Acts of Worship : Fasting (Sawm)

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O you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you in order that you may be conscious of God . . . Ramadan is the (month) in which the Quran was revealed as a guide to mankind and as a clear evidence for guidance and judgment (between right and wrong). So whoever among you witnesses this month, let him spend it in fasting; but if anyone is ill or on a journey, the prescribed period (should be made up) by days later. God intends ease for you and He does not intend hardship and (He desires) that you should complete the prescribed period, and that you may glorify God for guiding you and that You may be thankful.” (2:183, 185)

Fasting is a practice common to many religions. Islam has also prescribed fasting for Muslim in the form of a month-long period of abstinence accompanied by intensive devotional activity which constitutes the third of the obligatory acts of worship.

Islam establishes a lunar calendar in which the months are all either twenty-nine or thirty days long. The ninth month, Ramadan, is the month in which the first revelation of the Quran came to the Prophet (peace be on him). The fast of Ramadan has been prescribed in order to train Muslims in self-discipline and scrupulous obedience to God’s commands It is not related to penance for sins or regarded as a means of appeasing God’s wrath as in some religions. Again, in distinction to the fasting of some religions, the fast of Ramadan involves total abstinence from all food, drink and sexual relations throughout the daylight hours; not even water may be taken. However, the fast must be broken at sunset each day, and it is also recommended to have a pre-dawn meal before resuming the fast the next day.

In addition to refraining from meeting these ordinarily lawful necessities, Muslims also engage in increased devotional activity throughout this month. Besides the usual five daily prayers, an additional salah called taraweeh, which is observed only during Ramadan, is performed either individually or in congregation each night. It is, moreover, a sunnah (practice) of the Prophet (peace be on him) to complete the recitation of the entire Quran during Ramadan and many present-day Muslims follow this tradition. The last ten days and nights of Ramadan are marked by especially intensive devotions, including the commemoration of the night during which the first revelation of the Quran came to the Prophet, known as the Night of Power. Giving charity is especially enjoined during Ramadan and restraining the tongue and temper are an additional aspect of fasting.

Fasting makes the Muslim disciplined, steadfast and resilient like a soldier who forgoes or postpones the satisfaction of his normal needs at the order of his Commander. This trains him to be flexible and adaptable in his habits, capable of enduring hardship, and not to take for granted the bounties of God which he normally enjoys. Fasting also enables the Muslim to feel with the poor who daily experience hunger and to be active in compassion and charity toward them.

Islam recognizes that physical needs and appetites, particularly those of food, drink and sex, are powerful factors in human life, tying the human being to dependence on and preoccupation with his bodily needs and desires. Hence the Muslim is asked for one month out of the year to do without the satisfaction of these needs by day in order to develop his spiritual nature. The process of experiencing hunger, thirst and sexual abstinence —of imposing them on oneself voluntarily, so to speak—has the effect of weaning a human being away from dependence on physical satisfactions and the dominance of his animal needs, freeing him to pursue spiritual goals and values during this period. Ramadan is thus a month, out of the twelve months of the year, during which the Muslim— due to the lack of his usual involvement with his physical needs —has a unique opportunity (which of course depends on his own initiative to utilize or forgo) to devote himself to God and to his spiritual development.

While such fasting may sound difficult to those who are not used to it, in practice it is generally tolerable and even easy for most people. In fact, it appears to have some therapeutic and beneficial effects on the body which are not yet clearly understood in scientific terms. Indeed, Muslims often become so accustomed to the altered routine of Ramadan and experience such an intense spiritual life during it that when it ends they feel a poignant sense of loss and wait eagerly for the next Ramadan to attain the same high spiritual level again, carrying its experiences and lessons with them throughout the coming year.

At the conclusion of Ramadan, Muslims celebrate one of the two major festivals of Islam-the Festival of Ending the Fast (eid al-fitr). This occasion, as well as the practical details of fasting will be discussed under The Islamic Way of Life.

Author : Suzanne Haneef

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