What's the Point of Fasting?
Everything that God does according to Islamic theology is done for a good reason, and sometimes we may know the reason and sometimes we may not know the reason. With commands from God specifically and even prohibitions, if something is commanded or prohibited, these are all done for good reasons. We can be assured that fasting must be prescribed for us with good reason. If you've attended a mosque recently, you will hear the khateeb quoting a verse from the Quran 2:183.
“Fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed to those before you, so that you may practice self-restraint.” [Quran 2:183]
What is most interesting for this present discussion is the last phrase, “so that you may practice self-restraint”. This term can be explained in a variety of ways. We can also say, “so that you may become God-conscious”. Of course, that comes with restraining your desires, which are going contrary to the commandments of God and doing the things which will be pleasing to God. There's a purpose, and the purpose is expressed here. Many passages of the Quran explain the purposes behind the actions which are prescribed for us, whether it be prayer, giving charity, and so on.
Sticking with the topic of fasting, two verses later, in the 185th verse of the same surah, the second surah of the Quran, it says, "God does not desire hardship for you, but He desires ease for you. He wishes for you to complete the number of days, so you should give thanks to God for what He has guided you towards, and you should glorify God for the fact that He has guided you to this faith, and you should be thankful to God.” This thankfulness is something that is now widely recognized among people, Muslims and non-Muslims. Having this sense of gratitude helps you spiritually, mentally, and psychologically as well. These benefits that come from fasting are mentioned in the Quran.
It's interesting that God feels a need to include that. It's not just “Do this,” it's also “Do this for the following reasons.”
That is a lesson for us as well. When we want to talk to our kids, sometimes we just simply say, "Do this because I'm the boss or I'm the parent! You just have to listen and obey.” However, it's good to offer a rationale so that people feel that you are giving good and rational commands, and even God is doing that with us. What is interesting also is that He's saying that He doesn't desire hardship for you, but rather He desires ease. One might ask then, “Isn't fasting difficult?” Yet, this verse explains that it's not God's desire to make things difficult for us, but maybe this is a difficult exercise that we need to go through for our own spiritual upliftment. When we're fasting, naturally we become more spiritually close to God because of sensory deprivation.
If somebody is, for instance, deprived of sight, then their hearing may become more acute because they're paying more attention to sounds than the rest of us might have. Since the rest of us rely on our eyes to see things, we don't need our hearing as much, however, somebody who's deprived of sight will have their hearing accentuated. In a similar way, when we fast, by depriving the physical body of its usual intake, we are priming the spiritual body for the intake of good spiritual things and spiritual nourishment. We actually develop that way and that's all included in this rationale of what it means to fast.
Also, there are a lot of things in our life that are hard that we go through. Sometimes we purposely put ourselves through those hard things to gain something for ourselves. For example, exercise. Exercise could be fun, but most of the time it's just a hard slog that you do because you want to lose weight and get fit. Somebody training for a marathon or training for the Olympics, even though it's hard, they think about the gain that they're going to achieve.
There's a saying in English: no pain, no gain. The idea that you have to burn the midnight oil if you're studying for an exam. There's some sacrifice that you need to make. You can't go out and play because you have to work on your studies, or whatever the case is.
Ramadan is kind of like good training in that sense.
In fact, it's a good discipline and one of the things that we emphasize is that we have to stay away from sins. Ramadan helps us to do that because when we know that we're fasting for the sake of God from morning until the night, we know that we have to please him in every way. It helps people to control their willpower which is a very important aspect of human nature. We have this willpower, but often we do not feel that we are in control. People may say,”I'm dying, I have to eat something!” When the Muslim says, “You know what, I feel the same instinct to eat, but mind over matter. I'm not going to eat because I'm fasting. I'm going through this exercise.”
When one does that, one day, two days, three days, a whole month, and then another year again, repeating the exercise, one gets the sense eventually that we are masters of our own bodies and our own inclinations. We decide what to eat, when to eat, how to eat, and so on. These most basic desires of the human body cannot control us, we control them, and if more people can develop this kind of willpower, imagine how different the world would be. A lot of people say, “I couldn't help it, I was gambling. I couldn't stop.” Then before they know it, they've gambled away their life's savings or they've caused hardship for their families. People get into affairs in the office and they say, “Sorry, I couldn't help it!”. What do you mean you couldn't help it? You don't have willpower? Well, develop that willpower and one of the ways of doing it is through this training during the month of Ramadan!
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