage themselves in introspection, purification of soul by extra prayers, Sadaqah and Zakah and many other virtuous deeds to fulfill the requirement set forth by the Great Master, Allah in order to attain piety and closeness to Him.

Fasting of Muslims is a unique virtuous process which only focuses on eternal and transcendent achievements and differs significantly from the fasting practices in some other religions and traditions.

1. Ancient Practices of fasting

Fasting has been practiced worldwide from antiquity by the peoples belonging to various cultures and social groups for purposes relating to religions, rituals, health, and other ethical causes. Thus fasting has been promoted by founders and followers of many ancient religions, culturally designated individuals, physicians and others in order to fulfill their respective desire.

Fasting has also been practiced as an expression of protest against violations of social, ethical and political principles.

Ancient Religious Fasting: Almost all the major religions developed their own fasting rituals to support the spiritual development of their members. Ancient fasting practices first emerged around 1,500 BC with the Vedic, Hindu, and Jainism religions.

The priests and devotees of those religions used to observe fast as a dedication to approach their gods in order to get divine teachings and visions. The founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, also fasted in an effort to achieve enlightenment, or nirvana. In the Hellenistic mystery religions it was thought that the gods revealed their divine teachings in dreams and visions only after a fast of the devotee.

Old nations such as the Assyrians and the Babylonians observed fasting in the form of penance for sins. In some of the North American cultures fasting often was considered to be a requirement for penance after an individual had confessed sins before a priest. In many ancient cultures particularly among Incas of Peru and Native Americans of Mexico fasting was the means to appease an angered deity and sometimes in resurrecting a deity who was thought to have died.

Historically, priestly societies among the Pueblo Indians of the American Southwest fasted during ceremonies connected with seasonal changes. Jews have been observing fasts for purification and penitence on the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur annually.

Early Christians during the first two centuries, associated fasting with purification and penitence. Fasting was retained by most protestant churches and was made optional in some cases after the reformation. The Roman Catholics fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and their fasting may involve partial or total abstinence from food and drink.

Fasting as Cure to Disease: There is a rich history of using fasting as a natural and easily accessible tool to combat illness and disease. Prior to the advent of the scientific method, fasting as a form of early medicine was non-invasive and had far fewer adverse effects. It was also a surprisingly effective treatment for an array of conditions, ranging from acute infection to allergies, as well as many diseases known to be resistant to treatment.

Medical fasting was used since at least the 5th century BCE, when Greek physician Hippocrates recommended abstinence from food or drink for patients who exhibited certain symptoms of illness. In some diseases fasting was thought to be an important natural recovery process.

Socio-Political Purposes: Hunger strike has also been used in social and political arena in order to express views on various issues especially as a demonstration of protest or solidarity. A classic example of this approach was set by Mahatma Gandhi in the early 20th century. He adopted his teaching of satyagraha (nonviolence) against British rule in India. He conducted fasting in the prison as atonement for the violent excesses of those of his followers who did not practice his teachings.

Later on Gandhi used to fast often whenever he found any discrimination and injustice in the society. Now-a-days fasting is often conducted all over the world as a protest against war and military activities, political and social injustice and misruling of Governments. It is also practiced in materializing demands of students, prisoners, trade unions, labor organizations and other bodies.

2. Fasting in Islam

In Arabic the act of fasting is described by the term ‘Sawm’ that refers to a very specific kind of fasting with deep piety and solemnity. The only objective of fasting by Muslim is to submit to Allah Subhanahu Wa Ta'ala (SWT) complying the obligation set forth by Him in the Qur'an through exercising self-restrain, piety, righteousness and generosity.

Islam is based on five core principles which are referred to as five pillars. Believing in these principles is the key to Islamic faith. The five principles are Shahadah, belief in one God, Allah (SWT), Salat (prayer), Sawm (fasting) and Hajj (Pilgrimage).

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar and the only one mentioned by name in the Qur’an. It is regarded as the holiest month since the holy Qur'an was revealed in this month and rewards for every virtuous deed in this month are larger by tens of times than that in any other month. It is intrinsically linked to the fourth of the five pillars of Islam, obligatory fasting or sawm.

Though Muslim fasting is not limited to Ramadan, it is said to be multiple times more effective during Ramadan than fasting in other months. Every year, as the blessed month of Ramadan draws near, Muslims around the world await in joyous anticipation for the opportunity to observe fasting. In Islam fasting entails complete abstaining from food, drink, anything which substitutes food and drink, smoking, sexual activities, displeasing speech and behavior from dawn until dusk.

Indeed, the very word ‘Islam’ means submission and ‘Muslim’ means one who submits. For Muslims fasting is in fact an exercise with religious devotion in the form of cheerful and willing renunciation of all the appetites of flesh lawful in normal times. The exercise of abstaining from things otherwise lawful in the ordinary course of life, at the order of Allah SWT strengthens man's morality and self-control and deepens in him the consciousness of the Lord.

Whereas fasting in other traditions is often associated with health benefits, political advocacy or appeasing different deities, such is not the case with Islam. This is what distinguishes fasting in Islam from fasting in other religions.

3. Fasting in Pre-Qur'anic Religions

Allah (SWT) says in the Qur'an:

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ كُتِبَ عَلَيْكُمُ الصِّيَامُ كَمَا كُتِبَ عَلَى الَّذِينَ مِن قَبْلِكُمْ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُون -

O you who have believed, decreed upon you is fasting as it was decreed upon those before you that you may become righteous". [Qur'an 2:183].

With this verse, the Holy Qur'an makes it clear that fasting is compulsory for all the able Muslims and they have to observe the month of fasting. From this verse we can also understand that fasting was also compulsory for the previous believing nations. Allah SWT knows that in course of time the human being will deviate from His path and will indulge in activities like shirk (associating partner to Allah) and kufr (disbelieving in Allah and the hereafter).

So, He sent down prophets time to time to guide the humanity on His path and introduced the ritual of fasting for all the nations.

From the Hadith we know that fasting was a common religious practice among the pre-Qur'anic Arabs too. They used to observe fast on the tenth of Muharram because it was on this very day Allah (SWT) saved Moses and his companions from the slavery and torture of the Pharaoh of Egypt who was drowned in the sea along with his army.

The Arabs and other people too were familiar with fasting as an act of penitence or of propitiation. They also used to fast as a preparatory rite before some act of sacramental eating or an initiation of a mourning ceremony.

Thus we see that fasting was practiced by the followers of the religions which came before the Qur'an and it was recorded in those religions. It can be said that fasting was an institutionalized method for the purification of the soul for the believers of all the divine scriptures previous to the Qur'an. It was ordained in the divine books Tora, Jabur, Injeel and other Sahifas/books revealed to various prophets as a compulsory ritual practice for the believers of that period.

4. Fasting is an Overhaul to Human Being

Allah (SWT) has said in the last part of the verse 184 of Sura Baqarah,

وَأَن تَصُومُوا۟ خَيْرٌ لَّكُمْ إِن كُنتُمْ تَعْلَمُونَ

But to fast is best for you, if you only knew." – [Qur'an 2:184].

This is a very significant message from Allah (SWT) which demands deeper thinking. We do not know what can be actually beneficial for us. Allah (SWT) is the designer, creator and sustainer of human being. There is not a speck of doubt that our Lord knows best which is appropriate and beneficial for us.

So whenever He says it is the best for you then we must try to reap the benefit of that with utmost sincerity. With a view to have an idea of the benefit which Allah (SWT) has reckoned in the verse 2:184, we can compare our body with a machine. This machine is so complex and sophisticated that it is superior to any supercomputer what a man can ever build.

Allah (SWT) has created this machine, the human being in such a form that it has two parts- the physical body and the soul or the intellectual part. A synchronized functioning of both the parts makes a human being a perfect and supreme living being whom Allah (SWT) has made His Khalifa (representative) on earth. He desires that His Khalifa shall live on the earth in good physical condition with a pure soul engaged in absolute worship of Him.

Allah (SWT) knows well that in course of time the human beings will forget their duty and deviate from the path of Him. Apart from daily maintenance every machine requires a large scale maintenance or overhaul after a long term operation.

Like any other machine, as time passes the human being also develops problems and faults that need regular maintenance as well as an overhaul after a long period. The overhaul required for human must be of two types, one connected to the physical part of the body and the other being connected to the spiritual part or the soul.

The Great Master Allah (SWT) has prescribed only one overhaul for human being that can correct both the body and the soul together. This overhaul process is known as ‘swam’ or fast in Islam. This will facilitate them to achieve purification of their souls as well as renewal of the functions of various organs of their body. Thus fasting as an overhaul process will purify the souls of the human beings building moral elevation in them and also will ensure sound health for them from its scientific benefits.

5. Fasting for Moral Elevation

In Islam primarily the purpose of the fast is to practice a spiritual discipline, self-restrains, piety, and generosity. As humans, we are susceptible to sins and transgression of the boundaries established by Islam.

Fasting teaches us to be pious and to restrain ourselves from worldly pleasures. The idea is to ensure that the believers are not led astray by materialistic desires and can control urges that can degrade judgment. This requires a month long training through which Muslims have enough scope to know and learn how to put an end to vices, learn virtues and obtain blessings of Allah (SWT).

Of all the creations of Allah (SWT) only man deviates from His path.

Mainly two things are responsible for this: the love for wealth and the temptations of the flesh.

Introducing Zakah and Sadaqah the desire of an individual for wealth has been controlled by Islam. It has inculcated in him the habit to part with wealth and materialistic desire for the sake of Allah (SWT). Fasting has been ordained as a religious duty for the Muslims for subduing their lust and keeping their appetites well within reasonable bounds so that one may not become slave of one’s lasciviousness and lose control over oneself.

In the Qur'an our Great Master Allah (SWT) says,

.وَأَمَّا مَنْ خَافَ مَقَامَ رَبِّهِۦ وَنَهَى ٱلنَّفْسَ عَنِ ٱلْهَوَىٰ .فَإِنَّ ٱلْجَنَّةَ هِىَ ٱلْمَأْوَىٰ

But as for him who feared to stand before his Lord and restrained his soul from lust, Paradise is surely the abode”. [Qur'an 79:40-41].

Thus we see, the Qur'an clearly states that a man cannot attain salvation unless he learns to restrain his self from low desires. Fasting has been ordained for achieving the salvation and moral elevation of the human being. This can be judged from the fact that Allah (SWT) does not impose check only upon eating, drinking and sexual relations from dawn to sunset, but also exhorts His servants to refrain from other foul acts like backbiting, indulging in foul speech, telling lies and any other non-ethical deeds.

Quran in the mosque

During fasting Muslims exercise to abstain from things otherwise lawful in the ordinary course of life, at the behest of the Almighty Allah. Such a drill strengthens man's morality and self-control and deepens in him the consciousness of the Lord.

Another significant feature of Islamic fasting is that it does not train a person for complete renunciation of all the bodily needs but permits to enjoy everything lawful to him at the end of the fasting period such as eating, drinking and sexual relations with cheerful obedience to the Lord.

This shows that Islam does not consider the appetite of flesh as something contemptible and need to be exterminated root and branch from the human soul. In Islam, no essential aspect is to be ignored and no urge is to be completely curbed. What is required is to keep all these urges well within their proper limits so that none of them transgresses natural bounds and becomes the cause of trouble in this worldly life and the hereafter also.

One should notice that in Islam fasting does not aim at inflicting punishment upon people or distressing them with unbearable burdens. The underlying idea behind observing fast is to learn morality and spiritual discipline so that human temptations may not become so wild and uncontrollable as to disobey the commands of our Great Master Allah.

It is essential to be a true servant of Allah (SWT) and to achieve qualities and behavior which are in agreement with the moral and spiritual discipline embodied in the Shari'ah of Islam. In order to reach this end an individual has to build strong moral power within oneself so that one never feels helpless before any wild and turbulent desire. Fasting is indispensable for this kind of moral and spiritual training.

6. Scientific Benefits of Fasting

For centuries, the holy month Ramadan brings a lot of joy to the Muslims worldwide. Fasting in this month is a deeply spiritual exercise in Islamic faith ordained in the Qur'an by Allah (SWT).

It is pointed out before that fasting does an overhaul to the soul for its spiritual uplift as well as to the physical body of the human being for better functioning of various organs.

The spiritual benefits of Ramadan fasting have been widely acknowledged. Science and medicine today have confirmed numerous health benefits of fasting for a month in a year. The health benefits of fasting can be summarized as follows:

Improving Metabolism: From various studies, scientists have found that fasting could help metabolism renew itself, triggering a detoxification process in the human body. They say that fasting affects the activities of the human brain which offers major benefits to the people to enjoy a healthier life. Fasting could lead to the release of the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is crucial to produce stem cells. These cells are essential units of metabolism in human body and play potential role to regenerate and repair damaged tissue.

Boosting Immune System: Expert says that in our daily lives we consume so much food and our body spends a lot of time digesting them. During fasting, the digestive system works less, allowing the body to focus on other areas like strengthening the immune system and diminishing the levels of infections. BDNF released during fasting produce new white blood cells which empower the immune system against the body’s external enemies.

Improving Mental Health: Experts say that during fasting in Ramadan, activities like eating, drinking, smoking and any other related activities come to a halt and the stomach is in less use that helps the brain to be in rest.

Thus Ramadan liberates the brain from daily activities and reduces anxieties helping the brain to function better. Furthermore, fasting is not just about making a halt on eating and sexual activities but also about staying away from negative thinking and reimagining our life, relations and family matters in a spiritual way.

Experts also say that feeling peace due to the fulfillment of worshipping mission brings tranquility creating positive effects in the human brain. As a consequence of this, fasting during Ramadan leads to a reduction in symptoms of depression and anxiety among the Muslims.

Improving Digestive System: Besides containing many health benefits for the brain, fasting is a great way to cleanse the stomach. According to experts fasting improves the digestive system because it gets an opportunity to rest during day time that boosts its potential for functioning.

Detoxification of body: Ramadan helps to detoxify internal organs since restricted dieting forces the body to use fat reserves to keep operating in absence of nutrition killing harmful toxins stored in fat deposits.

Weight Reduction: According to many nutritionists, the most important gain of fasting could be the opportunity of reducing body weight. In Ramadan people take less food which decreases the levels of the hormone, Insulin (responsible for controlling the sugar in the blood) in the body reducing the fat.

Improving Insulin Sensitivity: Ramadan fasting has been found to improve insulin sensitivity, which helps to regulate blood sugar levels. From studies it was found that fasting during Ramadan led to a significant improvement in insulin sensitivity among type 2 diabetic patients.

Improving Liver Function: The condition of the livers of the people observing fast improves significantly due to reduction of fat.

Reduction of Cholesterol level: According to many researchers, fasting helps people to lower the LDL cholesterol in the body and decreases the possibility of heart-related diseases and strokes.

Reduction of Oxidative Stress: Experts says that fasting can also help the body to fight conditions like oxidative stress which is thought to be responsible for the possibility of cancer and it can slow down the speed of the spread of cancer cells.

In order to gain all the health benefits from fasting one has to be very careful from having too much food intake in Iftar (the meal for breaking fast) and Sehri (the meal before starting fast) as well as has to prioritize on taking low calorie foods.

7. Social Benefits of Fasting

Islam is a perfect religion and its instructions have a vital effect on the society and all levels of Muslims’ life. Fasting in Ramadan brings in a positive change in the attitude of the believers towards each other. The sense of empathy invoked by fasting helps the faster to understand other people better and also makes it easier for him to socialize and build friendship. A few of the numerous social benefits of the fasting in Ramadan are summarized below:

Social Ties: In Ramadan the whole atmosphere is permeated with religious piety and devotion to Allah (SWT). Socially, fasting strengthens bond between Muslims through gathering in prayers and meals. It is recommended in Islam to offer Iftar for other Muslims. Families, friends, and relatives gather each evening for having Iftar together.

Sympathy for the Poor: Abstaining from food and drink helps to feel in one's body what the poor and hungry people feel creating a human consciousness from practices in Ramadan. It establishes a bond of solidarity with the poor and hungry people who are to be helped to bring them out of their destitute and misery. Thus, the rich can sympathize with the poor helping them and can be grateful to Allah (SWT) for His favor on them.

Feeling of Equality: Islam preaches equality, and Allah (SWT) made fasting during Ramadan to show the humanity that the rich and the poor are equal in ranks. Without any exemption both the rich and the poor has to stay away from food and drink during fasting. The believers whether rich or poor equally face hunger and thirst which makes them understand that they all are slaves of the Lord with no special position for the elite in the eye of Allah (SWT).

Charity to the Poor: During Ramadan, it is traditional for Muslims to give Sadaqah and Zakah (charity) to the poor. Communities come together to donate to local mosques for religios and other causes. Giving Zakah is just as important as fasting in Islam. Muslims are obliged to give 2.5% of their assets to Zakah which is another one of the five pillars of Islam. Through giving Zakah awareness and reflection on life are developed among the believers and feelings of gratefulness to Allah (SWT) are strengthened in Ramadan.

Punctuality in Life: Furthermore, Ramadan brings punctuality in the lives of the Muslims. A person observing fast usually performs his prayers five times in congregation in the mosque at scheduled times including the Fajar prayer, one of the hardest prayers on normal days. This makes him well-organized throughout the month of Ramadan and punctual towards his duties for the rest of his life as well.

8. Conclusions

The deeper purpose of fasting is striving to achieve Allah-consciousness (Taqwa), so as to try to live by the ethics of Islam at all times. Fasting inculcates in the heart of the Muslims good characters and morality, discipline and punctuality, empathy to others, solidarity and equality, sharing food and love with fellow Muslims and many more virtuous qualities.

Besides all these virtues, fasting of Ramadan provides the Muslims with immense health benefit since the fasting makes an overhaul to the human body. Every year rising of the new moon of Ramadan in the sky sparks a joyous festivity among the Muslim community all over the world.

But this year the Ramadan has arrived in a situation when the Muslim world is saddened and feeling guilt at the suffering caused by the barbarous and heinous attacks of the Zionist Israel on the Muslim people in Gaza.

The Palestinians are under relentless firing and bombing and they are fleeing to save their lives. The Israeli autocratic regime is performing ruthless massacre and genocide on the Muslim Ummah in Palestine. More than 30 thousand innocent Palestinians have already been killed before the beginning of Ramadan of this year (2024) of which majority is children and women.

Their houses and localities are demolished by bombing, they don’t have any shade over their heads and they are starving for food. Israeli troops even opened fire on a crowd of people scrambling for food aid killing more than hundred and injuring nearly thousands immediate before the Ramadan.

A humanitarian catastrophe has been created throughout the Gaza strip and the northern area of Gaza city. Unless there is a ceasefire accord and supply of food and water, people of Gaza cannot observe the devotion of Ramadan. We should pray that Allah (SWT) will bestow His special blessings and kind grace to our Palestinian brothers and sisters and particularly facilitate them to observe fasting and prayer of Ramadan.

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