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
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:
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."
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.
may be viewed as a training period for Muslims wherein they refrain even
from the fulfillment of legitimate human needs in obedience to God."
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
second objective of fasting is to foster heightened sensitivity toward
the needs of the poor."
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?
challenging the demands of his or her physiology, the Muslim experiences
something similar to the pangs of hunger and thirst that the destitute
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.
"This substitutive act should awaken feelings
of compassion for the indigent members of society and should hasten
altruistic deeds and projects."
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.