The Arabic word for fasting, sawm, means to refrain from something, or to hold back from something. The word is used where Allah says: “Say: I have taken an oath to the Beneficent that I will refrain from speaking to any person today.” [Sūrah Maryam: 26]
Fasting, in Islamic Law, is to refrain from the things that break the fast for a specified period of time, doing so with the intention of worship. The Arabs in pre-Islamic times understood fasting as abstaining from food and drink. They used to fast on `Āshūrā’. `Ā’ishah tells us:
In the days of ignorance before Islam, the tribe of Quraysh used to fast the day of `Āshūrā’. The Prophet used to observe this fast as well. Then, when he came to Madinah, he continued to fast it and enjoined it upon others. Then, when the fast in Ramadān was revealed, it became the obligation instead, and fasting Āshūrā’ became optional for those who wished to do so.
It is not considered fasting to abstain from certain foods or beverages, while consuming others. That had been a practice among the Arabs before Islam. It was also the practice of the Nabateans as well as some of the Jews and Christians.
Fasting is practiced in one way or another by people of nearly all religions and cultures, and indeed the Qur’an seems to indicated that fasting had been prescribed for all previous peoples from the time of Adam onwards, and not only for the Jews and Christians. Allah says: “O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you as it had been prescribed for those who came before you, that perchance you can be God-fearing.” [Sūrah al-Baqarah: 183]
This does not mean that everyone fasted the way we understand fasting today, nor that they fasted in the month of Ramadān. It just means that some sort of fasting had been prescribed for them.
That fact that fasting “had been prescribed for those who came before” shows the greatness of the fast. Allah would not prescribe something for all the prophets and all the past nations if it were not of the utmost importance. This is because the prophets and messengers, though they were united in the essential matters of faith, disagreed in the details of the law they were sent with. Prophet Muhammad said: “The prophets were all brothers from the same father. Their mothers were different, and their religion was one.” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī (3443) and Sahīh Muslim (2365)]
Though the laws and rites that the prophets and messengers brought differed in numerous ways, fasting was one of the essential matters of faith that they all came with. This shows us that the practice of fasting is one of the greatest acts of worship.
When Allah draws the attention of the Muslims to the fact that they are not the only ones to observe this act of worship, it is an encouragement for us. All of the prophets fasted, as did all the religious communities of old. This strengthens our hearts to observe what Allah commanded us, as well as those who came before us, to observe.
We see this kind of encouragement in our fasting on the day of `Āshūrā’. This was the practice of the Jews, who venerated the day. Prophet Muhammad said: “I have more rights to Moses than you do.” So he fasted `Āshūrā’ and enjoined it upon his followers. [Sahīh al-Bukhārī (2004) and Sahīh Muslim (1130)]
Fasting is truly one of the noblest forms of worship. This is because it is always performed for Allah alone. Prophet Muhammad informed us that Allah says: “Fasting is for Me, and I will reward it (directly).” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī (7492) and Sahīh Muslim (1151)]
Ibn Hajar al-`Asqalānī explains why this is the case: “Allah claims it for Himself, because it is an act that is not performed for other than Allah, unlike prayer, giving charity, engaging in circumambulation, and other acts.” People can engage in other acts of worship to show off to others. This is not the case with fasting, since a person can eat or drink in secret. Nobody would know they were not fasting. Fasting depends for its very occurrence upon an intention in the heart, so a person who fasts for real is doing something that no one else knows about except Allah.
Fasting is a prescription from Allah for spiritual development. It is an intensive course in moral character. It is a good idea for a fasting person to make a conscious intention from the beginning of Ramadān to develop one or more aspects of his or her character, and to monitor the progress made throughout the month.
Fasting is a spiritual challenge. This is one of the ways it benefits those who are unaccustomed to avoiding sin. While fasting, they have to restrain themselves from engaging in lawful things as well, and this makes them more God-conscious, and more acutely aware of the magnitude of their sins. It is a shock to their system, but it is shock therapy that takes a gradual pace and provides many benefits. It is one in which the patient actively participates, since the fasting person willingly engages in this new experience of self-restraint.
The underlying purpose of fasting is to help Muslims in their spiritual development so they can become more God-fearing. Allah did not impose fasting on us to punish us or to make things difficult by depriving us of what we desire. Instead, He prescribed it for us to make us more God-conscious.
Fasting is a chance for us to show our willingness to give up something we desire for His sake. Our moral development requires us to rein in many of our desires. This is not easy. It requires effort and takes patience. In this way, we strengthen ourselves so we can live wholesome, ethical lives.
One of the most destructive ways to live life is through the unchecked pursuit of our desires, without considering the harm that our actions can cause for ourselves and others. A person who lives in this way has no self-control and no ability to engage in anything that requires effort.
By depriving ourselves of food, drink, and other lawful pleasures for Allah’s sake as an act of worship and devotion, we fortify our hearts and triumph over our desires. It makes it easier for us to stay away from sin. What is the point in depriving ourselves of food and drink if we are going to persist in slander, suspicion, rumour-mongering, and cheating?
This is why the Prophet said: “Fasting is a shield” and then added: “as long as you do not breach it.”
When we go through the day in Ramadān hungry and thirsty from fasting, we should recall to mind the reasons why we fast. We should keep in mind that fasting is supposed to develop our moral character and make us better people.