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Taqwa Attainment: Are There Other Ways Besides Fasting?
 
 

By Syed Munir Islam 

What is the main purpose of fasting during the month of Ramadan? According to many educated Muslims, it is to attain Taqwa, (God-consciousness) as it is explained in the Qur'an. Taqwa is to serve as an inner guide to act on what's right and resist what's wrong.

 
Could one's inner guide remain in workable condition without fasting for one month? How about the poor, for whom fasting is not an option? Have they attained maximum Taqwa and do they, by inference, have a clear inner guide to distinguish right from wrong?
 
By a quick search through Google I also came upon the following explanation: "Ramadan is principally recognized for the considerably strenuous fasting it demands of practitioners. The aim of fasting is twofold. First, fasting vitalizes the believer's axis of vertical relation (that is, to God) by developing the quality of taqwa. This is the specific term that the Qur'an employs in Surah Al-Baqarah verse 183, which concisely expresses the main purpose of fasting, and although it is often translated as "fear of God," it has more precise permutations: moral vigilance, continuous self-critical awareness, readiness to submit to the demands of faith, remembrance of God, and a sense of awe concerning the Day of Judgment. Just as the believer maintains the quality of taqwa through prayer, so he or she actually builds it through fasting.

Ramadan may be viewed as a training period for Muslims wherein they refrain even from the fulfillment of legitimate human needs in obedience to God, thus cultivating taqwa, in general, and self-discipline, in particular. Moreover, the sources of Islam describe the spirit of fasting that should both generate and grow out of the restrictions on eating, drinking, and sex. In some of his sayings, the Prophet strongly implies that if a believer cannot prevent himself or herself from lying, cursing, and committing other sins while fasting, then he or she has not spiritually benefited from it. The spirit of fasting should allow a refined piety to abjure even minor sins and offenses.

The second objective of fasting is to foster heightened sensitivity toward the needs of the poor, thereby strengthening the believer's axis of horizontal relation (to fellow human beings) and accelerating charitable, humanitarian action. By challenging the demands of his or her physiology, the Muslim experiences something similar to the pangs of hunger and thirst that the destitute constantly suffer. This substitutive act should awaken feelings of compassion for the indigent members of society and should hasten altruistic deeds and projects. Similarly, the Qur'an requires those permanently unable to fast to benevolently feed a poor person as an alternative. Thus, the second function of fasting is the mutual reinforcement of the pillars of fasting and charity."

While basking in the light of these illuminations, (the emphases are mine) I'd like to ask some questions from anyone who endorses the excerpts below:

[1] "fasting vitalizes the believer's axis of vertical relation (that is, to God) by developing the quality of taqwa...moral vigilance, continuous self-critical awareness, readiness to submit to the demands of faith, remembrance of God, and a sense of awe concerning the Day of Judgment."

Comment: In the context of faith, powerful words can be interwoven to create a blanket of pious warmth, but what does some of it really mean? Do we pause to understand it, being self-critically aware?

For instance, how does starving contribute to 'more vigilance' and 'continuous self-critical awareness'? Are the faithful, by inference, less vigilant and interruptingly aware of themselves during other months? Are they less ready to submit to the demands of faith, do they remember God less, and is their sense of awe concerning the Day of Judgment any less during other months? Is that a good thing? Could they instead consider fasting year round to better vitalize their axis of vertical relation? Or do they have no say in the matter but to follow the demands of faith in this regard uncritically, while being asked to be self-critically aware, continuously during Ramadan? It seems rather strange to see the word 'critical awareness' in the context of faith where submission without critical inquiry is the only option for the faithful.

[2] "Ramadan may be viewed as a training period for Muslims wherein they refrain even from the fulfillment of legitimate human needs in obedience to God."

Comment: For what purpose might this training period be useful? After all, if a Muslim follows Allah's words obediently, may he or she not reasonably expect to have a swift entry into heaven, where hunger and sacrifice will be non-issues? Are they preparing themselves just in case they became poor when hunger would not be an option to choose but a stark reality? In case of the latter, how much training does one need to prepare? Perhaps this so-called 'training period' can be explicated by the faithful, who may understand its deep innate value and meaning.

When might the 'training period' for the poor end, it also seems reasonable to ask. Quite likely the poor didn't volunteer for such a life of perpetual 'training.' Why have they been so subjected by God, then? Is it blasphemous to raise this question, and must we instead write off this unresolvable issue as yet another of godly mysteries that we are way too obtuse to fathom, even though we claim we were created in His own image? That image must exclude His brain, for His inexplicably mysterious subjection of millions to a lifetime of forced fasting we are unable to rationally fathom.

[3] "The second objective of fasting is to foster heightened sensitivity toward the needs of the poor."

Comment: In a world that God has full control over, let's reflect over the lives of the poor. Do they have the option to fast in order to 'vitalize' their 'vertical relation'? Why is starvation an everyday reality, not option, for them? Did they choose to have the utmost 'vitalization' of their 'vertical relation' by fasting not only between sunrise and sunset, but also at other times and during other months? Let's check with one such hapless poor and find out if he or she would agree.

Couldn't God eliminate poverty? I wonder because it is often claimed that God loves all equally. If He indeed does, then how come some people seem to have more than three meals a day while many others are routinely starving? Could it be that we really do not know what God wants, if anything, and, as a consequence, our deep faith seems unable to resolve this blunt disparity?

[4] "By challenging the demands of his or her physiology, the Muslim experiences something similar to the pangs of hunger and thirst that the destitute constantly suffer."

Comment: When a Muslim works out in the field all day and the Ramadan falls in a summer month when the sun burns its way across the sky over 12-14 hours in some countries, what is God's provision against dehydration of his body due to lack of water, in case he is fasting? Would his belief suffice for his body's overall health and no internal damage would possibly occur? Would that faithful contention, if made, be medically defensible?  In a larger context and again, wouldn't it have been easier for God to eliminate poverty by better distribution of food, so that this ritualistic 'me-too' fasting as an option didn't need to be borne by us?

Perhaps not, because, once again, (we might be told) God has plans we do not understand since our brain was not created in his image, even though our bodies were or so we contend. Why should one choose a physically strenuous ritual to acknowledge the pain of poverty when other, easier options might have benefited greater humanity or, at least, the poor (no poverty)--who quite likely had no choice over their ungodly and never-ending 'training period' of fasting. 

[5] "This substitutive act should awaken feelings of compassion for the indigent members of society and should hasten altruistic deeds and projects."

Comment: What about the countless charitable organizations set up and run by non-Muslims around the world for the poor? Are they any less compassionate and effective? Are those any less altruistic? In comparison, are all projects done by Muslims that manifest altruism more compassionate and altruistic in the eye of God because, in addition to those, they also fast during Ramadan?

It seems rationally disturbing that so many of us would follow a set of inherited rituals while electing to remain in a state of denial about its real, net effect, compared to other deeds of charity we see elsewhere. Why can't we select other, less strenuous and less superficial ways to help the poor?

What if some gluttonous Muslims resent the poor because, in their view, had it not been for the poor they wouldn't have needed to fast, giving up food and sweet drinks? People are being "told" what this fasting should evoke, but what if it evokes emotions quite the opposite? Might it be blasphemous or do we offer such freedom of choice?

Pondering an alternative view of life that acknowledges other, more rational ways to fight and eliminate poverty, puzzled by the question why God doesn't offer the poor the same option to fast for one month instead of forever, and acknowledging the reality that Muslims are no more compassionate than others due to fasting, I wonder why our scholars must continue to dredge up weighty words, if only to add to the ambiguity of the fasting ritual, instead of raising systematic, critical inquiry about its seeming superficiality.

I welcome counter opinions but, please, save the excerpts from the Holy Book if your intent is little else but a fallacy of Appeal to Authority. Let us consider thinking critically when discussing the underlying arguments and philosophy of fasting during Ramadan.

Regards,

 

 

 

 

 

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