Fasting - Part of Worship
Fasting The Arabic term for fasting is sawm. In essence, it is the same as tabattul ilallah i.e. detaching oneself from the world and devoting one’s life entirely to God (Quran, 73:8). Fasting, along with most of the other rites of worship, was prescribed on a regular basis after the Prophet’s emigration to Madinah (2 a.h.), but it had been practiced even before Islam in one form or the other. According to Aishah, the Prophet’s wife, the Quraysh used to fast on the day of Ashura, in their days of Ignorance (before Islam) and the Prophet would also fast on that day (Sahih Muslim). So one might say that fasting marks the entrance to an Islamic life, if the Prophet’s stay in the cave of Hira, before his receiving prophethood, is taken into account.
When God decided to give His scriptures to Moses, He asked him to go to Mount Tur where, remaining apart from his people, he was to spend forty days in fasting and abstinence. Moses did so for forty days continuously. Only then did God speak to him. This is mentioned in verse 143 of Chapter 7 of the Quran.
Before commencing his prophetic mission, the Prophet Jesus had fasted for forty days in the desert. Only then was the word of God revealed to him. This is recorded in the Bible as the Sermon on the Mount (Jewish Encyclopedia). Likewise, the Final Prophet used to go to the cave of Hira before receiving his prophethood. There he would fast in seclusion, engrossed in a world of worship and contemplation. Only after a long period of this inner purification did the time come for him to be visited by an angel, so that he might receive the word of God.
In the Islamic shari‘ah, fasting is known as sawm, a word which means to abstain. Literally, it means to abstain from meeting people, speaking, eating and drinking. A horse that has been detained at a stable and denied fodder is called al-Khail as-Saim, in Arabic. That is why the Prophet called the month of Ramadan a month of patience. Harith ibn Malik, describing one of his fasts to the Prophet, said, “I withdrew from the world and was thirsty all day.”
The outer sign of fasting is abstention from food from morning till evening. But, in its real essence, it is to withdraw from all worldly attachments, and reduce all mundane necessities to a minimum. While fasting, one devotes much less time to conversation, social activity and other such worldly activities. This reaches a climax during Itikaf, a total retreat conducted during the last ten days of Ramadan. In Itikaf one is totally cut off from these pursuits. One retires from the human world and enters the world of God. The contact which the believer thus establishes with God should remain with him throughout his life. This is what the Prophet termed Zuhd (detachment from the world) and has been made obligatory in the form of fasting during the month of Ramadan. This renunciation, or Itikaf during the last days of the month of fasting is considered an extremely desirable form of worship. In Itikaf, one distances oneself completely from the world and turns to God. Itikaf is the most complete fulfilment of Islam’s requirements during the month of Ramadan, but, it is required to be practiced less strictly as concession, during the first part of the month.
What are the benefits sought in fasting? Its aim is to weaken the material aspect of man and strengthen the spirituality in him, so that he may enter the higher realms of faith.
Two things make up a man: his body and his soul. While the material part of man, the body, is indispensable for the performance of mundane tasks, it is his soul which will take him to the higher realities. The soul or the mind—as psychologists prefer to call it— must, therefore, be preserved in its pristine state. That means that just as the body requires physical nourishment, the soul must be nourished spiritually.
When one lifts oneself up from the material world and becomes attached to the spiritual world, one is astonished to apprehend a new door of truth opening before one. All those realities that were formerly invisible beneath a veil of matter now become plain for one to see. One reaches the loftiest station—the final stage in the ascent of man
This is explained in a tradition of the Prophet:
When a person has elevated himself from the world, God endows him with wisdom, which emanates from his lips. He is shown the ills of the world, and their remedies. He is brought safely to the abode of peace. (Mishkat)
There comes a point on this path when one passes so far beyond the veil of matter that one can see realities exactly as they are. Then one “worships God, as if one were seeing Him.” (Bukhari)
A common man can also elevate his soul to this degree. Prophethood, however, is the final stage of this path. The difference is that a prophet is one chosen by God. There is no obscurity in his vision of the divine world; it appears before him in absolute, certain form; it actually becomes a part of his consciousness. The prophet is thus in a position to say: “I know that I know.” While a common man can never reach this stage, because he is not ‘chosen.’ Unlike the prophets, his contact with the divine world is neither absolute nor conscious