Why do we fast in Ramadan?

Dr. Eren Tatari

I have moved to Orlando exactly two years ago. All I knew about this city was that it is the “Mecca” of tourism in the US thanks to the mouse. Well, there is more to Orlando. It is home to an estimated 40,000 Muslims from all around the world. On top of the usual Arab doctors and Pakistani IT consultants you get everywhere, it has a high concentration of Moroccans.  Most work in the tourism industry, especially due to the Morocco pavilion at EPCOT.  So the American Muslim rainbow is as colorful in Orlando as anywhere else in the country.

Despite constantly hearing the agonizing complaints of how amazing and special Ramadan is ‘back home,’ Ramadan in Orlando feels like home to me. For the past few weeks, I could smell the excitement everywhere I went. Adam halal meat market is busier than usual; our Guyanese realtor Faneeza is sending emails to all her clients wishing happy Ramadan; our daughter’s teacher has been decorating the school; Muslim colleagues at work are scheduling iftar invitations. This is the story of Islam in America.

Fasting is one of the most powerful physical and spiritual experiences we go through. I feel it becomes more so when coupled with the feeling of preservation… Finding and preserving our faith in times when it is rather challenging to do so. I am not only talking about going hungry the whole day. It is important to note here though that fasting also involves all of our faculties. For example, our tongue fasts by not getting angry, lying, breaking someone’s heart, being mean and so on. Our eyes fast by not looking at unlawful things, and by looking at God’s creation to contemplate the manifestations of His attributes. Our body fasts when we use it in acts that would please God, like helping those in need. Hence, spiritually, Ramadan is like an intensive course when we try to get and stay closer to God, increase our awareness that He is the sole Creator and Sustainer of everything and us at all times. The emphasis is on our personal worship and contemplation as much as it is on serving others, helping the needy and feeding the poor.

It is these spiritual aspects of fasting that I would like to focus on. What are the wisdoms of fasting? Why was it prescribed? And why do we it? In Islam, the purpose of the creation of human beings is a) to get to know the Creator and who we are as created beings; b) to love God as we know Him more; c) and to worship Him in awe and love, which essentially means honestly and humbly acknowledging our reality as created beings who are 100% dependent on our Creator. Hence, all the scriptures revealed by God are viewed as guidebooks that teach us that there is only one God. They are seen as a manual. Our manual, telling us of our reality and showing us the path to ultimate inner peace in this life and the Hereafter. And all the prophets are seen as teachers or guides, teaching us these textbooks, and showing us how to live according to the principle of God’s unity. I must also add that, in Islam, the various scriptures, such as the Old and New Testament and the Qur’an are viewed not as contesting textbooks but editions of the one and the same message from the same author… So those who believe that they are created and that the scriptures are guidebooks sent by God choose to follow their guidance in order to fulfill the purpose of their creation: to find ultimate peace in our hearts… One of the experiential forms of confirming the message, that there is only one God, is through fasting.

In a nutshell, fasting helps discipline our ego, whose job is to claim ownership and independence. Fasting helps us to realize our weakness and neediness, which in turn renders us more humble. Fasting helps to make us more thankful for all the bounties. It helps us understand what hunger is and thus help those in need. And finally, it is not only healthy for the soul but also for our body. Those who are into detox fasting…etc. know what I am talking about.

To illustrate these points, we could look at our relationship with the food and our hosts at an iftar invitation. When we arrive, the food is there but we won’t start eating until our hosts invite us. Why do we wait? Out of respect; to show that we care for our hosts and because we acknowledge that it is their food. Well during this month of fasting, it’s very much like that:  We wait all day for our Divine Host to invite us to eat and drink when the call to prayer is called at sunset.

To me this is an extraordinary experience. Although it’s not easy to fast, at sunset, when it’s time to break the fast, there is that wonderful feeling of belonging, of being the guest of the divine, the guest of the compassionate creator and provider. And I rejoice not only at satisfying my hunger but more so at being the guest of the Creator of the universe.

Ramadan is a time to refresh the way we look at the world.  It makes us reflect on the “simple” things that are in fact miraculous. Even a cup of tea is not as cheap as it seems to be. For a tea leaf to grow, the existence of the whole universe is required:  the sun, the rotation of earth, the rain, soil, bacteria and so on. The Creator has made the whole world like a feast table; showing His generosity and compassion. Yet, in daily life we often forget to respond appropriately to these glorious acts of the Creator.

In order to be thankful to God we need to remember that everything around us is a gift from our Divine Host. But we also need to recognize the value of these gifts. We quite often underestimate the value of a glass of water or a piece of bread, until we give up the daytime meals and snacks and fast. This makes fasting during Ramadan a powerful means of recovering our gratitude to our Merciful Sustainer. When we fast, we are hungry and we appreciate the value of food; we realize how precious a gift it is and we are filled with gratitude. This makes us reflect on the countless gifts and blessings that we have been given; not only food and drink,   but also health, sight, friendship, and so on. We become more conscious of how the world is being sustained compassionately and purposefully. And, we turn to our Lord to acknowledge our gratitude. We remember once more that we are guests of God on earth.

Hence, in Ramadan, we become like an assembly of divine guests waiting the invite of our host to start enjoying the feast. We respectfully wait in front of the dinner tables, for the Glorious Host’s invitation to start eating. So the fast of Ramadan helps us remember that we’re being taken care of with compassion and generosity.

Everything becomes a sign, speaking of God’s generosity and compassion. Food becomes a token of love, a sign of divine favor; a sign that turns our attention from the food itself to the bestower of the food. We also understand that hunger has not been given to us only to fill our stomach and derive temporary pleasure from it but to make that pleasure itself a sign, a means to recognize the giver of the pleasure and turn to Him.

And when the food is perceived as a divine favor, the pleasure it gives is far greater than the pleasure obtained from its perishable matter. It gives a lasting delight: the pleasure of feeling in the presence of God’s everlasting compassion and love.

Fasting during Ramadan is the opportunity to remember God’s loving presence and to open our hearts to receive His compassionate guidance and help. It is basically the month of thanksgiving. Technically speaking, the fast of Ramadan is one of the pillars of Islam.  Like others pillars of Islam, it is has personal, social and ethical implications.  It refreshes our relationship with our Merciful Creator, as well as our relations with other human beings.

When we fast, we realize how weak we are; how fragile the human body is; how dependent we are on so many things that we don’t even think of usually. It’s a situation that makes us wonder who we really are. Our needs are countless but usually we are not even aware of them because we take them for granted. And the more we realize how needy we are, the more we feel showered by blessings, and our whole being is filled with gratitude for the compassionate Creator. When we surrender to this reality, we say: Alhamdulillah Rabbil Alameen (Praise be to God, lord of all the worlds). In a way, praising the merciful Creator is the gist of all worship. So fasting reminds us of our needs. What is so good about this? Our needs are the means to taste all gifts and enjoy them; without hunger, food would not provide pleasure…. Without sickness, we would not know or cherish what being healthy is.

Our needs are also the means to feel empathy for the needy: through our needs we communicate with the rest of the world in the name of God, the provider of all. When we empathize with others, and feel that we are not alien to them, then we can share everything with everybody because we are not anxious about providing for our needs. The Merciful Creator takes care of our needs. We are liberated from the illusory world of the ego that thinks that it provides for itself. Then giving and sharing with others does not feel like a sacrifice anymore because nothing is ours anyway: everything is given to us. And sharing with others is the opportunity to remember and affirm this reality. Sharing becomes a source of joy; a source of realizing our position as honored guests of the lord.

So when we fast with this awareness, we remember the true owner of all blessings. Food becomes not mere perishable food but a gift from God that is to be eaten in the name of God. We then love food in the name of its Maker who made it lovable and offered it to us as a gift of love and friendship. That is why every time we break the fast, we experience the good news of everlasting pleasure and we rejoice. Every evening in Ramadan is a spiritual feast. And at the end of the month, the whole community celebrates the feast of the breaking of the fast.

Like Ramadan, Eid celebration is also centered on worship rather than food. Although food is always present (since in Islam the world is sacred as everything, every event is a sign pointing to its Maker). Feasting is basically rejoicing at being the honored guest of the compassionate creator, the host… We rejoice at God’s love and care for us as His guests here on earth.

That is why we rejoice at the month of Ramadan even if the stomach yells. And maybe that’s why it is said that fasting brings about spiritual fulfillment and that in the month of fasting, goods are multiplied manifolds.  Ramadan is also often called the month of blessings. It is a month of worship and contemplation on who we are, why we are here and where we are off to…