Millions of Muslims around the globe have been observing the fast of Ramadhan, one of the five pillars of Islam, for the past four weeks. The fast gets its name from the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, and begins with the sighting of the new crescent, after which all physically mature and healthy Muslims are obliged to fast for a month.
Between dawn and sunset, the faithful, with the exception of the underage, those on a journey, the sick, menstruating women as well as expectant and breastfeeding mothers, are required to abstain from all foods, drinks and conjugal relationships as an act of worship and obedience to God.
In addition to this physical component, the spiritual aspects of the fast include an added emphasis on refraining from slander, lies, obscenity and other sinful acts.
Based on self-restraint
Unlike other acts of worship prescribed by Islam, fasting is entirely based on self-restraint. Since others can never know for sure if the person is fasting or if he broke the fast in secret, self-restraint requires a high degree of sincerity and faithfulness, and is a sublime measure of God’s obedience.
Unlike what some believe, fasting is not meant to punish the body, but to strengthen the mind, directing it to higher spiritual goals. To function well and smoothly, machines require a rest period due to “metal fatigue”. Likewise, human beings are in need of occasions to boost and revitalise their faith. For Muslims, the past one month has been an important opportunity for the purification of the soul.
For a whole month every year, Muslims go through this stimulating experience that breaks the normal routine of life. Not only is it refreshing, it also teaches the person to adapt to varying conditions and circumstances of life while offering an opportunity for intensive worship, reading of the Qur’an, charity, purifying one’s behaviour and doing good deeds.
Develop moral discipline
As Ramadhan helps Muslims to develop moral discipline, it also reminds them of the plight of those who live in constant hunger and deprivation. The Qur’an reminds the faithful that religiosity is meaningless if it does not lead people to care and share.
Like other Islamic injunctions, the benefits of Ramadhan are not limited to either “spiritual” or “temporal” elements of life. In Islam, the spiritual, social, economic, political and psychological intermingle in a consistent and cohesive whole, promoting the spirit of unity and belonging within the community.
Fasting also promotes the spirit of human equality as males and females, rich and poor, from all ethnic backgrounds go through the same experience of deprivation with no special privileges for any group or class.
Further, fasting promotes Islamic sociability, mutual understanding and tolerance. That is why Muslims are urged to invite others, non-Muslims included, to share in breaking the fast and also attend iftar dinners organised by people of other faiths.
Among the wisdom behind fasting is that it allows one to build a sense of self-control and willpower, which can be beneficial throughout life in dealing with temptations and peer-pressure.
Through fasting, Muslims learn to control their natural urges such as hunger and thirst, and thus are able to better resist temptations like crime, drug abuse and other anti-social behaviours.
Fasting also has medical benefits, including a much-needed rest for the digestive system. The reduced food intake during the day allows the body to concentrate on getting rid of harmful dietary toxins accumulated as natural by-products of food digestion throughout the year.
Dr Shahid Athar, a United States-based endocrinologist, says that “the physiological effect of fasting includes lowering of blood sugar, cholesterol and systolic blood pressure”, and that, in fact, “fasting would be an ideal recommendation for the treatment of mild to moderate, stable, non-insulin diabetes, obesity, and essential hypertension.”
The last 10 days of this noble month are held in much reverence and it is a time for many faithful to perform itikaf — spiritual retreats at mosques — leaving all worldly pursuits to establish a closer relationship with God. It is within the last 10 days that Muslims believe the sacred text of the Quran was first revealed to Prophet Muhammad in the valley of Hira, where he had retreated for a spiritual sojourn.
As Ramadhan draws to a close, every Muslim is required to give to charity, which is known as Zakat Al Fitr. This money is meant to help the less fortunate also partake in the celebration of Eid ul Fitr (the festival of breaking the fast) which marks the end of Ramadhan.
A growing concern, which depletes the spirit of this month, is that many Muslims have turned the month of Ramadhan into an annual season for showcasing lavish foods.
Areas around mosques and Muslim-populated areas are transformed into eateries with various snacks and foods meant for those who break their fast.
Homes turn into feasting zones where various dishes are put on display, with a huge chunk of leftovers finding its way to garbage bins the following morning.
To many non-Muslims, Ramadhan is increasingly being associated with eating rather than spiritual reinvigoration. It is not a surprise, therefore, that even with fasting, these bad eating habits lead to some people experiencing significant weight gains after Ramadhan!
While the overall goal of fasting is to achieve righteousness, it also comes with economic benefits. But these gains are hardly realised as household expenditures dramatically increase due to additional expenses on food items, which mainly consist of sweets, sugar and fatty foods.
For some families, their expenditure on food during Ramadhan is more that the other 11 months of the year combined!
Further, many women miss out on the spiritual benefits of Ramadhan as they are preoccupied with preparing lavish meals instead of concentrating on matters that could uplift their spiritual development.
Fasting-related illnesses have become an increasing problem in Gulf countries. Last year, dozens of people suffering from abdominal pain were admitted to hospitals in the gulf state of Qatar after overeating on the first night of Ramadhan, while in 2011, the Hamad Medical Corporation in the capital Doha reported 7,700 cases of Ramadhan-linked cases of illness in the first week of the holy month alone.
“This is not a month for eating or shopping festivals as many people wrongly believe,” cautions Sheikh Juma Amir, the deputy Imam of Nairobi Jamia mosque. “It is a month for fasting, reflection, devotion, generosity and sacrifice.”
Fasting is not simply a time during which people deprive themselves from physical pleasures, but an occasion to exercise moral restraint and experience spiritual growth.
Better human beings
The month-long intensive training programme is designed to make Muslims into better human beings and change their lives for the better, leaving behind un-Islamic and immoral practices. Lessons acquired in this training school ought to be replicated in the everyday life of a Muslim beyond the one-month fast period.
Our faith demands that our concerns go beyond ourselves and families to our brethren in faith and brothers in humanity. An increasing number of people in the country and other parts of the world are falling victim to conflict, hunger, incurable diseases, genocide and human rights abuses.
Regardless of religion or ethnic background, we have a responsibility to help others in whatever way possible as we aspire to become better Muslims.
Abu Ayman/Daily Nation