‘O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you,
as it was prescribed for those before you,
so that you may become righteous.’ [2:184]
The command to fast, whatever its details, is to be found in most religions in one form or another. The early devotions and fasting of Buddhaas (see Lalitavista & Buddhacharita), the fasting of Mosesas, prior to his receiving the Ten Commandments (Exod. 34:28; Deut. 9:9), the fasts of Jesusas before his receiving the heavenly call (Matt. 4:2), all testify to the importance of this institution. In fact, fasting is a form of devotion and self-discipline which has a natural appeal to man. ‘By the greater number of religions,’ says the Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘in the lower, middle and higher cultures alike, fasting is largely prescribed: and when it is not required, it is nevertheless practised to some extent by individuals in response to the promptings of nature.’ The verse under comment, however, does not mean that fasting has been prescribed for the Muslims in the same form in which it was prescribed for the people of earlier faiths. Islam has greatly spiritualised this institution by attaching to it a number of highly useful regulations and restrictions.
The clause, ‘so that you may become righteous’, explains the deep philosophy underlying the commandment relating to fasting. It is a special characteristic of the Qur’an that, whenever it gives an important commandment, it does not give it arbitrarily but also explains its usefulness so that the addressee may be convinced of, and satisfied about, the wisdom underlying it. The object of siyam or fasting has been stated in this verse as the attainment of taqwa i.e. righteousness.
As explained in 2:3, the word taqwa or ittaqa from which the word tattaqoon used in the present verse is derived means, to guard oneself against 1) harm and suffering, and 2) evil and sin. Thus the verse points out that the real object of fasting is to be saved from harm and suffering, and secondly, to be saved from sin and evil.
The first object is attained through fasting in two ways:
(1) When a man commits evil deeds and becomes deserving of God’s punishment on account of those deeds, but later feels ashamed of them and turns to God in repentance, then fasting serves as an atonement for his sins.
(2) Fasting not only makes a man fit and able to bear hardships but also makes him realise the sufferings of his brethren in distress and feel sympathy for them. Thus fasting goes a long way to remove and minimize the pains and sufferings of humanity.
The second object, viz., that of being saved from sin and evil, is attained through fasting because, while fasting, a person has not only to abandon eating and drinking but also, to a certain extent, to keep himself aloof from worldly connections and to abstain from indulging in his desires, with the result that his thoughts naturally tend towards spiritual things. Spiritual men of all religions unanimously testify, on the basis of personal experience, that a certain degree of severance from physical relations and worldly connections is essential for spiritual advancement and has a powerful purifying effect on the mind. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that to carry such severance too far is sure to weaken the body to such an undesirable extent as to render a person unfit not only to fulfil his social and religious obligations but also to withstand temptations which requires a certain amount of strength. Islam, therefore, follows the path of the golden mean. While it does prescribe a certain degree of abstention from material pleasures, it does not permit such a weakening of the body as should incapacitate it for performing its normal functions. This is why the Holy Prophetsa has forbidden continuous fasting, saying, ‘Your self has a claim upon you and your family has a claim upon you and your guests have a claim upon you’ (Tirmidhi). On another occasion, he is reported to have said, ‘Verily, I am the most righteous of you all, yet sometimes I fast and sometimes I abstain from fasting, and so must you do’ (Bukhari).
Fasting also stands as a symbol for complete sacrifice. One who fasts not only abstains from food and drink, which are the chief means of sustenance and without which one cannot live, but also from going in unto one’s wife which is the means of assuring one’s future race. Thus he who fasts really expresses his readiness, if need be, to sacrifice his all for the sake of truth. Fasting indeed affords a wonderful training ground for man.
It must also be noted here that this verse does not actually contain a command to fast, which follows in the verse coming after the succeeding verse. It only prepares Muslims for the coming commandment by saying that (1) the fasting which is going to be prescribed for them is not a new thing but was also prescribed for the people that had gone before, and that (2) it is a most useful thing which is sure to benefit them greatly. It will be seen that very often the Qur’an does not give a commandment all of a sudden but first prepares the ground for it by making some general remarks. In this connection see also 2:143-145 where a similar process has been adopted.