I REMEMBER one Hadith -- sayings of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) -- that says, "Perhaps a person fasting will receive nothing from his fasting except hunger and thirst, and many are those who pray during the nights but gain nothing from their prayers except wakefulness."
In this time of the pandemic, this hadith should raise our concern about fasting and increase our desire to perform this act of worship with the best intention and in accordance with the Sunnah. It is important for us not to lose sight of the real purpose of fasting and the great qualities that it can help us build within ourselves as an act of worship. Knowing the true purpose of fasting directly impacts our lives.
But what is the purpose of fasting during the month of Ramadhan? Every Muslim knows that fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam. It is also an obligatory act of worship. Allah (SWT) has prescribed it for us in the Holy Qur'an: "O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those who came before you; that you will perhaps be God-fearing." (2:183)
Fasting is an obligation and a means to attain Taqwa (to be God-fearing). The Holy Qur'an states: "The most honorable among you in the sight of Allah is he who is the most pious." (49:13)
Although fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam, there are individuals that are exempt or not required to fast during Ramadhan. These include the elderly, pregnant women, women who are nursing or menstruating, people who are ill, and musafireen or travelers from far places.
Fasting in the month of Ramadhan helps in developing one's spirituality. It helps us to be morally conscious and increases our sense of belonging which is essential for nurturing a strong, cohesive, and thriving community and society.
The purpose of fasting is to help Muslims foster both patience and discipline. Fasting teaches us how to be patient and to endure long hours of hunger and thirst. It leads us to practice sab'r (patience), a strong belief in God, and also helps us to understand the sufferings of the poor and the marginalized sectors in our communities. This is a strong way that we can generate compassion and a sense of obligation to reach out and help others.
In terms of discipline, fasting helps us to manage our time properly: preparing our food, perform prayers, time to break the fast, and to coordinate community activities -- with the added challenge for us having the enhanced community quarantine.
Studies have shown that fasting as a spiritual practice has been employed by many religious groups since ancient times. Take for example the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Babylonians and Mongolians; they believed that fasting was a healthy ritual that could detoxify the body and purify the mind. The three Abrahamic religions in the world also advise fasting at certain times: Judaism during Yom Kippur, Christianity during the Lent period, and Islam during the festival of Ramadhan.
We must understand that the purpose of fasting does not reside in the act itself but with its corresponding intention or niyaat. Without the proper intention, fasting is a purely healthy practice. Without the right intention, it loses its meaning.
With the proper intention, fasting induces a mindset that reminds us that we need rest. In today's world, we need to stop and reflect on how we have been living our lives. We also need a break from the mundane and the materialistic world we live in. As one Muslim scholar said, "With the proper intention, food becomes a sacrament, the drink becomes an elixir of life. And fasting gives us a sense of exaltation. The ordinary becomes sacred."