If you are anything like me your favourite question is why?
Y ou spend a lot of time questioning just about everything that goes on around you, with you, to you and from you. To this extent, just before Ramadan every year, I ask myself: what’s with fasting?
Why do we do it? In a time gone by I didn’t think about it much. I just did it because I’m Muslim and I’m supposed to be fasting in Ramadan. So I’d wake up before the crack of dawn, eat as much as possible, and go to sleep again (struggle to anyway). Once asleep, I’d stay asleep as long as circumstances allowed. I’d do my thing in the day then go to sleep again for as long as possible. Wake up and find my place on a table adorned with dates, samosas, pakoras, fruit, and nice curries. Watch the clock and countdown to the 30 minutes of feasting that lies moments ahead. After eating, I’d rest — maybe fall asleep, then freshen up and go to the mosque, back home, and then go to sleep again. One day down, repeat for the remaining 29 days.
When asked why I fast by any non-Muslim friends I didn’t know the answer.
All I had to show was a repetitive routine, but I’d gloss over it — I couldn’t tell them that eating, drinking, and sleeping was central to everything I did. So, instead, I’d reply by saying it was to take a moment to remember the poverty-stricken and the starving masses of poor people. By experiencing the pangs of hunger I was more likely to feel compassion for those who live in poverty, and so re-assess my own privileged position in life.
Being a natural born sceptic and unconvinced with the answer to this question, I found myself having moments of reflection, mulling over things and asking myself questions.
Things like, if this was the case then how is it that I can walk past homeless people without any care in the world — even when I’m fasting? What good does it do the person who is genuinely starving (out of no choice of their own), that I go hungry for a certain number of hours? How is it that one of the richest countries in the world, a Muslim one for that matter, amongst all the gold, fancy buildings, royal pageantries, splendid feasts and all manner of materialistic wealth acquired in exchange for its rich reserves of the good old black stuff still has some shockingly bad rates of poverty? Shouldn’t I be looking out for the vulnerable, destitute and downtrodden at all times? Didn’t the Prophet (ﷺ) emphasise empathy for them and positive action to do something about their state? Does your charity stop after Ramadan?
I digress, back to the primary question — why do I fast?
Amongst the myriad thoughts I recalled the verse of the Qur’an:
یٰۤاَیُّہَا الَّذِیۡنَ اٰمَنُوۡا کُتِبَ عَلَیۡکُمُ الصِّیَامُ کَمَا کُتِبَ عَلَی الَّذِیۡنَ مِنۡ قَبۡلِکُمۡ لَعَلَّکُمۡ تَتَّقُوۡنَ
Ya Ayyu Halladhina Amanu Kutiba ‘Alaykumu’Siyamu Kama Kutiba ‘Alalladhina Min Qablikum la’allakum tattaqun.
“You who believe, fasting has been prescribed for you as it was prescribed for the people before you, so that you may attain Taqwa”.
I didn’t think deeply about this before. I knew ‘Taqwa’ as a concept was more than I thought. If fasting is meant to lead to Taqwa it means fasting has something to it that brings about a certain type of state.
Following a recent re-read of the first chapter of the Qur’an a few new thoughts came to mind after considering some additional questions. Why was the word لَعَلَّ (la’alla — mentioned in the verse above) used and what is the significance of mentioning the fact that it was prescribed for the people in the past? And what is Taqwa? And how does fasting aid in attaining it?
The word La’alla
The word لَعَلَّ signifies hope or fear of something which is not necessarily 100% true. I may say for instance “La’allaka bi-khayr” — I hope that you are well or I may say “la’allaka mareed” — I fear that you are ill. The statements express hope or fear of a particular outcome. The outcome that is hoped for through fasting is that you will become “Muttaqi”.
What is Taqwa
The first mention in the Qur’an of Taqwa is at the beginning of Surah al-Baqarah:
ذٰلِکَ الۡکِتٰبُ لَا رَیۡبَ ۚۖۛ فِیۡہِ ۚۛ ہُدًی لِّلۡمُتَّقِیۡنَ
This is the Book in which there is no chance of doubt. (It is) a guide for those who are al-Muttaqeen
الَّذِیۡنَ یُؤۡمِنُوۡنَ بِالۡغَیۡبِ وَ یُقِیۡمُوۡنَ الصَّلٰوۃَ وَ مِمَّا رَزَقۡنٰہُمۡ یُنۡفِقُوۡنَ
Those who believe in the unseen, and establish Prayer and spend (in Our way) out of what We have given them
وَ الَّذِیۡنَ یُؤۡمِنُوۡنَ بِمَاۤ اُنۡزِلَ اِلَیۡکَ وَ مَاۤ اُنۡزِلَ مِنۡ قَبۡلِکَ ۚ وَ بِالۡاٰخِرَۃِ ہُمۡ یُوۡقِنُوۡنَ
And those who believe in (all) that which has been revealed to you, and that which was revealed before you, and also have (perfect) faith in the Hereafter.
اُولٰٓئِکَ عَلٰی ہُدًی مِّنۡ رَّبِّہِمۡ ٭ وَ اُولٰٓئِکَ ہُمُ الۡمُفۡلِحُوۡنَ
It is they who follow guidance from their Lord, and it is they who shall achieve real success.
God has described the people of Taqwa as being those who establish prayer. Note that establishing something is greater than doing it by rote in a ritual manner. It implies all requisites of the action be satisfied — inwardly and outwardly and that the action is performed consistently. Not only this but they spend in the way of God, they have unwavering faith in everything that was revealed and in the hereafter. They follow the guidance of God — which is the Qur’an and the Prophet (ﷺ).
Then later in the same surah:
لَیۡسَ الۡبِرَّ اَنۡ تُوَلُّوۡا وُجُوۡہَکُمۡ قِبَلَ الۡمَشۡرِقِ وَ الۡمَغۡرِبِ وَ لٰکِنَّ الۡبِرَّ مَنۡ اٰمَنَ بِاللّٰہِ وَ الۡیَوۡمِ الۡاٰخِرِ وَ الۡمَلٰٓئِکَۃِ وَ الۡکِتٰبِ وَ النَّبِیّٖنَ ۚ وَ اٰتَی الۡمَالَ عَلٰی حُبِّہٖ ذَوِی الۡقُرۡبٰی وَ الۡیَتٰمٰی وَ الۡمَسٰکِیۡنَ وَ ابۡنَ السَّبِیۡلِ ۙ وَ السَّآئِلِیۡنَ وَ فِی الرِّقَابِ ۚ وَ اَقَامَ الصَّلٰوۃَ وَ اٰتَی الزَّکٰوۃَ ۚ وَ الۡمُوۡفُوۡنَ بِعَہۡدِہِمۡ اِذَا عٰہَدُوۡا ۚ وَ الصّٰبِرِیۡنَ فِی الۡبَاۡسَآءِ وَ الضَّرَّآءِ وَ حِیۡنَ الۡبَاۡسِ ؕ اُولٰٓئِکَ الَّذِیۡنَ صَدَقُوۡا ؕ وَ اُولٰٓئِکَ ہُمُ الۡمُتَّقُوۡنَ
177. Righteousness is not merely that you turn your faces to the east or the west. But true righteousness is that a person believes in Allah, the Last Day, the angels, the Book (revealed by Allah) and the Messengers. Driven by love for Allah, he spends (his) wealth on the kindred, the orphans, the needy, the wayfarers and those who ask and in (liberating slaves’) necks, and establishes Prayer and pays Zakat (the Alms-due). And when they make a promise, they fulfil it and are steadfast in hardship (i.e., poverty) and suffering (i.e., ailment) and at the time of fierce fighting (i.e., jihad). It is these who are truthful and it is these who are righteous.
The same concepts are now laid out in relation to righteousness –
- Believing in the unseen;
- The messengers of the past;
- Spending in the way of God, which is to spend in ways that benefit people in need, and;
- Following the commandments of God.
From a linguistic angle
Imam Raghib al-Isfahani explains the word Taqwa comes from ‘waqa’, the verbal noun for ‘wiqaayah’ which means the preservation of something from what harms and damages it. It’s also defined as keeping away from what hurts or harms. Sometimes fear is also expressed using the word Taqwa.
We can see the various usages as follows:
Taqwa is connected to piety and self-correction:
یٰبَنِیۡۤ اٰدَمَ اِمَّا یَاۡتِیَنَّکُمۡ رُسُلٌ مِّنۡکُمۡ یَقُصُّوۡنَ عَلَیۡکُمۡ اٰیٰتِیۡ ۙ فَمَنِ اتَّقٰی وَ اَصۡلَحَ فَلَا خَوۡفٌ عَلَیۡہِمۡ وَ لَا ہُمۡ یَحۡزَنُوۡنَ
35. O Children of Adam! If Messengers come to you from amongst yourselves who relate to you My Revelations, then whoever becomes Godfearing and pious and amends (himself), neither will any fear obsess them, nor will they grieve.
Taqwa is connected to spiritual excellence:
اِنَّ اللّٰہَ مَعَ الَّذِیۡنَ اتَّقَوۡا وَّ الَّذِیۡنَ ہُمۡ مُّحۡسِنُوۡنَ
128. Surely, Allah blesses them who live with Godwariness and who (also) live with spiritual excellence with His (special) companionship.
Taqwa is connected to the fear of God:
وَ مَنۡ یُّطِعِ اللّٰہَ وَ رَسُوۡلَہٗ وَ یَخۡشَ اللّٰہَ وَ یَتَّقۡہِ فَاُولٰٓئِکَ ہُمُ الۡفَآئِزُوۡنَ
52. And whoever obeys Allah and His Messenger (blessings and peace be upon him) and fears Allah and adopts Godwariness for Him, it is they who will achieve their goal. (al-Nur) 24:52
Imam Raghib al-Isfahani summarises it to say that the word Taqwa refers to the protection of the self from what harms it and by leaving what is prohibited and doubtful.
So fasting was prescribed for us in the hope that we will learn to protect ourselves from what harms us and to leave what is prohibited and doubtful. To make our faith unwavering and to learn true righteousness, to be obedient to God.
The month of fasting is a training ground aimed at building self-restraint from bodily pleasures and whatever displeases God.
The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “If a person does not stop telling lies (despite fasting) then Allah does not need him to trouble himself with hunger and thirst.”
The month provides the opportunity to enlighten the heart with spiritual blessings and the opportunity to train in patience and gratitude. The patient will not give in to desires, will control the lower self and be steadfast in the face of tribulation. A person of gratitude will happily be grateful to Allah in equal measure in every scenario. Whether hungry, satiated, at peace or in distress, possessing wealth or possessing nothing. Moreover, fasting gives the opportunity to build human sensitivity. The person who connects to their humanity will physically realise what others, out of no choice of their own, experience on a daily basis, and be moved to make a difference in the world.
With all this said, I took a few moments to reflect on my experiences in Ramadan over the past few years. I came to realise common behaviour traits that tend to accentuate in this month:
- The angry folk — these people right from day 1 of Ramadan openly display anger more than they did before. At pretty much every opportunity they will become easily offended, argumentative and throw tantrums.
- The overly-quiet — these people become very quiet throughout the whole month and don’t communicate well with those around them.
- The lazy — they spend their time sleeping.
- The heroes — they tend towards extremes. They will pick the hardest options in everything. Sleep little, no suhoor, take ages reading salah, spend no time with family as they spend every moment in ritual worship. They usually make a big deal of showing off their ritual practices.
- The moaners — they are always complaining about this or that.
- The impatient — usually linked with the angry folk. These lot display a heightened degree of impatience and snap easily when things don’t go their way.
- The gluttonous — these people always think and talk about food. When it is time to eat they eat enough for a whole nation and then they boast about it.
There are no doubt more character traits that people display. But, this is what I have observed as being dominant characteristics amongst the people around me and in myself during Ramadan.
It then struck me that there is something about Ramadan whereby the traits of the self, are laid clear. To the extent that it appears they are on display in a shop window. All we need to do is take a moment to observe the display and then take action to correct matters. Fasting, afterall, isn’t just in the performance of rituals. It’s also in training our character as demonstrated in the saying of the Prophet (ﷺ) mentioned earlier.
It’s interesting to note that fasting isn’t a new thing.
It was prescribed for the communities before us for the same ends — it’s a tried and tested formula to achieve Taqwa.
The people of the previous communities were humans just like us. Struggling with the same character defects and urges of the lower self. The medicine for them was the same. There is a beautiful continuity in our struggle to attain piety and righteousness. A continuity that connects us with the communities of the past and those yet to come.
If Taqwa is to protect the self from what harms it, part of what harms us is ourselves. If fasting has been prescribed in the hope that we attain Taqwa then it is the grasping of the opportunity in fasting that will take us to the goal.
Observe yourselves, connect with your humanity, learn to be grateful, thankful, strive towards righteousness and come to a realisation of your own realities. Take positive action to amend yourselves so that you can attain Taqwa in all its meanings.