At this moment in time, there are over a billion people in the world who are fasting. It is considered an act of such spiritual magnitude that fasting is embraced with unmatched enthusiasm by them all.
Apart from the spiritual blessings and deep peace attained through fasting, there are many additional benefits. These includes physical, psychological and social benefits.
Many great spiritual teachers prescribed fasting to their disciples and followers as a means of spiritual discovery. They themselves would fast and attain spiritual and moral reform. These teachers included the great prophets such as Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus and Muhammad.
This guide is a simple introduction which explains some aspects of fasting and specifically speaks about the fasting of Muslims and the month of fasting - Ramadhan.
What is fasting?
Fasting has nothing to do with running or moving at great speeds by any other means! It’s all about abstaining from food, drink and any sexual activity during the hours of daylight (from first light until Sunset).
Muslims can fast voluntarily most of the year but in Ramadhan, the month of the Qur'an, Muslims are commanded to fast for the whole month.
Why Do Muslims Fast?
The Qur’an, the Muslim’s holy book, commands the Muslims to observe fasting during Ramadhan. Fasting in Ramadhan is one of the five pillars of Islam (i.e. one of the five most fundamental acts of worship and belief).
What or who is Ramadhan?
Actually, I suppose, you may have met people with the name Ramadhan! A person born in Ramadhan is sometimes named Ramadhan.
Ramadhan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar. It has special significance because the Qur’an was revealed to mankind during this month. The first verses of the Qur'an were also revealed to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) towards the end of Ramadhan.
Does Ramadhan have more than one start day?
The Islamic calendar is based on the Lunar calendar. When the new moon is sighted, the month starts and fasting commences for the whole month.
Sometimes the moon can’t be sighted in a locality which means that Muslims may start fasting on different days. The difference in start days is usually a day or so.
Ramadhan always takes place at the same time in the Islamic calendar but, because it is based on lunar months, the Islamic year is ten or so days shorter than the common solar calendar. In the solar calendar, Ramadhan gets earlier every year by about ten days.
Do you not get hungry or thirsty during Ramadhan?
Yeah, when fasting for a whole day without food and water, people do get hungry and thirsty.
However, one aspect of fasting is to discipline our body and mind. It also makes us more grateful as we begin to appreciate the blessing of food and drink. This also leads us to appreciate the situation of others, less fortunate than us, of which some fast involuntarily because of lack of food!
Fasting provides an opportunity for us to concentrate on prayer and worship in the absence of food, drink and other worldly pleasures.
I suppose you must spend the night feasting?
On the contrary, Muslims take advantage of Ramadhan and have a special long prayer called Tarawih during which the whole Qur’an is recited by the Imam.
Additional optional prayers and other acts of worship are carried out by many Muslims during the course of the night.
In the morning , Muslims wake up early (before first light which is about 5am) and eat a light meal called the Suhoor.Then they pray their early morning prayer.
WOW, that’s a lot of praying, Why?
Ramadhan is a special month during which Muslims reform their own personal character. For example, Muslims try and perform all their prayers punctually and completely. They try and continue this throughout the year.
There is great spiritual merit in prayer, studying, worshipping, reading Qur’an, doing good deeds, repenting, showing kindness, being generous and so on. These acts are carried out more frequently during this blessed month.
How does this ‘reform’ work?
We remove all the negative things in our lives and make extra effort to promote good actions within our lives. For example, we try and be more charitable; spend more time in prayer and study; show more kindness to family, friends, neighbours, strangers… in fact to everyone.
After we practice these types of good actions for a month, we try to keep this going for the rest of the year. There is a significant change in the spirituality and character of Muslims during Ramadhan.
What do you mean by negative?
There are many qualities that are not liked by Islam and some actions may even go against the teachings of Islam. These ‘bad’ actions are purged from our systems.
For example, back biting, lying, swearing and stealing are all bad habits. Alcohol, drugs and gambling are forbidden in Islam so any Muslims who deal in these removes them completely from their lives during Ramadhan and hopefully for the rest of their lives.
Smoking is disliked and discouraged in Islam. Whilst fasting, Muslims can’t smoke so many Muslims give up smoking during Ramadhan and many quit smoking forever.
Do you need to eat curry to fast?
Nope, Islam is not culturally based but includes people from all nationalities, backgrounds and races. Muslims can eat anything outside the time of fasting as long as it is permissible by Islam (Halal).
However, Muslims must eat in moderation and are encouraged to do things in moderation. For this reason, Islam is often referred to as the middle path.
Do all Muslims have to fast?
All mature and sane Muslims must keep the fasts of Ramadhan. There are exceptions from performing the fast.
Old and ill people who may be incapable of fasting or fasting may deteriorate their health further. This also applies to pregnant women and others who are advised not to fast by a doctor.
Is it true that only Muslims fast?
Actually, many great spiritual teachers would fast and they encouraged their followers and disciples to fast. Fasting is a path to spiritual enlightenment as well as a moral reform. These teachers include the great prophets sent to mankind such as Moses, David, Abraham, Jesus and Muhammad (pbut).
Christianity and Judaism both have traditions of fasting. Christianity have Lent where they abstain from a food type for 40 days. Previously, earlier Christians would abstain from all food and drink during the day and have a meal in the evening. This tradition had many variations in the detail but this act of fasting is an integral part of both Judaism and Christianity.
How can fasting have benefit?
There are a number of reasons that fasting can benefit an individual and the wider society.
Medical: Fasting is an MOT for the human body during which it becomes detoxified of many toxins built up within the body. The human body is designed to cope with fasting and many redundant processes are initiated to improve the condition of the human body.
Body fats and special proteins stored in the body are consumed by the bodily processes. The repairing of damaged cells and organs is enhanced.
Eating disorders and addictions are more easily overcome as mental strength and will power is improved. This also improves self-esteem and confidence. Habits such as smoking are more easily controlled or completely stamped out.
Scientific research suggests that brain processes of a fasting person are more efficient with improved ability to focus and think clearly.
Social aspects: Appreciation for the conditions of those less well off helps to bond society and develop a spirit of charity and goodwill. This also helps remove the class divide with its inherent intolerance and injustices.
Spiritual: It provides an opportunity to reflect on one’s life and the direction it is heading. It takes people’s lives off auto-pilot and allows them to regain control.
It is a means to become closer to the spiritual self and rekindle the relationship between the creator and his subjects.
It becomes a means for forgiveness and repentance as past sins are reflected upon and repentance sought. During Ramadhan the doors to salvation and mercy are opened for mankind.
It provides a resolution and road map for the spiritual development for an individual. People who fully participate in the fast find positive and constructive changes to their lives. All goodness of the soul is promoted during Ramadhan and this continues from there on.
Can people die fasting?
No, unless someone has a medical condition and a lack of food is going to aggravate this illness or cause death. They are exempt from fasting in the first place.
Islam is very flexible, if there is fear of loss of life due to the fast, the fast can be broken. If a person breaks the fast accidentally then the fast still remains intact.
However, if a person breaks their fast intentionally, without a valid excuse, then extra fasts have to be kept to compensate it.
You must be happy when its over?
When Ramadhan ends, we have Eid ul Fitr which is the commemoration of the completion of Ramadhan. Muslims are genuinely sad and look forward to the next Ramadhan when this spirit of blessing, spirituality, love and kindness can be rekindled again.