Soon Muslims throughout the world will begin their month of observing fasts, known as Ramadan. A pertinent question always arises in regards to what is the purpose of fasting? What are the spiritual benefits that one gains from this month-long ordeal? First and foremost, we must understand the meaning of the word ‘Ramadan.’ Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic Calendar, is an Arabic word which is derived from the verb (ra’me’dha). Some Arabic expressions help us to understand the meaning of Ramadan; (ra’me’dhan nahaar) means that the day became intensely hot. (ra’me’dhar rijal) means that the man had his feet burnt by the earth which had become intensely hot. Then (ra’me’dhas saaimu) means that the inside of the fasting man became very hot with thirst owing to heat. Thus from this perspective, Ramadan is so named because:
– Fasting in this month causes heat and burning due to thirst.
– Worship and devotion in this month burns away the traces of sins in man.
– Worship and devotion in this month produce in the heart of man the necessary warmth of love for his Creator and his fellow beings. ,
In addition to this brief introduction to the lexical meaning of Ramadan, I will present some references from the Holy Qur’an, sayings of the Holy Prophetsa and extracts from the writings of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas, the Promised Messiah and Founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, relating to the spiritual benefits of Ramadan.
God Almighty states in the Holy Qur’an,
“O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may become righteous.”
In the last part of this Qur’anic verse, God Almighty has told the believers that the practise of fasting is prescribed as a means of attaining righteousness. So what is righteousness? Righteousness is the root to every virtue and good deed. The Arabic word for righteousness is [Itt-e-qaa]. This word bears testimony to the fact that a person who strives to adopt every type of virtue is subsequently safeguarded from every type of wrongful act. Therefore, when man treads upon the paths of virtue he eventually gains nearness to Allah the Almighty, which is the ultimate purpose and objective of fasting. In fact, fasting has been endorsed in all religious disciplines, which are based on Divine revelation as the verse above has mentioned. A famous Persian proverb states:
To speak little, to eat little and to sleep little are the characteristics of the prophets.
Therefore, one who fasts is simultaneously treading along the pathway of the prophets and is endeavouring to attain righteousness.
The Holy Prophetsa said,
“There are appropriate spiritual rewards for all worship and righteous action; the ultimate reward of the person who observes the fast solely for winning the pleasure of Allah is Allah Himself.”
That is why during the month of Ramadan, a special effort is made and Muslims try their utmost not only to become regular in congregational prayers, but also to dedicate most of their time to recitation of the Holy Qur’an and voluntary prayers.
On another occasion, the Holy Prophetsa of Islam said,
“Fasting is a shield. Thus a person should refrain from vulgar and ignorant talk and if someone quarrels with him then he must answer him saying simply that, ‘I am fasting’. I swear to that Being whose hand my life is in, the stench of the mouth of one who is fasting is more preferred to God Almighty than the smell of musk. God Almighty says that he has abstained his food, drink, desires and conjugal relations for My sake. Fasting is for My sake and I shall bestow the reward for this, and the reward for righteousness is tenfold.”
The observation of the fast, whether obligatory or voluntary, is subject to the same regulations. Therefore, the month of Ramadan under these circumstances is a period of intensive training in beneficent values. Abstention from lawful and permissible food and drink which sustain life and conjugal relations, which promote the continuance of the species for a certain number of hours each day through a month is a valuable exercise in endurance and steadfastness. It becomes a means for the greater acceptance of prayers. However, the sole purpose of such a rigorous practice is to win the pleasure of Allah.
Fasting also has a symbolic aspect. By observing the fast the worshipper demonstrates that if in the course of carrying out his duty of complete submission to the will of Allah he should ever be called upon to put his life in jeopardy or to sacrifice the interests of his progeny, he would not hesitate to do so. Such a discipline practised for a month every year should ensure that the participant would, during the remaining eleven months of the year, progressively achieve greater adherence to moral and spiritual values.
Apart from this, the more affluent sector of society is made to experience periods of hunger and thirst by observing fasts. Thus it is narrated that during the month of Ramadan, the Holy Prophet’ssa concern and care for the poor, the needy, the sick and the orphan, was intensified manifold and that his already ample sense of charity became limitless.
Merely abstaining from food or drink is not beneficial if we do not eschew any form of falsehood or dishonest speech whilst fasting. The Holy Prophetsa said,
“He who abstains from food and drink during the period of the fast but does not restrain himself from uttering falsehood starves himself to no purpose.”
The word used for falsehood in Arabic is (Az-Zur) and also includes the meanings: wrong deeds, illegal means, bribery, adulteration, make-believe or vain diversion.
It is evident that the act of fasting becomes a spiritual exercise, whereby man relinquishes the things he loves purely to gain closeness to his Maker.
With regards to the month of Ramadan, the Holy Qur’an says,
“The month of Ramadhan is that in which the Qur’an was sent down as a guidance for mankind with clear proofs of guidance and discrimination” i.e. a discrimination between truth and falsehood.
Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas elucidates the following verse and continues,
“That indicates the grandeur of the month of Ramadan. The Sufis have written that this month is great for the enlightenment of the heart. Blessed visions are frequently experienced in this month. Prayer purifies the self and fasting enlightens the heart. The purification of self means that one gets away from the lust of the Nafs-e-Ammarah (the self that incites).” It distances us from it. “The enlightenment of the heart means that [the] door of blessed visions opens up for us to see God.”
When we study Islamic traditions we see that the inception of the revelation of the Holy Qur’an began in the month of Ramadan. Subsequently, each year during this month, the Archangel Gabrielas would revise the parts of the Holy Qur’an with the Holy Prophetsa that had been revealed up to that point. This process continued throughout the Holy Prophet’ssa lifetime. During the final Ramadan of the Holy Prophet’ssa life, Gabrielas twice repeated the complete recitation of the Holy Qur’an with the Holy Prophetsa.
So in keeping with this practice, Muslims around the world dedicate time to the recitation of the Holy Qur’an during Ramadan and particularly try to complete its full recitation during this blessed month. Another means for completing its full recitation is through a voluntary prayer during Ramadan, which is offered after Ishaa (night) prayer and is known as Taraweeh. In this prayer, one part of the 30 parts of the Holy Qur’an can be recited. In this manner, one complete recitation of the Holy Qur’an can be achieved during Ramadan.
Again, if one studies the month of Ramadan one sees that all religious activities are enhanced so that a Muslim is able to augment and advance in his spirituality.
The Holy Prophetsa of Islam said,
“When the month of Ramadan arrives, the gates to Heaven are opened and the doors to Hell are closed, and the satanic forces are bound in shackles.”
At another time the Holy Prophetsa said,
“Whomsoever faithfully fasts in the month of Ramadan with the ardent desire to gain the pleasure of Allah the Almighty, then his previous sins shall be forgiven and that person who faithfully remains awake during the night to witness Lailatul Qadar (i.e. the night of decree where one witnesses the acceptance of his prayers) seeking the pleasure of Allah the Almighty, then his previous sins will be forgiven.”
What we learn from these sayings of the Prophet Muhammadsa is that the month of Ramadan is also a month of God’s mercy, His forgiveness, redemption and protection from satanic forces. Therefore, when Allah the Almighty’s mercy descends and man is enabled to exert his strength by performing good deeds and those good deeds subsequently gain the position of acceptance, then the gates to heaven are opened. It also further creates an infinite circle of spiritual and moral development and progression. Remember, that one who does not follow the prescribed ‘curriculum’ for the month of Ramadan can never truly partake of its blessings and thus loses out as the Holy Prophetsa himself stated,
“Woe to that person, who witnessed Ramadan and before he could be delivered from his sins, the month passed by.”
For those who are ill or physically unable to endure fasting or are travelling, they are exempt from fasting and should give fidya (a monetary contribution by way of expiation, which is solely spent on the needy and destitute) so that they may also partake of the blessings of this month. Such persons who can make up the fasts they miss at a later date should do so accordingly.
The Promised Messiahas said,
“A religion which does not have any striving is nothing.”
He further stated,
“A person whose heart is gladdened at the arrival of Ramadan but who cannot go on to fast due to illness is deemed as fasting in the heavens.”
To conclude, an extract from the writings of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the Promised Messiahas is presented, which beautifully summarises the true concept of fasting,
“It should be remembered that the fast does not mean merely that a person should abstain from food and drink over a certain period. During the fast one should be occupied greatly with the remembrance of God. The Holy Prophetsa occupied himself greatly with worship during the month of Ramadan. During that month one should discard one’s preoccupation with eating and drinking; and cutting asunder from these needs should address oneself wholly towards God. Unfortunate is the person who is bestowed material bread and pays no attention to spiritual bread. Material bread strengthens the body, and spiritual bread sustains the soul and sharpens the spiritual faculties. Seek the Grace of God, as all doors are opened by His Grace.”
- Malik Ghulam Farid M.A, Dictionary of the Holy Qur’an (2006), 343.
- Holy Qur’an w/Five Volume Commentary (1988), 239-240.
- Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Baqarah, Verse 184.
- Hazrat Muhammad Zafrullah Khanra, “Fasting: Fourth Pillar of Islam,” The Review of Religions Mar. 1994.
- Bukhari, Kitab-us-Saum, Bab-u-Fadhl-is-Saum.
- Hazrat Muhammad Zafrullah Khanra, “Fasting: Fourth Pillar of Islam,” The Review of Religions Mar. 1994.
- Bukhari, Kitab-us-Saum, Bab-u-Malam Yadu Qaul-az Zure wal-Amala bihi fi-saum.
- Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Baqarah, Verse 186.
- Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadra, Al-Badr, Vol. 7, p.52.
- Bukhari, Kitab-us Saum, Babu bal yuqaala Ramadana aw shahra Ramadan.
- Bukhari, Kitabu-Fadle Lailatil-Qadr, Babu Fadle Lailatil-Qadr.
- Jami’ Tirmidhi, Kitabu-Da’waat ‘An Rasul-ul-Allah Salallahu ‘Alayhi Wasallam, Babu Qauli Rasulillahi Salallahu ‘Alayhi Wasallam “Raghima Anfu Rajulin”.
- Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas, Malfoozat Vol.2, p.564.
- Speeches to Jalsa Salana (1906), 20.