This article is from the May/June 1987 edition of The Review of Religions.
‘O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may be righteous.’ 
Almighty God has exhorted Muslims to excel one another in righteousness for this is the ideal quality of character; and they have been urged to strive continually towards the perfection of this attribute because in the sight of God this virtue is the most distinguished mark of honour. God says in the Holy Qur’an:
‘Verily the most honourable among you, in the sight of Allah, is the one who is most righteous among you.’
The acquisition of righteousness is the highest and noblest of all ambitions and should be the foremost aspiration of every Muslim. This attribute is a heavenly and magnetic energy which is so powerful and attractive that hearts are moved and swayed by its radiation. Hazrat Ali (ra) said:
‘He who sets righteousness as his ideal has the hardest persons softened and the remotest strangers attracted.’
The Islamic form of fasting is strictly a spiritual exercise and is one of others which also serve as aids towards the development of righteousness. Muslims have been repeatedly reminded in the Holy Qur’an that they should cultivate the spirit of righteousness in their hearts:
‘O ye men, worship your Lord Who created you and those who were before you that you may become righteous.’
‘The best provision is righteousness.’
The cultivation of this heavenly attribute has also been emphasised by Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as) – the Promised Messiah and holy founder of the Ahmadiyya Movement, who has written in one of his poems:
‘Wonderful is the jewel the name of which is righteousness. Blessed is he who practises righteousness. So, o ye Muslims! perfectyour righteousness.’
Successful fasting leads to righteousness, providing one imbues oneself with the spirit of fasting which calls for the promotion of a strong desire and resolve to attain spiritual elevation during the period of abstention. Desire is the motivating force which drives one onwards towards one’s cherished goal – whatever it may be; and when coupled with the spirit of resolve there is no power which can prevent one from achieving one’s aim other than divine intervention.
A climber cannot expect to reach the summit of a mountain in one stride; nor can a servant of God expect to attain spiritual purification in one stretch of fasting. He cannot make the distance in one jump. He must move from stage to stage, goal to goal; each must be within comfortable reach of the other.
In every prescribed or supplementary fast one should set one’s eyes on a goal higher than the one already reached; and the goal should be that one shall emerge from the fast a far more righteous person than at the time one entered into it. If one adopts this practical approach then the blessings of fasting and the feeling of exaltation must be experienced.
How does fasting enable one to grow more righteous? First it should be known that there is fasting and then there is fasting. The mere abstention from food and water will not serve any spiritual value unless the spirit of fasting is present in the heart. There are many Muslims who fast merely from habit or custom. On being questioned why they fast, their reply is that it is a commandment of Allah; yet they ignore other important commandments of Islam and are found to drink, gamble, lie, lend money on interest, neglect prayers, etc. Had they possessed some measure of the spirit of Islam they would realise the importance of giving attention to all the commandments of God and not only to fasting. Their fasting will not affect any change in their daily way of life; nor will they have increased in righteousness which is the primary purpose of fasting.
Ramadan is a holy month of fasting. It is a holy month inasmuch as God Himself has promised to pour down blessings upon those who fast in earnest; striving all the time to win the pleasure of God; and seeking divine assistance through prayer and good conduct. It is a time of wonderful opportunities for making spiritual progress.
Not only does one have to refrain from eating and drinking during the hours of fasting but one also has to refrain from anger, back-biting and all forms of immodest speech. One must vigilantly guard one’s tongue from the promptings of Satan. Although one must observe this vigilance at all times, whether or not one is fasting, extra special attention should be maintained while fasting for it is a time when one’s sincere efforts are richly rewarded.
Sin of any kind results from the failure to resist evil temptations. Fasting strengthens one’s power of self-control and self-restraint; and thereby one becomes more fortified against the onslaughts of the devil.
Almighty God has promised that He will bless and reward those who are grateful to Him for the favours He has bestowed upon them:
‘… And Allah will certainly reward the grateful.’ 
As fasting is a time when one is seeking and hankering after a good measure of divine blessings a golden opportunity is presented to increase and express one’s gratitude to God for all His bounties and favours. Self-denial enables one to appreciate more fully the good things of life; and this realisation makes one more thankful to God for one’s daily provision. Gratitude encourages charity which is another Islamic virtue that should be exercised more freely and generously when fasting. Abstinence from food and drink creates a deeper feeling of understanding and sympathy for one’s less fortunate brethren who are suffering on account of poverty, famine and other kinds of distress.
While every virtue is meritorious, perhaps the greatest of them all is patience. It is the key to self-mastery and the secret of success in every field of physical and spiritual life. Throughout the Holy Qur’an, Muslims have been exhorted to cultivate this cardinal virtue, for without this firm basis the edifice of righteousness cannot be properly constructed. Patience is an avenue through which the blessings of God flow:
‘And seek help with patience and prayer.’
Patience is a pre-requisite for spiritual prosperity:
‘O you believe, be patient and enjoin patience and be firm and fear God that you may prosper.’
Patience surmounts all obstacles and is the antidote for every affliction:
‘And We will try you with something of fear and hunger, and loss of wealth and lives, and fruits; but give glad tidings to the patient.’
Impatience is a thorn in the flesh. It disturbs one’s equilibrium and irritates the nervous system. Patience is not an easy virtue to master and is rarely reflected to a high degree even among those who are counted as spiritual personalities, for often they rage and quarrel like little children, even among themselves. Fasting helps to subdue the passions and develop patience. Too many people ruin their lives through anger and frustration. The patient man, having learned how to control himself, possesses peace of mind and is revered for his spiritual strength which lifts him into the realms of righteousness where he dwells contented with his Lord.
While fasting, special attention should be given to prayer which is the direct line of communication between man and his Creator. God Almighty says:
‘ …Pray unto Me; I will answer your prayer.’
Keeping in mind that God Himself has declared that the purpose of fasting is to become righteous, and He answers the prayer of the supplicant, one should fervently pray that one may attain to a higher degree of righteousness. Certainly God will answer this prayer and one will become joyous in the knowledge and experience of spiritual elevation which is the successful fulfilment of the purpose of fasting. One will realise the efficacy of fasting and witness within oneself a holy change for the better and personally understand how fasting helps one to become more righteous.
Steadfastness is an essential quality of faith without which one cannot progress very far along the path of righteousness. Fasting trains one to be steadfast in purpose when, despite hunger, thirst and fatigue, one must continue to the end. Self-discipline strengthens the power of steadfastness which is the force that breaks down barriers, overcomes obstacles and enables one to hold on to the rope of Allah in the midst of the storms of life. Regarding this vital ingredient of faith, God says in the Holy Qur’an:
‘And We will surely try you until We distinguish those among you who strive for the cause of Allah and those who are steadfast. And We will make known the facts about you.’
‘Verily those who say “Our Lord is Allah”, and then remain steadfast – no fear shall come upon them, nor shall they grieve.’
‘But none is granted it save those who are steadfast; and none is granted it save those who possess a large share of good.’
‘ …And exhort one another to be steadfast.’
‘ …Verily the steadfast will have their reward without measure.’
‘Allah is with the steadfast.’
Fasting reminds one of the importance of this indispensable part of faith – steadfastness. Whatever physical inconvenience one feels when fasting one must complete the fast to the finish, unless one is suddenly stricken by illness. Steadfastness nourishes righteousness.
Fasting entails hardship and discomfort to a lesser or greater extent depending on the climate, length of the day and other factors. On account of their constitution some people feel the effects of fasting more than others. The ability to bear hardships cheerfully is a mark of spiritual maturity. One must always be prepared to face hardships for they are inevitable. God says in the Holy Qur’an:
‘We have created man to face hardships.’
Successful fasting causes one to become detached to some extent from material influences depending very much upon the attention and devotion one assigns to it. The body feels light and the soul bright. One does not feel fettered to this planet but seems to float over it in the realm of the angels.
When fasting, one is reminded that the body should not rule the mind but rather the mind should rule the body; for as a man thinketh so he is. Righteousness may be speedily acquired by constantly feeding the mind with pure and holy thoughts through meditation, reading and conversation on spiritual matters.
Bad habits are enemies of spiritual progress. One should never become their slaves. One must break them once and for all if one wants to soar into the higher realms of holiness; otherwise they will hold one earthbound like a balloon at the end of a chain. Fasting helps to break bad habits such as smoking, tobacco chewing, reading trashy literature, visiting the cinema, watching television stories, sloth and laziness, flippant conversation, extravagance, over eating and so many other worthless and harmful pursuits.
About the Author: Bashir Ahmad Orchard was the first English missionary of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and has served as the chief editor of The Review of Religions. As an Imam he also served in the West Indies and in various parts of the UK.
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