The Purpose of Fasting in Islam – Part 2 (Dr. Mansoor Alam, Ohio, USA)

Why is the month of Ramadan so special to Muslims?

This is the month in which the Prophet (PBUH) and his companions fought for their own survival, and more importantly for the survival of Islam. The future of Islam was at stake in the first Ramadan of the first Hijra (Hegira) on the battlefield of Badr.

This is also the month in which the Prophet (PBUH) and his companions re-entered Mecca as victors after eight years of refuge in Medina where they faced one military attack after another from the Kuffar and the Mushrikun (unbelievers and idol worshippers) of Mecca and their allies.

This is the month in which the Ultimate Book of Allah began to be revealed to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH); this is the month of the Night of Power (Laila-tul-Qadr), which is better than a thousand months (97:1-3).

This is the month for learning self-restraint and for purifying souls. This is the month for prayer and fasting. This is the month for glorifying Allah. This is the month for beinggrateful to Allah for everything He has created for the benefit of human beings but especially for sending His guidance to humanity.

It is obligatory on Muslims to fast (with certain exceptions) in this month from dawn to dusk without any food or drink or material pleasure. 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.  (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. (2:185) [Translation: Yusuf Ali]

Before reflecting on these verses let us make this observation about the Quran: whenever  it gives a command, it also gives the wisdom behind it to explain the aims and objectives of that command, and highlight its outcome. For example, we find in many places in the Quran:

“Allah hath sent down to thee the Book and Wisdom…” (4:113) [Yusuf Ali]

Since Allah has sent down to us His Wisdom and since the Quran is the only preserved Book extant in its original unaltered condition, it behooves us to look for Allah’s wisdom in the Quran and not somewhere else. We need Allah’s wisdom (to enrich our own wisdom) to help us understand and appreciate the meaning of His Book.

For example, the word book (kitab, root k-t-b) generally means command or law in Arabic, while the word wisdom (hikmah) implies the reason for the command or the law. In order for people to accept and follow a command (or law) of their own free will, they need to know its aims and objectives, its value and potential benefits. This is the only way people can make an informed and conscious choice. Otherwise, they will either submit to a command based on blind faith or they will be forced into submission by other means. Both are against the Quran.

Using force (physical or psychological) to force people into submission to Allah’s commands is against the very heart of the Quran. The Quran gives full freedom to people to accept or reject its command (2: 256, 10:99, 18:29). In fact, the Quran gives people freedom to go back to their old religion if they wish (4:137). Even the Prophet (PBUH) was not allowed to force people into accepting Allah’s commands:

“So remind them (O Muhammad)), you are only  one who reminds. You are not a dictator over them (88:21-22).” [Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali and Muhsin Khan]

This is the first aspect of Allah’s wisdom contained in His Book that was reflected during the Prophet’s time, and even during the rightly-guided Khalifas’ time. (What Muslims have done (or are doing) in the name of Islam, forcing people into submission to man-made Shariah is neither the fault of the Quran nor of the Prophet (PBUH).)

The second aspect of Allah’s wisdom is that it tells us what results to expect in this world if we follow His commands. If the result is not forthcoming or if our steps are not leading us in that direction, then we need to pause and reflect. Otherwise, mechanically following the steps and mentally constructing an illusion (and leaving the result up to the other world) would not only waste our effort but it might also be futile in this world. Doing this would obviously be against the wisdom of Allah. (Strangely enough, though, we Muslims have turned the most important commands of Allah, the five pillars, into salvation tools for the other world rather than treating them as fruit-bearing, results-oriented commands for thisworld too. The result is shear Muslim humiliation and suffering at the global level.)

Moving on to our main theme: in verses (2:183) and (2:185) quoted above, 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.

The Arabic word that Yusuf Ali has translated in verse (2:185) as glorifying Allah is Tukabbiru. Other translators have translated it as: exalt the greatness of Allah (Shakir Ali), magnify Allah (Pickthall, and Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali and Muhsin Khan), and extol Allah (Muhammad Asad).

How should we glorify, extol, or magnify Allah in Ramadan? By reciting Takbir and spending extra time doing dhikr (remembering Allah)? Or, does glorifying Allah mean more than that?

Part one of this article focused on how to achieve self-restraint or Taqwa in Ramadan. In this one, we will focus on glorifying Allah: what it means, what its aims and objectives are, how to establish it in this world (yes! it needs to be established and not just recited), and what benefits would accrue to humanity if it were established.

First of all let us take the Arabic word Tukabbiru. Kibriyaao (root k-b-r) means authority or sovereignty. Keeping this meaning in mind, the second purpose of fasting, therefore, is to become able to establish the sovereignty or authority of Allah in this world and thus glorify or extol Him. It is evident from many other verses of the Quran that this is the real meaning of the Takbir of Allah.  For example, when Moses and Aaron (PBUT) went to Pharaoh to deliver the message of God, the people of Pharaoh said:

“Hast thou come to turn us away from what we found our forefathers believing in and doing, so that the two of you might become supreme (kibriyao) in this land?” (10:78) [Muhammad Asad]

The meaning of Takbir is also clear from the following verses:

“To Him be glory (kibriyaa, i.e., authority) throughout the heavens and the earth: and He is Exalted in Power, Full of Wisdom!”  (45:37) [Yusuf Ali]

“It is He Who is ilaha (authority) in heaven and ilaha (authority) on earth; and He is full of Wisdom and Knowledge.” (43:84) [Yusuf Ali]

As for the heaven or the external Universe, Allah has established His authority (kibriyaa) (normally referred to as the law of nature) directly. No one can argue with that. For example, no one has the freedom to accept or reject (Allah’s) law of gravity in the natural world. But everyone is free to accept or reject Allah’s law in the human world, i.e. “His authority on Earth” in the above verse.

It is Allah’s intention (Mashiyya) that His authority or law (kibriyaa) in the human world (i.e., on Earth) be established by human beings based on their own free will. Otherwise, if Allah were to establish His authority in the human world directly as He has done in the natural world, then that would mean human beings do not have free will; and without free will they cannot be held accountable for their actions – effectively turning them into animals. The whole purpose of creation is, therefore, to see how human beings use their free will.

So, Allah sent down His commands (or laws) through messengers and granted human beings full freedom to either accept and govern (judge) according to them and thus establish Allah’s authority (kibriyaa) in the human world or to reject and govern (and judge) according to their own laws and thus accept the authority (kibriyaa) of human beings instead of Allah – all based on their own free will.

The first would be an act of Tauhid or unity (i.e., accepting Allah’s Sovereignty both over external Universe as well as in human world) and the second one would be an act ofKufr, i.e., rejecting Allah’s Sovereignty in human world (which essentially amounts to rejection of the Quran that came to guide Al-Naas or humankind.):

“And whosoever does not judge by what Allâh has revealed, such are the Kâfirûn (i.e. disbelievers – of a lesser degree as they do not act on Allâh’s Laws).” (5:44) [Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali and Muhsin Khan]

The above point is also clear from the following verses where Allah categorically states that He accepts no partners in His Sovereignty, as that would be Shirk:

“And say: Praise be to Allah, Who hath not taken unto Himself a son, and Who hath no partner in the Sovereignty, nor hath He any protecting friend through dependence. And magnify Him with all magnificence [kabbirhu takbira].” (17:111) [Pickthall]

“(It is said unto them): This is (your plight) because, when Allah only was invoked, ye disbelieved, but when some partner was ascribed to Him ye were believing. But thecommand belongeth only to Allah, the Sublime, the Majestic [‘Ali-ul-kabir].” (40:12) [Pickthall]

If it was just a matter of reciting Allah’s Takbir before (and during) every prayer—and few extra Takbirs during Eid prayer—to proclaim Allah’s Sovereignty and Greatness, then why would the Kuffar (the unbelievers) and Mushrikun (idol worshippers) of Mecca be so opposed to our Prophet (PBUH) and his companions that they went to the extent of torturing and killing them?  Would the enemies of Islam have sacrificed their life and wealth to oppose and fight the Prophet (PBUH) and his companions, if glorifying Allah was limited to reciting a few extra Takbirs in the holy month of Ramadan?  If glorifying Allah had had nothing to do with their political, social, and economic system which was based on injustice and exploitation and which they felt was being threatened by these chants of Allahu Akbar from the Muslims?

Today, too, no one objects if we wish to recite as many Takbirs as we want during our prayers, workshops and Islamic conventions. As long as Allah’s Takbir (authority) does not question those in authority, we can keep on reciting. And the way we practice our Takbir today leaves everyone happy. In fact, for most of us, appeasing authority has become our second nature.

As a result, our Takbir has mostly turned into a mere formality that does nothing to contribute to establishing Allah’s Greatness in the human world. Does Allah really need ourTakbir recitations? Is He not great or glorious by Himself?

The reality is that as weak and perpetually dependent as we are, we cannot establish our own greatness, let alone establishing Allah’s greatness in the human world. Consequently, our Takbir has become nothing more than empty words so much so that some non-Muslim religious zealots (like the Pentagon official) go on to proclaim that their God is greater than Muslims’ God. We may dismiss or condemn these claims, but unlike the Muslims’ claims, their pronouncements are not just empty words: they are backed up by force which they do not hesitate to use.

Millions of Muslims throughout the world continue to be killed, raped, tortured, humiliated, persecuted and dehumanized. The way things are developing right now, are we that far from the period of Jaahiliyya (ignorance) that existed in the world before the time of the Prophet (PBUH)? Mosques are being bombed. Muslims are being killed in mosques while they are in prayer. Enemies of Islam (with collusion of Muslims) are attacking mosques during Ramadan on the Night of Power. And this is happening right in front of the eyes of one and a half billion Muslims. How can that represent Allah’s greatness?

The fact is Allah’s greatness (Takbir) must ultimately be reflected in His followers’ greatness since He guarantees that disbelievers will never be able to dominate the believers and that, eventually, victory will come to true believers (as indeed it came to the Prophet (PBUH) and his companions in spite of scarcity of resources and their meager numbers):

“And never will Allâh grant to the disbelievers a way (to triumph) over the believers.” (4:141) [Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali and Muhsin Khan]

“So do not become weak (against your enemy), nor be sad, and you will be superior (in victory) if you are indeed (true) believers.” (3:139) [Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali and Muhsin Khan]

But this victory is not going to come easily just as it didn’t come easily to the Prophet (PBUH) and his companions. Also, it will come only if we become true believers.

That is why Ramadan was meant to be a month of fasting and introspection and soul searching and remembering Allah with passion and intensity reminiscent of the companions of the Prophet (PBUH). It was supposed to be an occasion for believers to go through a yearly, month long intensive training exercise of hardship and self-restraint and of spiritual purification and commitment to Allah and to learn physical and mental discipline and patience essential to Islam so that they would be able not only to proclaim but also to establish the greatness and sovereignty of Allah in the world by facing bravely any challenges that might come their way. That is how the Prophet (PBUH) and his companions and the rightly guided Khalifas practiced Ramadan. And the results speak for themselves. Ramadan was never meant to be a ritual and a short cut to heaven.

But even as a ritual Ramadan has become a burden on many Muslims. Many find it hard to fast. Among those who do, some value it for its health benefits while others have turned it into an occasion for feasting on food. Still, while hundreds of millions of poor Muslims live under what amounts to a yearlong fast, millions others live under what amounts to yearlong feast. How can such people establish greatness of Allah? How can such Muslims’ Allahu Akbar have any value in the sight of Allah?   The results speak for themselves.

Seeing this hopeless condition of Muslims some aching souls cry during Ramadan prayers—and everyone whose heart is touched by the plight of Muslims should too—but what next? While the Imam of Mecca cries (obviously because of how he feels about the pathetic Muslim condition in the world) during the Taraawee‘h prayer on the Night of Power in front of hundreds of millions of Muslims on television, the custodian of the two of Islam’s holiest mosques whose title khadime harmain sharifain (servant of the two holy mosques) belies his official title of king, and who has the real power to do something about it, does nothing.   So the question remains, what should we do? Should we all cry and go home and carry on with our daily routine until next Ramadan?

Or, should we go back to the Prophet (PBUH) and Sahaaba (R) and get inspired by their example of what they were able to accomplish during Ramadan and following in their footsteps try to root out the true cause of suffering of Muslims worldwide? Why is it so difficult to follow the example of the Prophet (PBUH) in doing what he actually did to change the world, and why so easy to praise him? Does he need our empty praises or does he need our solid actions? Does Allah need our empty words of Takbir or does He need our actions to establish His Takbir in the world? Ramadan, in fact, was meant for Muslims to go through a program of training and exercise to be able to do just that and not “finish” it as a ritual for earning rewards in the Hereafter and to recite a few extra Takbirs during Eid prayer and carry on business as usual for the rest of the year.

What our Prophet (PBUH) and his companions accomplished in 10 Ramadans and what the rightly guided Khalifas and their companions accomplished in 40 Ramadans, we have not even been able to maintain. In fact, we have squandered their accomplishments, altogether— despite practicing well over 1400 Ramadans since that time. What kind Ramadan are we practicing? It certainly cannot be like the Ramadan of our Prophet (PBUH) and the Sahaaba (R). Our Allahu Akbar (Allah is Great) certainly does not have the same significance as their Allahu Akbar. In the words of Allama Iqbal:

Although there is no contradiction between words and meaning,

Mulla’s Call to Prayer is one thing, a Mujaahid’s call another.

Although their flights are in the same environs high up in the sky

A Vulture’s world is one thing, the Eagle’s world another.

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