It’s that time of the year again when Muslims all over the world welcome the blessed month of Ramadan - and it's not uncommon to receive questions from people of other faiths, such as:
“Muslims have to fast from dawn to dusk?”
“You mean, not even water?”
“Do you fast to feel how the poor feel?”
As a start, ‘Ramadan’ linguistically comes from the word Ramidha رَمِضَ or Ar-Ramad الرَمَضُ, which means hot or intense heat. Just as the scorching sun dries the muddy water on the ground, Ramadan burns the sins of the hopeful believer. The heat evaporates our wrongdoings and purifies our spiritual selves. From sun up to sun down, we deprive ourselves voluntarily to reap the rewards spiritually.
Is fasting a way for Muslims to develop empathy as we put ourselves in the shoes of those who are poor?
Yes, through fasting and engaging in acts of worship such as giving charity, we develop a sense of empathy and compassion towards others, which can help us become better individuals and contribute positively to society.
While this is certainly one of the merits of fasting, it is not the main reason we fast.
When we fast during Ramadan, we not only abstain from food, drink, and marital intimacy during daylight hours, but we also strive to avoid harming others, backbiting, disputing and engaging in trivial worldly activities.
There is a deeper significance to the act of fasting, the 4th pillar of Islam. We fast during this blessed month to gain taqwa:
يَـٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُواْ كُتِبَ عَلَيۡكُمُ ٱلصِّيَامُ كَمَا كُتِبَ عَلَى ٱلَّذِينَ مِن قَبۡلِكُمۡ لَعَلَّكُمۡ تَتَّقُونَ
“O believers! Fasting is prescribed for you—as it was for those before you—so perhaps you will acquire taqwa.”
(Surah Al-Baqarah, 2:183)
Taqwa means being mindful and conscious of Allah s.w.t. This is a state in which a person is mindful of Allah's presence and seeks to act in accordance with His guidance. It involves being aware of one's actions, thoughts, and intentions and striving to align them with the values and principles of Islam. This includes avoiding harmful or sinful behaviour, treating others with kindness and compassion, and constantly seeking to improve oneself and draw closer to Allah s.w.t.
Taqwa is considered one of the most important qualities a Muslim can possess. It helps foster a deep and meaningful relationship with Allah s.w.t. and serves as a guide for righteous living.
Allah s.w.t says in the Quran:
فَلَا تُزَكُّوٓاْ أَنفُسَكُمۡۖ هُوَ أَعۡلَمُ بِمَنِ ٱتَّقَىٰٓ
"So ascribe not purity/praise to yourselves. He knows best who has taqwa."
(Surah An Najm: 32)
Allah s.w.t. knows best what is in our hearts. The ideal of righteousness is to learn to control our desires, treat others with mercy, and purify our hearts to such an extent that we would have nothing to be ashamed of if what's inside our hearts is revealed to the world.
When we fast for the sake of Allah s.w.t, we become deeply aware of His divine presence with every feeling of hunger and thirst. Even when tempted to break the fast, we restrain ourselves because of our consciousness of Allah. We prioritise our spiritual needs over our physical desires.
The underlying message is powerful. If we can deprive ourselves of basic needs for several hours for the pleasure of Allah s.w.t, then surely we can also control ourselves from desires that can cause us to go astray from the divine path.
Fasting is an act of worship that has both outward and inward components. The outward aspect includes abstaining from food and drink during specific times. The inward aspect involves developing qualities such as patience, endurance, and humility and focusing on our spiritual growth and social responsibility. By embracing these values, we can become better human beings and strengthen our relationship with Allah.
As mentioned in a hadith, Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. said,
إِنَّ الصِّيَامَ لَيْسَ مِنَ الأَكْلِ وَالشُّرْبِ فَقَطْ إِنَّمَا الصِّيَامُ مِنَ اللَّغُوِ وَالرَّفَثِ فَإِنْ سَابَّكَ أَحَدٌ أَوْ جَهِلَ عَلَيْكَ فَقُلْ إِنِّي صَائِمٌ
Verily, fasting is not only from eating and drinking. Rather, fasting is from vanity and obscenity. If someone abuses you or acts foolish against you, then say: Indeed, I am fasting.
(Sahih Ibn Hibban)
Ramadan has the power to transform us all. Fasting is a comprehensive act of worship that encompasses the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of a person's life. It's not just about curbing our natural impulses; it's about being mindful of our thoughts, actions, and behaviour, including on social media. This means carrying ourselves with calm and composure throughout the day, regardless of any challenges we may face.
Our behaviour during Ramadan should ideally differ from our behaviour on any other day. By embracing the discipline of fasting, we have the opportunity to cultivate greater self-awareness and deepen our spiritual connection. Let us make the most of this sacred time and allow it to bring out the best in us.
1. Achieve multiplied rewards from Allah s.w.t.
Many Muslims race towards doing good deeds in Ramadan because the reward for every act of worship that we do with the right intention will be multiplied. As mentioned in a hadith, the Prophet s.a.w. said:
كُلُّ عَمَلِ ابْنِ آدَمَ يُضَاعَفُ الْحَسَنَةُ عَشْرُ أَمْثَالِهَا إِلَى سَبْعمِائَة ضِعْفٍ قَالَ اللَّهُ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ إِلَّا الصَّوْمَ فَإِنَّهُ لِي وَأَنَا أَجْزِي بِهِ
“Every deed of the son of Adam will be multiplied between ten and seven hundred times. Allah, may He be glorified and exalted, said: Except fasting. It is for Me and I shall reward for it. He gives up his desires and his food for My sake.”
In their commentaries on this hadith, scholars stated that what this means is that the reward for fasting could be even more than seven hundredfold.
Imam al-Ghazali said:
"Allah s.w.t says: 'Only those who are patient shall receive their rewards in full, without reckoning' (Surah Az-Zumar, 39:10). Fasting is half of patience, so its reward is beyond what one might estimate and give a figure for."
2. Enter Paradise from the gate of Ar-Rayyan
The virtues of Ramadan are many. For example, Allah has promised those who fast entry to Paradise through the gate of Ar-Rayyan, as mentioned in this hadith:
The Prophet s.a.w. said:
إِنَّ فِي الْجَنَّةِ بَابًا يُقَالُ لَهُ الرَّيَّانُ يَدْخُلُ مِنْهُ الصَّائِمُونَ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ لَا يَدْخُلُ مِنْهُ أَحَدٌ غَيْرُهُمْ
“In Paradise, there are eight gates, among which is a gate called al-Rayyan, which none will enter but those who fast.”
3. Protect ourselves from hellfire
Muslims also believe that fasting is a way of cleansing our sins and keeping us away from hellfire. The Prophet s.a.w. said:
مَنْ صَامَ يَوْمًا فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ بَعَّدَ اللَّهُ وَجْهَهُ عَنْ النَّارِ سَبْعِينَ خَرِيفًا
“Whoever fasts a day in the way of Allah, Allah will move (because of this day) his face away from the Hellfire by a distance of seventy years.”
4. Be forgiven of our past and future sins
Ramadan, also known as the Shahrut-Taubah (the month of repentance), provides a special opportunity for us to seek forgiveness from Allah s.w.t. for our past and future sins.
We repent by acknowledging our wrongdoings, feeling remorseful for them, and making a sincere effort to avoid committing the same sins in the future.
Read: Repentance in Islam
We also engage in increased acts of worship, such as fasting, praying, and reading the Quran, to renew our commitment to living a life of piety and righteousness.
We hope and pray to leave Ramadan with a clean slate, and begin again. As mentioned in the hadith by the Prophet s.a.w:
مَنْ صَامَ رَمَضَانَ إِيمَانًا وَاحْتِسَابًا غُفِرَ لَهُ مَا تَقَدَّمَ مِنْ ذَنْبِهِ
“Whoever fasts the month of Ramadan due to faith and seeking reward, his previous sins will be forgiven.”
5. Become healthier
Aside from the spiritual benefits, fasting has plenty of physical advantages. Although they are not the main reason why we fast, Muslims can also take Ramadan as an opportunity to improve our health and well-being, as part of achieving greater and encompassing excellence to be closer to Allah s.w.t.
According to various scientific studies, fasting has numerous benefits, such as altering hormone levels to promote fat burning, increased cellular repair processes, and gene expression related to longevity and disease protection. It also aids in weight loss and the reduction of visceral fat, enhances hormone function, including insulin and HGH levels, and promotes the breakdown of body fat. Additionally, fasting may reduce insulin resistance, as well as oxidative stress and inflammation in the body.
In addition, fasting during Ramadan can help us break bad habits, as we are forced to abstain from certain behaviours during the day, such as smoking or eating unhealthy foods. As fasting requires discipline and self-control, it can also help us develop better habits and improve our overall well-being in the long run.
Muslims all over the world look forward to being granted the opportunity to restart ourselves spiritually, mentally and physically in Ramadan. This is the month when we strive to be fully present in all our acts of worship.
Ramadan can be viewed as a school or a training ground where we learn to inculcate the discipline to break bad habits and develop good ones within us. It is a time to be extra conscious of Allah s.w.t. and put Him above our nafs (lower self or ego that can be prone to negative qualities such as arrogance, greed, and lust). It is also an opportune time to serve others, give charity, strengthen relationships with our loved ones, and be more mindful in both our actions and speech.
Ramadan gives us a greater sense of gratitude as we realise the simplest pleasures and blessings in life. Just a sip of cold water and the sweet taste of a date is enough to quench our thirst and hunger after a long day.
And finally, a celebration of Eid al-Fitr, commonly known as Hari Raya Puasa, at the end of a whole month of fasting and depriving ourselves voluntarily, finding refuge in our prayers, and cultivating a deeper connection with our Creator - is enough to make us experience true happiness in being grateful for our blessings.
May Allah s.w.t. allow us to experience a better Ramadan than the ones before, and may He guide us through it so that we may celebrate with joy and happiness during Eid al-Fitr as we fulfil the objectives of Ramadan.
And Allah knows best.