By: Alexander Khaleeli
Alexander Khaleeli is a researcher and student in the Hawza 'Ilmiyyah of Qum. He earned his BA and MA at the Islamic College in London.
The days are getting longer and Ramadhan is drawing nearer. Soon, many of us will have our eyes fixed eagerly on the time as the seconds tick by, each movement of the clock bringing us closer to the moment we can break our fast. Fasting is difficult, no doubt. But unless we want nothing more from Ramadhan than hunger and thirst, we must ask why God has enjoined us to fast and what lessons we can glean from our stomach pains.
In a hadith qudsi (sacred tradition) narrated by all Islamic schools of thought, God says: 'Fasting (sawm) is for me, and I will reward it [myself].' Fasting is unique amongst all other acts of worship insofar as it is a purely negative action; in other words, it is the act of not-doing. All other acts of worship (prayer, for example) are a combination of actions which we must perform (e.g. reciting, bowing, prostrating) and actions which we must avoid (e.g. talking, walking, breakdancing), but fasting solely consists of actions we must avoid (e.g. eating, drinking, sexual intercourse). This means that while any other act of worship is visible to onlookers by the special actions we perform (e.g. prostration in prayer), fasting has no clear outward sign - aside from the occasional rumbling of the stomach. This makes the fast a secret between God and his servant like a secret shared between two lovers.
The hunger and thirst we experience while fasting are powerful reminders of our relationship with God. The very fact that we need something external to ourselves in order to survive - in this case, food and water - tells us that we are limited, contingent beings. In practice, this is often forgotten as we become absorbed with the pursuit of worldly ambitions and the gratification of bodily desires. The physical discomfort of fasting breaks this illusion and shows us that we are not just physically, but existentially needy - the very essence of our being is bestowed upon us from another, higher source. This is why God says: 'God is the All-sufficient, and you are all-needy' (47:37). So through the direct, visceral experience of neediness, fasting reveals to us our own utter dependence upon God and reminds us that we are His servants.
As well as reminding us that we, in a very real way, need God, fasting also equips us with the tools to serve and obey God. The Qur'an says that fasting has been prescribed for the faithful 'that you might be wary' (2:183) - wary of committing sins. The act of fasting, which is an act of delaying gratification, teaches us that we have control over our desires, not the other way round. This is especially significant in the modern world, when we are able (nay, even encouraged) to fulfil our every whim at the push of a button. We cannot expect to magically restrain ourselves from committing sins if we are not accustomed to exercising self-control. So fasting is an opportunity to learn just how in control of our own bodies we are. From dawn until dusk, hunger and thirst become our teachers. And as the days wear on and our bodies demand a glass of water or a morsel of food, we learn that - rage as they might - we still have the power to refuse. It is a lesson that we must remember when we are confronted by sins - if we can deny an impulse as fundamental and as natural as hunger, why not greed, lust or anger? But there is a profound, though often overlooked, political message behind fasting as well. When Imam al-Sadiq(a) was asked for the reason behind fasting, he said: 'The reason ('illa) for fasting is to make equal thereby the poor and the rich, and that is because otherwise the rich would never experience the feeling of hunger and so have mercy on the poor, because whenever the rich person wants something he is able to obtain it. But God wanted to make His creations equal, and to make the wealthy person taste hunger and pain so that he would be kind to the weak and show mercy towards the hungry.'
Fasting makes the rich and poor equal through their experience of hunger; all people - even the greatest and most powerful - feel the pain of hunger. While the rich can more or less sate themselves at will, the poor are physically unable to obtain food, sometimes for days at a time. This is as true today as it was more than a thousand years ago. In the developed world, we only experience the sensation of hunger as a prelude to eating. Unlike many people in the developing world, we rarely - if ever - need to worry about finding food to eat (and even then, a well-stocked supermarket is never far away). Fasting forces us to wait (sometimes for many hours) before fulfilling our stomach's demand to be fed. This serves as a reminder of the harsh reality that many of our fellow human beings endure, and of our moral responsibility to take action to ensure that no man, woman or child ever needs to go hungry again. This is especially important in today's culture of wastefulness. In Britain alone, as much as £10bn worth of food is wasted annually due to improper management or being left uneaten on the plate. On a global scale, about one-third of food production (1.3 billion tons of food) is wasted every year. This is happening while there are still people suffering from food shortages and outright starvation in many parts of the world. These facts should give us pause for thought - what does it say about our developed societies that so much is being wasted while so many are still in need? Moreover, what does it say about us as people if we contribute to this wastage? If our hunger pangs remind us of God and of our shared humanity, and enduring them teaches us to exercise self-control, then our experience of hunger should also demonstrate to us the value of food and the importance of not wasting it, not least because what we experience for a month, others experience for a lifetime.
Originally published in islam today magazine UK, Vol. 1 No. 9 | July 2013. It has been republished here with permission.