The second act of worship that Allah enjoins upon you is Sawm or the Fasting. It means abstaining from dawn to sunset from eating, drinking and sex.
Like the Prayer, this act of worship has been part of the Shari’ah given by all the Prophets. Their followers fasted as we do.
However, the rules, the number of days, and the periods prescribed for fasting have varied from one Shari’ah to another.
Today although fasting remains a part of most religions in some form by accretions of their own.
O Believers! Fasting is ordained for you, even as it ordained for those before you. (al-Baqarah 2: 183).
Why has this particular act of worship been practiced in all eras?
Life of Worship
Islam aims to transform the whole life of man into a life of worship. He is born a slave; and to serve his Creator is his very nature.
Not for a single moment should he live without worshipping, that is surrendering to Him in thoughts and deeds.
He must remain conscious of what he ought to do to earn the pleasure of God and what he ought to avoid.
He should, then, walk on the path leading to Allah’s pleasure, eschew that leading to His displeasure just as he would avoid the embers of a fire.
Only when our entire lives have become modeled on this pattern can we be considered to have worshipped our Master as is His due and as having fulfilled the purport of “I have not created jinn and men except to worship Me ’ ”
Rituals Lead to a Life of Worship
The real purpose of ritual acts of worship---Salah, Zakah, sawm and Hajj---is to help us come to that life of total worship.
Never think that you can acquit yourselves of what you owe to Allah only if you bow and prostrate yourselves five times a day, suffer hunger and thirst from dawn to sunset for thirty days in Ramadan and, if wealthy, give the Alms and perform the Pilgrimage once in a lifetime.
Doing all this does not release you from bondage to Him, nor of the underlying purposes of enjoining these rituals upon you is to develop you so that you can transform your whole lives into the ‘Ibadah of God ’.
How does the Fasting prepare us for this lifelong act of worship?
Exclusively Private Worship
All acts of worship include some outward physical movement, but not the Fasting. In the Prayer you stand, sit, bow down and prostrate yourselves; all these acts were visible to everybody. In Hajj you undertake a long journey and travel with thousands of people.
Zakah, too, is known to at least two persons, the giver and the receiver. None of these other people will come to know about it.
But the Fasting is a form of ‘Ibadah which is entirely private. The All-knowing God Alone knows that His servant is fasting. You are required to take food before dawn (Suhur) and abstain from eating and drinking anything till the time to break the Fast (Iftar).
But, if you secretly ear and drink in between, nobody except except God will know about it.
Sure Sign of Faith
The private nature of the Fasting ensures that you have strong faith in God as the One who knows everything.
Only if your faith is true and strong, you will not dream of eating or drinking secretly: even in the hottest summer, when your throats dry up with thirst, you will not drink a drop of water; even when you feel faint with hunger, when life itself seems to ebbing, you will not eat anything. To do all this, see what firm conviction you must have in that nothing whatsoever can ever be concealed from your God! How strong must be His fear in your hearts.
You will keep your Fast for about 360 hours for one full month only because of your profound belief in the reward and punishment of the Hereafter.
Had you the slightest doubt in that you have to meet your Maker, you would not complete such a fast. With doubts in hearts, no such resolves can be fulfilled.
In this way does Allah put to the test a Muslim’s faith for a full month every year. To the extent you emerge successful from this trial; your faith becomes firmer and deeper.
The Fasting is both a trial and a training. If you deposit anything on trust with somebody, you are, as it were, testing his integrity.
If he does not abuse your trust, he not only passes his test, but, at the same time, also develops greater strength to bear the burden of greater trusts in future.
Similarly, Allah puts your faith to severe test continuously for one month, many long hours a day. If you emerge triumphant from this test, more strength develops in you to refrain from other sins. This is what the Qur’an says:
O believers! Fasting is ordained for you, even as it was ordained for those before you that you might attain to God-consciousness (al-Baqarah 2: 183)
The Fasting has another characteristic. It makes us obey the injunctions of the Shari’ah with sustained intensity for prolonged period of time. Salah lasts only a few minutes at a time.
Zakah is paid only once a year. Although the time spent on Hajj is long, it may come only once in a lifetime, and for many not at all.
In the school of the Fasting, on the other hand, you are trained to obey the Shari’ah of the Prophet Muhammad, blessing and peace be on him, for one full month, every year, day and night, You have to get up early before dawn for Suhur, stop all eating and drinking precisely at a certain time, do certain activities and abstain from certain activities during the day, break your Fast (Iftar) in the evening at exactly a certain time.
Then, for a few moments only you relax, before you hurry for long late evening prayers (Tarawih).
Every year, for one full month from dawn to sunset and from sunset to dawn, you, like a soldier in an army, continuously live a disciplined life, following certain rules all the time.
You are then sent back to continue your normal duties for eleven months so that the training you have received for one month may be reflected in your conduct, and if any deficiency is found it may be made up the next year.
Training of such profound nature cannot be imparted to each individual separately.
Like how an army is trained, everyone has to act at the same time at the sound of the bugle so that they may develop the team spirit, learn to act in union, and assist each other in their task of development.
Whatever one person lacks may be made up by another, whatever deficiency remains in him may be compensated by yet another.
The month of Ramadan is earmarked for all Muslims to fast together, to ensure similar results. This measure turns individuals ‘Ibadah into collective ‘Ibadah. Just as the number one, when multiplied by thousands, becomes a formidable number, so the moral and spiritual benefits accruing from the Fasting by one person alone are increased a million fold if a million people fast together.
The month of Ramadan suffuses the whole environment with a spirit of righteousness, virtue and piety.
As flowers blossom in spring, so does Taqwa in Ramadan. Everyone tries extra hard to avoid sin and, if they lapse, they know they can count on the help of their many other brothers who are fasting with them.
The desire automatically arises in every heart to do good works, to feed the poor, to clothe the naked, to help those in distress, to participate in any good work being done anywhere, and to prevent evil.
Just as plants have their season of flowering, so Ramadan is the time of year for the growth and flourishing of good and righteousness.
For this reason the Prophet, blessings and peace be on him, said:
Every good deed of a man is granted manifold increase, ten to seven hundred times.
But says Allah: Fasting is an exception; it is exclusively for Me, and I reward for it as much as I wish (Bukhari, Muslim).
All good deeds grow, this shows, in proportion to both the intention of the doer as well as their results, but that there is a limit to their growth. The Fasting, however, has no such limit.
In Ramadan, in the season for the flourishing of good and piety, not one but millions of people jointly water this garden of virtue.
The more you sincerely perform good deeds in this month and the greater you avail yourselves of its blessings, the more will you radiate their benefits to our other brothers.
The more you sustain the impact of the Fasting on your life during the subsequent eleven months, the more will our garden flourish, and flourish without limit. Should its growth become inhibited, the fault must lie with you.
Where Are the Results?
You are now probably saying to yourselves: We do observe the Fasting and perform the Prayers but the promised results are nowhere to be seen. One reason for this situation I have explained earlier.
After snapping the vital links between various parts of Islam and injecting into it many new things, you cannot expect the same results as from the Whole. A second reason is that the way you look at the ‘Ibadah has changed.
You believe that mere abstention from food and drink, from morning till evening, amounts to ‘Ibadah; once you do all these things you have worshipped Allah.
Ninety nine percent or even more among you are unmindful of the real spirit of ‘Ibadab which should permeate all your actions. That is why the acts of ‘Ibadah do not produce their full and understanding.
True Spirit of the Fasting
Spirit and Form
Essentially every work which we do has two components. The first is its purpose and spirit; the second, the particular form which is chosen to achieve that purpose. Take the case of food.
Your main purpose in eating is to stay alive and maintain your strength. The method of achieving this object is that you take a piece of food, put it in your mouth, chew it and swallow it.
This method is adopted since it is the most effective and appropriate one to achieve your purpose. But everyone knows that the main thing is the purpose for which food is taken and not the form the act of eating takes.
What would you say if someone tried to eat a piece of sawdust or cinder or mud? You would say that he was mad or ill. Why? Because he clearly would not have understood the real purpose of eating and would have erroneously believed that chewing and swallowing constituted eating.
Likewise, you would also call someone mad who thrust his fingers down his throat to vomit up the food he had just eaten and then complained that the benefits said to accrue from taking food were not being realized.
Rather, on the contrary, he was daily getting thinner. This person blames food for a situation that is due to his own stupidity.
Although outward actions are certainly necessary, because without them the bread cannot reach the stomach, the purpose of eating cannot be achieved by merely fulfilling the outward actions.
The Outward Replaces the Real
Perhaps you can now understand why our ‘Ibadah has become ineffectual and empty. The greatest mistake of all is to take the acts of the Prayer and Fasting and their outward shape as the real ‘Ibadah.
If you do so, you are just like the person who thinks that merely performing four acts---taking a piece of good, putting it in the mouth, chewing it, and swallowing it---make up the process of eating.
Such a person imagines that whoever does these four things has eaten the food. He, then, expects that he should receive the benefits of eating irrespective of whether he pushed down into his stomach mud and stone, or vomited up the bread soon after eating it.
Otherwise, how can you explain, that a man who is fasting, and is thus engaged in the ‘Ibadah of God from morning till evening, in the midst of that ‘Ibadah, tells a lie or slanders someone? Why does he quarrel on the slightest pretext and abuse those he is quarreling with?
How dare he encroach on other people’s rights? Why does he make money illegally and give money to others illicitly? And how can he claim, having done all these things that he has still performed the ‘Ibadah of Allah? Does this not resemble the actions of that person who eats cinders and mud and thinks that by merely completing the four requirements of eating he has actually done the job of eating?
How, too, can we claim to have worshipped Allah for many long hours throughout Ramadan when the impact of this whole exercise in spiritual and moral upliftment vanishes on the first day of the next month? During the ‘Id days we do all that Hindus do in their festivals, so much so that in some places we even turn to adultery, drinking and gambling.
And I have seen some degenerates who fast during the day and drink alcohol and commit adultery at night.
Most Muslims, thank God, have not fallen so low. But how many of us still retain any trace of piety and virtue by the second day of ‘Id?
Wrong View of Worship
The reason most of you behave as you do is that the very meaning and purpose of ‘Ibadah has become distorted in your minds. You think that mere abstention from eating and drinking throughout the day is the Fasting.
You, therefore, are very particular to observe the minutest details about it. You fear God to the extent that you avoid even the slightest violation of these rules; but you do not appreciate that merely being hungry and thirsty is not the purpose but only the form.
This form has been prescribed to create in you such fear of God and love, such strength of will and character, that, even against your desire, you avoid seemingly profitable things which in fact displease Allah and do those things which possibly entail risks and losses but definitely please God.
This strength can be developed only when you understand the purpose of the Fasting and desire to put to use the training you have undergone of curbing your physical desires for the fear and love of God only.
But what happens as soon as Ramadan is over? You throw to the winds all that you gain from the Fasting, just as a man who has eaten food vomits it up by thrusting his fingers down his throat.
Just as physical strength cannot be obtained from bread until it is digested, transformed into blood, which spreads through every vein, so spiritual strength cannot be obtained from the Fasting until the person who keeps fast is conscious of its purpose and allows it to permeate his heart and mind and dominate his thoughts, motives and deeds.
Fasting as a Way of Piety
This is why Allah, after ordaining the Fasting, has said that Fasting is made obligatory on you, ‘so that you may attain to God-consciousness’, la’allakum tattaqun.
Note that there is no guarantee that you will definitely become God-conscious and righteous.
Only someone who recognizes the purpose of the Fasting and strives to achieve it will receive its blessings; someone who does not, cannot hope to gain anything from it.
Conditions of True Fasting
The Prophet, blessings and peace be on him, has in various ways pointed out the real spirit of fasting and has explained that to go hungry and thirsty while ignoring the spirit carries no value in the sight of God.
Abstention From Falsehood
Once, he said: If one does not give up speaking falsehood and acting by it, God does not require him to give up eating and drinking (Bukhari).
On another occasion, he said: Many are the people who fast but who gain nothing from their fast except hunger and thirst; and many are those who stand praying all night but gain nothing except sleeplessness (Darimi).
The lessons are clear and unequivocal: merely being hungry and thirsty is not by itself worship, but a means for performing real worship.
Real worship means desisting from violating the law of God out of this fear and this love of God, pursuing activities that please Him, and refraining from the indiscriminate satisfaction of physical desires.
If you fast while ignoring this essence of the Fasting, you are simply causing unnecessary inconvenience to you stomachs.
Faith and Self-scrutiny
The Prophet, blessings and peace be on him, draws attention to another aim of fasting thus:
Whoever observes the Fast, believing and counting, has all his past sins forgiven (Bukhari, Muslim). Believing means that faith in God should remain alive in the consciousness of a Muslim. Counting means that you should seek only Allah’s pleasure, constantly watching over your thoughts and actions to make sure you are doing nothing contrary to His pleasure, and trusting and expecting the rewards promised by Allah and the Messenger.
Observing these two principles bring the rich reward of all your past sins being forgiven. The reason is obvious: even if you were once disobedient, you will have now turned, fully repentant, to your Master---and ‘a penitent is like one who has, as it were, never committed a sin at all’, as said the Prophet, blessings and peace be on him (Ibn Maja).
Shield Against Sins
On another occasion, the Prophet, blessings and peace be on him, said:
The Fast is like a shield [for protection from Satan’s attack]. Therefore, when one observes the Fast he should [use this shield and] abstain from quarrelling. If anybody abuses him or quarrels with him, he should simply say, Brother, I am fasting [do not expect me to indulge in similar conduct] (Bukhari, Muslim).
Hunger for Goodness
The Prophet, blessings and peace be on him, once directed that a man, while fasting, ought to do more good works than usual and ardently desire to perform acts of kindness.
Compassion and sympathy for his brothers should intensify in his heart because, being himself in the throes of hunger and thirst, he will all the more be able to realize the misery of other servants of God who are destitute.
In Ramadan, whoever provides food to a person who is fasting to break that Fast will earn forgiveness for his sins, deliverance from the Fire and as much reward as the one who is fasting, without any reduction in the recompense of the latter (Baihaqi). Abdullah Ibn ‘Abbas tells that Prophet, blessings and peace be on him, used to become unusually kind and generous during Ramadan. No beggar in that period went empty handed from his door, and as many slaves as possible were set free (Baihaqi).
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