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The Fast: The Nature of Acts of Worship

The Fast: The Nature of Acts of Worship

God created us so we may worship Him. To help us achieve this purpose, He instilled the worship of Him in our very nature and made it the essence of our humanity, so much so that we can be really human only if we worship Him; otherwise, we live an alienated life. He then taught us, through the medium of human messengers, how best to serve Him.

Worship is essentially a state of the heart, but the relationship between our bodies and our minds is so strong that the state of the one is bound to have an effect on the state of the other.

God, who created us and who knows best the nature of this relationship, explained to us not only how to worship Him in our hearts but also how to deal with our bodies in ways which accord well with and enhance the mental state of worship. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), whom God set as an example for us to follow in worshipping Him, said, "Pray as you see me praying" (recorded by al-Bukhari) and also, "Take your pilgrimage rituals from me" (recorded by Muslim)." Hence the insistence of our scholars on the importance of the external actions, an insistence which might seem at first sight to be an undue emphasis on formalities that do not make any real difference to the essence of worship. People who thus belittle the external aspect of worship do not pay enough attention to the importance of that strong mutual relationship between our bodies and our minds. Of course, these external acts only have value if they are accompanied and driven by a sincere feeling of worship in the heart; otherwise they become hollow movements that even a hypocrite can perform. But anyone who has performed them with a sincere feeling of submission and gratitude to God knows their great value. He knows their value because he experiences in his heart the difference they make therein. Our feelings of love and fear of God, of gratitude and submission to Him naturally precede our coming to pray to Him (standing, kneeling, prostrating, and reciting the Qur'an), our coming to fast (depriving ourselves of food, drink and sex during the specified times), and our coming to perform the rituals of pilgrimage. Every sincere worshipper can speak of how feelings of gratitude and submission to God were intensified and enhanced after the performance of the external acts of worship.

Divine messages give us guidance not only about how to worship God but also about when and where to do so. The Quran states, "And your Lord creates whatsoever He wills and chooses" (26:68). The chosen or preferred creation includes not only the living and the inanimate, but times and places as well. Since we have been created to serve God, then every legitimate act of ours, even sexual intercourse with our wives, can be an act of worship; but there are certain acts which have been especially prescribed by God as acts of worship. These acts are the life force and nourishment of our faith; without them faith fades and finally dies away. It is for these special acts that God specified the forms, times and places He knows to be most appropriate for them.

Why Fast

Fasting is one of these special acts just referred to; it is, in fact, one of the five important acts of worship called the pillars of Islam. The other four are the profession of faith - there is no god (worthy of worship) except Allah (the one true God) and Muhammad is His Messenger, - the five daily prayers, the payment of the poor due (zakat) and the pilgrimage (hajj). These different acts of worship are to the soul as food is to the body. All kinds of food, like proteins, fats and carbohydrates, serve to make the body healthy, but each one contributes to one's health in a special way, and plays a role that cannot be fully played by the others in achieving that purpose. Similarly, all the acts of worship help to keep our souls sound and healthy by instilling taqwa [in general, it means 'God consciousness,' 'God awareness,' 'fear of God,' and so on] in them, but each has a special role to play in this process, and people who perform these experience in their hearts the special character of the feelings they engender.

When we fast - the Islamic way - we abstain from food, drink, and sexual intercourse from dawn to sunset. We do this for the sake of God and in obedience to Him. We thus make a clear statement that our real submission is to God and not to the temptations of our bodies however strong they may be. And for this God gives us a special reward. The Prophet (peace be on him) stated, "In paradise there are eight gates among which is a gate called al-Rayyan which only those who fast will enter." (Recorded by al-Bukhari and Muslim). And every good deed will be rewarded ten-fold save for fasting which Allah stated, "Is done only for my sake and I shall reward it." (Recorded by al-Bukhari and Muslim.)

Kind of Fasting

Fasting is good not only for our souls but also for our bodies. It helps to make us healthier. Furthermore, abstention from food and drink for a number of days increases will power and weakens the sexual desire. Therefore, it is especially recommended for young men who are not able to marry.

Fasting, like the other special acts of worship, is one of two kinds: one obligatory and the other recommended. The form of the fasting is the same; it is only the days of fasting which differ. Fasting is always during daytime. It starts from dawn and ends at sunset. During this period of the day one abstains completely from eating, drinking and sexual intercourse.

But this by itself is not sufficient. One also has to abstain from all kinds of sins, like foul language, backbiting, drinking, lying, prohibited listening, and dealing in unlawful items like drugs, wine and pork.

The fasting which is a pillar of Islam is a fasting of every day of the lunar month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the lunar Islamic calendar. Why this month in particular? Because it is a special month. It is, in fact, the best of all of the months of the year and one of its nights, the night of Qadr, is the best of all nights of the year. It is for this reason that the Quran was sent down on that night. Thus when God urged the faithful to fast during the month of Ramadan, He endeared it to them by reminding them that it was the month in which the Quran was sent down, as a guidance to people, a Book that contains clear evidence of the truth of that guidance, and a criterion of discrimination between truth and falsehood. [this is a paraphrase of the Quranic verse 2:185]

Dr. Ja`far Sheikh Idris

The Fast
Published by IIASA Research Center


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