Why do you fast? Is it because everyone around you does? Is it because it’s one of the five pillars?
Have you ever wondered why it is one of the five pillars? Although we strive to learn about the legal rulings of fasting, we often miss out on reflecting upon its greater objectives. Fasting is a deeply spiritual act of worship. It is meant to transform us, both internally and externally.
The main reason why we fast is because Allah (subḥānahū wa taʿālā) commanded us to do so. Like all other commandments in our dīn, fasting is an expression of our ʿubūdiyyah (servitude). Fasting trains us to submit to Allah and to obey Him.. Allah says,
يٰٓا أَيُّهَا الَّذِيْنَ آمَنُوْا كُتِبَ عَلَيْكُمُ الصِّيَامُ كَمَا كُتِبَ عَلَى الَّذِيْنَ مِنْ قَبْلِكُمْ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُوْنَ
“…Fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may attain taqwā (piety and mindfulness of Allah)” (2:183).
The greatest purpose of fasting is to attain taqwā. Taqwā is to protect yourself from the punishment of Allah by avoiding His prohibitions and implementing His commands.
Taqwa is the believer’s key provision in his journey to Allah. All the Prophets of Allah called their people to worship Allah and to live a life of taqwā. Taqwā is the path to attaining the love, mercy and help of Allah. Taqwā allows us to distinguish between truth and falsehood, to overpower shayṭān and gain victory over our enemies. Through taqwā, our sins are forgiven, great rewards are amassed, and our deeds are accepted. Through taqwā, our difficulties are eased, and Allah al-Razzāq (The Ultimate Provider) provides for us from sources we could never even imagine! Taqwā is the ultimate ingredient for success, as it is a shield from the Hell-fire and the path to Paradise.
How Does Fasting Lead to Taqwa?
The purpose of fasting is to train the nafs to resist its desires. Ibn al-Qayyim (raḥimahullāh) described fasting as the ‘rein of the muttaqīn (the pious)’.
When we fast, we temporarily make ḥarām on ourselves things that are usually ḥalāl (eating, drinking etc). Fasting teaches us to say ‘NO!’ to our nafs and desires. This helps us to develop taqwā, making it easier to restrain ourselves from ḥarām throughout the year.
Fasting is, therefore, a means of training ourselves to obey Allah.
When we become used to eating and drinking at the same time every day, our bodies start to crave food and drink when we pass that time (and often before!). By fasting, we wean our nafs off from what it is accustomed to, refusing to give in to its desires. Instead of allowing our nafs to control us, we control our nafs.
Shayṭān has access to us through two primary means:
(1) Shahawāt: these are the desires and worldly attractions we experience, especially the desires of the private parts (lust) and the stomach (gluttony). Shahawāt are related to behaviour and actions.
(2) Shubuhāt: these are doubts which we may experience, about the commandments of Allah, and perhaps even Allah Himself. Shubuhāt are related to īmān (belief) and knowledge.
When we fast, we reduce our intake of food and drink and have a tighter reign over our desires (shahawāt). This reduces Shayṭān’s ability to attack us, and so we are less susceptible to falling prey to his whispers.
In this manner, we sin less and our hearts are purified, preventing the shubuhāt (doubts) from entering our hearts. We are able to clearly see the truth and submit to it more willingly. We become closer to our Creator, attaining genuine happiness and contentment, and advancing towards our eternal home. Allah says, “And as for those who feared standing before their Lord and restrained themselves from (evil) desires, Paradise will certainly be (their) home” (79:40-1).
Like all other acts of worship, fasting has numerous benefits and wisdoms. Fasting liberates us from the shackles of our desires, habits and physical needs. By fasting, you say to your nafs: even though you may desire something, my obedience, love and loyalty is reserved for someone far greater: Allah, my Lord, my Creator! Fasting proves to us how weak we are and how desperately we are in need of Allah. Just a few hours without food and drink makes us cranky and, sometimes, physically weak.
Fasting increases our īmān in Allah and the hereafter. Fasting helps us get closer to Allah, become more attuned to Him watching us, and more eager to please Him.
Each time your stomach growls, you could easily eat without another human being knowing. However, you stop yourself from doing so, because you are aware that Allah is watching you. This presence of the heart and watchful awareness (known as ‘murāqabah’) leads to iḥsān, the pinnacle of our relationship with Allah (subḥānahū wa taʿālā). Iḥsān is, as our beloved ﷺ described, “That you worship Allah as though you are seeing Him; for if you cannot see Him, He truly sees you” (Muslim).
“Fasting reminds a person of the hunger and thirst of the people of the Hell-fire and thus encourages him to increase in good deeds, in order to be saved from the Hell-fire.” – Al-ʿIzz b. ʿAbd al-Salām (raḥimahullāh)
Fasting softens a person’s heart, increases his empathy for the poor and encourages a person to give charity. Fasting also has numerous health benefits. Many illnesses are caused by overeating or eating foods which are harmful to the body. Fasting purifies the body from toxins, and is a preventative means of protection from many physical illnesses. Fasting sharpens the mind and boosts brain function.
Fasting teaches us zuhd (detachment from the world): it was prescribed so that we reduce the amount of food we eat, and not increase it. The purpose of fasting is to make us less attached to food, drink and our desires, and by doing so we realise the worthlessness of the world. In a society where gluttony and lust are shamelessly promoted, fasting should make us realise that our purpose in this life is not to eat, drink and fulfil our sexual desires. But rather these are means, to be used in moderation, to worship Allah.
Fasting: The Soul’s Nourishment
Fasting nourishes the soul just as food nourishes the body. Allah created humans with two parts: a body and a soul. The body is from the earth, and more animal-like. The soul, on the other hand, is from the Upper Realms and is more angel-like. When we keep the body hungry, and make it stay awake at night, the soul feels a lightness and longs for the place it was created from (i.e. Upper Realms). On the other hand, if we fill the body’s appetite, keep it in comfort and let it sleep, then the body becomes attached to the earth. The soul then becomes heavy and attached to the earth, instead of roaming in the Upper Realms.
Imām al-Ghazālī (raḥimahullāh) explains that fasting resembles imitating angels. When we fast, we resist our desires, and angels do not have any of these desires. Humans are in between animals who completely give in to their desires, and angels who do not have any desires. When the human falls prey to his desires, he joins the rank of the animals; but if he strives and controls his desires, he reaches the rank of the angels. Angels are close to Allah, and whoever imitates them, will also draw closer to Allah. This is one of the secrets of fasting.
Fasting, Not Feasting
Sometimes we may wonder why, despite fasting, we do not attain all of the benefits of fasting. Imām al-Ghazālī (raḥimahullāh) explains, “The essence and secret of fasting is to weaken the forces which are Shayṭān’s means of leading one back to evil. This can only happen if one reduces one’s intake of food, and only consumes what one would normally consume in the evening if he was not fasting…How will fasting help the individual overcome shayṭān and break one’s desires if he makes up at ifṭār time for what he missed out on eating throughout the day? And perhaps he might even indulge in a variety of extra foods?
It has even become the custom to stock up for Ramaḍān with all kinds of foods so that more is consumed during that time than in the course of several other months put together. It is well known that the objective of fasting is to experience hunger and to break one’s desire, in order to strengthen the soul in attaining taqwā.
He goes on to explain that if the stomach is starved from morning till evening, and then at ifṭār time, is given delicacies till its fill, an adverse reaction will occur. Even more desires of the individual will be stirred, much more than on an average day where the person was not even fasting. Thus, rather than attaining the objective of fasting, we become more distant from it due to overeating.
Likewise, if we overeat at ifṭār time, we’re more likely to feel sleepy later on, and the night prayers will become difficult. More time may even be wasted in the bathroom.
Excessive food and intimacy cause the heart to become hard. It increases heedlessness and creates a barrier between us and the remembrance of Allah. On the other hand, an empty stomach softens and illuminates the heart. This makes it easier for us to remember Allah consciously. Sometimes some people may sleep throughout the day so they do not experience hunger and thirst. However, feeling hunger and thirst is necessary to attain the objectives of fasting. This is why one of the etiquettes of fasting is to avoid excessive sleeping during the day, so that one feels hunger and thirst.
In conclusion, don’t fast to lose weight, or because it’s the current hype. Fast because Allah commanded you to do so. Fast so that you can truly worship Him, and not your ‘inner desires’. Fast so that you can control your nafs, instead of letting it control you. Fast so that you can shield yourself from shayṭān and lust. Fast so that you can attain His love. Fast to become close to Allah. Fast for Allah.
May Allah al-Muhaymin (The Ever Vigilant) make our fasting a means of being ever-conscious of Him. May He make fasting beloved to us and may He enrich our hearts and lives with its blessings.