By Shaykh-ul-Islam Dr Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri
One of many purposes to be realized by religion is the purification and purgation of self, soul and beliefs. It is for this purpose that the Holy Prophet (PBUH) said that he was raised as a Prophet for the perfection of moral excellence. It is in this context that the ideal before the mankind is the attainment of highest moral standards, which is possible through purification of self. Going by the teachings of religions of the world, it becomes certain that every religion has highlighted the importance of spiritual purification and moral edification in one form or the other.
It is a different matter that their respective methodologies and approaches may vary. The concept of worship in Hinduism, tendency of monasticism in Christianity and renunciation of the world in the eyes of the Greek philosophers etc may be referred to as an example in this regard. But Islam is a simple and easy faith, which renounces all such unnatural tendencies. The Holy Prophet (PBUH) gave a five-point course of action in the form of pillars of Islam for the attainment of piety and purification, which is not only in harmony with human nature but also easily applicable.
Fast is one such important pillar which is instrumental for the attainment of piety and purgation of self. There is no denying the fact that the concept of fasting has been present in every religion and society more or less in one form or the other. But Islam presented altogether unique and different concept. According to the Encyclopedia of Jews:
"The Jews and the Christians would keep fast either for repentance or reparation of sin or even for narrower purposes. Their fasting was merely of formal nature. Or fast was kept as a sign of mourning in the ancient days."
So the real purpose of fasting was ignored and it was confined to the achievement of vested interests. But Islam used fasting for putting in place a mechanism for attainment of higher ideals of life. The same Encyclopedia goes on to say:
"It is the Islamic faith, which broadened its vision and scope about fasting and described it as a means for the attainment of higher ideals. All those desires and aspirations of life, which are otherwise within the ambit of morality, are prohibited during Islamic fasting for a definite period. The follower of Islam puts all these restrictions upon himself willingly and happily. These things provide beneficial exercise for both body and soul."
This brings us to the wisdom behind fasting as to why Islamic concept of fasting is different from that of other religions.
The Holy Quran says:
"O Believers! Fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for the people before you so that you may become pious." (2: 183)
The purpose of fasting is to illuminate the heart and mind of man aimed at bringing about comprehensive revolution in his individual and collective life. One month of fasting enables human beings to distinguish the lawful from the forbidden for the rest of eleven months in a year. In a way, the holy month of Ramadan is a refresher course that tightens controls on ones self. If man is able to fathom the concept of piety, his life will become a paragon of virtue guided by the Divine fear. But it is a matter of great misfortune that majority of us remain deprived of fruits of fasting because we put the demands of fasting at the backburner and reduce this great act of keeping fast to being empty-stomach and thirsty. The Holy Prophet (PBUH) once said:
"There are so many of fasting people who do not get anything out of fasting except thirst and hunger and there are so many of worshippers who do not get anything out of their waking up at night except being awake."
One facet of piety is patience and forbearance. Fasting is aimed at enabling man to achieve the pinnacle of gratitude, which is a higher station than patience. The very act of fasting empowers him not to submit to worry and anxiety during the times of trial and tribulation but be fully prepared to face up to challenges in a manly manner.
During the state of fasting, one experiences the agony of hunger and thirst. This creates the feelings of selflessness and sacrifice in a person. Thus he develops an acute realization of the sufferings of the less privileged and disadvantaged sections of society through this practical experience.
Therefore one of the purposes of fasting is to make affluent classes develop identification with those who find it almost next to impossible to make their both ends meet. Islam aims at the establishment of such a welfare-oriented society, which is raised on the strong foundation of mutual respect, feelings of sacrifice for one another and love of mankind. Islam discourages the concentration of wealth in few hands to the detriment of entire society. It enjoins upon rich and resourceful people to include economically backward people in their riches and affluence. Undergoing hunger and thirst during fasting is a seminal step starting with individual example for building up just and equitable society.
Fasting seeks to purify the soul, self, heart and mind of all impurities that tend to pollute them. Human body is composed of matter, which needs food and other material stuff for its survival, while the soul is a delicate entity whose growth and development is dependent on the renunciation of worldly and material things. The respective demands of body and soul are contradictory with each other. Fasting reins in the material forces, thereby strengthening soul. The more one gets rid of lustful desires through fasting, the more energetic and powerful one's soul becomes. Through this repeated act of fasting, the process of purification of self gets accelerated rubbing off all impurities from the soul.
The final end-point of fasting after crossing various spiritual stages is to deserve the pleasure of Allah Almighty. The stage where Allah Almighty is pleased with His servants is the one where all blessings look inferior in comparison to the blessing of Divine pleasure. The Holy month of Ramadan offers us this grand opportunity to join the community of those with whom Allah is pleased.