The Purpose of Fasting in Islam – Part 1 (Dr. Mansoor Alam, Ohio, USA)

The evening prayer has attracted a larger than usual number of worshippers. Today, the advent of the new moon might herald the start of the holy month of Ramadan – the Muslim month of fasting. In an effort to observe the Sunnah of the Prophet (PBUH), some worshippers are busy trying to sight the new moon when the call to prayer is made. After the prayer, the Imam is informed that the new moon has been sighted. Members of the council also confirm this news. This prompts worshippers to congratulate each other and the mosque is filled with the chants of Allahu Akbar (God is great).

For this group the holy month of Ramadan has begun. Yet Muslims in many other mosques are still debating whether or not the new moon has been sighted. Sunni Muslims generally look to Saudi Arabia for answers to this, as well as many other religious matters. Although ISNA (Islamic Society of North America) has established for North American Muslims, a Shura (or consultation) council for dealing with controversial religious issues (such as moon sighting), many Imams in local mosques decide such matters on their own.

Year after year, this story is repeated among Muslims in many towns around the world. This pillar of Islam begins with controversy among Muslims and ends with controversy. Shi‘as have their own clerical system and their Imams look to Iran in this matter rather than Saudi Arabia.

One wonders if this is the way our Prophet (PBUH) and his companions started and ended the holy month of Ramadan?

Ramadan Begins

In any case, within a day or two of each other, the holy month of Ramadan generally begins for every (Sunni as well as Shi‘a) Muslim community around the world. The standard sermon for Ramadan goes something like this:

“Dear brothers and sisters! Allah opens the gates of Heaven in this month. Satan is locked up in Hell so he cannot mislead those who are fasting. The reward for good deeds is multiplied 10 times in this month. Allah becomes very generous in this month and forgives the previous sins of those who fast.” And so on.

Purpose of Fasting

Is fasting just about having sins forgiven and getting rewards multiplied in the Hereafter?  What about the problems of life here in this world?  Is fasting just a ritual or does it have some other significance?

Modern Islamic scholars draw attention to the physical and spiritual benefits of fasting.  But since physical and medical benefits of fasting accrue to anyone who fasts, regardless of one’s belief in God, it is obvious that the physical and medical benefits are not the primary purpose of fasting in Islam.

What about spiritual benefits?  Since different religions have different concepts of spirituality, what does spirituality mean in Islam and how can it be developed through fasting? The proponents of other religions, including many Muslims, claim that spirituality is an individual and subjective experience. How then can one know that one’s spiritual development is taking place due to fasting?  In addition, would a Hindu’s or a Buddhist’s spiritual development, due to fasting, be as significant as a Muslim’s?  In fact, Buddhist monks and Hindu saints go through much more rigorous rituals than Muslims.  Does this mean that their spiritual development is of a higher level? Obviously, no Islamic scholar would be prepared to accept this.

According to the Quran, every Muslim (who can) must fast in the month of Ramadan (2:183-185). And fasting has to be done collectively at the community level. Unlike a Buddhist monk or a Hindu saint, a Muslim does not have to go to a mountain or a forest retreat to develop his/her spirituality through fasting and prayer. Moreover, it is not necessary for this type of retreat-based, solitary spiritual development to be done in Ramadan. That can be done in any month. This shows that a Muslim cannot advocate a spirituality that is based on individual and subjective experience. Therefore, in Islam, individual and subjective spiritual development is not the purpose of fasting in the month of Ramadan.

Since the Quran prescribed fasting specifically in the month of Ramadan, it is important to know the significance of this special time. A special feature of the Quran is that whenever it gives a command for action, it also provides the wisdom behind it. It tells what the final result of that action will be in this world, if it is successfully carried out. In this way the Quran provides a pragmatic test for people to see whether or not they are moving toward that desired result.  Regarding fasting, the Quran says:

O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may (learn) self-restraint.  [al-Baqarah 2:183] Translation: Yusuf Ali

Ramadan is the (month) in which was sent down the Qur’an, as a guide to mankind, also clear (Signs) for guidance and judgment (Between right and wrong). So every one of you who is present (at his home) during that month should spend it in fasting, but if any one is ill, or on a journey, the prescribed period (Should be made up) by days later. God intends every facility for you; He does not want to put you to difficulties. (He wants you) to complete the prescribed period, and to glorify Him in that He has guided you; and perchance ye shall be grateful. [al-Baqarah 2:185] Translation: Yusuf Ali

In the above verses, three results of fasting in Ramadan have been mentioned: 1) Taqwaa: learning self-restraint, 2) Takbir: glorifying Allah because of being guided, and 3) Shukra: being grateful. Part 1 of this article will focus on Taqwaa or self-restraint.

What is Taqwaa? 

In the above translation by Yusuf Ali, Taqwaa has been translated as self-restraint. Other translations include: God-fearing or God-conscious. But none of these translations bring out the true root meaning of Taqwaa. The root of Taqwaa means to steadfastly remain vigilant in practicing Allah’s commands and, because of this, to be protected from all kinds of evil, corrupt, and destructive forces. In other words, the cornerstone of Taqwaa is developing a strong character by following the principles laid down by Allah in the Quran.  A person who has developed such a character and which is reflected in his/her actions is a Muttaqi in the eyes of Allah.

Current Misconceptions Among Muslims

Many Muslims today who claim to fear God or to be God- conscious firmly believe that they are among the Muttaqoon based on their performance of certain rituals.  According to this belief, which of the following category of Muslims would qualify to be Muttaqoon?

  1. Would the rich, who pray regularly, fast the entire month of Ramadan, give the 2-1/2% charity from their wealth, and perform pilgrimage (Hajj or Umra) on a regular basis qualify as Muttaqoon?
  2. Would the current, so-called Muslim governments and the Muslims working for them  qualify to be among the Muttaqoon?
  3. Would Islamic scholars and leaders of various religious parties and their followers who  demand governments to implement the so-called Shariah qualify?
  4. Would professionals like doctors, engineers, professors, lawyers, etc. – who initially work very hard to build and establish their careers and later turn to Islamic activities on a voluntary basis – qualify?
  5. Would Sufis who spend most of their adult life in zikr (remembrance) of Allah in mosques or in solitary confinements, unconcerned with what goes on in the world outside, qualify as Muttaqoon?
  6. Would those who leave behind the poor, the orphans, and the widows in their own communities and go to far-off places, for several months at a time, inviting people to Islam, qualify?
  7. Would the professional Imams who lead prayers in mosques and give sermons about Islam qualify as Muttaqoon?
  8. Would the poor, who pray regularly and fast the entire month of Ramadan but cannot afford to perform the pilgrimage, qualify to be Muttaqi?
  9. Would the millions of average Muslims who struggle all their lives to meet the basic needs of their families and who try to pray and fast but do not have the time or resources for anything else, qualify to be Muttaqi?

How many of the 1.2 billion or so Muslims fall into categories 1-7 and how many into categories 8-9?  No doubt, 99% of Muslims fall into the latter. Will they be excluded from being Muttaqoon because they cannot perform all the five pillars? Or, should we say that all Muslims are Muttaqoon? No controversy, no discussion, no problem? Every Muslim, by virtue of being Muslim, is bound for Heaven anyway, sooner or later.

Quranic Definition of Muttaqoon

A very comprehensive definition of Muttaqoon is given in the following verse:

It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces Towards east or West; but it is righteousness- to believe in God and the Last Day, and the Angels, and the Book, and the Messengers; to spend of your substance, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in prayer, and practice regular charity; to fulfil the contracts which ye have made; and to be firm and patient, in pain (or suffering) and adversity, and throughout all periods of panic. Such are the people of truth, the God-fearing (muttaqoon). [al-Baqarah 2:177, Translation: Yusuf Ali]

This verse puts in perspective the ritual-based Islam that we practice versus the substance and goal-based Islam, which the Prophet (PBUH) and the Sahaba (R) practiced. Proponents of the ritual-based Islam would have us believe that once the rituals are done properly, meticulously, and sincerely we are guaranteed salvation in the Hereafter. The Quran clearly rejects this view of Islam in this verse. The Quran says that these people are misguided, have fabricated a Shariah, and have mixed it with the Book of Allah and which they proclaim to be Divine (2: 176).

According to verse 2:177, the essential purpose of Islam is not fulfilled by a mechanical performance of rituals, e.g., turning eastward or westward during prayer, but requires instead:

  1. 100% conviction, Iman, in Allah; in the law of requital; in the life Hereafter; in the forces created by Allah for our benefit, Malaa-ikaa; in all the Prophets (PBUT); and in all the Books revealed to them; and
  2. The establishment of a system in which resources are made available to help those who (a) are left without protection or support in society; (b) lose their means of livelihood or are incapacitated to work; and (c) cannot earn enough to meet their needs. This system will also provide assistance to those outsiders, who, while passing through its territory, become indigent, as well as arrange for the liberation of slaves from bondage.

According to this verse, Muslims are required to establish a system wherein members of the society adhere to the Divine code of life voluntarily  – this is a requirement of Iman -and the means of development are provided to all who need them. Muslims must honor their promises and commitments. If hostile forces confront them, they must face them with steadfastness and fortitude, and must not let fear and despair weaken them.

Only those who follow this path unswervingly can claim to be true believers and they only can rightfully claim to be Muttaqoon.

The following verses further describe the character of the Muttaqoon. [Translation by Yusuf Ali]

[Al-Imran 3:76] Nay – Those that keep their plighted faith and act aright,-verily God loves those who act aright (muttaqeen).

[al-Anfal 8:56] They are those with whom thou didst make a covenant, but they break their covenant every time, and they have not the fear (of God) [la-yattaqoon meaning these people are NOT Muttaqoon].

[az-Zumar 39:33] And he who brings the Truth and he who confirms (and supports) it – such are the men who do right (muttaqoon).

[al-Ma’idah 5:8] O ye who believe! Stand out firmly for God, as witnesses to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is next to piety (taqwaa): and fear (wattaqoo) God. For God is well acquainted with all that ye do.

[Al-Imran 3:133] Be quick in the race for forgiveness from your Lord, and for a Garden whose width is that (of the whole) of the heavens and of the earth, prepared for the righteous (muttaqeen).

[Al-Imran 3:134] Those who spend (freely), whether in prosperity, or in adversity; who restrain anger, and pardon (all) men – for God loves those who do good.


Fasting is a means to becoming Muttaqi.  No doubt, fasting has health and spiritual benefits, but we must never lose sight of the main goal of fasting.  Ramadan provides an environment for our collective training and development of character. Muslims are required to emulate and display, year long, the qualities laid down by the above verses as a result of fasting in the month of Ramadan. Since character building is a hard, long, continuous process, Ramadan is repeated every year as a reminder and re-enforcer.  We must judge our accomplishments by the standards laid down by the Quran.  We should not be under the false impression that our spiritual development is taking place while our life goes on as usual. We have to keep the life and works of the Prophet (PBUH) and Sahaba (R) before us to know whether or not we are among the Muttaqoon.

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