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The spirit of fasting in Islam
By Afif A Tabbarah

;IN Arabic "fasting" means abstinence from doing something. According to religious scholars, it is an abstinence from food, drink and sexual intercourse, carried out from dawn till sunset, for gaining Allah's Content.

The principles of fasting are set in the Holy Qur'an as follows: O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may (learn) self­restraint. Fast for a fixed number of days; but if any of you is ill, or on a journey, the prescribed number (should be made up) from days later. For those who can do it, (with hardship), is a ransom, the feeding of one that is indigent. But he that will give more, of his own free will - it is better for him. And it is better for you that ye fast, if ye only knew.

Ramadan is the (month) in which was sent down The Qur'an as a guide to mankind, also clear (Signs) for guidance and judgement (between right and wrong). So every one of you who is present (on the confirmed sight of the new moon) in that month should spend it in fasting; and if any one is ill, or on a journey, the prescribed period (should be made up) by days later. Allah intendeth every facility for you; He doth not want to put you to difficulties. (He wanteth you) to complete the prescribed period, and to glorify Him in that He guided you; and perchance ye shall be grateful (II: 183­185).

In "O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you," Allah explains that fasting is not new among the Holy Laws; it was ordained to previous peoples as well. This doubtlessly soothes the heart, facilitates the acceptance of fasting, and sweeps away the feeling of vexation, because Muslims are not the only people requested to fast.

After this, Allah adds "that ye may (learn) self­restraint," and this is the purpose of fasting. People are commanded to adopt fasting as a means to protect themselves against wicked and evil motives. Fasting safeguards the person as an individual, and the society as a whole. It protects the person from turning into a beast living according to the Law of the Jungle; it also protects society by preparing the devout individual to work for the general welfare, thus living as a human being with other human beings, not as a wild beast with other human beings.

To this effect, the Prophet (peace be upon him) confirms: "Fasting is a shelter. When one of you is fasting, let him not behave in an obscene or foolish manner. If someone intends to fight against him or scold him, let him just say: I am fasting! I am fasting!"

Fasting is a shelter in the sense that·the faster knows his fasting is carried out in order to avoid the evil of his animal nature. When he proclaims, I am fasting! he is fully aware that he says it under the effect of his human, not animal nature.

When he safeguards himself against the evils of his animal nature, and his society against his own evil, he gains Allah's Content, and thus takes his stand among the righteous.

"That ye may," here, bears the sense of preparation and readiness. The way fasting prepares the spirits of fasters for the devotion of Allah, is manifested in many aspects, the most important of which is the following. As a personal affair, fasting is left to the conviction of the faster himself, with none assuming the role of guardian over him except Allah.

When the faster obeys Allah's Commandments by rejecting the appeals of his desires that come to his mind during fasting, or when he trains himself to be patient every time he is tempted by delights and desires, out of feeling that Allah watches him and knows all the secrets of his heart - when he keeps on this for a full month (Ramadan), out of this continuous heed accompanying his activities he certainly will attain the gift of Allah's Watch over him, as well as his own fear of the Lord. He will try to avoid the shameful situation of Allah's finding him where he is prohibited to be. Allah's Watch over him enables him to carry out all deeds of goodness, and keeps him away from evil. He then would not cheat, ill treat or do injustice to others; nor would he spread corruption among people.

However, the mere abstinence from food and drink is not the real meaning of fasting that Allah enjoined on the righteous. The Prophet (pbuh) declares: "Allah does not accept the fasting of those who do not restrain themselves from telling falsehood or from doing false deeds."

The basic truth of fasting in Islam springs from Allah's Watch over the faster, as well as the latter's carrying out of his fast for the cause of none but Allah. To this effect, the Prophet explains: "Allah will forgive all the sins of those who fast during Ramadan out of true belief and in anticipation of Allah's Reward in the Hereafter."

In the same way, fasting prepares the spirits of fasters for the devotion of Allah, in the sense that fasting moderates the violence of their instinctive desires, the source of all sins. Along this vein, the Prophet (pbuh) declares: "O ye young people! Those of you who can afford marriage, let them marry, for it confines eyes to modesty and protects the wombs (of women) from evil intentions. Those of you who cannot do this, let them fast because fasting breaks off their lusts."

Virtues and Benefits of Fasting

On both the individual and social levels, fasting has many virtues and benefits. Of these we can mention the feeling of sympathy for the poor. When a faster feels hungry he remembers such people who are always hungry, which leads him to sympathise with the poor. After all, man's sense of compassion springs from his feeling of pain, and fasting is a practical means to develop compassion in his spirit. When rich people establish such a feeling for the hungry poor, their inner humane principles attain an effective authority. In this regard, it is reported that Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) was the most generous among people, and he was especially generous during Ramadan.

Moreover, fasting establishes equality among the rich and the poor. In a way, it is a compulsory experience of poverty in that it is meant to make all people share an equality, not diversity, of feeling and to sympathise with one another through a collective sense of pain, not through a discord or diversity of desires.

Among the other virtues of fasting is that it moderates the power of habits. With some people, the dictates of habit have reached the extreme of enslavement. If a meal is served late when they are hungry, they lose their temper. The effects of stimulants like coffee, tea or smoking are even stronger on their addicts than those of food.

In fasting there is a sharpening of one's will­power. A German professor once wrote a book on the strengthening of will power, the basis of which he considers to be fasting. In his book, he maintains that fasting is an effective means to establish the control of the spirit over the body, where man lives with a full control over himself, without being a slave to his physical inclinations or needs.

Islam's Mitigation of the Severity of Fasting

Some people may happen to be ill during the month of Ramadan, or just may be on a tiring journey. In this case, Allah's Wisdom necessitates that the severity of fasting be mitigated for these people, and to this effect, Allah instructs: "If any of you is ill, or on a journey, the prescribed period (should be made up) from days later (II: 184). People like these may make up for the days on which they break their fast, outside Ramadan when they can afford it. A traveller is allowed to break his fast when he makes a moderate march of a day and a night, which covers around 86km and a half.

In this regard, Abdullah Yusuf Ali comments by saying: "Illness and journey must not be interpreted in an elastic sense: they must be such as to cause real pain or suffering if the fast were observed. For journey, ... some Commentators ... make it ... precise by naming a distance of 16 farsakhs, equivalent to 48 miles. A journey of 8 or 9 miles on foot is more tiring than a similar one by bullock cart. There are various degrees of fatigue in riding a given distance on horseback or by camel or in a comfortable train or by car or by steamer, aeroplane, or airship. In my opinion, the standard must depend on the means of transportation and on the relative resources of the traveller. It is better to determine it in each case according to circumstances."

Then we have Allah's words: "For those who can do it (with hardship), is a ransom, the feeding of one that is indigent." Such ability with hardship means reaching the utmost a person can stand, and Arabs make this statement only when a person is too weak to do something, so that he suffers a lot in doing it. The people meant in this verse are aged people, ill persons, women suckling their babes, women expecting childbirth, or those whose illness is terminal. Such people may break their fast, and, for every day they break their fast, offer food for a poor person enough to feed a middle­aged man; and thus escape damnation.

Allah then adds, "But he that will give more, of his own free will" - by increasing the prescribed ransom, feeding more than just one poor person for every day he breaks his fast, or combining another fast with the prescribed ransom - "it is better for him;" the benefit and good credit of such a deed will be his, after all.

Ramadan is the (month) in which was sent down the Qur'an as a guide to mankind, also clear (Signs) for guidance and judgeme(between right and wrong). This part of the verse specifies the period of fasting required of Muslims, the days of Ramadan. The wisdom underlying the choice of this month for this kind of worship, is its being the month in which the Qur'an was revealed.

So every one of you who is present (on the confirmed sight of the new moon) in that month should spend it in fasting. The "new moon" stands for a new month, which is an Arab tradition. Consequently, those who see the new moon themselves or trust its sight by others, have to start their fasting. The coming on of Ramadan is confirmed in one of two ways: 1) either through direct sight of the new moon if the sky is clear; 2) or, if it is cloudy, and in this case the new moon cannot be seen, by counting 30 days for Sha'ban (the month before Ramadan), after which fasting is then started. The Prophet (pbuh) explains the case by saying: "Start your fast when you see (the new moon), and end it up when you see it again. If its sight is concealed to you, count 30 days for Sha'ban."

As for the people of the North Pole and South Pole where nights and days extend to months in some polar regions - such people may estimate their period of fasting in harmony with the temperate area to which the revelation of Islam was sent, like Makkah or Medina. According to some Commentators, this can be better done in relation to the timing of the moderate area nearest to these people.

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