The practice of fasting is an age-old practice that has existed amongst many cultures and religions around the world with variation in traditions, modes, and objectives. Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity, all prescribe varying forms of the practice of fasting. However, the practice of fasting in Islam is a discipline that nurtures the intersection of the physical and the spiritual, by bridging the gap between the body and the soul.
The universality of fasting
In recent times, fasting has become increasingly popular primarily for its physical health benefits alone. Trends such as intermittent fasting have gained attraction amongst people wanting to lose weight or adopt a healthier lifestyle.
There is a myriad of information available detailing the benefits of this practice of improving physical health. Fasting can balance insulin levels, boost the immune system, promote cell regeneration and growth, and extend longevity. By giving your body regular breaks from processing food, important cells are provided the time to repair themselves, while old cells are destroyed and new cells are generated. Research has also shown that fasting promotes blood sugar and cholesterol control, decreases levels of inflammation, improves heart health and improves overall fitness. Fasting also improves mental strength, self-control and will power, as it balances the effects of hormones and metabolic functions by vitalising the body.
Although the physical benefits of fasting are numerous, when practiced as a spiritual discipline, the practice of fasting can unlock far more benefits than can be read on a weighing scale.
“By overloading the body with food you strangle the soul and render it less active.” —Seneca
The purpose of fasting
For Muslims, Islam presents a holistic concept of fasting which incorporates spiritual, physical and social aspects of a person’s life. It is a compulsory obligation for every healthy Muslim man and woman to fast for the full lunar month of Ramadan, starting just before sunrise until sunset, every day during this month. The practice of fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, provides an opportunity for Muslims to rejuvenate their spirituality, and develop good habits that can be sustained throughout the rest of the year.
Most importantly, there is great emphasis on worship while fasting in the month of Ramadan. For Muslims, worship includes the obligatory five daily prayers, as well as other acts such as the recitation of the Holy Quran or other voluntary prayers. The combination of obligatory fasting and supplication helps establish and develop a deep spiritual connection with God Almighty.
“The five (daily) prayers, and from one Friday prayer to the next, and from Ramadan to Ramadan are expiation for sins committed in between provided one stays away from the major sins.” – Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)
A cleansing of the soul
The practice of fasting also nurtures one’s spirituality by enabling the development of moral and spiritual habits. The Islamic concept of fasting involves not just refraining from food, but also from bad deeds and habits, such as swearing, quarrelling, and lying. Muslims are also encouraged to be charitable and help the needy. Fasting helps one to experience the suffering of the less fortunate, who struggle with poverty and hunger. This feeling of starvation during the fast helps develop empathy for the poor and develops an urge to help others, nurturing one’s sense of humanity.
“If you don’t abstain from evil words and evil deeds, God has no need of your abstaining from food and drink.” – Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)
Is fasting compulsory during Ramadan?
The practice of fasting in Islam is an obligation for all able Muslims. However, Islam is a balanced religion that does not expect its practices to become a burden for those unable to fast. Young children, or those who are sick or traveling are exempt from fasting during Ramadan, and may complete their missed fasts when feasible. Women who are pregnant, menstruating or feeding infants are also exempt from fasting. Muslims who are unable to complete their fasts are obliged to pay monetary compensation (fidya) which is used to help the poor and destitute.
During the month of Ramadan, through the practice of fasting, Muslims also renounce some lawful actions which are otherwise permitted, related to personal desires. Through this act of devotion, Muslims develop the will and power to heighten their spiritual conduct. Besides fasting during the obligatory month of Ramadan, Muslims can also observe voluntary fasting throughout the rest of the year to attain the same benefits.
The true purpose of Ramadan
Ultimately, the practice of fasting in Islam is a means of attaining God-consciousness. Along with the physical aspects of fasting, its spiritual dimensions purify the soul, encourage self-reflection and inspire virtuous living. By restricting our focus on food consumption, our sense of gratitude and humbleness increases. In essence, fasting in the month of Ramadan is a yearly opportunity for Muslims to physically and spiritually revive themselves. The practice of fasting during Ramadan is a spiritual regimen and a reorientation for the body and the soul.
“Fasting is not merely staying hungry and thirsty; rather its reality and its impact can only be gained through experience. It is human nature that the less one eats, the more one’s spirit is purified and thus his capacity for [spiritual] visions increases… Hence, the significance of fasting is this alone that man gives up one kind of sustenance which only nourishes the body and attains the other kind of sustenance which is a source of comfort and gratification for the soul.” – The Promised Messiah, Hadrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (peace be upon him)