The reason most of you behave as you do is that the very meaning and purport of `ibadah has become distorted in your minds. You think that mere abstention from eating and drinking throughout the day is the Fasting.
You therefore are very particular to observe the minutest details about it. You fear God to the extent that you avoid even the slightest violation of these rules; but you do not appreciate that merely being hungry and thirsty is not the purpose but only the form.
This form has been prescribed to create in you such fear of God and love, such strength of will and character, that, even against your desire, you avoid seemingly profitable things which in fact displease Allah and do those things which possibly entail risks and losses but definitely please God.
Wrong View of Worship
This strength can be developed only when you understand the purpose of the Fasting and desire to put to use the training you have undergone of curbing your physical desires for the fear and love of God only.
But what happens as soon as Ramadan is over?
You throw to the winds all that you gain from the Fasting, just as a man who has eaten food vomits it up by thrusting his fingers down his throat. Just as physical strength cannot be obtained from bread until it is digested, transformed into blood, which spreads through every vein, so spiritual strength cannot be obtained from the Fasting until the person who keeps fast is conscious of its purpose and allows it to permeate his heart and mind and dominate his thoughts, motives and deeds.
Fasting as a Way to Piety
This is why Allah, after ordaining the Fasting, has said that Fasting is made obligatory on you, “so that you may attain to God-consciousness” (Al-Baqarah 2:183).
Note that there is no guarantee that you will definitely become God-conscious and righteous. Only someone who recognizes the purpose of the Fasting and strives to achieve it will receive its blessings; someone who does not, cannot hope to gain anything from it.
Conditions of True Fasting
The Prophet (peace be on him) has in various ways pointed out the real spirit of fasting and has explained that to go hungry and thirsty while ignoring the spirit carries no value in the sight of God.
Abstention From Falsehood
The Prophet once said:
“If one does not give up speaking falsehood and acting by it, God does not require him to give up eating and drinking.” (Al-Bukhari)
On another occasion, he said: “Many are the people who fast but who gain nothing from their fast except hunger and thirst; and many are those who stand praying all night but gain nothing except sleeplessness.” (Ad-Darimi)
The lessons are clear and unequivocal: merely being hungry and thirsty is not by itself worship, but a means for performing real worship. Real worship means desisting from violating the law of God out of this fear and this love of God, pursuing activities that please Him, and refraining from the indiscriminate satisfaction of physical desires. If you fast while ignoring this essence of the Fasting, you are simply causing unnecessary inconvenience to your stomachs.
Faith and Self-scrutiny
The Prophet, blessings and peace be on him, draws attention to another aim of fasting thus:
Whoever observes the Fast, believing and counting, has all his past sins forgiven. (Al-Bukhari & Muslim)
Believing means that faith in God should remain alive in the consciousness of a Muslim. Counting means that you should seek only Allah’s pleasure, constantly watching over your thoughts and actions to make sure you are doing nothing contrary to His pleasure, and trusting and expecting the rewards promised by Allah and the Messenger.
Observing these two principles brings the rich reward of all your past sins being forgiven. The reason is obvious: even if you were once disobedient, you will have now turned, fully repentant, to your Master – and ‘a penitent is like one who has, as it were, never committed a sin at all’, as said the Prophet, blessings and peace be on him (Ibn Majah).
Shield Against Sins
On another occasion, the Prophet, blessings and peace be on him, said:
The Fast is like a shield (for protection from Satan’s attack). Therefore when one observes the Fast he should (use this shield and) abstain from quarrelling. If anybody abuses him or quarrels with him, he should simply say: Brother, I am fasting (do not expect me to indulge in similar conduct). (Al-Bukhari & Muslim)
Hunger for Goodness
The Prophet (peace be on him) once directed that a man, while fasting, ought to do more good works than usual and ardently desire to perform acts of kindness. Compassion and sympathy for his brothers should intensify in his heart because, being himself in the throes of hunger and thirst, he will all the more be able to realize the misery of other servants of God who are destitute.
In Ramadan, whoever provides food to a person who is fasting to break that Fast will earn forgiveness for his sins, deliverance from the Fire and as much reward as the one who is fasting, without any reduction in the recompense of the latter (Baihaqi).
`Abdullah ibn `Abbas tells that the Prophet (peace be on him) used to become unusually kind and generous during Ramadan. No beggar in that period went empty-handed from his door, and as many slaves as possible were set free (Baihaqi).
The article is an excerpt from the author’s Let Us Be Muslims.