Mustafa Siddiqi, London, UK
In the sacred month of Ramadan, when Muslims the world over rise before dawn, eat in preparation for the fast and then refrain from all food and drink until sunset, spending their time paying increased attention to the worship and remembrance of their Lord, they aren’t alone – in fact, fasting has long been an indispensable way of reaching God and attaining His love and nearness, and has been a practice of His faithful throughout the ages.
Being the Ultimate Source of all religious teachings, God Almighty not only introduces the commandment of fasting in the Holy Qur’an, He also reminds Muslims that fasting is nothing new; in fact, it has always been a vital route to finding God. He says 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 this verse, God Almighty not only establishes the long history of fasting, He also gives the reason as to why fasting is enjoined upon the believers: ‘so that you may become righteous.’
The word ‘righteous’ here derives from the Arabic word taqwa, meaning ‘righteousness’. Taqwa is the kernel of the Islamic faith and it means ‘fearing God’, ‘being conscious of God’ and ‘being constantly aware’ of Him. Fasting is a key step on the way to achieving taqwa, which is the purpose of human existence on earth. Fasting achieves this in several ways.
More than Just Fasting
The essence of fasting is sacrifice. The sacrifice here is the pangs of hunger and thirst which a believer encounters. Each and every time a believer feels these pangs but resists the temptation to give in to them, he earns the love and pleasure of God Almighty. But the fast of Ramadan entails much more than going temporarily without food and water. Fasting calls for a believer to engage with the mental and spiritual aspects of fasting. When fasting in this special month, a believer must avoid all evil. He is forbidden from engaging in conjugal relations during the hours of the fast, he must suppress his anger and avoid verbally or physically abusing others.
In this regard, the Prophet Muhammad (sa) says in a hadith [oral traditions of the Holy Prophet (sa)]: ‘Whosoever does not abandon falsehood, evil actions and speaking ill to others, Allah does not care if he leaves his food and drink.’  In other words, simply refraining from eating and drinking will not lead to righteousness – rather, the fasting must be accompanied by good deeds and actions.
The Prophet Muhammad (sa) alludes to a beautiful distinction of fasting in another Hadith: ‘All the actions by the son of Adam are for him, except fasting, for verily it is for Me and I shall reward for it.’  The reason why fasting is granted this unparalleled distinction is that fasting is a matter between God and his servant only. While other actions such as praying, giving charity or going on pilgrimage can be seen by others, nobody else can see if someone is going without food. No other person will know if the fasting person gives into his hunger or thirst and eats or drinks, and so no other person can know if the fasting person resists eating and drinking or not. Thus, fasting can only be for God Almighty. And that is why it is so very dear to God and a priceless way of reaching Him.
Moreover, the pangs of hunger and thirst actually serve a unique function when fasting – each pang of hunger reminds a person that they are fasting, which leads them to remember why they are fasting: because it’s the holy month of Ramadan, in which, according to a hadith: ‘the gates of paradise are opened and the gates of (hell)fire are closed, and the devils are chained.’  That this month is so full of blessings motivates the person to keep trying and to try harder. In this way, hunger always keeps a fasting believer conscious of the sanctity of this month and the great value of the opportunity at hand.
An additional beauty of fasting is that even basic biological needs are sacrificed for Allah’s pleasure. When such basic needs are sacrificed, a believer will naturally also avoid other sins or bad habits which he is prone to. This grants him increased strength and motivation to get closer to God Almighty and truly earn the fruits of fasting.
Community and Charity
While fasting is done solely for God and is thus private, there is also a strong communal aspect to Ramadan as well. While one is strengthening their individual ties with Allah the Almighty, they are also meant to serve the community. This is why Ramadan also is linked closely to charity, and believers are encouraged to pay special attention to feeding the poor and aiding the less well-off. And, in this regard, about the ultimate example for the world, the Prophet Muhammad (sa) It is said in a hadith: ‘The Prophet Muhammad (sa) was the most generous of all people, and would be even more generous in the month of Ramadan.’ 
Again, the hunger pangs that the believer undergoes also naturally draws one’s attention to think about those who are less well off, and for whom hunger is an everyday experience, for those whom hunger and thirst are symptoms of a daily struggle to survive and spare enough to provide for family and other dependants. Fasting serves to remind those fasting that, for some, it isn’t a choice. And thus this naturally increases one’s empathy for the less well-off and encourages one to give more to and sacrifice more for charitable causes.
Not Just a Muslim Tradition
As mentioned above, Muslims weren’t the first people to fast. Islam did not bring the institution of fasting to the world; in fact, God had enjoined fasting upon the believers long before the advent of Islam. Fasting finds mention in both the Old and New Testaments, as a result of which fasting forms part of both Jewish and Christian traditions.
It is written in the Book of Exodus that Prophet Moses (as) fasted for 40 days and 40 nights: ‘So he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights. He neither ate bread nor drank water.’  Jews are furthermore commanded in the Old Testament to fast on the day of Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, which is considered as the holiest day of the Jewish calendar: ‘The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Now, the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you: you shall deny yourselves and present the Lord’s offering by fire; and you shall do no work during that entire day; for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the Lord your God. For anyone who does not practice self-denial during that entire day shall be cut off from the people.’  Such is the importance, in fact, that the Old Testament gives to fasting, that anyone who doesn’t fast on the Day of Atonement will be ‘cut off from his people’.
Much like the Prophet Moses (as) fasted for 40 consecutive days and nights, so did Prophet Jesus (as), according to the New Testament: ‘Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was famished.’ 
There is further mention of fasting in the same book, Matthew, emphasising, as Islam does, that fasting is solely for God: ‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’ 
Even now, there is an element of fasting and sacrifice in the practice of ‘giving something up for Lent,’ when Catholics try to give up something that they love to become closer to God. Moreover, in the fact that various religions have emphasised fasting as a key pathway to become closer to God, there is evidence that all religions come from the same God, Who is the ultimate source of the divine. Fasting, then, draws people closer to God, as is said in the Holy Qur’an: ‘And when My servants ask thee about Me, say: ‘I am near. I answer the prayer of the supplicant when he prays to Me. So they should hearken to Me and believe in Me, that they may follow the right way.’ 
About the Author: Born and raised in London, Mustafa Siddiqi is a sixth-year trainee missionary at Jamia Ahmadiyya UK, the international seminary of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. He has a particular interest in the Arabic language.
 The Holy Qur’an, 2:184.
 Sahih Bukhari, Kitabul Adab, Hadith No. 6057.
 Sahih Bukhari, Kitabul Libas, Hadith No. 5927.
 Sahih Bukhari, Kitab Bad’il Khalq, Hadith No. 3277.
 Sahih Bukhari, Kitabul Manaqib, Hadith No. 3554.
 The Bible, Exodus 34:28.
 The Bible, Leviticus 23:26-29.
 The Bible, Matthew 4:1-2.
 The Bible, Matthew 6:16-18.
 The Holy Qur’an, 2:187.