Fasting the Month Ramadan
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.
Allah also blessed this month with the revelation of the Quran which is sent to help you train yourself towards spiritual purification and higher moral values. So, the month of Ramadan disciplines both: the body with fasting and the soul with the Quran. God says: “It was in the month of Ramadan that the Quran was revealed as guidance for mankind, clear messages giving guidance and distinguishing between right and wrong.”
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.
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.
Now let’s move to the next verses in ‘The Cow’.
For a specified number of days. But any of you who are ill or on a journey should fast a number of other days. But for those who can manage to fast with some hardship, there is redemption by feeding a person in poverty. Yet better it is for him who volunteers greater good, and that you should fast is better for you, if you only knew.
It was in the month of Ramadan that the Quran was revealed as guidance for mankind, clear messages giving guidance and distinguishing between right and wrong. So any one of you who is present that month should fast, and anyone who is ill or on a journey should make up by fasting on other days later. God wants ease for you, not hardship. He wants you to complete the prescribed period and to glorify Him for having guided you, so that you may be thankful.
(Chapter 2, Verses 184 and 185)
The ‘specified number of days’ mentioned in the first verse is clarified in the second where the lunar month of Ramadan is assigned as the month of fasting. Allah –the All-merciful- is well aware of the circumstances that may make fasting difficult or burdensome. Thus, He has prescribed exemptions to address these situations. These exemptions were clear and specific: Travel or Illness. This clarity suggests that you should not make up your own rules regarding when it is ok for you to fast or not. Be mindful that there are some people who claim that some religious obligations are too much of a burden for them. They point to verses such as this one as an excuse to their shortcomings and procrastination. God says in the 286th verse of ‘The Cow’:
God does not burden any soul with more than it can bear: each gains whatever good it has done, and suffers its bad- (02:286)
Some people misinterpret this verse for their own benefit. They think that it is up to them to decide what they can bear and what they are not able to do. When they are faced with a religious obligation that they like, they do it. When they are faced with a religious duty that is tough or inconvenient, such as fasting long summer days, they say we are not obligated to do it because 'God does not burden any soul with more than it can bear.' In other words, they want to be the judge of which of God’s commands applies to them. The truth is exactly the opposite; Allah is the best judge and has absolute knowledge of what you and I are able to do. So, when Allah assigns a duty to you, then rest assured that it is well within your ability because ' God does not burden any soul with more than it can bear.' So, do not excuse yourself from fasting because you think that in this modern and fast paced world you are too busy, or your job does not allow you to skip meals. Keep in mind that these duties have been assigned by Allah. He is well aware of what all generations from the time of Adam until the Day of Judgment are capable of doing. In fact, the evidence of God’s mercy and knowledge is clear in the verses under study; God says: “So anyone of you who is present that month should fast, and anyone who is ill or on a journey should make up by fasting on other days later.” The word ‘ill’ is not specific; therefore, one must consult a physician who is aware of the requirements of fasting in order to determine if fasting will negatively affect health. If the disease is chronic and the patient will never be able to make-up missed fasting days, then in such case he or she will be can make-up for fasting by feeding the poor.
Likewise, Allah permitted skipping the fast during travel. This is because of what travellers face of hardship and the need to acclimate to a new place, new people, and new time zones. Even if you travel to somewhere familiar that you have been to before; the conditions and people you have to work with are often different. Here again, there are some who argue that travel in our time is totally different from those in the olden days. We have cars, planes, and comfortable hotel accommodations. Sadly, those who argue about fasting during travel want to prevent people from skipping the fast. In other words, they want to disallow what Allah, the all merciful, had permitted. We answer that God’s legislation of permits makes them legal religious obligations. Allah says: “And whoever is ill or on a journey - then an equal number of other days” indicating that travelling is enough reason for not fasting regardless of hardship. Moreover, our travels for business and through time zones present their own challenges that were not present in the olden days. Jabir narrated that prophet Muhammad saw a man who was being helped and shaded by other people while travelling. The Prophet asked about him, and was told that the man needed help because he was fasting. The Prophet –peace be upon him- said: “It is not a part of piety to fast while travelling”
On the other hand, if you are unable to fast in Ramadan due to illness or travel, it is advised that you do not do so in public. In other words, do not eat or drink in public places where those who are fasting can see you. You do not want to become a bad example for someone who may be thinking about skipping the fast and who is not aware that you do have a valid excuse. A child may wonder: how come an adult Muslim is not fasting?
Let’s take a few moments to study how the obligation of fasting was introduced. We start with the phrase in verse 184 where God says: ‘But for those who can manage to fast with some hardship, there is redemption by feeding a person in poverty.’ Here, you may ask: how is a person who is clearly able to fast be permitted not to fast by just donating some money to feed the poor? We answer that this verse was the first step in introducing fasting as a religious obligation.
Fasting, just like many other religious obligations, was introduced gradually. Allah initially gave early Muslims a choice of either fasting or feeding a poor person for those who found some difficulty. Later on, as more and more Muslims got accustomed to fasting, Allah made fasting the month of Ramadan obligatory. He says in verse 185: ‘So anyone of you who is present that month should fast’ Note that in this verse, there was no mention of feeding the poor as an alternative to fasting for those who are able. Feeding the poor as an alternative is now reserved for those who are not able to fast
The verse continues ‘and that you should fast is better for you, if you only knew.’ This phrase was another step forward on the road towards making the fast an obligation. Fasting is a method to help discipline one’s self. Although it was known and present before Islam, Allah introduced it to early Muslims as a voluntary worship. He prescribed fasting for a few days in the early days of Islam. Believers were also given the option to fast these days or pay to feed the poor. But when Allah prescribed fasting for the entire month of Ramadan, it became an obligatory worship and one of the pillars of Islam. Later on, exceptions were made for the ill and those who are travelling. More importantly, Allah has clearly stated the reason for these exceptions. He says: ‘God wants ease for you, not hardship.’ Why would you go against what God wants and make things harder for yourself and others?
Here it is worth taking the time to study the lunar calendar
The Hijri (or Islamic) calendar is lunar. It is different from the Gregorian calendar which is solar. The wisdom behind the Hijri calendar is that if months were measured by the sun, then Ramadan -for example- would occur at the same time and season every year. In some parts of the world, Muslims would have to fast in the summer each and every year, while for others, Ramadan will always occur in winter. But by following the Hijri lunar calendar, Muslims can enjoy fasting and other religious duties in different seasons. This is because the lunar calendar lags behind the solar one by eleven days each year, so with the passage of a few years, events linked to the moon occur at different seasons. This is how God's mercy spreads to all creations.
Take note of the beauty of the Quranic expression: ‘He wants you to complete the prescribed period and to glorify Him for having guided you, so that you may be thankful.’ At the beginning of Ramadan, especially for those who are new to fasting, a person may look at the task ahead as an inconvenience and even hardship. Allah, however, knows that when you follow His teachings and complete the prescribed fast, you will find tranquility in your soul and comfort in your body. In fact, these feeling will fill you with gratitude towards the Lord who guided you towards fasting. Thus, you would glorify Allah and when the end of Ramadan celebration of Eid arrives, you would chant: ‘Allahu Akbar’ ‘Allah is the Greatest’.
Whenever Allah temporarily forbids you from something you have, He gives you that which is much better and longer lasting. When He temporarily prevents you from the essentials of life like food and water, He grants you that which is essential for eternal life like forgiveness, mercy, and paradise.