What does fasting in Ramadan teach us?

Ramadaan

In the name of God the Most Gracious the Most Merciful

The Praise belongs to God though I am incapable of praising Him such as He deserves, and prayers, salutations, pledges and support on Muhammad the son of Abudllah (s) on his family, friends and helpers. 

Every year we encounter the holy month of Ramadan in which we resolve to fast during the daylight hours keeping away from food, drink and sex. We do it year in and year out in keeping with the religion of Islam. What does fasting teach us? What are we supposed to take away when the month has ended? Does fasting affect the other eleven months of the year?

Spiritual benefits

Firstly, fasting is a spiritual exercise that benefits us spiritually. That’s vague right? What do I mean by spiritual? These days spiritual experiences can mean anything from getting high on hallucinogens or simply altering the brain chemistry to create any kind of euphoria. To be clear, that isn’t the kind of spirituality we are talking about. Rather we are  talking about an active spirituality where a person undergoes sacrifices to draw nearer to God. The Qur’an itself tells us what the purpose of fasting is:

“Oh you who have believed, fasting has been prescribed for you, like it has been prescribed to those before you, so that you may learn to be God Conscious.”

(2:183)

How does the practice of going hungry (on more than one level) teach us to be God Conscious? 

In Islam, God Consciousness is expected to concretely manifest itself into living a good lifestyle. Such a lifestyle is further concretely defined as obedience to God and His Messenger (s). The rationale behind this approach is that one must act as though He sees God even though He doesn’t see God (literally), he knows God sees him. God Consciousness is linked to Divine accountability. That is, if one is aware that God knows all things and is All-Aware, one acts with a sense of accountability to minimize all harm done to others and oneself. However, to act with such integrity one will often need to forgo one’s own appetites, desires, needs or more aptly, one’s own hunger. Hence God Consciousness requires an acute awareness of oneself and the ability to tell oneself, “No!” We are not to act based on whim and desire in order to indulge in mere pleasure seeking activities without first balancing such activities with the long-term outlook and weighing up whether or not it will be mutually beneficial and good. Hence, Islam insists on believing in the Akhirah (what comes later) to teach believers that they should never be led by their passions, desires, and whims, but should make decisions based on deliberation and moral conviction. Going hungry is proof that as believers, you can say no to yourself. That you have said “no” regarding such basic human needs as food and sex, means you can say no for the rest of the 11 months of the year to shun polythiesm, adultery, bribery, theft, backbiting, slander, needless argumentation, undermining of others, usurping people’s rights, blaming others for your own wrongs, wasting food and resources, and claiming supremacy based on race, gender, and other arbitrary things. God consciousness manifests in obedience to God, and obedience to God manifests itself into the world as ‘peace’ Salaam, the practice of which is called Islam. 

Altered States

I like to start with things that are concrete and that clearly manifests itself through actual observance of the law of God. In today’s life people often find themselves averse to the idea of having to obey anyone- including God. Why should God, who needs nothing and who has everything, want anyone to obey Him? Obedience to God is reprehensible to people who have mistook God to be something like the tyrannical rulers they have become familiar with who demand obedience on account of their ego and their need to constantly assert their fragile forms of earthy authority. God doesn’t need obedience, but He loves that peace should perpetuate in the lives of individuals and through the societies of the world. That peace is only obtained through obedience to Him because He knows best. Thought perception is at best limited and cannot suitably guide one to inner peace. One must rely on the guidance of God, and where that guidance is clear, one must submit to it in order to be elevated and come nearer to Him. Nothing worthwhile in the world can be achieved without hard work. Did you think that the highest achievement, that of being satisfied with God and God being satisfied with you, will come easy? Nevertheless, aside from the physical realities and living upto the outward standards of the Prophet Muhammad (may peace and blessing be on him), there are other matters that many also find appealing. There is not only one way to approach a matter or experience the joys of Islam (submission that leads to peace). There is something for everyone in the rich legacy and tradition that we have inherited. 

Worshiping God and Remembering Him is amongst the greatest gifts given to the Muslims. For even a person who sins often, but turns to God in sincere Worship will find that God places in His heart contentment, and he experiences the light of God. Even a person who was heedless, starts to take heed through the worship of God, because once the sweetness of God’s remembrance has been tasted one doesn’t want to taste anything else, like the bitterness of forgetfulness. Here Islam offers people the opportunity to commune with God through the five daily prayers, through the recitation of the Qur’an, and constant reminders in all of creation. The signs of the Creator aren’t absent from His creation. The Qur’an tells us this in a most beautiful passage: 

Such as remember Allah, standing, sitting, and reclining, and consider the creation of the heavens and the earth, (and say): Our Lord! Thou createdst not this in vain. Glory be to Thee! Preserve us from the doom of Fire.

(3:191)

Would you not want to walk through the earth and find that wherever you turn you will behold something of the majesty of God? Would you not want to walk with God every step of the way? Well, then despair not. God, through His infinite mercy, has sent Muhammad (s) as a Mercy to the world, so that we may be guided out of the darkness and into the light. Embrace the light and you will experience a journey without an ending and where every stop is better than the one before! One such never ending blessing is to be sought in the last ten nights of Ramadan through such prayers and vigils to remember God:

“The Night of Power is better than a thousand months.”

(97:3)

Can you imagine that you will have prayed once and it would have been as though you prayed for a thousand months? Yet another spiritual blessing in the month of Ramadan and one of the favors granted to the Muslims. 

Physical Benefits

Fasting has been proven to have immense physical benefits. Among them is that it gives you a unique opportunity to undo bad eating habits, such as; over eating, eating constantly, and eating junk food. When you fast your body craves nutritious food and your stomach shrinks. Often, we eat more than we need and fasting teaches us to eat less. It also gives us a semblance of what it might be like to be amongst the millions of starving people who fast all year round because they don’t have food. It teaches us to appreciate the food we have and over and above that, it enables us to enjoy food and sex more. Fasting is the great reset for the body and mind because it has the body know that much less is needed and much more can be enjoyed. 

Enjoyment is found in deprivation coupled with indulgence. If you over indulge in something you can no longer properly enjoy it. That is partly why, in Islam, forbidden acts are called ‘haraam.’ Haraam also means, ‘scared.’ In other words, do not make light of acts that violate the sanctity / sacredness of the self. Somethings are forbidden only in certain circumstances because the over indulgence or incorrect application of the act will devalue it. For example, sex without the necessary commtiment (marriage) is unlawful because it devalues the sanctity of sex and what it brings about (family relations). So too abstaining from food at certain prescribed intervals reminds us of how important, sacred and needed food is in our lives. One who eats an apple everyday enjoys it more when deprived of it sometimes. God has created boundaries so that there can be enjoyment in ordinary things of life without needing to go to one extreme or the other. To this end the Qur’an teaches:

O ye who believe! make not unlawful the good things which Allah hath made lawful for you, but commit no excess: for Allah loveth not those given to excess.

(5:87)

Islam is the middle path between extremes. Fasting teaches us to enjoy our lives, spiritually and physically in all things permissible under God and not to go to extremes in anything. God only prescribed fasting for one month of the year, and didn’t obligate Muslims to fast for the entire year. Those Muslims who enjoy fasting may fast according to what was done by the Prophet Muhammad (s) during the rest of the year but should not exceed that, unless it is for an expiation of sin. For example, they can fast every Monday and Thursday, and also the middle days of the month. Or they may fast only on a Monday, or fast now and then during the rest of the year. The benefits do not end here, nor do we fully comprehend the wisdom behind what God has commanded. We say Praise and Thank God for His Infinite Mercy and Blessings and we beseech His Forgiveness.