Chapter Two: The Cow (Al Baqara)
You who believe, fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may become mindful of God. (Chapter 2: Verse 183)
Allah, the all Merciful, begins this verse by addressing the believers in order to put ease and comfort into the obligation of fasting. It is as if God is saying: O you who have trust in Me, and have loved Me, I have made fasting obligatory upon you. When a command comes from the one you love, you do not see it as a burden; rather you see it as a benefit. Let’s clarify this with the example of a loving father asking his daughter to do a difficult task. The father would not start by saying: ‘Hey! go do this;’ rather, he would approach his daughter with love and say: ‘O my beloved daughter, would you do this for me.’ This implies to the daughter that she should not measure the task with her intellect which may not have reached maturity yet; she should measure the task -along with its hardships- through her love for her father and her trust in his intellect and experience.
Similarly, the believers receive God’s address ‘You who believe, fasting is prescribed for you’ with a measure of love and trust in the Lord. This minimizes any difficulty that may lay in the obligation. Allah did not prescribe fasting for those who do not have faith in Him; His blessings and rewards are only for those who turned to Him in love and worship.
The word ‘Fasting’ means to withhold or abstain from something. God says addressing Mary the mother of Prophet Jesus:
"So eat and drink, and be comforted. If you should see some person, say through gesture: "I have vowed a fast of silence to the All-Merciful, so I cannot speak to any human being today." (19:26)
In this verse, the word ‘fast’ refers to abstaining from speech. But the obligatory fast God prescribed for the believers is to abstain from food, drink and sexual activity from before dawn till after sunset. Fasting –as a cornerstone of worship- has existed in all heavenly religions. The differences are in the details and requirements. In some religions, fasting means to generally avoid food and drink; while in other faiths –such as Christianity- it means refraining from specific types of food. All, however, share the goal of promoting discipline and mindfulness. Thus, God ends the verse with: ‘so that you may become mindful of God.’ We know that phrase ‘mindful of God’ –translated from the Arabic origin Tataqoon- means to guard yourself from God’s attributes of grandeur and to fear His punishment in hell-fire. It is through self-discipline and through having the upper hand over your desires that you can be mindful.
Most sins stem from materialistic greed or a desire for something, whether money, power, the opposite sex, or other addictions. Fasting weakens the greed for materialism, decreases its intensity and domination over the mind. The Messenger of God (peace be upon him) said to the Muslim youth: “whoever amongst you is capable of providing for a family, then let him or her marry, for indeed it lowers the gaze and protects the private parts. And whoever cannot marry, he or she should fast for it will diminish desire.”
When you reduce the consumption of food, you decrease the energy available to fuel materialistic desires and greed; this, in turn, helps you overcome the drive to commit sin. Fasting in the month of Ramadan gives you the opportunity to be steadfast and to experience the sweetness of being upright and mindful of God. You should, however, keep in mind that Allah does not ask you to be steadfast and mindful only during Ramadan. He has appointed Ramadan as a time for you to train yourself so that this quality becomes a part of you. After this training, it should be easier for you to be mindful throughout the rest of the year.
Let’s explain this point further. God’s selection of a specific time or a specific place for worship is not meant as favouritism for such time or place. Likewise, Allah chooses a Messenger from among the people so that the Messenger would serve as an example for all of us to follow and emulate. Those chosen by God as prophets and messengers did not have easy or comfortable lives; it was quite the opposite, as they often suffered hardships and difficulties to help others. Messengers bear the great responsibility of their message. Likewise, God selects specific days for fasting not to honour these days over the rest of time; rather, He wants these times for worship to serve as an example for the rest of the year.
You often hear a person who just came back from the Hajj pilgrimage say: ‘When I was in Mecca and Medina I felt the sweetness of faith; I experienced great peace and comfort in my heart. It was like I had forgotten the entire world around me.’ If you were blessed with a Hajj or Umrah trip, you might have experienced these feelings yourself. Are these praises, feelings and experiences exclusive to the holy places and cannot be experienced anywhere else? Or are these places supposed to serve as an example of what you can experience anywhere you choose? We answer that when you go to Mecca to visit the sacred house or go to Medina to visit the Messenger (peace be upon him) you leave your life behind and focus on connecting with Allah. But you are well aware that God is with you everywhere. It is the act of focus and sincerity in worship that brings you closer to Allah and His Messenger. There is no doubt that worship while in the vicinity of God’s sacred house is distinguished. There is also no doubt that the purity of these places makes you ashamed to commit any sin while in the vicinity of God’s sacred house and in the presence of the Prophet. The moment you hear the Athan call for prayers, you rush to perform prayer with devotion. Shouldn’t you, then, adopt this sincerity and rush to prayer in every place and at all times? If you do so, you will experience the same psychological tranquillity and peace whether you are in Mecca, Cairo or Beijing.
When the Almighty chooses a specific place, time or person, He intends the selection to extend by example to all mankind at any place and anytime. I am surprised by people who welcome Ramadan by exalting God and reciting His verses, only to forget everything as the month ends. They have missed the whole point of Ramadan. It comes upon us to guard our faith and train us to live the entire year with strength and purity.