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The purposes of Ramadan and how to achieve them

Ahmed Motiar


Ramadan, the month of fasting, is linked to a number of important events in Islamic history. It is the month in which the Qur’an was first sent down from the Lawh Mahfuz (the “well-guarded tablet,” al-Qur’an 85:22) and in its earthly form given to the Prophet Muhammad (saw). It is also the month (in the second year of the hijrah) in which the resolve and commitment of the small, nascent Muslim community was tested by the Battle of Badr. In the eighth year the Muslims were rewarded by the liberation of Makkah; some years later the martyrdom of Imam Ali (ra) took place: he was struck by the poisoned sword of Ibn-Muljam, a Kharijite. To all these momentous events must be added each individual’s own effort in the month of Ramadan, not only as a duty, which indeed it is, but also as an attempt to learn the lesson or lessons that Ramadan can teach to those of us who are willing to learn.

In North America diet-books fly off store-shelves in record numbers, as diet gurus offer their latest fads for losing weight to a population that is grossly overweight because of over-indulgence and laziness. Many of those who have gone on such diets appear on radio and TV talk shows to narrate their personal experiences. The overwhelming opinion seems to be that any diet works for a short time, but as soon as the dieter gives it up the lost weight reappears; some dieters even exceed their previous weight. In all the shared experiences about such diets, one centuries-old formula is seldom or never mentioned: the simple fast that the Prophets of all the major faiths engaged in regularly and enjoined on their followers. Fasting is not new, yet it seems that, as a possible diet option, it is one of the best-kept secrets: no one seems to have explored its potential.

Later this month, almost 1.5 billion Muslims around the world will begin to observe Ramadan, our month of fasting as prescribed for us by our deen. For Muslims fasting is a religious obligation (al-Qur’an 2:183), it being the fourth pillar of Islam. Yet fasting is also an excellent “weight control” strategy. The key point is not “weight loss” but rather “weight control”. While everyone understands, and those who fast will admit, that they lose some weight during Ramadan, few have actually considered its significance as a “weight control” mechanism, nor its value as a behavioral modifier, nor even its merits to tone the human body and its various systems. All these benefits, as well its spiritual advantages, were understood by the Prophets (as).

The Muslim fast, as prescribed for those past the age of puberty, is simple. It requires one to abstain from taking any food or liquids at all from dawn until sunset. Of hunger and thirst, most find thirst to be more difficult to cope with, especially on hot days, as the approaching Ramadan fasts will be in the southern hemisphere. As the fasting month is determined by the lunar calendar, which is 10 or 11 days shorter than the solar calendar each year, in 36 years every Muslim in both hemispheres has the opportunity to fast through all four seasons.

At the end of the fasting day Muslims are enjoined to eat in moderation and engage in ibadah (worship), dhikr (meditation, approximately) and tafakkur (contemplation, thought, analysis). The emphasis is on small simple meals, yet many ignore this injunction and consume large and elaborate meals. But Allah’s divine scheme is unbeatable: humans are created in such a way that the body itself brings one round to eating smaller meals. Those who eat heavy meals at the end of the day often suffer from constipation. It is interesting to note that at the end of the fast, because of hunger and thirst during the day, one thinks that one will be able to eat much more than one normally eats. However, one discovers that this is not so: many people are unable to finish the food in their plate. This is especially noticeable after a few days of fasting. Often the amount one is able to eat is less than the normal meal one would have consumed in the regular three-meals-a-day routine. This is because during fasting the stomach shrinks and, however much one may desire to have more at the end of the day, the shrunken stomach limits the amount of food that can be consumed.

This phenomenon ensures that most people who fast will lose some weight by the end of the month; some lose more than others. While the “weight loss” is obvious, how is fasting a “weight control” tool, a “behavioral modifier” or a means of tuning and toning one’s body?

Most diets fail because they do not bring about a change in the dieter’s physiological condition, as the Ramadan-long fast does. Fasting helps one to alter one’s unhealthy over-eating habits and establish a moderate intake of food. Even when the month of Ramadan ended, the example of the Prophet was to celebrate Eid with rejoicing and “feasting”—sharing a simple meal with neighbours, relatives and, most importantly, the needy. He also emphasised the need on this festive day to visit the sick and give sadaqa (charity).

For the wealthy, who may well have food in abundance, the “feasting” is not supposed to be self-indulgent, but rather an occasion for sharing the bounties Allah has bestowed on them with others, especially the poor and needy. The Prophet Muhammad (saw) deplored over-eating: “Kill not your hearts with excess of eating and drinking,” he is known to have said. Over-eating, especially on the day of Eid, is the quickest way to undo the benefits achieved during Ramadan. The physiological change that facilitates moderate eating is the secret of fasting as a “weight control” mechanism. Although over a period of time these moderate eating habits usually get somewhat eroded, the fasting month returns after 11 months to re-establish the good habits. The habit of moderation can also be sustained and reinforced by fasting at other times, which the Prophet (saw) often did, and also encouraged his Companions (ra) to do.

Fasting, as prescribed in Islam, also requires spiritual cleansing, which at the practical level is reflected in modifying behavior to meet higher ideals. Fasting without worship and contemplation achieves little merit in Islam. In worship a Muslim can seek Allah’s help to become a righteous person who stands up against injustice and oppression. In contemplation a Muslim can examine the behaviours that undermine efforts to come closer to fellow human beings: family, friends, neighbours, colleagues, acquaintances and so on. A Muslim’s attitude to others must reflect respect and kindness. Modifying behaviour is integral to fasting, as the Prophet (saw) himself reminds us: “A keeper of the fast who does not abandon lying and evil ways, Allah cares not about his [or her] leaving off eating and drinking.” Fasting is probably the best way for one to glimpse the pangs of hunger, the misery of the homeless and the suffering of the downtrodden. Creating empathy for the destitute is Islam’s way of stirring our consciences to become actively involved in addressing the needs of the most unfortunate and most marginalised in society. It is related that someone asked Imam Husain (ra): “What is the lesson of fasting?” He replied: “The rich should feel the pangs of hunger and appreciate what the poor have to endure, and therefore share Allah’s bounty with them.”

We often overlook the fact that fasting is Allah’s prescription for humans to fine-tune their bodies, especially the digestive system. All body systems or parts need rest. Sleep is one way for some organs or parts of the body to achieve this; the eyes, mind and muscles are obvious examples. The heart and the digestive system achieve their rest by actively slowing the system or reversing the system operation, somewhat as one does a reverse flush to clean radiator pipes in a vehicle. Standing on one’s head provides rest for the heart because it reverses the pull of gravity against blood-flow, just as putting down one’s arms does when one is painting a ceiling. For the digestive system, fasting offers the best rest; it is a welcome respite from frequent meals, snacks and drinks (tea, coffee, juices and so on) that otherwise never seem to stop throughout the day. This rest cleanses the digestive system and helps it to become more efficient, just as a farmer leaves fields fallow for a year so that they provide more abundant crops the next year.

At the spiritual level, fasting in Islam is seen as an armour against evil. Those who are able to renounce lawful satisfaction of desires in obedience to Allah’s command are more able to renounce unlawful gratifications. Just as physical exercise strengthens the body, so mental, spiritual, ethical and moral exercise through fasting builds will-power to conquer physical appetites and abstain from what is wicked and wrong. The strength built during Ramadan is only the beginning of the journey towards qurbah (nearness) to Allah by becoming a better human being through empathy with and concern for one’s fellow human beings.

May Allah help us all to make progress in this journey this Ramadan; ameen.

Ahmed Motiar, of Toronto, Canada, is the author of Defanging a Bully (or How to get Closer to God) and the award-winning 3E Reading System: Teaches reading in 12 hours. This article was first published in the November 2003 issue of Crescent International.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 36, No. 7

Sha'ban 19, 14282007-09-01

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