The deeper purpose of fasting is striving to achieve God-consciousness (taqwa), so as to try to live by the ethics of Islam at all times. Individual believers can participate in fasting in whatever way they choose, since it is not meant to cause undue hardship.
Fasting in Ramadan
Ramadan is sacred for Muslims because it was the month in which the first revelation of the Holy Qur’an was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his family). Fasting is one of many acts of piety that Muslims undertake in Ramadan. Among Muslim communities is also found a heightened commitment to prayer, the daily recitation of the Qur’an, opportunities for learning about faith, and the giving of charity to those who are in need.
The Qur’an mentions the practice of fasting in Ramadan in the following verses:
“O believers, fasting has been prescribed for you as it was for those who preceded you, that you may be God-conscious. Fast for a specific number of days, but if one of you is ill, or on a journey, on other days later. For those who can fast only with extreme difficulty, there is a way to compensate – feed a needy person. But if anyone does good of his own accord, it is better for him, and fasting is better for you, if only you knew… God wants ease for you, not hardship.” (Q 2:183-5)
Muslims understand the purpose and benefits of fasting in many ways. It teaches self-control, reinforces one’s faith and piety, helps one become more mindful of God and His blessings, is a means of seeking forgiveness of sins, and is a reminder of the plight of those who do not have adequate food, water, and shelter.
However, the Qur’an’s guidance also makes it clear that fasting is not meant to cause serious hardship. For individuals who are unable to fast, such as those who are elderly, sick, pregnant, or nursing a child, it is suggested to feed the poor and needy instead.
This emphasis on charitable giving reinforces Islam’s ethic of giving to those who are in greatest need in society to improve their quality of life.
Ultimately, it is up to each individual to decide how they may wish to fast based on their personal circumstances. As with all religious practices, fasting should be undertaken with sincere intention (niyya) and commitment, not out of compulsion. There should also not be any judgement on the specific form in which a person chooses to perform the fast or on those who do not fast.
The Deeper Purpose of Fasting
The deeper purpose of fasting mentioned in the Quranic verse above is to try to achieve God-consciousness, or taqwa. Taqwa refers to being constantly aware of God’s presence, and thus trying to live by the ethics and principles of the faith at all times. Fasting can be a reminder of the importance of keeping this deeper commitment to self-restraint year-round.
In the following two hadiths, the Prophet is reported to have emphasised this broader commitment to self-restraint beyond food and drink:
“He who does not give up uttering falsehoods and acting according to it, Allah has no need of his giving up food and drink.”
“Fasting is a shield, so when one of you is fasting, he should neither indulge in obscene language nor should he raise his voice in anger. If someone attacks him or insults him, let him say: I am fasting.”
The Prophet’s beloved daughter, Hazrat Fatima (peace be upon her), is also reported to have said:
“A man who does not guard his tongue, his hearing, his sight, and his limbs from forbidden acts during his fasting has, indeed, not fasted at all.”
This same message of a year-round commitment to self-restraint and living by the ethics of Islam at all times has been echoed by many Ismaili Imams throughout history. The present Imam, Shah Karim al Hussaini, also emphasised this notion when he said in 2016:
“… my wish for the decades ahead is that you stand firmly by the principles and the ethics of our faith. Wherever you are, whatever age you are, whatever you do in your lives, it is essentially important to me that the principles of our faith should be respected everyday of your lives.”
- Article: Ramadan by The.Ismaili
- Article: Significance of Ramadan by The.Ismaili Canada
- IIS Secondary Curriculum: Faith and Practice in Islamic Traditions, vol. 2
- Book: Ismaili Festivals: Stories of Celebration by Shiraz Kabani
- Video: The Glorious Qur’an (What Ismailis Believe) by The.Ismaili
- Faith and Practice in Islamic Traditions, vol. 2 (Student Reader). London: Islamic Publications Limited for The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2017.
- Ali, Muhammad (Maulana). A Manual of Hadith. London and Dublin: Curzon Press, 1977.
- Nuʻman ibn Muhammad, Abu Hanifah. The Pillars of Islam: Da'a'im Al-Islam of Al-Qadi Al-Nu'man vol. 1. Edited by Ismail K. Poonawala. Translated by Asaf Ali Asghar Fyzee. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.