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 and attaining the spiritual elements of fasting. Fasting is a deeply spiritual act of worship. It is meant to transform us, both internally and externally.

The greatest purpose of fasting has been given to us in the Qur’ān. Allah says,

يا أيُّها الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا كُتِبَ عَلَيْكُمُ الصِّيامُ كَما كُتِبَ عَلى الَّذِينَ مِن قَبْلِكُمْ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُونَ

“…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).

Thus, the 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 provision in his journey to Allah al-Aḥad (The One). 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 where we could not 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 taqwā?

The purpose of fasting is to train the nafs to restrain itself from 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 what is usually ḥalāl (eating, drinking etc). Fasting teaches us to say ‘NO!’ to our nafs and inner 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, our hearts are purified, and 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).

The Secret of Fasting

Imām al-Ghazālī (raḥimahullāh) explains the secret of fasting:

“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.

Similarly, he explains that one of the etiquettes of fasting is to avoid excessive sleeping during the day, so that one feels hunger and thirst.

Excessive food and intimacy cause the heart to become hard. It increases heedlessness and creates a barrier between the slave 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.

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.

Ramaḍān is the month of zuhd. Fasting was prescribed so that we reduce the amount of food we eat, and not increase it. The purpose of Ramaḍān is to make us less attached to food, drink and our desires, and by doing so we realise the worthlessness of the world. Ramaḍān 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, in worshipping Allah (subḥānahū wa taʿālā).

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 attain His love. 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 to become close to Allah. Fast for Allah.

1. Fasting & The Purification of The Soul
3. Fasting & Sabr: A Training Programme to Stop Sinning