Ramadan, the 9th month of the Islamic (Hijri) calendar, is upon us once again. Many find it astonishing that Muslims voluntarily abstain from food & drink from sunrise until sunset every day, for the entire month. This is especially the case when Ramadan falls in a season where the days are both long and hot. Naturally, the question “why do Muslims fast in Ramadan?” is asked by many inquisitive non- Muslims. To answer this question, we must understand the following three points…
1) The Islamic intellectual basis
We must first look at the reason by which Islam claims that its creed is the correct creed. The claim is that the Quran is revelation from God and the proof of this is its linguistic inimitability.
A verse in the second chapter of the Quran, Surah al Baqarah, states “…bring one chapter like it…”. This means that to disprove the claim, the only thing that someone needs to do is produce a single chapter in the linguistic eloquence, rhetoric and style of the Quran. It is worth mentioning that this has never been done, although many experts and poets of the Arabic language have attempted it. This is because the Quran lies outside the productive capacity of mankind, proving it is a miracle and revelation from God. The challenge remains open.
Every human has a mind by which to comprehend and verify this claim (that the Quran is a miracle from God), meaning everyone can appreciate the simplicity of the Islamic creed. The Islamic creed is not adopted based on fideism (leaps of faith), emotion, inheritance or guesswork. Rather, it is arrived at through definitive proofs. This is what is meant by the ‘intellectual basis’ of Islam.
2) Criteria for action in Islam: Ahkaam al Shari’ah
Now that we have arrived at the answer as to why people adopt the Islamic creed (i.e. become Muslims), we can now explain the criteria that Islam laid down for actions. This criteria is called ‘Ahkaam al Shar’iah’ which loosely translates as “The Rules of the Law”. According to this criteria, every action falls into one of five types;
- fard (obligatory; must be performed, results in reward, sin incurred if neglected) e.g. praying the five daily obligatory prayers,
- mustahab (rewardable, encouraged to be performed) e.g. giving extra charity,
- mubah (permissible; no reward or punishment inherently attached to the action) e.g. choosing to drink orange juice as opposed to apple juice,
- makruh (disliked; rewardable if abstained from, no sin incurred if performed) e.g. using an excessive amount of water for ablution, and
- haraam (forbidden; sin is incurred if performed, abstention results in reward) e.g. drinking alcohol
Another verse in Surah al Baqarah states
“O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed upon you, as it was prescribed upon those before you, so that you may gain God-consciousness”.
The obligation for Muslims to fast in Ramadan comes from this verse. As aforementioned, every obligation must be followed; conducting them leads to immense reward in the afterlife and conversely, neglecting them results in the incurrence of sins.
Therefore, Muslims do not fast in Ramadan merely to improve their biological metabolism, to ‘remember the poor’ or to detox the mind & body, although these may result from it. The actual reason why Muslims fast is because it is an obligation from God, arrived at through the intellectual basis of Islam.
3) Developing God-consciousness (Taqwa)
The aforementioned verse in the Quran makes it obligatory to fast in Ramadan. However, food & drink is not abstained for the mere sake of attaining hunger and thirst because the last part of the verse also mentioned “…so that you may gain God-consciousness”.
So what is the link between abstention from food & drink and God-consciousness? The answer is that everyone who feels pangs of thirst or hunger throughout the day will consciously refer to the criteria for action (ahkaam al shari’ah) i.e. they will remember it is forbidden to eat and drink until dawn. This process, day-in, day-out, builds a personality who consciously links his or her actions to the Islamic criteria. This is what God-consciousness is; to follow the commands and avoid the prohibitions set by God in the criteria revealed to us. It is recorded in ‘Sahih al Bukhari’ that the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) said:
“Whoever does not give up forged speech and evil actions, Allah is not in need of his leaving his food and drink (i.e. Allah will not accept his fasting)”
This perpetual month-long process should therefore extend this criteria for action beyond Ramadan, by incorporating it in every action in his or her life. It should build someone who is God-conscious 24/7, whether this be conducting trade fairly, being truthful, giving more in charity, reciting and memorising more Quran daily, praying on time and treating others with respect to name just a few examples.
The Quran is a linguistic miracle from God resulting in the adoption of the Islamic creed and thus the adoption of the Islamic criteria for action. This criteria defines the actions to conduct and the actions to avoid, and this is why Muslims fast in Ramadan.
Subsequently, a Muslim strives to perform all obligations (such as praying, fasting in Ramadan, giving parents and children their rights) and avoid all sins (such as adultery, committing fraud and keeping silent over injustice). Furthermore, a Muslim should also strive to perform the mustahab (rewardable) actions and avoid the makruh (disliked) actions, to constantly improving his or her Islamic personality and thus draw closer to God.
We end on a verse from chapter thirty-eight of the Quran, Surah Saad, which states:
“[This Quran is] a blessed Book which We have sent down unto you, so that they might meditate upon its verses and that those of understanding may be reminded”