Fasting the month of Ramadan is one of the five pillars upon which the structure of Islam is built. The other four are the declaration of one’s belief in God’s oneness and in the message of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), regular attendance to Prayers, payment of zakah (obligatory charity), and the pilgrimage.
If we examine these five pillars, taking into account the fact that Islam aims at improving the quality of human life at both the individual and social levels, we find that the first of these five pillars is concerned with beliefs which influence one’s conduct.
The second, that is Prayer, provides a constant reminder of one’s bond with God. Alms giving, the third pillar, is a social obligation which reduces the gap between the rich and the poor, while the fifth, that is the pilgrimage, has a universal aspect that unites the Muslim community throughout the world.
Fasting Ramadan, which is the fourth of these pillars, has a particularly high importance, derived from its very personal nature as an act of worship. Although in a Muslim country it is extremely difficult for anyone to defy public feelings by showing that one is not fasting, there is nothing to stop anyone from privately violating God’s commandment of fasting if one chooses to do so.
This means that although fasting is obligatory, its observance is purely voluntary. The fact is that fasting cannot be used by a hypocrite in order to persuade others of one’s devotion to God. If a person claims to be a Muslim, he or she is expected to fast in Ramadan.
This explains why the reward God gives for proper fasting is so generous. In a hadith qudsi (divine hadith), the Prophet quotes God as saying: “All actions done by a human being are his own except fasting, which belongs to Me and I reward it accordingly.” (Al-Bukhari)
This is a mark of special generosity, since Islam teaches that God gives for every good action a reward equivalent to at least ten times its values. Sometimes He multiplies this reward to seven hundred times the value of the action concerned, and even more.
Prophet Muhammad taught that the reward for proper fasting is admittance into heaven.
It may be noted that the qualified fasting that earns such great reward must be “proper”.
This is because all Muslims are required to make their worship perfect. Perfection of fasting can be achieved through restraint of one’s feelings and emotions.
Prophet Muhammad said that when fasting, people should not allow themselves to be drawn into a quarrel or “slanging” match. He taught that: “On a day of fasting, let no one of you indulge in any obscenity, or enter into a slanging match. Should someone abuse or fight him, let him respond by saying: “”I am fasting! I am fasting!”” (Muslim)
This high standard of self-restraint fits in well with fasting, which is, in essence, an act of self-discipline. Islam requires Muslims to couple patience with voluntary abstention from indulgence in physical desire. This is indeed the purpose of fasting.
It helps people to attain a standard of sublimity, which is very rare in the practical world. In other words, this standard is actually achieved by every Muslim who knows the purpose of fasting and strives to fulfill it.
Sharing the Feelings of Others
Fasting has another special aspect. It makes all people share in the feelings of hunger and thirst. In normal circumstances, people with decent income may go from one year’s end to another without experiencing the pangs of hunger which a poor person may feel every day of his or her life.
Such an experience helps to draw the rich nearer to the poor. Indeed, Muslims are encouraged to be more charitable in Ramadan in order to follow the Prophet’s lead, who was described by his Companions as “the most generous of all people.” (Al-Bukhari)
Yet he achieved in Ramadan an even higher degree of generosity. His Companions say of him that he was in Ramadan “more generous and charitable than unrestrained wind.” (Al-Bukhari)
Fasting has also a universal or communal aspect. As Muslims throughout the world share in this blessed act of worship, they feel their unity and equality. Their sense of unity is enhanced by the fact that every Muslim individual joins voluntarily in the fulfillment of this divine commandment.
The unity of Muslims is far from superficial. It is a unity of action and purpose, since they all fast in order to be better human beings. As people restrain themselves from the things they desire most, in the hope that they will earn God’s pleasure, self-discipline and sacrifice become part of their nature. They learn to give generously for a good cause.
The month of Ramadan is aptly described as a “festive season of worship”. Fasting is the main aspect of worship in this month, but people are more attentive to their Prayers in Ramadan than they are in the rest of the year.
They are also more generous and charitable. Thus, their devotion is more complete, and they feel in Ramadan much happier, because they feel themselves to be closer to God. Therefore, they love this month, which is one of endless benefits and blessings to them.