Ramadan is observed by millions of muslims across the world, but what is the deeper significance behind this holy month?
During the month of Ramadan, Muslims famously fast from sunrise to sunset, without even a sip of water to tide them over. So central is fasting to Ramadan, in fact, that last year, the Pakistani government made it illegal for people to eat, drink, or smoke openly during the day in the month of Ramadan, prescribing a fine and a three month prison sentence for this ‘crime’.1
On the flip side, in the Western world, where people are free to do as they like, some Muslims pretend to fast in front of their families, while secretly sneaking in cheeseburgers and stolen lunch breaks.2
Yet what Pakistani legislators and fake-fasters alike fail to understand is that Ramadan is about more than abstention from food. The real point of Ramadan isn’t to conform to society’s expectation that we won’t eat during the day. Rather, fasting is a tool for us to bring about a real internal change in ourselves. Sadly, this is something that Muslims—both in the east and the west—need to understand about their faith.
Indeed, the Prophet Muhammadsa himself prophesied that acts of worship would become superficial.3
But the true purpose of fasting is to bring about an increase in taqwa, or righteousness.
So, how does fasting bring about taqwa?
Fasting as an Institution
Fasting is described as ‘abstinence from food or drink or both for health, ritualistic, religious, or ethical purposes. The abstinence may be complete or partial, lengthy, of short duration, or intermittent.’4
The fourth fundamental tenet of Islam requires Muslims to fast during the lunar month of Ramadan. The Islamic practice of fasting is by no means new; rather, this practice can be found in almost every religion of the world. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Among the Western religions, only Zoroastrianism prohibits fasting’,5 whilst almost every other religion prescribes some form or another of fasting.
This is the same message reiterated in the Qur’an in the verses where fasting has been prescribed. Allah the Almighty states:
‘O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may attain taqwa.’6
However, the form in which Islam has prescribed it is different from that recognized or prescribed by other religions.
Merely abstaining from food and drink of every description from the early hours of dawn to sunset is not what fulfills the Islamic fast. In addition, one should also abstain from marital intercourse during this time.
The Holy Prophet Muhammadsa further stated, ‘Whoever does not give up forged speech and evil actions, Allah is not in need of his leaving his food and drink,’ i.e., Allah will not accept his fasting.7
Whilst further drawing attention to the Islamic system of fasting and its requirements the Prophet Muhammadsa mentioned, ‘Fasting is a shield. So, the person observing fasting should avoid sexual relations with his wife and should not behave foolishly and impudently, and if somebody fights with him or abuses him, he should tell him twice, ‘I am fasting.’8
In other words, while abstaining from food and drink is an essential part of Ramadan, the purpose is to draw Muslims’ attention toward righteousness.
What is the purpose of fasting?
One may wonder why Islam requires a person to abstain from everyday permissible joys throughout the day.
Whilst talking of the wisdom behind the institution of fasting in Islam, Allah the Almighty states that its primary purpose is ‘so that you may attain taqwa.’9
Whilst shedding light on this Hazrat Musleh Maudra, the second successor to the Promised Messiahas and worldwide head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community from 1914-1965, stated:
‘God says, the object of fasting is that men should attain taqwa. The word taqwa is used in the Holy Qur’an in three senses. It signifies  security from pain and suffering,  security from sin and  the attainment of a high spiritual level.’ He further says, ‘fasting promotes all of these’ three purposes.10
Fasting Provides Security from Pain and Suffering
‘At first sight it appears paradoxical to say that fasting saves man from suffering, for fasting itself imposes a certain amount of suffering on man. But a little consideration would show that fasting teaches men lessons which secure their national welfare.’
Hazrat Musleh Maudra goes on to say, ‘The first lesson is that a rich man, who has never suffered hunger or privation and cannot realise the sufferings of his poorer brethren who have very often to go without food, begins through fasting to realise what hunger is and what the poor have to suffer. This produces in his mind active sympathy with the poor which finds vent in measures calculated to ameliorate the lot of the poor, the natural result of which is an increase in the national welfare. It is obvious that the welfare of the nation is bound up with the welfare of the individual.’11
In this regard, the exemplary practice of the Prophet of Islamsa during this month was his increased philanthropy and charity. It is narrated in a Hadith [oral traditions of the Holy Prophetsa] that though he was already the most generous among the people, his generosity and charity would increase manifold and was compared to a fast wind (which causes rain and welfare).12
In our daily lives, we notice how professionals in many fields often live by a tough regime. Sports stars go through regular hardship in the form of training so they can perform when it matters. Members of the army regularly go through rigorous training and hardships to prepare themselves for the tough situations they may encounter in their deployments. Fasting is no different in how it protects us from difficulties, hardships and suffering through exercising self-control and regulating good routines and habits which we are expected to carry on throughout the year.
Whilst expounding on fasting and it’s benefits, Hazrat Musleh Maudra states:
‘Another aspect of fasting is that Islam seeks to discourage in its followers sloth and laziness and a disinclination to bear hardships. It desires them to be ready and able to accept all manner of privations and inconveniences in times of need. Fasts habituate the Muslims to bear hunger and thirst and to restrain themselves in all their desires and passions, and those who faithfully carry out this command never become lazy or self-indulgent.’13 In this way fasting not only inculcates good habits but provides us training to bear inconveniences and suffering.
However, the security from pain and suffering is not limited to this. In fact, there are countless health benefits of fasting. A recently discovered benefit is that fasting induces the process of autophagy (the natural regeneration process that occurs at a cellular level in the body), which in turn reduces ‘the likelihood of contracting some diseases as well as prolonging lifespan.’14
Fasting Secures Against Sin
The Holy Prophetsa states: ‘whoever fasts in the month of Ramadan out of sincere faith, and hoping for a reward from Allah, then all his previous sins will be forgiven.’15
The Promised Messiahas has explained that sin is born from one distancing themselves from Allah. A lack of recognition and cognizance of God Almighty leads to one’s increased inclination towards sin and material indulgences.
The Promised Messiahas states:
‘The wicked spirit of sin seeks to destroy a man and a person cannot escape the fatal poison of sin till he believes with full certainty in the Perfect and Living God and till he knows for certain that God exists, Who punishes the offender and bestows upon the righteous everlasting joy. It is a common experience that when one believes in the fatal effects of anything one does not have recourse to it.’16
Material indulgences are often the cause of one’s attention being diverted from Allah and therefore, they open the doors to sin. In light of this Hazrat Musleh Maudra states:
‘Fasting secures one against sin, for sin is born of inclination towards material indulgence. When a man becomes accustomed to a course of conduct it is difficult for him to renounce it. But a man who is able to give up a habit or a course of conduct at will, never becomes its slave. A man who, in order to seek the pleasure of God, gives up for a whole month, all material pleasures, and learns to exercise control and restraint, can easily overcome temptations that lead to sin.’17
Fasting Encourages the Attainment of the Highest Spiritual Levels
The third meaning of taqwa, which is a core reason for fasting, is the attainment of high spiritual levels. Merely living a sinless life is not considered meritorious unless one is also acting virtuously. The institution of fasting in Ramadan not only ensures this through different means, but also reminds us that for the attainment of the highest spiritual levels, absolute obedience to the will of God is necessary.
Fasting reminds us that our physical actions from eating, drinking and conjugal relations should all be done with Allah’s permission alone. When He commands us to stop, we stop. When He grants us permission we may enjoy His blessings. This is a deep lesson from the month of Ramadan which resonates with Muslims throughout the year. True blessings are in obedience to His commands. This is the key to attaining high spiritual levels.
Though the levels of spirituality are infinite, they can be understood as a journey to gaining closer proximity to Allah. One way of doing this is by adopting the attributes of Allah. By abstaining from food, drink and conjugal relations we strive to adopt the attributes of Allah, even though it may be for a limited period. This leads to gaining His nearness.
In a Hadith the Holy Prophetsa mentioned regarding fasting that Allah says about the fasting person, ‘He has left his food, drink and desires for My sake. The fast is for Me. So I will reward (the fasting person) for it and the reward of good deeds is multiplied ten times.’18
Fasting also reminds us to always be wary of the Omnipresent God in our daily lives. The first attribute of a mutaqqi (one who has taqwa) mentioned in the Qur’an is that ‘they believe in the unseen’. The institution of fasting gives us practice of this very important attribute. Even when one may be all alone, a Muslim who is fasting, despite temptations, remains aloof from the food and drink which may be easily accessible in one’s home. Why? Because one has an increased awareness of their faith; an increased belief in the unseen, yet Omnipresent God Who is Ever Watching.
The second attribute of a mutaqqi mentioned in the beginning verses of Surah Al Baqarah (the second chapter of the Holy Qur’an) is that ‘they observe prayer’. The month of Ramadan increases one’s attention towards this. Rising early for the breakfast encourages regularity in tahajjud (supererogatory prayers). Mosques are filled with worshippers who make an extra effort and also taraweeh prayers (late night optional prayers) are often organised for the congregation.
Hazrat Musleh Maudra states:
‘As a man has to wake up during the month of fasts in the latter part of the night for his breakfast, he gets extra opportunities of prayer and worship which speed him on the path of spiritual progress. When he sacrifices his ease and comfort for the sake of God, the latter strengthens his spirit and draws him towards Himself.’19
The month of Ramadan reminds us to pay special attention to spiritual matters and focus on our spiritual food as opposed to our physical food.
Fasting Encourages Gratitude
In verse 186 of Surah Al Baqarah (the second chapter of the Holy Qur’an) another purpose of fasting in Ramadan is mentioned. It states:
‘That you may exalt the greatness of Allah for having guided you, and that you may learn to be grateful.’
Hazrat Musleh Maudra whilst explaining this purpose of fasting states:
‘Another object is that the pangs of hunger and thirst should help men to realize the true value of the favours and bounties of God which they normally enjoy and should render them the more grateful to God. Man does not truly value that which he possesses, and he learns its true value only when he loses it. Most people never realize that eyesight is a great blessing of God, but when they lose it they realize its value. Similarly, when a man abstains from food and drink during a fast and suffers from hunger and thirst he begins to realize how many comforts God has bestowed upon him, and that he ought to employ a life so blessed in good and useful occupations and should not fritter it away in trivial pursuits.’ 20
About the author: Mustenser Qamar is an Imam of the International Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and is currently based in New Zealand. He is also serving the Islands of Samoa and American Samoa. He is a graduate of the Jamia Ahmadiyya (training seminary for missionaries of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community) in the UK where he engaged in an intensive study of Islam, theology and comparative religions.
1. Sehrish Wasif. “People who smoke, eat openly during Ramazan face 3-month imprisonment.” The Express Tribune. May 11, 2017. Accessed May 23rd, 2018. https://tribune.com.pk/story/1406760/ senate-panel-approves-ehtram-e-ramazan-bill/.
2. Abe Love. “Like Many Young Muslims, I Fake Fasting During Ramadan.” Vice. May 15, 2018. Accessed May 23rd, 2018. https://www. vice.com/en_uk/article/8xeamx/like-many- young-muslims-i-fake-fasting-during-ramadan.
3. Muhammad ibn Abd Allāh Khatib Al-Tabrizi. Mishkat al-Masabih, Kitab ul Ilm, vol.1 (Lahore: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1981), 91.
4. “Fasting.” Encyclopædia Britannica. October 02, 2015. Accessed May 20th, 2018. https:// www.britannica.com/topic/fasting.
6. The Holy Qur’an, 2:184.
7. Sahih Al-Bukhari, Book of Fasting, Chapter: Whoever does not give up lying speech while observing the fast.
8. Sahih Al-Bukhari, Book of Fasting, Chapter: The superiority of As-Saum (the fasting).
9. The Holy Qur’an, 2:184.
10. Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmood Ahmadra, Ahmadiyyat or the True Islam. (Tilford, Surrey:
Islam International Publications, 2007), 81.
11. Ibid, pp. 81 -82.
12. Sahih Al-Bukhari, Book of Fasting, Chapter: The Prophetsa used to be most generous in the month of Ramadan.
13. Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmood Ahmadra, Ahmadiyyat or the True Islam. (Tilford, Surrey:
Islam International Publications, 2007), 82.
14. Laurel Ives. “Can the science of autophagy boost your health?” BBC News. May 06, 2018.
Accessed May 20th, 2018. http://www.bbc. co.uk/news/health-44005092.
15. Sahih Al-Bukhari, Book of Fasting, Chapter: Whoever observed fast in Ramadan out of sincere Faith with honest intention.
16. Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas, The Essence of Islam, vol. 1 (Tilford, Surrey: Islam International Publications, 1993), 3.
17. Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmood Ahmadra,
Ahmadiyyat or the True Islam. (Tilford, Surrey: Islam International Publications, 2007), 82.
18. Sahih Al-Bukhari, Book of Fasting, Chapter: Superiority of As-Saum (the fasting).
19. Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmood Ahmadra, Ahmadiyyat or the True Islam. (Tilford, Surrey:
Islam International Publications, 2007), 82.
20. Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmood Ahmadra, Ahmadiyyat or the True Islam. (Tilford, Surrey:
Islam International Publications, 2007), 80-81.