The ninth month of the Islamic Hijri calendar, Ramazan (or Ramadan), holds a special significance for Muslims around the world. It is in this month that Muslims attempt to let go of the worldly pleasures and decide to reorient themselves towards being better humans - humans that are not so lost in the pursuit of their desires that they cannot sense the needs of others.
The cruelties that man shows towards his own body round the year are redressed in this month. The body is allowed to rejuvenate and repair the damage caused during the rest of the year. Conscience, that guiding light, is strengthened and prepared to shine through the dark alleys of human greed. And the soul is provided with the spiritual nourishment that it needs to connect with its creator.
Although many obvious benefits for fasting have been observed both by the spiritualists as well as the scientists the Muslim fasts because God has so commanded. This, while it may seem dogmatic, is inherently cogent. A command of an omniscient god cannot possibly be wrong because if it was then He wouldn’t be omniscient. However, this holds good provided it can be established through reason that it is indeed His command. This is one of the fundamental rationales of the Islamic thought and the foundation of its call to acceptance because faith built on unreasonable premises is unworthy of submission.
Fasting has always been prescribed by God for communities around the world, a fact attested by the Qur’an. And why shouldn’t it be, after all if fasting has such fundamental benefits then those benefits must be for the entire human race. And one fundamental benefit mentioned by the Qur’an is taqwa in Arabic. Taqwa means, among other things, self-restraint, a quality fasting so strongly creates. When man is able to control his two most basic urges namely the digestive and the reproductive, it becomes easier to contain the others. And such control is the first step towards the greater realization that these are the necessities of life not its purpose. However, the purpose of fasting is to control these urges and not to kill them for they are fundamentally essential to human existence and a system that destroys them cannot be natural or divine.
Islam did not however merely prescribe fasting but prescribed it for a specific period of time. One whole month to be exact, dawn to sunset is a Muslim required to fast abstaining from food, drink and sex. Token or symbolic fasting for a certain day cannot provide the results that Ramazan seeks to create. It is only when people abstain from these day after day for a good one month can they attain control of their selves and a sense of concern for the less privileged begin to develop. Moreover, fasting that is accompanied by massive eating before and after the prescribed period of the day cannot yield those results. How can one feel the pain of those not fortunate enough to have their daily meals if one gluttons himself and feels no pangs of hunger? The Sufis have always held in accordance with the tradition of Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, that one ought to eat less even during that portion of the day when one is not fasting otherwise the spirit of the fast is weakened. However, pragmatism requires that people be not subjected to undue duress hence the tradition of sahr, the pre dawn meal and iftar, the ‘breakfast’ meal.
Fasting however is not merely about avoiding food and drink; it is also about building your character. The one fasting is required to control his talk so as not to say words of abuse or even dislike to other fellow human beings. The Prophet said, “Whoever does not give up forged speech and evil actions, God is not in need of his abstinence from food and drink”. Anger, that form of temporary madness, is to be subdued, a lesson that Muslims around the world would do well to follow. Said the Prophet, “Strong is not the one who overcomes people by his strength, but he who controls himself while in anger”. This is the demand of taqwa.
And when the faithful fulfills this commandment of God, having fasted and abstained from all vices and actively sought virtue for nothing but the pleasure of God, then he breaks into thankful joy on the first day of the next month, Shawwal, the day of Eid. After the prayer of thanks in the morning, the day is spent meeting friends, neighbors and relatives. Grudges of the past are buried to make a new beginning in human relations. The children are especially enthused with the prospects of eating those delicacies, the seviyan being the staple Indian Eid diet, and perhaps even more for earning the Eidi – the monetary Eid gifts.
However, those struggling with the necessities of life are not to be forgotten and they are as entitled to enjoy this day as the others. Besides the Zakat which is not directly connected with this month, Islam has prescribed another mandatory charity called the Sadqatul Fitr. This is a small sum given by those capable to the poor to enable them to engage in the festivities of Eid for there can be no festivity for the well off unless they have taken care of the have-nots.
(Published on the Open Page of The Hindu on 22nd August 2010. Available online here.)