Ahmad Nooruddeen Jahangeer Khan, UK
Growing up in a western country, every time the month of Ramadan begins I face similar questions from my non-Muslim friends: How long do you fast? Why do you fast? Don’t you get really hungry? Wait, are you not even allowed to drink water? So it is not difficult to imagine that for those who never fast, observing it for a day may seem very demanding, let alone for an entire month. Ramadan is, in fact, the holiest month for Muslims, in which adults are enjoined to fast from dawn till dusk, and spend more of their time in prayer, self-reflection and self-discipline. Of course, some Muslims may find it difficult to go hours without food and drink, and wake up early to begin the fasts.
That being the case, the fact still remains that not a single injunction mentioned in the Holy Qur’an – including that of fasting – is beyond human capacity. When a person understands the purpose behind these injunctions, and strives to follow them, they can quickly reach a stage whereby they are able to act upon them with ease. In the case of fasting, Allah Almighty has enjoined:
يَـٰٓأَيُّھَا ٱلَّذِينَ اٰمَنُواْ كُتِبَ عَلَيۡكُمُ ٱلصِّيَامُ كَمَا كُتِبَ عَلَى ٱلَّذِينَ مِن قَبۡلِكُمۡ لَعَلَّكُمۡ تَتَّقُونَ
‘O ye who believe! fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may become righteous.’ 
Food and drink are, of course, necessary for a human beings to survive, so abstaining from eating and drinking seems not only difficult but impossible. But it is in the second part of this verse that God Almighty has demonstrated the aspect of ease within this commandment, which is, ‘as it was prescribed for those before you.’ This alludes to the fact that Islam is not the first to introduce this institution of fasting. In relation to this, Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad (ra), the Second Caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community has commented:
‘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 Buddha (see Lalitavistara & Buddhacharita), the fasting of Moses, prior to his receiving the Ten Commandments (Exod. 34:28; Deut. 9:9), the fasts of Jesus (as) 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.’ 
He elaborates however that this 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, and that Islam has in fact greatly spiritualised it and pointed out its real purpose.
Thus, if a Muslim feels it is too difficult to abstain from eating, drinking, or having conjugal relations with their spouse, they are reminded that this injunction was also given to those in the past, that it is only for a period of time, and it is therefore a tried-and-tested method for one to become a righteous and pious person, as is stated at the end of the above-mentioned verse. It is noted that according to the traditions in some faiths, one must spend all their time focussing on the fast, whilst making sure they do not spend their time in other matters such as work or play. But in Islam, Muslims must continue their day-to-day activities, such as going to work or school, etc., whilst striving to spend as much time in pious endeavours such as self-restraint, repentance, the remembrance of God and worshipping Him. As a result, one may find it easier to incorporate the habit fasting in their normal routine.
Habits are Born Through Continuous Practice
We witness that in every aspect of life, one must develop habits in their journey towards whatever objective is in mind. A simple example of this is that to maintain healthy teeth one must continue to brush them regularly. Similarly, if we desire to excel in a particular sport, or attain a certain physique, we cannot rely on pure talent or luck alone, and some of the most talented out there are also some of the most hard-working; they stick to certain lifestyles that facilitate this as much as possible and they rid themselves of habits which are a detriment to them in whatever they wish to achieve. This is a practice which they do not keep only for a certain number of days or weeks, rather, they strive to maintain that in order to be in optimum condition.
Importantly, habits can be changed, but one must take steps in the right direction in order to break bad habits and to develop good ones. Only then will it become easier for one to turn practice into second nature. In relation to this, Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad (ra) has stated that many of man’s actions are determined through practice as well as through his capabilities. For example, one who sleeps a lot will develop the habit of sleeping a lot. But with effort and determination they can also reduce the amount they sleep. Hence, humans possess many faculties which begin to work in a certain fashion when they are put into practice. His Holiness (ra) gave the example of soldiers in an army, explaining that they are put through constant training throughout the year, even when there is peace, so that if ever there is a conflict or a war erupts, the soldiers will prepared to face the adversities.
He then explained that one of the fundamental reasons for divine laws is to instil such habits in mankind so that they may be able to endure hardships and difficulties whenever they arise.
In the context of fasting, as people are commanded to spend long hours without food and drink, spend less time sleeping in order to worship, and to refrain from other desires, they will naturally develop a resilience if ever a time comes when they must go without. During the month of Ramadan, a believer willingly gives up all of these purely for the sake of God. Then, after a month, they in turn set an example for themselves of how they can tackle problems with greater ease. In general, not all Muslims maintain the habit of fasting throughout the year, nor wake up every day to offer voluntary prayers before dawn. Hence, the month of Ramadan is a kind of training for Muslims, that gives them a chance once more to firmly establish the good habits they develop over the month, for the rest of the year, and indeed, their entire lives.
Fasting Benefits You
The word ‘Ramadan’ itself means a sort of burning, and so it indicates to the fact that one must undergo a struggle as they fast during this month. But just as a burning is caused in the one who observes the fast due to hunger and thirst, this month also burns away their sins and produces in them a burning love and devotion for the Creator and for His creation.
Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam, and observing it during the month of Ramadan is an obligation that can indeed be a means to attaining many spiritual blessings. For example, fasting has been described by the Holy Prophet (sa) as a shield, for it protects people from sin and encourages them to also become peace-loving citizens, when the person fasting eschews that which is unlawful and refrains from quarrelling with others. When one goes without food and drink from dawn till dusk, they feel the pangs of hunger and thirst and come to know of the sufferings of the poor even better, so it enables those well-off in society to show greater sympathy for the poor and give them greater support. Fasting also enables one to have greater resolve and self-restraint and this aspect is particularly unique to fasting, because with other good deeds, one is naturally instructed to refrain from evil and that which is unlawful, but when it comes to fasting, one is required to even refrain from that which is permitted under normal circumstances. Hence, to learn to control oneself and instil self-discipline in this manner enables one to better overcome future situations in which one may find themselves with a shortage of food or drink.
But aside from helping to develop moral qualities, fasting is known to have several physical benefits as well. It helps in weight management, decreases inflammation throughout the body, improves cardiovascular function, helps to improve brain function and enables the mind to think more clearly.  As already mentioned, to attain these health benefits, people must fast continuously, and if they are able to do so for a month, they will find it easier to continue doing so in future. Even if someone fasts for a day or two every week, they are more likely to still profit from some of these health benefits, as opposed to if they stop fasting entirely after a month. Interestingly, in addition to fasting in the month of Ramadan, the practice of the Holy Prophet (sa) was to also observe voluntarily fasts on Mondays and Thursdays. However, he also forbade overburdening oneself by fasting on a daily basis throughout the year, as it carries the risk of rendering the body unable to carry out everyday tasks. Thus, we find that Islam teaches one to follow the golden mean and not to overburden oneself whilst carrying out any good deed.
أَيَّامًا مَّعۡدُودَٰتٍ ۚ فَمَن كَانَ مِنكُم مَّرِيضًا أَوۡ عَلىٰ سَفَرٍ فَعِدَّةُُ مِّنۡ أَيَّامٍ أُخَرَ ۚ وَعَلَى ٱلَّذِينَ يُطِيقُونَهُۥ فِدۡيَةُُ طَعَامُ مِسۡكِينٍ ۖ فَمَن تَطَوَّعَ خَيۡرًا فَھُوَ خَيۡرٞ لَّهُۥ ۚ وَأَن تَصُومُواْ خَيۡرُُ لَّكُمۡ إِن كُنتُمۡ تَعۡلَمُونَ
‘The prescribed fasting is for a fixed number of days, but whoso among you is sick or is on a journey shall fast the same number of other days; and for those who are able to fast only with great difficulty is an expiation – the feeding of a poor man. And whoso performs a good work with willing obedience, it is better for him. And fasting is good for you, if you only knew.’ 
Here two main groups of people have been exempted from fasting in the month of Ramadan – the sick and those on a journey. Exemptions owing to the extra hardships one encounters on a journey is understandable, but what about others who may be adversely affected if they were to fast for a month? The answer is within the word مَرِيضٌ (marid) which is generally used for one who is sick, i.e.و one who is not in a state of full strength or good health. In the context of fasting, it may also refer to one who has a long-term illness or who requires regular medication. Aside from these, this term may also refer to young children who have not yet reached maturity and full strength, the elderly, the pregnant, or breastfeeding mothers.
Unfortunately, despite being exempted from fasting, certain Muslims still make their children observe it during the month of Ramadan. Whilst expounding upon the matter, Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad (ra) states:
‘In my view, having a child keep fasts before the age of 12 is a crime; and to have a child keep fasts between the ages of 12 and 15 is wrong…There are those who make even children keep fasts. However, every injunction and commandment has its own scope and its own time. According to our understanding, certain commandments start to apply at the age of four. There are other [commandments] which start to apply between the ages of seven and 12; and then there are those which begin to apply between the ages of 15 and 18. As far as I am concerned, the commandment of fasting begins applying to children between the ages of 15 and 18, as this is the time when one reaches maturity. The habit of fasting should start being inculcated from the age of 15 and then it should be considered obligatory from the age of 18. I remember when we were young, we too were very keen on fasting; however, the Promised Messiah (as) would not permit us to keep fasts. Rather than enjoining us too fast [at that age], he impressed upon us the importance of fasting. Hence, in order to maintain the health of children and increase their strength, they should not be allowed to fast. Then, when they reach the age where they attain strength – which is the age of 15 – then they can be allowed to fast, albeit gradually. However many [fasts] they keep in the first year, they should keep a few more the next year, and then more in the year following that. In this way, the habit of fasting should be inculcated within them gradually.’ 
It is important to also remember that if one falls under any of these categories, Islam teaches that they should not attempt to fast, as this would be tantamount to contradicting the commandment of Allah Almighty when He in fact desires their welfare in light of their circumstances. In the end, God Almighty is in no need for one’s hunger or thirst; it is the spirit of obedience which draws His pleasure.
As the world continues to be plagued by the coronavirus pandemic, the question naturally arises as to whether one is permitted to maintain the fast when they are getting vaccinated The Fifth Caliph and Worldwide Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba) has clarified this matter:
‘Receiving any form of injection while fasting, whether intramuscular or intravenous, is prohibited. If an Ahmadi receives an appointment to have their coronavirus vaccine during the month of Ramadan, they can avail of the exemption granted by Islam and abstain from fasting on the day they are due to receive the injection, and should make up for the fast after Ramadan.’ 
Can One Still Reap the Rewards of Ramadan if They are Exempt From Fasting?
In the verse of the Holy Qur’an mentioned above, Allah Almighty has instructed one who cannot fast during Ramadan to feed a poor person by way of giving fidyah (the expiation for missing a fast) for the days missed, and that when they reach a state of good health later on, they may fast for the number of days they missed during Ramadan. Hence, this is the way in which they may still partake of the blessings from the month of Ramadan, but as with all deeds, the intention is what holds weight in the eyes of God.
In relation to this, whilst shedding light upon the reason for the expiation, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as), the Promised Messiah has stated:
‘The purpose of the prescribed expiation is that one may be bestowed the strength for the observation of the fast, and this can be achieved only through the grace of God Almighty…If God Almighty so wished He would not have prescribed limitations for the Muslims as He had prescribed for earlier peoples; but the purpose of the limitations is the promotion of the welfare of the people concerned.’ 
The Promised Messiah (as) has also explained that if one’s intentions are not pure when they miss a fast, they will be depriving themselves of the blessings therein. At the same time, if one only commits to fasting in the month of Ramadan, but fails to refrain from evil words and deeds, they too will be deprived of the bounties, and God Almighty states that He is in no need for their abstaining from food and drink. Nevertheless, whether one is able to fast or not, Islam has kept the door open to all for benefiting from the month of Ramadan.
Religion is a Means of Ease
For those who do not associate with any religion, organised religion may be seen as a tool to impose restrictions on people, to rob them of their wealth, to indoctrinate them to act upon endless commandments, and in short, to make life more difficult. However, this may only seem true when one’s desire is to swim against the tide; to move towards worldliness rather than towards God Almighty’s pleasure. The path to attaining the true purpose in life is one, and the distractions from that are many. And so, religion steers one in the right direction. It is the tool that enables one to not only begin to tread that path, but to also remain on it. It is the facilitator, not the impediment.
This desire for ease in religion, and in particular during the month of Ramadan, is clearly mentioned in the Holy Qur’an when God Almighty states:
يُرِيدُ ٱللَّهُ بِكُمُ ٱلۡيُسۡرَ وَلَا يُرِيدُ بِكُمُ ٱلۡعُسۡرَ وَلِتُكۡمِلُواْ ٱلۡعِدَّةَ وَلِتُكَبِّرُواْ ٱللَّهَ عَلَىٰ مَا هَدَىٰكُمۡ وَلَعَلَّكُمۡ تَشۡكُرُونَ
‘Allah desires to give you facility and He desires not hardship for you, and that you may complete the number, and that you may exalt Allah for His having guided you and that you may be grateful.’ 
Here a very important principle is mentioned, that divine commandments are meant to actually grant one ease and comfort, rather than to cause inconvenience. Where some in the past may have deemed the commandments in their scriptures to be overly burdensome, Allah Almighty has clarified in the Holy Qur’an that true happiness, comfort and freedom are to be found in obedience to the will of God, for His religion is there to guide one away from what is harmful and bring them closer to that which is of real benefit.
Whilst explaining how one should always bear in mind this aspect of ease and to not overburden themselves, the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa) has stated:
إِنَّ الدِّينَ يُسْرٌ، وَلَنْ يُشَادَّ الدِّينَ أَحَدٌ إِلَّا غَلَبَهُ، فَسَدِّدُوا وَقَارِبُوا وَأَبْشِرُوا، وَاسْتَعِينُوا بِالْغَدْوَةِ وَالرَّوْحَةِ وَشَىْءٍ مِنَ الدُّلْجَةِ
‘Indeed, religion is ease, and no one will ever overburden himself in religion, except that it will overcome him. So keep to the right course, and come as close as you can (to perfection), and receive the glad tidings (that you will be rewarded), and gain strength by worshipping in the morning, afternoon, and during the last hours of the night.’ 
One can see here that when God Almighty has desired for mankind to follow His religion, He has also taken into account that each and every person is different and they all have their own capacities. They are therefore taught to try their utmost, but to burden themselves beyond their capacity would be wrong. If not, then religion would cease to be a means of ease.
As has been mentioned, the more one practices in order to obtain a goal, the stronger their faculties become and the easier it becomes to attain that which is desired. When the Holy Prophet (sa) taught mankind the true objective of life, he also mentioned a way in which they can attain it – to seek help and strength by worshipping in the morning, the evening and in parts of the night. Hence, Ramadan is the perfect opportunity to gear and prepare one towards this goal. It is the month to continue to push believers to perfection. As one trains their body, mind and soul during this month, they are equipped with the ability to endure hardships throughout the year. It is the month in which one intensifies their efforts in prayer, sharpens their senses through fasting and rejuvenates their thirst for spiritual reward.
Ease Afforded in Worship During Ramadan
A fundamental tenet of Islam is to perform the obligatory five daily prayers. These prayers are the minimum requirement, and if one desires to attain further blessings, they can offer others prayers which the Holy Prophet (sa) used to perform regularly, as well as voluntary prayers. One of his practices was to wake up early to offer tahajjud ( voluntary night prayer), and special emphasis is given to this during the month of Ramadan for it is a time for greater acceptance. Naturally, Muslims strive to develop this habit as well. However, there are also those who will find it too difficult to wake up early to offer tahajjud. Indeed, this was also the case in the time of Hazrat Umar (ra), the Second Caliph of Islam. When he noticed that some people were unable to offer these voluntary prayers so early, perhaps due to their long hours of work during the day, and that they were praying in different groups after isha (night prayer), he felt it would be better to gather all these people to pray under the leadership of one Imam. And thus, the same number of units of prayer in the tahajjud prayers were offered by these Muslims in the tarawih prayers during the month of Ramadan. Interestingly, the word tarawih itself is derived from the Arabic for rest and relaxation. Even though praying in this manner is permitted, it is important to note that he also taught it is better to offer the voluntary prayers after waking in the latter part of the night, as it carries more blessings.
Bear in mind that there is a greater incentive for one to make pious endeavours in Ramadan. The period of fasting was designated in Ramadan which itself is a holy month, and deeds carried out in this month can carry the blessings equal to 70 deeds in other months. It is the month in which the angel Gabriel (as) would visit the Holy Prophet (sa) – every year until his demise – and rehearse the revealed portions of the Holy Qur’an, and so it can be said that the entire Qur’an was revealed in this blessed month. All the gates of heaven are opened in this month, and the gates of hell are all closed, that is to say that it is a time of greater acceptance of prayer, and when the essence of Ramadan enters one’s heart, they become less inclined to committing sin. Ramadan is the month in which there is the Night of Decree, which is said to be greater that a thousand months. It is the month in which one’s wealth is blessed to an even greater degree than in other months. God Almighty also states that there is a reward for every good deed, but the reward for fasting is God Almighty Himself.
With all of these factors, the likelihood of one experiencing a spiritual high during this month of Ramadan is ever-increased, for they find themselves in a special atmosphere in which they can become more focussed on their spiritual development, rather than concentrating on material gain. However, the real test is to strive to maintain that, because as the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa) stated, faith increases and decreases. It does not remain stagnant. The wisdom behind this is that one must make great efforts to experiences the highs of spirituality, and that is when they enjoy the fruits thereof. Then, when they experience the lows, they remember the moments in which they were reaping the benefits from the increase in faith, and double their efforts once more to rediscover that joy and bliss. Hence, when the month of Ramadan arrives, it serves as a platform to intensify one’s efforts to attain the bounties that are promised by God Almighty, and when one strives for an entire month in this way, it facilitates and paves the path for them to continue to do good deeds and refrain from sin throughout the rest of the year. And if that level of faith and determination decreases later on, at the very least, they will remember how much God Almighty blessed them when they made sacrifices for His sake, and it will enable them to be better prepared for whatever difficulties lie ahead.
When the month of Ramadan comes to an end, Muslims will celebrate Eid, the day of joy and happiness. They will enjoy eating and drinking during the day and giving and receiving gifts from loved ones. But the true joy will only be felt when one is able to continue the good which they have attained in the month of Ramadan, throughout the rest of their lives. Let us therefore understand this holy month better and truly reap its boundless rewards.
About the Author: Ahmad Nooruddeen Jahangeer Khan is an Imam of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and serves as deputy of the Comparative Religions section of The Review of Religions.
 The Holy Qur’an, 2:184.
 Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad (ra), The Five-Volume Commentary of the Holy Qur’an, Commentary of 2:184.
 Professor Amtul Razzaq Carmichael, “Ramadan is over, so what about fasting now? – An Interview with Dr. Mark Mattson, Professor of Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University,” 18th June, 2020. Accessed March 2020. https://www.reviewofreligions.org/23282/intermittent-fasting-health-benefits-after-ramadan/
 The Holy Qur’an, 2:185.
 Al Fazal, 11th April 1925.
 Letter from His Holiness (aba) to the editor of Al Fazal International, 13th April 2021.
 Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as), The Essence of Islam – Volume II (Tilford, Surrey: Islam International Publications Ltd., 2004), 313-314.
 The Holy Qur’an, 2:186.
 Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Iman, Hadith 39.