Why do we Fast?


Ramadan is continuously the subject of much writing and discussion. There are many lessons and angles elucidated for us through the writings and words of those who wish to share their opinions and insights. These perspectives, when coming from accomplished Savants of Islam are invaluable to seekers looking to deepen their understanding of religion. Before we proceed, it is always important to bear a couple of crucial items in mind.

First, when it comes to the fast of Ramadan, there are a myriad of analyses, observations, and teaching points that give us perspective regarding the experience of Ramadan. Therefore, one must always realise that no one particular perspective neither is an ‘only perspective,’ nor is any one or few described experiences the only experience/s. Secondly, while highlighting various efficacies, fruits, consequences, and utilities of ritual practice (i.e. fasting), no one should ever limit the reason for the existence of ritual, or limit the reason for practicing ritual, or limit the reason for the prescription of ritual, to the production of those various fruits, efficacies, consequences or utilities the said ritual may yield for a given level of human experience.

In other words, one may often come across statements in the literature or made by well meaning folks to the effect that …”we fast because X, Y, Z”, or ”we pray 5 times a day because X, Y, Z ”.

Although X, Y, Z, may be valid observable or experienced phenomenon which occur through a ritual act, one should be careful to avoid giving the impression that X,Y, Z phenomenon are the exclusive reasons for the existence and prescription of such ritual acts, unless explicit statements by The Qur’an or Sunnah suggest this.

Unfortunately, the problems with such statements are manifold. First, the word ”because” poses a problem. Through misusing the word ”because” in the above phrases, as in ”we fast because X,Y,Z” or ”we pray because X,Y,Z, ”, and combining this with a categorical type assertion or tone (that is, a tone which suggests that there is nothing more to a given subject of discussion) – a misleading impression is given by those who make such statements. In other words, such statements, when made without a proper qualifier, betray a poor understanding as to the true nature of ibaadah.

Let us take a closer look at the statement: ”We fast because X,Y,Z.?” When this statement is proclaimed in a categorical manner (as it often is by those who entitle themselves to pontificate about religion), the statement in effect reduces ibaadah down into a tool for specific utilities or manifestations that are produced by the given ritual, be these utilities on an individual level (such as many psychological, or even sensate manifestations and phenomenon), or be these utilities on a societal level in terms of encouraging moral propriety, or socio-economic, or political efficacy.

It is not an exaggeration to say most Muslims and non-Muslims living in the modern era have a very poor understanding of the meaning of ibadah, and hence, religion in general; this is precisely why one may see this aforementioned error, which confuses and misidentifies phenomenon for ”nomenon” or confuses and misidentifies a ”manifestation” for ”that which is manifested.” To use technical language, ritual ontologically precedes the various manifestations it produces. It is an error, and in effect backward to think that it is the experienced manifestations that give rise to the reason we practice ritual, or that the experienced manifestations somehow precede the ritual. If we allow this error, one may extend this error and backward thinking logically (as is often done by secular humanist opponents of the religious world-view, and followers of religion who are infected with modern paradigms – those who boil the existence of religion down to some sort of sentimental or moralistic utility) into a supposition that rituals evolved, or in effect ‘emerged through human invention’ out of a human desire for phenomenon X or Y or Z; X being for instance, a human need for a construct that offers ‘’security” in a meaningless world – which is what anti-religious skepticism in academia asserts when it addresses not only ritual, but the existence of religion in general. It sees the emergence of religion as an outcome of a human need for some sort of utility or function, engendered by great minds to address socio-political, economic, and moral concerns – or, from the cynical view point, the emergence of religion is seen as the desire of certain classes to manipulate and control others through an ideological opiate – yet again making religion into another type of utility.

This is why the statement ”We fast because X,Y,Z” is incorrect from an essential perspective. Lest I be misunderstood, one may correctly explain that, ”X, Y, Z are some described manifestations of fasting for an individual.” But this is a far cry from saying that ”we Muslims fast because X,Y,Z.?”

Moreover, for the Awliyya (Saints), manifestations or experiences from ritual may be X, Y, Z, plus A, B, C, D, E, F, G – and so forth, all the way to those manifestations that cannot be encompassed in words. Therefore, the most accurate statement that can be made to complete the sentence, ”we fast because…” is essentially – ”we fast because we adhere to the tradition of Muhammad”. Tradition means, ”which is handed down authentically” from earlier generations. Hence, when it comes to Islam in the parochial or Muhammadic sense, (because the term Islam has many different meanings from a Qur’anic perspective) Muhammad handed the tradition of fasting to us through the hearts of the intervening generations. This is why we fast.

I emphasise again, my words should not be misunderstood – I am not at all denying the validity, power, or beauty of various manifestations that are produced through sincere practice of ritual – be it in the case of fasting or others. These experiences and manifestations no doubt may work as positive feedback for many individuals, and can be important parts of personality development and insight. I am simply saying that assigning these, as the reason for our fast, or saying we fast because of these reasons is wrong from a juristic perspective. Once again, from an ontological perspective, a manifestation cannot engender the manifested; an epiphenomenon cannot engender a phenomenon, which in turn cannot engender its noumenon.

In addition, and as alluded to above, when many Muslims incorrectly assign the reason or justification for ritual through its manifestations in a categorically closed ended statement, they are also being quite incomplete. One may say ”Muslims fast because X, and Y.” Well, this is incomplete because someone else may say, ”Muslims fast because X, Y, Z,” whereas like I mentioned above, the Awliyya may say, Muslims fast because X, Y, Z, A, B, C, D – and all the while, Allah may Know about E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L…etc. This is one of the reasons, when discussing matters religious; all Savants of Religion would suffix any statement with ”wa Allahu Alim” (and full knowledge of the matter rests with God).

Rituals need to be understood as, and indeed are, ends unto themselves; moreover, there are secrets and depths that have been plumbed through rituals, which have the potential to unlock Divine Grace which at times are not always perceptible, and may lie in mystery. This is behind one of the canonical Hadiths that talks about fasting in particular. It states…

All acts of worship by humans carry their own merit, except fasting. As it is done solely for My sake, exalting [the rewards through] it is upon Me.

In a related Hadith, the prophet reminded his disciples, ”The fast is a trust (from God), and so do each one of you fulfill his trust.” To this, Imam Ghazali relates the following Qur’anic verse: Surely, Allah bids you to restore what is entrusted to you to its owners. [4,58] It is reported that the prophet pointed to his eyes and ears upon the narration of this verse – meaning that this verse pertains to more than just the contractual obligation of material trusts. That is, human sensate and cognitive faculties, including the enjoyment of food, drink, and sexual pleasure are also a trust, and periodically re-charging or re-purifying them through reminders of the Trustee is important – the reminder of course being abstinence.

We need to spend a bit more time continuing the discussion of the misapprehension of ritual by the modern mind. The error that reduces ritual down to some form of psychological or material utility only, needs to be fully understood before discussions of ritual such as fasting take place, hence this long introduction. To illustrate this error more concretely, we can use the example of any instrument of utility; let’s take a lawn mower. We say that a lawn mower exists and emerged to fulfill a need or want. Use of a lawn mower manifests as cutting of grass (A), and grooming of a lawn to an aesthetic one (B). So one can then make the statement, ”The lawn mower emerged, exists, and is prescribed because of A and B.” Now, if we accomplish A and B manifestations without a lawn mower, then the lawn mower ceases to have any utility and we may get rid of it, in other words, it needs no longer to exist. It was an invented utility by the desire for A and B. When we incorrectly limit ritual as an item of utility, by relegating it into a function in a strictly psycho-socio-material realm – we may throw its need out the window if we can find utility in the psycho- socio-material realm through something else. This perhaps makes the flaw in the statement, ” we fast because X,Y,Z ” with regard to ritual a bit clearer. If we attain X,Y,Z via another modality, we may abandon fasting.

Growing up in Mosques and attending Islamic discussions, I often heard phrases like, ”We fast because it is physiologically healthy (X), or it helps us empathize with those who are deprived (Y), or it allows us to gain psychological equilibrium and freedom from our carnal urges (Z) or ‘feel’ the presence of God (A)…etc” Again, I repeat that these may be true manifestations, but that is not why we fast, although these manifestations may enhance compliance with fasting.

[Developing Taqwa is indeed made an explicit goal for fasting as per the Qur’an. Taqwaa may be defined as the following: Reverential awe and vigilance, which comes from a consciousness of Gods Omnipresence. With this admitted however, the term Taqwaa cannot be merely reduced to ”feeling” the presence of God. This is true despite the fact that ”feeling” the presence of God may, or may not, accompany the establishment of true Taqwa in ones heart.]

One of the consequences of the above errors in assessing the role of ritual by most Muslims is found in the following conversation that typically happens between a parent raised in traditional societies, and kids who have had recourse to a modern western education, an education that takes secular humanism as its paradigm –

Father: Son…it is time to fast (or pray).
Son: Why bother to do these silly things?
Parent: Well, we fast because X, Y, Z. [X, Y, Z always involve a medley of items which possess psycho-social or moral efficacies].
Son: Well dad, I attain X, Y, Z through my own meditative techniques, and my own acts of giving and charity. So I don’t bother with these outdated superstitions.

The same challenge the son puts forth may be put forth against those Muslims who mis-speak about rituals in Islam. In response to a Muslim who advocates Fasting due to its ‘efficacies’, notably, X, Y, Z, a person may simply say, ”well, I accomplish X, Y, Z in such and such a way, so I have no need for your silly rituals” – and this is a completely valid line of argument against Muslims who have been misled into thinking that Islam is the equivalent of another utilitarian psycho-socio-economic-political ideology. The Muslim who fails to understand religion, and hence the role of ritual, cannot reply.

Therefore, the plausible answer to the question of why we fast is because it is a hukm of Allah and the potential outcome of fasting is strengthening our Islamic disposition (nafsiyyah). Hence this developing taqwa is the goal we should seek.

It’s hard to avoid the importance of spiritual nourishment as the overriding priority when it comes to understanding what the Qur’an is driving at, and it’s also hard to avoid this concern if we honestly examine the way Muhammad (saw) lived. Not only are the post-mortal states of our existence and the eschatological realities a recurrent medley in the Qur’an, but the scholars point to suratul Shams as an immense indicator to just how important it is to keep ones psychological disposition according to Islam. There are 11 successive oaths found in the opening verses of this surah.

1. By the Sun, (1) and by its radiance (2)

2. By the Moon, (3), as it follows (reflects) it

3. By the day (4), and its revealing of it

4. By the night (5), and its enshrouding of it

5. By the sky (6), and that which built/vaulted it (7)

6. By the earth (8), and that which spread it forth (9)

7. By the nafs, (10) and That which has fashioned it (11)

8. and allowed for it’s debasement or its ascent to Taqwa

This 11 oath occurrence’ is one of a kind in the entire corpus of the Qur’an. Nowhere else can we find a series of 11 successive oaths. One of the meanings of a Qur’anic oath is that it draws attention to something important ? and such oaths are found sprinkled throughout various passages; for example ”By the morning star”, or ”By eventide”, ”By the night”, or ”By the dawn”…etc. How important should we think a message is when preceded by 11 successive oaths, an occurrence found only once? As the saying goes, ”God does/can not waste words.” Immediately after the 11, we read ?

9. Felicity and success to those who purify /maintain /cultivate [their nafs]

The categorical definition of success is the maintenance, purification, and sound development of ones inclination ? a nafs the when pure is de facto oriented to Taqwa. It is crucial to note that the Qur’anic definition of success may coincide with a worldly definition of success ease and comfort, or it may coincide with a worldly definition of failure, hardship and misfortune ? recall, the Prophet met with plenty of both, but at no time was he ever regressing in terms of spiritual development

The expectation that success in the sphere of ones soul or religion should always be linked to ease in the world is a grave mis-asessment.

The next verse we read…

10. Failures and doomed are they who putrefy /neglect / debase [their nafs]

Here we note the categorical definition of failure is allowing ones nafs to atrophy, or polluting ones nafs, or to put it in popular terms, to blow off ones soul is the way God defines failure.’ It is hardly necessary to remind ourselves that the popular culture we live in today makes failure according to this Qur’anic index not only easy, but even fashionable. Moreover, failing in a Qur’anic sense may coincide with great accomplishment and success if we are to use worldly indices of success. Conversely, Qur’anic failure at times may coincide with worldly suffering and failure. The upshot is that you can’t necessarily judge the state of your nafs standing based on worldly indices. The ultimate tragedy is when the people delude themselves into actually believing that their veneer is whom they are, and become blinded to their inner condition.

…Behold, you have indeed been lying to yourselves (16: 86)

Behold how they have lied to themselves ? and how their falseness (egoistic projections) has forsaken them (6:24)

And indeed, these Shayateen…delude them into thinking they are guided aright. 43:37

…Lest your works fail [to be true in The Divine Valuation] while you are unaware 49:2

This delusion, from a Qur’anic perspective, is but one manifestation of what is known as the ‘never failing scheme’ of Allah (makr-Allah) which always operates and outplays, outlasts, outwits, subtly or dramatically overtakes those who reject their own sense of Holiness. Those who consciously reject the commands of Allah ultimately fall prey to one form or another of Allah’s Schemes.

None feels safe from the Makr-illah except those who are lost [through their own arrogant rejection ] 7:99

Regarding the ‘nafs’ mentioned in Surah Shams, Sayed Qutub writes :
”..In addition to his innate ability man is equipped with a conscious faculty which determines his line of action and is, therefore, responsible for his actions and decisions. He who uses this faculty to strengthen his inclinations to what is good and to purify himself and to weaken the evil drive within him will be prosperous and successful; while he who uses this faculty to suppress the good tendency in him- will ruin himself: ”Successful is the one who keeps it pure and ruined is the one who corrupts it.”

There must be, then, an element of responsibility attached toman’s conscious faculty and freedom of choice. For if he is free to choose between his tendencies, his freedom must be coupled with responsibility. He is assigned a definite task related to the power given to him. But Allah, the Compassionate, does not leave man with no guidance other than his natural impulses or his conscious, decision-making faculty. Allah helps him by sending him messages which lay down accurate and permanent criteria, and point out to him the signs which should help him choose the right path and which exist within him and in the world around him, and clear his way of any obstructions so that he may see the truth. Thus, he recognises his way easily and clearly and his conscious decision-making faculty functions with full knowledge of the nature of the direction it chooses and the implications of that choice.

This is what Allah has willed for man and whatever takes place within this framework is a direct fulfilment of His will. From this very general outline of the Islamic concept of man emerge a number of vital and valuable facts: firstly, that this concept elevates man to the high position of being responsible for his actions and allows him freedom of choice, (within the confines of Allah’s will that granted him this freedom). Responsibility and freedom of choice, therefore, make man the honoured creature of this world.

Secondly, it puts man’s fate in his own hands (according to Allah’s will as explained earlier) and makes him responsible for it. This stimulates in him an attitude of caution as well as the positive sense of the fear of God. For he knows then that the will of Allah is fulfilled through his own actions and decisions: ”Allah does not change a people’s lot until they change what is in their hearts.” This is in itself a great responsibility which demands that one should be always alert.

Thirdly, it reminds man of his permanent need to refer to the criteria fixed by Allah in order to ensure that his desires do not get the better of him, lead him astray and destroy him. Thus man keeps near to Allah, follows His guidance and illuminates his way by the Divine light. Indeed, the standard of purity man can achieve is limitless…”

4 September 2006


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