Fasting to Attain Piety


By Shaikh Muhammad Nizami

The word Ramadan is derived from the root r-m-d meaning extreme heat, some opined that it was at a time of the Arabian summer that the faithful were called to fast. Fasting the month of Ramadan was an abrogative command replacing the previously compulsory fast of the day of Ashura, the tenth of Muharram. Though that single day remained venerated and the fast still a recommended act of devotion to God, the Most High legislated in its place an entire month of abstinence from food, drink and sex during daylight hours. God said: “You who believe, ordained upon you is fasting as it was ordained upon those before you.”[1]

Now the final few words of the verse are popularly translated as meaning “so that you attain piety.” Many people take piety (as a translation of taqwa) to mean a state of spiritual upliftment and ecstasy, but this doesn’t seem to be the precise interpretation of most Sunni exegetes, mufassirin – although it might eventually lead there. Owing to this reading, many assume that spiritual upliftment directly emanates from fasting and abstinence – that the act of fasting serves to fill a spiritual void; a piety through suffering.

However, such a reading fails to reflect the actual arrangement of cause and effect between spiritual upliftment and fasting. Al-Qurtubi wrote: “it is said that its meaning is ‘so that you may abstain from sin’. It is also said that it is a general statement…” the generality coming from the word tattaqun which means to simply avoid or be cautious. This interpretation was echoed by al-Suddi as reported by Ibn Jarir who said: “avoidance of food, drink, and women, just as they (People of the Book) would avoid.” Clearly, the underlying sentiment is the same: the essence of fasting is tied up in the linguistic definition of sawm: to hold back and abstain. This then highlights two Ramadanic sentiments:

a) The purpose of fasting is not to attain spiritual upliftment, although it may be fortified through abstinence. Ultimately, fasting occurs out of piety, that is, the act of fasting is the manifestation of faith and devotion to the Most High that emanates from a heart that desires God. This is amongst the reasons as to why the early Muslims would prepare for Ramadan months in advance, raising their own spiritual awareness and God consciousness, and strengthening their stamina to refrain from earthly desires so that the onset of Ramadan would be when they might demonstrate to God their resolute aptitude.

b) The second sentiment is about the art of refraining. It goes against the entire philosophy of abstinence to use dusk as a green light to demonstrate gluttony, to hold back during the day only to prepare ourselves for the daily face-stuffing event. The Prophet moderated a shari’ah between the two extremes, he forbade over-consumption and excess as well as wisal, continuous fasting without a break. On the point of consumption it is a very simply affair; Anas b. Malik related that the Prophet would break his fast with dates before the prayer, and if there weren’t any, then with dry dates, and if there weren’t any, then a cup of water.[2] This sentiment is also found in another hadith where the Prophet said, “if any one of you breaks the fast then let it be with dates, and if you cannot find any then with water for it is a purifier.”[3] The ahadith point to a number of things, but perhaps a pertinent issue that comes to mind is the elaborate feasts that people put on, justifying excess with the oft-quoted hadith: “whoever provides food to break a fast for a fasting person will have the reward of that person except that nothing is decreased from the person fasting.”[4]

What we must note from the hadith is that the reward for feeding a fasting person is that which they break their fast with (the iftar). In the context of when spoken, it was an incitement to provide the less well-off with iftar; just as the sadaqat’l-fitr is so that no Muslim, no matter how poor, goes hungry on a day of celebration. A misapplication of the hadith is often used to legitimate excessive indulgence in a setting that is seldom godly, where the unfortunate housewife has spent the entire day preparing food rather than being engaged in worship, and with the resultant end being a severely delayed prayer (Maghrib) or the inability to perform it due to trousers bursting at the seams. This flies in the face of a revelation-based attitude towards food, completely contradicts the values that underlie Ramadan, and represents the iftar as something it isn’t. Even the idea that feeding the less fortunate and well to-do friends is somehow the same is challenged by the narration of Salman al-Farsi which goes on to say: “We said: Messenger of God, not all of us have the means to feed a fasting person, he replied: God shall grant such reward to those who even provide milk mixed water, or a date, or a cup of water…”.

However, the issue (as with everything in Islam) demands some nuance. The early Muslims would exert efforts to break their fasts with others, thus the communal nature of iftar isn’t something to be disparaged. Abdullah b. Umar would break his fast with orphans and the poor, Abdullah b. al- Mubarak would break his fast with fellow scholars, serving them food. Hammad b. Sulaiman would feed fifty people every night and on the eve of Eid al-Fitr he would gift each one with clothes. A man came to Ahmad b. Hanbal seeking food, he gave him the two slices of bread he had reserved for his own iftar, went hungry and awoke the next morning fasting once again. Clearly those gatherings where the religious gather to eat simply and enjoy righteous company are commendable. Anas b. Malik narrates that the Prophet came to Sa’d b. Ubadah who brought out bread and oil. The Prophet ate it and said: “Those fasting have ended their fasts with you, the righteous have eaten your food, and the angels have commended you.”[5]


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[1] Quran 2:183
[2] Ahmad and Abu Dawud
[3] Narrated by Salman b. Amir al-Dabbi
[4] al-Tirmidhi; narrated by Zaid b. Khalid al-Juhani
[5] Ahmad and al-Tabarani

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