Fasting during the month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the lunar year, is considered an obligation of great worship by Muslims throughout the world.
According to Islam, Allah prescribes fasting, the fourth pillar of Islam, for the able, adult Muslims. Exempted from the fast are the very old, the ill, the insane, those who are on a journey, and women who are menstruating or nursing.
On the physical side, fasting is abstaining from food, drink, and sexual relations from the first light of dawn until sundown. On the moral, behavioral side, one must abstain from lying, malicious gossip, quarreling and trivial nonsense.
Fasting can be categorized into 3 degrees; the first being merely abstaining from food, drink, and sexual relations. The second involves keeping one’s ears, eyes, tongue, hands and feet free from sin. For such people, just abstaining from the minimum requirement is not sufficient. Thus they take care not to say, hear or do a wrong thing. The third degree of fasting involves abstaining from all unworthy thoughts, loves, desires and wishes in total disregard of everything except the thought and remembrance of Allah.
Pathetically, to most folks, the idea of Muslims fasting in the month of Ramadan seems strange. Many assume that it’s a harsh practice and some also think that it is just a time when Muslims sleep and fast and hardly work all day; and eat, drink, enjoy and stay awake all night.
Despite all the futile assumptions, fasting has a divinely intended effect.
On the physical aspect, the person who fasts should consume a very light meal before dawn and a moderate meal after sunset, while scrupulously avoiding filling his/her stomach. This may cause the fasting person to experience the pangs of hunger and thirst- and thereby develop sympathy in him/her for those starving and dying of thirst in other parts of the world. This results in many people coming forward to give on charity to the ones in need, which helps to develop equality and brotherhood and weaken the barrier between the rich and the poor.
To bring out the true spirit of Ramadan, the emotional aspect of fasting should be bound. It involves bringing many negative emotions; for example: anger, under control. A person who fasts has to abstain from lewd conversation and heated arguments. Even when one is in the right, it is better to let that right go and keep one’s emotional fast intact.
Fasting helps one psychologically, to control evil thoughts and trains him or her, to some degree, to overcome stinginess and greed. In this age of immediate gratification, when the things of the world are used to fulfill human needs and desires almost as soon as they have them, the ability to delay gratification is an important skill. Therefore during the fast, the believers learn patience – and the benefits of it.
From a psychological perspective, it is good to be somewhat detached from the things of the world. There is nothing wrong with enjoying a good and full life – in fact, one can and should expect that. However, it is important that people are able to detach themselves from material things so that they do not become the most important part of their lives. Fasting gives one the opportunity to overcome the many addictions which have become a major part of modern life.
Food, for many people, provides comfort and joy – and the ability to separate oneself from it gives the fasting people the psychological benefit of knowing that they do have some degree of control over what they do and what they do not do.
As fasting is primarily between the person and God, no one can be sure that any person is actually fasting. Nevertheless, sincere fasting purifies and atones for sin, as the Prophet (peace be upon him) said.
In much of the world today, fasting has been reduced to a mere ritual, and the month of Ramadan has become a time of celebration and festivities instead of religious contemplation and abstinence. Ramadan nights are, for many, nights of partying and enjoyment which continue until the dawn. The light meal which is supposed to be taken prior to the dawn becomes a three-course meal and for this reason, very few experience real hunger during the fast.
The true spirit of Ramadan is beyond hunger and thirst. It’s all about securing brotherhood, equality and peace among mankind. It’s a month that guides us towards being polite to the rich and poor alike, being generous, kind and showing humility. It’s a month of forgiving; a month of peace and reconciliation.