The Fourth Pillar: Fasting
Siyam (Fasting during the month of Ramadan). In an Islamic society the individual carries great responsibility and many duties and obligations towards God and society are expected of him. It requires a strong, unwavering will and resolution to meet such responsibility and fulfill such duties and obligations. Since "there is no compulsion in religion" (Quran 2: 256); "Whosoever will, let him believe, and whosoever will, let him disbelieve" (Quran 18:29); and "To those amongst you that have the will to be upright" (Quran 81:28) - and since the intention of the individual is vital for the validity of his acts, as the Prophet said, "Actions are but by intention and every man shall have nothing but what he intended" (related by al-Bukhari and Muslim) - the will of the individual and training it to enable him to control himself and succeed in the endless choice he faces between right and wrong, good and evil, fair and ugly, and to carry out his religious obligations is of paramount importance in Islam. Fasting is the foremost means of educating the will of the individual. It provides the individual with the capacity that enables him to stand firm in the face of crises and challenges in his life, and to curb his soul's desires when faced with testing experiences and enhances his strength to carry out his obligations. In this light we can perceive the following functions of fasting in Islam:
Firstly; the Islamic way of life which a Muslim (whether by upbringing or conversion) is required to follow demands that he free himself from beliefs, ideas and habits that contradict Islam. This requires a high degree of ability to free oneself from the hold of the familiar, of habits and of the inability to change. A strong, resolute will is needed for the attainment of such freedom, a will that enables the individual to make the right decision, unhindered by fear or desire. Thus the main function of fasting is to make the Muslim free from "within" as other aspects of the Sharia make him free from "without". By such freedom he responds to what is true and good and shuns what is false and evil. This is what we can perceive in the Quranic verse: "0 you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that you may guard yourselves against evil" (Quran 2: 183), and also in a holy utterance it is said of the fasting person: "He suspends eating, drinking and gratification of his sexual passion for My sake." (related by Al-Bukhari and Muslim).
Fasting, then, awakens the conscience of the individual and gives it scope for exercise in a joint experience for all society at the same time, according to the same system, thus adding further strength to each individual. A fasting person by his own choice deprives himself of what is necessary and lawful at other times. Fasting thus creates an inner control in the Muslim which raises him to the rank of ihsan, which the Prophet defined as: "It is to worship God as though you are seeing Him, for if you do not see Him, nonetheless He sees you." (from a long tradition related by al-Bukhari)
Secondly; the human body is a living machine which gets exhausted by continuous work and fatigued by charging it to overcapacity. In operating this machine we do not always adhere to what suits it. Some of us can abide by this directive of the Prophet : "The worst type of container-filling a man can do is filling his own stomach. It is sufficient for a human being to have a few morsels to keep his back-bone upright, but if he has to fill it, then a third should be for his food, a third for his drink and a third for his breathing."
Human self-indulgence makes it possible only for a few to abide by this and not always! Does this over-worked human machine not deserve a rest during which the body can free itself from the consequences of excessive consumption? Fasting offers it a compulsory rest for the duration of one full month.
Thirdly; fasting, with the hunger, thirst and deprivation of other lawful enjoyment the individual experiences through it reminds him of those who are deprived throughout the year, or throughout life. Fasting wrenches him from his rich or comfortable life to make him experience what other, less fortunate, brothers in religion suffer. They have been tried by poverty and he has been tried by wealth, so let him show his gratitude to God and pay the dues of the brotherly bond that joins him to them. Thus the joint experience of fasting that takes place at the same time and according to the same system purifies the souls of those partaking of it, engenders tender emotion, deepens the sense of unity and brotherhood and renews the sense of solidarity between them.
The saying of the Prophet, "He that feeds a fasting person at the end of the fast will be given a reward similar to his without any decrease in the reward of that person" is an invitation to Muslims to share together during Ramadan the fortune God has bestowed on them. The effect of doing this with an understanding of its objectives will appear in all aspects of their life. The brotherly caring, the necessity of which they were made to feel by the fast, will make them understand better the saying of the Prophet , "He that spends the night with a full stomach while his neighbor is hungry and he knows it, is not one of us."
Excerpt from "Islam and the Pillars of Faith" published in Islam and Contemporary Society.
break their fast at the end of the day. May He alleviate their
As the author appears to have made use of alternative translations, I wish to mention I have the impression that the A. Yusuf Ali translation of Quran 2:183 seems to describe the purpose of fasting a bit differently. Other translations seem to describe fasting as a means of warding off evil or as a means of becoming righteous. In the Yusuf Ali translation, Quran 2:183 seems to describe fasting as a means of learning self restraint.
Such an emphasis on self restraint appeals to me personally - as a reminder that I am at most no more than "the steward" of all that which Allah (subhanahu wa ta'ala) has entrusted to me. To avoid potential conflicts of interest, as a steward I would own nothing of anything I might happen to possess. On a moment's notice, as a prudent steward I would be prepared to give a complete accounting of everything my Lord has entrusted to me - including any increase or decrease while under my control. On that note: if on some mornings I am not feeling an especially strong urge to fulfill such duties and obligations as prescribed fasting, quite thankfully the fear of Allah usually suffices to start me on my "daily workout" in exercising self restraint.