“O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may (learn) self-restraint.” (Holy Quran, 2-183)
“As it was prescribed” does not mean that the Muslim fast is like the other fasts previously observed; in the number of days, time or manner of the fast or in other incidents. It only means that the principle of self-denial by fasting is not a new one.
This verse should be read with the verses that follow — 2-185 to 188 — so that the physical fast may be fully understood with reference to its spiritual meaning.
The Muslim fast is not meant for self-torture. Although it is stricter than other fasts, it also provides alleviations for special circumstances. If it were merely a temporary abstention from food and drink, it would be salutary to many people who habitually eat and drink in excess.
The instincts for food, drink and sex are strong in the nature of animals, and temporary restraint from all these enables attention to be directed to higher things.
This is achieved through prayers, contemplation and acts of charity, not of the showy kind, but by seeking out those really in need. Certain standards are prescribed, but much higher standards are recommended.
For journeys, a minimum standard of three marches is prescribed by some commentators; others make it more precise by naming a distance of 16 farsakhs — equivalent to 48 miles.
A journey of eight or nine miles on foot is more tiring than a similar one by bullock cart.
There are various degrees of fatigue in riding a given distance on horseback or by camel or in a comfortable train or by motor car or by steamer, aeroplane or airship.
In the opinion of Abdullah Yusuf Ali, the standard must depend on the means of locomotion and on the relative resources of the traveller. It is better to determine it in each case according to circumstances.
It was in Hijri year two that fasting during the holy month of Ramadan was made obligatory for Muslims. It came after the institution of prayer and is the third of the five pillars of Islam (the other four are: Faith in the oneness of God and the last prophethood of Muhammad (peace be upon him), prayer, Zakat and Haj). “Ramadan is the (month) in which the Quran was sent down, as a guide to mankind, also clear (signs) for guidance and judgment (between right and wrong). So every one of you should spend the month fasting, but if any one is ill or on a journey, the prescribed period (should be made up) from days later.
“God intends every facility for you: He does not want to put you to difficulties. (He wants you) to complete the prescribed period, and to glorify Him in that He has guided you ; and per chance ye shall be grateful.” (Holy Quran, 2:185)
Thus the regulations are repeatedly coupled with an insistence on two things: (a) The facilities and concessions given, and (b) the spiritual aspect of the fast without which it is like an empty shell without a kernel.
If we realise this, we shall look upon Ramadan not as a burden but as a blessing, and shall be duly grateful for the lead given to us in the matter. Fasting in Islam is primarily a spiritual discipline, the aim of which is attaining nearness to Allah. It awakens in man a new consciousness of a higher life, a life above that which is maintained by eating and drinking — the spiritual life.
There is also a moral discipline underlying fasting, for it is the training ground where man is taught the greatest moral lesson of his life — that he should be prepared to suffer the greatest privation and undergo the hardest trial rather than indulge in that which is not permitted for him.
Fasting has a social value, too. The commencement of the holy month is a signal for mass movement towards equality which is not limited to one vicinity or even one country but covers the whole Islamic world.
Even from a medical point of view, Ramadan is a blessing, for going without food and drink, at times, is a sheer necessity for the human body. It helps man to keep himself fit. The basis of fasting is piety.
The Muslim fast has a body as well as a soul: The abstinence from food, drink and other pleasures is the body; self-restraint and worship is its soul. If one does not strive to nourish one’s soul during fasting, one’s fast will be mere starvation. On the other hand, the soulful fast must purify the heart and mind. The object is not persecution of self, but its elevation.
Finally, fasting generates faith, love and brotherhood. Its essence lies in keeping away from evils, both in words and deeds.
(The writer is a former Khaleej Times staffer)
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