By Abu Ibrahim
Introducing Ramadan: the month of fasting
This Ramadan 1436/2015, I thank Allah for giving me this opportunity to share my reflections on the amazing verses that Allah revealed concerning Ramadan. In just five verses (2:183- 187), Allah talks about the reason for fasting, and the goal and objectives of fasting. Verses 184, 185 and 187 talk about the process of fasting: who, what, where, when and how. The scholars have elaborated on these extensively in different works over the last fourteen centuries. My focus in this article will be the reason, goal and objectives of fasting and how awesome and compelling these verses are in establishing the truth of Allah's words.
Reason and Purpose
In 2:183 Allah tells us:
“O you who have believed, decreed upon you is fasting as it was decreed upon those before you that you may become righteous”
in a way introducing fasting as something well known to previous generations of believers.
In 2:185, the reason and the purpose are explained:
“The month of Ramadan [is that] in which was revealed the Qur'an, a guidance for the people and clear proofs of guidance and criterion. So whoever sights [the new moon of] the month, let him fast it; and whoever is ill or on a journey – then an equal number of other days. Allah intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship and [wants] for you to complete the period and to glorify Allah for that [to] which He has guided you; and perhaps you will be grateful.”
Thus fasting in Ramadan is to commemorate the Guidance (Qur'an) that Allah sent to mankind through Prophet Muhammed , as the revelation commenced in the month of Ramadan. This is a paradigm shift as previous messengers/prophets were sent primarily to their respective nations but this final message (Qur'an) is guidance meant for all nations till the last day (10:47). Allah also promised to protect the Qur'an for later generations as opposed to previous messages which were lost in their pristine form (15:9).
It is noteworthy that Allah highlights clear proofs and criterion being sent along with the Guidance. What I really find amazing is Allah's succinct style as these three items – guidance, clear proofs of guidance, and criterion – are found in these verses establishing fasting in the religion of Islam.
As guidance, fasting in Islam means abstaining from food, drink and sexual intercourse with your spouse from dawn to dusk, with the intention of pleasing Allah (Ibn Kathir). Thus starvation or other forms of fasting (e.g. prior to surgery etc.) or fasting without the intention of pleasing Allah is not included as fasting described within the limits of the Islamic or Quranic guidance.
To understand the value of guidance, we need to be able to conceptualize its purpose and appreciate the link between guidelines, standards and outcomes. For instance, like other guidelines such as aviation and financial guidelines, NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) practice guidelines provide recommendations for good practice, based on best available evidence with the aim of developing quality standards and improving (healthcare) outcomes (NICE).
After creating the world and humans, Allah did not leave us without the guidance required to achieve a good life and the best outcomes. He states this categorically in Ayatul Kursi and Surah Al 'Ala:
“His Kursi extends over the heavens and the earth, and their preservation tires Him not. And He is the Most High, the Most Great.” 2:255
“Exalt the name of your Lord, the Most High, Who created and proportioned, And Who destined and [then] guided” 87:1-3
Basically, our preservation as a species depends on following our Creator's guidance. The Qur'an asserts that guidance has been provided to humans since the creation of the first man, Adam, but not everyone utilizes it (2:38). The Qur'an confirms that this diversity about following the guidance or not is part of Allah's will.
“And had your Lord willed, those on earth would have believed – all of them entirely. Then, [O Muhammad], would you compel the people in order that they become believers?” 10.99
“There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong. So whoever disbelieves in Taghut and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy handhold with no break in it. And Allah is Hearing and Knowing.” 2:256
We live in a world where the dominant contemporary philosophy is the pursuit of happiness, and this can be traced back to Greek philosophical ideas. Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, taught that virtues (courage, temperance, generosity etc.) and prudence (practical intelligence) are prerequisites to achieving true happiness or living a good life (Nicomachean Ethics).
As stated above, the Qur'an confirms that every nation had a prophet to guide them, but as evidence suggests that Aristotle was secular in his thinking, the more correct view Islamically would be that his thoughts were based on the remnants of the teachings of prophet(s) sent to his nation. In 17:97, Allah talks about the good life:
“Whoever does righteousness, whether male or female, while he is a believer – We will surely cause him to live a good life, and We will surely give them their reward [in the Hereafter] according to the best of what they used to do.”
In Islam, virtue (righteousness) means following the guidance of Allah (2:177) and not the mere doing of 'virtuous deeds'. Sheikh Ibn Uthaymeen (may Allah have mercy on him) explained that 'the Good Life' means “satisfaction” (The Islamic Awakening). It suffices to say that Allah guided humanity but even if each person or group has a different take on guidance, there is unanimous agreement that guidelines with high standards lead to good outcomes including satisfaction.
Clear proofs of guidance
The first unassailable evidence (in the verses regarding fasting) that the Guidance (Qur'an) is from Allah is that fasting is a well-known ritual performed by different religious groups. This is apparent with the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism and Christianity) who can testify that fasting was prescribed for them. The similarity of the essence of the message (Oneness of Allah) which is in keeping with previous messages establishes continuity, and confirms that Allah revealed the Qur'an (2:1-5)
Another proof is what has been described above that Allah sent guidance to all nations of the world and the remnants of this guidance can be detected even in nations that turned secular or polytheistic. Contemporary proof from empiricism is the increasing evidence-base for the benefits fasting, spirituality and religiosity, with several studies showing strong associations between spirituality/religiosity and wellbeing, better recovery from illness after treatment (including cancer and mental illness) and satisfaction.
Many verses of the Qur'an are proofs of the existence of Allah, our Lord and creator, and that the Qur'an (guidance) is from Him.
The Qur'an contains verses that distinguish between what is right and wrong. One such criterion between right and wrong is the verse defining righteousness (2:177). In the verses regarding fasting, the 'criterion verses' that helps in resolving ethical dilemmas (traveler, the ill, weak and elderly vs obligation and reward of fasting) are 2:184-185
“[Fasting for] a limited number of days. So whoever among you is ill or on a journey [during them] – then an equal number of days [are to be made up]. And upon those who are able [to fast, but with hardship] – a ransom [as substitute] of feeding a poor person [each day]. And whoever volunteers excess – it is better for him. But to fast is best for you, if you only knew.” 2:184
“So whoever sights [the new moon of] the month, let him fast it; and whoever is ill or on a journey then an equal number of other days. Allah intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship and [wants] for you to complete the period and to glorify Allah for that [to] which He has guided you; and perhaps you will be grateful.” 2:185
Understanding and correctly applying the criterion in solving complex evolving problems in day-to-day life is vital for Muslims. An example is the dilemma faced by Muslims in the region of the Arctic Circle where 24 hour sunshine is expected. Although there may be a difference of opinion amongst scholars regarding the best solution (see http://islamqa.info/en/219806), the basic principle in verse 185 holds:
“Allah intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship…”
Sheikh Uthaymeen (may Allah have mercy on him) said:
“If fasting is too difficult on very long days, and is unbearably difficult, and there is the fear of physical harm or sickness as a result, then it is permissible to break the fast in that case, and to make it up on shorter days…”
Muslims should be rest assured that what is required of them is to perform religious tasks to the best of their abilities.
“So fear Allah as much as you are able and listen and obey and spend [in the way of Allah]; it is better for your selves. And whoever is protected from the stinginess of his soul – it is those who will be the successful.” 64:16
Correct application of the criterion is much needed for a quick resolution of the tragedies, trials and unrest facing people in the Muslim world today. Although many of these problems are complex, a large part is due to misapplication of the Guidance, which is bound to happen, for instance when militants (or individuals without Taqwa) become leaders of the Muslims instead of rightly guided scholars with strong moral grounding in Islamic ethics (criterion). Perhaps you can still find on the web the write-up regarding the jihadi disputing with Sheikh Nasiruddin al-Albaani (may Allah have mercy on him) about revolting against leaders, insisting that he knew more about the practicalities of jihad compared to the sheikh.
It is clear that failure to comply with the guidance of the Qur'an leads to bad outcomes.
Goal and objective
Interestingly Allah introduced fasting in verse 183 by stating its goal – Taqwa. Taqwa has been defined differently as 'fear, God-consciousness or –mindfulness). The Arabic triliteral root wāw qāf yā, occurs 258 times in the Qur'an in eight different forms, with the verb form waqina meaning save/protect us (Word by word Qur'an).
The vital link between Taqwa and Guidance is described in the early part of surah Al Baqarah.
“Alif, Lam, Meem. This is the Book about which there is no doubt, a guidance for those conscious of Allah -Who believe in the unseen, establish prayer, and spend out of what We have provided for them, And who believe in what has been revealed to you, [O Muhammad], and what was revealed before you, and of the Hereafter they are certain [in faith]. Those are upon [right] guidance from their Lord, and it is those who are the successful.” 2:1-5
Thus Taqwa is a prerequisite for benefiting from the guidance in the Qur'an which guarantees success. How the companions of the prophet understood the importance of Taqwa is portrayed in Ibn Masud's description of Taqwa. Ibn Masud said Taqwa of Allah is:
“That He is obeyed and not defied, remembered and not forgotten and appreciated and not unappreciated.” Al Hakim, Ibn Kathir
As demonstrated by Prophet Muhammad , one of the objectives during fasting is to recite, understand and follow the Guidance in the Qur'an which Allah revealed in Ramadan.
Essentially Muslims abstain from eating, drinking and sexual intercourse with a view of being mindful of Allah (Taqwa), while focusing on worshipping Allah by studying His Guidance in order to be successful. This is depicted graphically below:
Ramadan fast is a mandatory annual training for believers comparable to training for those in the healthcare profession and many others who are required to attend Basic Life Support (resuscitation) training yearly, to keep their skills up-to-date in order to be effective in the field.
As Muslims feel the hunger pang and thirst, communal fasting in Ramadan inculcates in them important life skills, attributes and attitudes useful in day to day activities. These include patience, perseverance, self-control, honesty, empathy, tolerance, coping with pressure, planning, prioritization, and vigilance (of what may annul fasting).
This is for those that observe fasting the right way as there may be tendency for some people to focus on large meals at suhoor and Iftar. It was narrated from Abu Hurairah that the Messenger of Allah said:
“There are people who fast and get nothing from their fast except hunger, and there are those who pray and get nothing from their prayer but a sleepless night.” (Ibn Majah)
Muslims are expected to use skills gained in Ramadan throughout the rest of year, otherwise it may be nothing more than a tick box exercise for them. May Allah protect us from this.
Fasting is prescribed for believers, the Qur'an is guidance for mankind and Ramadan is a public, global celebration designed to link these diverse groups and facilitate the presentation of the guidance with its clear proofs and criterion to those interested, so they can benefit from its wisdom, live successful lives and have good outcomes, in this life and the hereafter. It is really fascinating how the Qur'an does what it says on the till effortlessly. Reflection is required to identify these hidden gems and pearls. Allah says:
“Then do they not reflect upon the Qur'an, or are there locks upon [their] hearts?” 47:24
1. Taqwa: Start with the end (goal) in mind as Allah did, introducing the passage of fasting talking about taqwa first.
2. Devote time to studying (reading, listening, memorizing and reflecting) the Qur'an while identifying the different types of verses (guidance, clear proofs of guidance and criterion), with the intention of obeying Allah's commands.
3. Complete the fast with sincerity, glorify Allah for guiding you, and be grateful to Him.
4. Renew your contract with Allah by believing and obeying Him; then make du'a (supplicate for the Ummah) as He responds to the call of the supplicant.
5. Avoid major sins: Do not cross limits set by Allah.
6. Gain mastery of other checklists in the Qur'an to complete your training (Q23:1-11, 60:12, 17:23-41).
7. Aim to continue to apply the skills and attitudes you have gained after Ramadan, being aware that your behavior may invite or divert people from seeking Allah's Guidance.
May Allah grant you and me the Barakah (blessings) of this Ramadan and accept our deeds, making them pleasing to Him. Ameen
Abu Ibrahim is a medical doctor working in the UK, currently undertaking a masters degree in Medical Ethics and Law at a UK university, and BA in Islamic studies at Islamic Online University.