It would take the mind of Al Ghazali and people of his caliber to uncover the secrets of fasting. But to know the purpose of fasting, all one needs to do is to go to the Quran. More specifically, Chapter 2, Verse 183.
In this verse, Allah says: “O you who believe, decreed upon you is fasting as it was decreed upon those before you, that you may become righteous.”
The purpose of fasting is therefore to make us become righteous. Other purposes such as to be mindful of the plight of the poor, health benefits, etc., are secondary.
The word “righteous” here is a translation of Arabic “taqwa.” English language does not have its equivalent. Since there is no English equivalent to Arabic “taqwa,” the phrase لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُونَ (that you may become righteous), has been rendered differently by different translators.
For instance, Yusuf Ali renders it “that ye may (learn) self-restraint”; Zohurul Hoque renders it “that you may practice reverence”; T.J. Irving renders it “so that you may do your duty”; M. Khan renders it “that you may become the pious”; M. Pickthall renders it “that you may ward off (evil)”; and M.H. Shakir renders it “so that you may guard (against evil).” In the Tafsir of Ibn Kathir, it is simply translated so “that you may acquire taqwa.”
Sometimes the word taqwa is rendered as “God fearing” or “God consciousness” It is also translated as “piety,” “forbearance,” and even “salvation.” All meanings given are correct but none is accurate.
Taqwa comes from the root word “waqiya,” meaning to protect. It is to protect from God’s anger, punishment or displeasure. It is so important in Islam that, according to one Internet link, taqwa and its derivatives are mentioned 293 times in the Quran, and countless times by the Prophet.
Whatever its meanings, all agreed that “taqwa” is attained through obedience, that is, to do what is obligatory, and to abstain from prohibition.
To my knowledge, of the five Islamic Pillars, only fasting is singled out in unequivocal term, whereby its performance is to attain taqwa. Without reducing the importance of other Pillars, this unequivocal expression makes fasting somewhat unique and its role in attaining taqwa is quite special.
The reason for this is not difficult to fathom.
Most Islamic rituals or obligations have “social elements” in them, except for fasting. The five daily prayers, for instance, are recommended to be performed in congregation, with the presence of others. If we perform the Sunnah or recommended prayers, others may also observe this performance although we do it all by ourselves. Alms giving cannot be done without the presence of the receivers, either those who are tasked to receive it (Amil), or given directly to the intended recipients.
But fasting is done solely for Allah. If we take a sip, or a bite, no one would know, except Allah. Prayers and zakat (alms giving) are actions, fasting is non action. For that reason, it is “hidden,” and we can “hide” our fasting from other people, if we so choose, for it is very easy to take a sip or a bite and pretend that we are fasting. The other action that would nullify fasting which would involve other people is sexual intercourse, but even this action is hidden from others, because it would be performed privately between the husband and wife.
Yet we don’t do all these simply because we want to obey Allah’s commandment. We abstain from eating, drinking and sexual intercourse simply because Allah asks us to abstain from these during the day in the month of Ramadan.
One may say that this may not sound much, because performing the obligations and abstaining from the prohibitions are what Islamic Sharia is all about. If, however, we consider the fact that we are asked to abstain from what are originally lawful and natural, then the significance of fasting would come to the fore.
Consider this scenario. We are very hungry and thirsty. We open our refrigerator. There are our foods that we acquire and prepare lawfully. There are assortments of drinks that we purchase with our own money, which is also acquired lawfully. No one is around. If we are to satiate our hunger, or to quench our thirst, no one would know. All these are lawful to us, and it is natural that we should eat when hungry, or drink when thirsty. But we abstain from all that because we are fasting.
That in itself is a training in self restraint. We restraint ourselves from what is lawful and natural simply because we are asked to do it. This is the act of obedience at its highest degree: to avoid the lawful and natural simply because Allah asks us to avoid it, given the fact that if we choose to cheat, only Allah would know.
With this kind of training for the whole month every year, it is hopeful that we may achieve taqwa, because taqwa lies in obedience, especially obedience in doing or not doing what is natural and lawful. It is for this reason that, when Allah commands us to fast, it is commanded with the sole purpose of attaining taqwa.
The “hidden” or private nature of this worshipping ritual, in the sense that we can hide our fasting without others knowing it, except Allah, is the reason for the Prophet’s saying: “Abu Hurayra reported from the Messenger of Allah that Allah said, "Every action of the son of Adam belongs to him except the fast. It is Mine, and I repay him for it.””
It is also for that reason that when we break our fast, it is called iftar. Iftar means the breaking of fast, but it also means “back to nature” (back to fitrah). It is our fitrah (nature) to eat when hungry, to drink when thirsty, and to be with our lawful wives when we feel the urge. But Allah commands us to do the “unnatural” for a specified time, solely for His sake, so that we may train ourselves to be obedience, and in so doing, we may hopefully attain taqwa. When the sunset comes, we are allowed to go back to nature. And when the fasting month is over, we are encouraged to celebrate by feasting in moderation and be merry during the Festival of Fast Breaking (Eid al Fitri). We are even prohibited to fast in that day.
Fasting is not only a training in self restraint in conquering hunger, thirst and sexual urge for the sake of obedience to Allah. It is a training in self restraint in general, for we are also commanded to restrain our tongues, our tempers, our eyes, and even our hearts for the sole purpose of attaining taqwa, forever conscious of what Allah wants us to be.
It is for this reason that after the Prophet says Allah alone will repay the believer who is fasting, he continues: “Fasting is a protection. When one of you has a day of fasting, he should then speak neither obscenely nor too loudly; and if someone seeks to curse him or fight with him, let him say, 'I am fasting.'”
When this is understood, then we can appreciate why on some occasions the Prophet deliberately asked his companions to not fast in the month of Ramadan, as was the case during the expedition to conquer Makkah.
This expedition, as we know, occurred in the month of Ramadan. After gathering his forces, and before starting the journey, the Prophet had asked for a container of water. Raising the container high so that everyone could see it, the Prophet drank from it, giving the example that none of his soldiers should fast during the journey. There was a very important affair to be accomplished, and fasting would tire and slow them in the journey. It was not the time for the training in self restraint to achieve taqwa. Fasting can be delayed or broken because of other more pressing matter, and the sanctity of the fasting month was not sullied by not fasting.
This is what our religious teachers or radio deejays should highlight, not to repeat the stale message about sympathizing with the poor or the health benefits. Looking from this light, perhaps feasting in moderation after fasting does not look that bad after all, provided that the food and the drink do not tire us down for the tarawih prayers that would come afterward.
After all, the Prophet does say that “the one who fasts has two joys in which to delight: when he breaks his fast, he rejoices; and when he meets his Lord, he rejoices in his fast."