In the Shade of the Qur’an
Fasting: Its Nature and Purpose
Fasting is a means of testing man’s determination and will-power, and an important aspect of man’s relationship with God. It is a discipline that teaches man how to rise above his physical needs and overcome the pressure of temptation in order to earn God’s blessings and reward. These are essential ingredients for the discipline and training of the believers so that they may carry God’s message forward despite the temptations, the obstacles and hardships they are bound to encounter.
It is obvious that all religious practices and obligations are ordained by God with full consideration of man’s physical needs and capabilities, but we should not justify them solely on the basis of what our knowledge, limited as it is, may discover. The scope of human knowledge remains limited and incapable of comprehending the divine wisdom behind the order and the system God has chosen for the discipline of man and the administration of the universe as a whole.
Believers, fasting is decreed for you as it was decreed for those before you, so that you may be God-fearing. Fast on a certain number of days but whoever of you is ill, or on a journey, shall fast instead the same number of days later on. Those who find fasting a strain too hard to bear may compensate for it by feeding a needy person. He who does good of his own account does himself good thereby. To fast is to do good to yourselves, if you only knew it.
It was in the month of Ramadan that the Qur’an was revealed: guidance for mankind and a self-evident proof of that guidance and a standard to distinguish right from wrong. Therefore, whoever of you is present in that month shall fast throughout the month; but he who is ill or on a journey shall fast instead the same number of days later on. God desires that you have ease. He does not desire that you be afflicted with hardship. You are, however, required to complete the necessary number of days and to extol and glorify God for having guided you aright and to tender your thanks. (Q 2:183–185)
This important announcement begins by addressing believers directly to remind them of who they are and of their status with God. God is aware that for believers to fulfill any religious obligation, regardless of its immediate benefits, they need encouragement and motivation. Hence they are addressed by their essential quality of having faith.
The verse establishes that fasting had been made obligatory for earlier believers, and that the aim behind it is to open their hearts to God and make them more conscious of Him. This, then, is the principal objective of fasting: to be God-fearing, or have taqwa. Fasting, when observed in obedience to God and in pursuit of His pleasure, instills and revives this quality in the human heart and acts as a safeguard against evil and wrongdoing. True believers know and appreciate the value of being God-fearing in God’s sight. Hence, they constantly seek to enhance their sense of it. Fasting is a means to achieve just that. Fasting is prescribed for a specific number of days. It is not required the whole year round. Nevertheless, those who are ill or traveling are exempt from fasting until they recover or return home. This concession is not conditional on either the severity of the illness or on how arduous the journey is, because in all cases people should not have to undergo any undue strain as a result of fasting.
There could be other considerations, known only to God, for leaving the conditions so general. Fasting during illness or in the course of a journey could result in hardship or adverse effects that human beings cannot foresee or predict. We take the ruling as it is stated, in the certain belief that there are valid reasons behind it.
Above all, it is important to keep in mind that Islam is a religion laid down by God not by man, and He is best aware of how much tightening or relaxation is prudent in fulfilling its obligations. It must be the case, then, that a concession can under certain circumstances serve a particular purpose far more effectively than would strict adherence to the rule. From this we find that the Prophet Muhammad instructed Muslims to avail themselves of the concessions and exemptions God has allowed them.
Exemption from Fasting when Traveling
A number of reported incidents illustrate the Prophet’s attitude towards the exemption from fasting in Ramadan while traveling. These give us a glimpse of how the early Muslims received and implemented such rules, long before scholars introduced legal technicalities. They reflect a realistic and dynamic approach to Islam which gives it, and life under it, a vigorous and agreeable meaning.
Taken together, they support the view that the option of not fasting while on a journey ought to be taken unconditionally to alleviate hardship and one gets the distinct impression that the ruling is strongly in favour of exemption from fasting without restricting the exemption to cases of hardship. As for the licence to break the fast during illness, apart from the different opinions of scholars, it also seems to be granted unconditionally and without qualification. Implicit in this ruling is the requirement that the missing days must be compensated for at a later date, with no requirement to make the compensatory fasting days consecutive.
Fasting was made more appealing due to the fact that it is observed in Ramadan, the month in which the Qur’an was revealed. This could be a reference to the fact that it was first revealed during Ramadan, or that most of it was revealed in it. It is a significant distinction since the Qur’an is the definitive and timeless Book of the Muslim community, its guiding light, the source of its strength and security, from which it has drawn all the enduring qualities and elements that have made it great.
It was in the month of Ramadan that the Qur’an was revealed: a guidance for mankind and a self-evident proof of that guidance and a standard to distinguish right from wrong. Therefore, whoever of you is present in that month shall fast throughout the month; but he who is ill or on a journey shall fast instead the same number of days later on. (Q2:185)
A Close Relationship with God
Interposed among the verses dealing with fasting comes a verse reflecting a profound insight into human nature. It reaches to the deepest recesses of the human psyche, offering solace and ample rewards for keeping the fast in response to God’s commands: “If My servants ask you about Me, well, I am near; I answer the prayer of the supplicant when he calls to Me. Let them then respond to Me, and believe in Me, so that they may follow the right way.” (Q2:186)
This verse fills a believer’s heart with love, confidence and utter reassurance. In this atmosphere of friendliness and compassion, God, who has no need for anyone, directs believers to respond to Him and believe in Him, in the hope that this will guide them to wisdom and righteousness. “Let them then respond to Me, and believe in Me, so that they may follow the right way.” (Verse 186) By earning God’s generosity and guidance, believers end up winners on all counts.
Belief in God and response to His commands lead to true guidance. The way of life God has ordained for man is the only one truly worthy of adoption and adherence; all other ideologies lead only to ruin and frustration. When one responds to God’s call, one must be confident that God will answer one’s prayers and supplications. However, one should not hasten God’s response, for He alone decides the most appropriate time to respond. The following sayings of the Prophet give this assurance.
“God would not like to see His servant holding out his arms pleading for help and turn him away empty handed.”
“Your prayers shall be answered as long as you remain patient. Do not say, ‘I have prayed but my prayer has never been answered!’”
“Prayers and supplications shall be answered unless one asks for something evil or the break-up of family relations, and as long as one does not become impatient.”
“The prayer a fasting person says at the time when he is about to finish his fast shall be answered.”
“Prayers by three people shall never be turned down: a just ruler, a fasting person until he breaks the fast, and the oppressed for whose prayer and supplication the gates of heaven shall be opened wide and God shall say to him, ‘By My power, I shall support you, even though it may be in due course.’”
From these reports one can clearly see the close relationship between prayer and fasting.
Extracts from Sayyid Qutb’s ‘In the Shade of The Qur’an’ Vol I. Translated and edited by Adil Salahi. Islamic Foundation Publications