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How Does Fasting Work?

Dr. Safiyyah Ally: Welcome to “Ramadan Ready”, where we answer common questions about Ramadan. Dr. Shabir, I want to talk about how Ramadan works. Because, for outsiders, it might seem quite strange, especially the whole idea of fasting. They want to know how fasting works. What does it entail? One of the common things that people ask is, “You can't even drink water?!” That's really surprising to people.

Dr. Shabir Ally: Let me start with the basics. Essentially, fasting entails abstinence from food, drink, and sexual intercourse from dawn till sunset. So then, how does one make this work? Typically, Muslims will get up early in the morning on the days of Ramadan. They would have a morning meal and then they would offer their morning prayers since it's quite early. If there's a fair enough gap between that and going to work, many will go back to take a short nap before going out to work. After coming back home from work, one might take a nap in the evening as well, because by this time one is a little bit tired, exhausted, and lacking some energy. That short nap in the late afternoon could rejuvenate you and by the time you get up, it's time to prepare for your evening meal - whether you have to cook it, order it in, or reheat some leftovers from the previous day. You're then ready for the evening prayer, which is at sunset. As soon as the sunset time enters, you would then break your fast with something light giving yourself space because you don't want to rush and overwhelm your system after it has been in the state of abstinence for so long, so you eat slowly. After eating, you have the Maghrib prayer, which for Muslims occurs after the sun sets. Finally, you will have your evening meal and you repeat this routine the following day.

Dr. Safiyyah: So, it changes around your entire schedule.

Dr. Shabir: That's right. Normally, you would've scheduled your activities around lunch knowing that you do something before lunch or after lunch. Now, one meal is suddenly gone from your day, so you're going to schedule things differently. Some Muslims who are more developed than others will be in the mosque at night offering special congregational prayers. In addition to the usual Fard, the obligatory night prayer, there is a special prayer during the month of Ramadan. Some will be engaged with that as well which can last an hour or so. All of this requires deregulation and a repackaging of the hours in your day. We've got the same 168 hours in a week and 24 hours in a day, so how you repackage those 24 hours, what you do during the time, and when you do that, changes a lot during the month of Ramadan for the developed Muslim.

Dr. Safiyyah: Let's talk about how fasting works. What does it mean to fast?

Dr. Shabir: The word fasting in Arabic is Siyam or Sawm, which are two varieties of the same word. It has the sense of stopping and reframing from doing something. Cordovan was a great commentator on the Quran and in his commentary on the Quran he explains that the sun is in a particular state because it's not moving from our perspective. In the Quran, Mariam, the mother of Jesus, is directed by the revelation that if she were to encounter any human being, she was to tell them that she has vowed a fast to the merciful God. So, she will not speak to any human that day. Her fasting must have entailed fasting of silence though ours does not, yet the Quran reports it this way. That would mean stopping from speaking according to the linguistic meaning of this word, Sawm or Siyam. In our context, fasting would be refraining from food, drink, and sexual intercourse.

Dr. Safiyyah: Sometimes people think that fasting is just about eating and drinking. However, there's also another aspect of fasting - the spiritual aspect. Can we talk a little bit about that?

Dr. Shabir: There is a spiritual aspect! Meaning that what I've described so far is the literal base minimum that shows that the person is fasting. However, there is a kind of hidden and internal aspect where the person, through fasting, is turning closer to God. When we fast, we feel that connection with God because we know we're doing it only for His sake. The stomach might be grumbling for food. The lips might be a little bit parched and you might really need to eat or drink something. Yet, you know you're doing it only for God. Folks, when you do that for God and when you know that you're fasting for His sake, then you know that you have to refrain from everything that will displease God. You have to steer away from all kinds of sins, every disagreeable act. On the other hand, you naturally tend to do all of the things that will be pleasing to God. For instance, additional recitation of the scripture from God, remembrance of God helping our fellow human beings, and much more. It is truly a holistic and all-rounded experience. It's not just simply a ritual that we go through.

Dr. Safiyyah: I believe there's a saying from the Prophet Muhammad that if all you get out of fasting is hunger then you haven't really done anything at all.

Dr. Shabir: Yes, there is a mention that for some people, all they will get is hunger and thirst. It is even mentioned that he said, "If anyone does not abandon falsehood and action is in accordance with it, Allah has no need that he abandons his food or drink”. It's almost a kind of a repudiation from God that you think you're fasting for God’s sake, but if you're not giving up the lying and cheating, then God does not need for you to do that.

Dr. Safiyyah: I guess that we should make sure that in Ramadan, we're not just hungry but we're being good people as well.

Dr. Shabir: I think that's one of the most important things. Whether one is fasting or not is the bare minimum. We have to make sure that we are also being good people.

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