Fasting – An Exercise in Self Control

by Selim Ahmad, London

The Islamic Review (UK), June/July 1982 Issue (Vol. 2, Nos. 9–10, p. 20)

“O you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may guard against evil” (The Holy Quran, 2:183).

How can fasting, abstaining from food and drink, be a guard against evil? The answer to this question may be sought first of all in the verse itself. The practice of fasting is intended as a form of exercise or training in a particular form of self-control, which, if properly pursued, will strengthen the resistance of the Muslim to any temptation to evil. Many lessons could be drawn from this verse. To begin with, there is a clear allusion in this verse to the practice of fasting in earlier revealed traditions of religious practice. In Judaism and Christianity exist some form of fasting. In Hinduism and Buddhism, abstinence from food and drink and moderation of diet are recognized as modes for spiritual improvement, providing practice in the control of bodily appetite and symbolizing reduction of one’s earthly wants. Secondly, we note in the succeeding verse [The Holy Quran, 2:184] that those who have difficulty in fasting may, as an alternative, provide sustenance for a needy person. Now it is a social evil that there should be people suffering from basic human needs, and well-to-do members of the society fail to perform a manifest duty in the name of Allah. Sincere and effective acts of charity counteract the social evil of poverty, and are considered meritorious acts as envisaged in the verse 183, that fasting can both ameliorate needs of others and train us to be less selfish. In this way we do indeed create within ourselves a spiritual defence against evil.

Jesus, peace be upon him, is said to have fasted for forty days and forty nights after his baptism by John. In the Gospel according to St. Matthew we read:

“There was Jesus led up of the spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungered. And when the tempter came to him, he said ‘If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made of bread.’ But he answered and said ‘It is written, man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that procedeth out of the mouth of God’” (Matthew, 4:1–4).

Now it was in the month of Fasting, or during the month of Ramadan, that the word of Allah, the Holy Quran, was revealed for the guidance of mankind.

Thus Fasting, as prescribed by the Holy Quran, provides a rational exercise in self-control and concern for those who need your help and attention.

“The month of Ramadan is that in which the Quran was revealed…. Therefore, whoever of you witness the month, he shall fast during it, and whoever is sick or on a journey (he shall fast), a (like) number of days” (The Holy Quran, 2:185).

“It is made lawful to you to approach your wives on the night of the fast; they are an apparel for you and you are an apparel for them. And eat and drink until the whiteness of the day becomes distinct to you from the blackness of the night at dawn, then complete the fast till night” (The Holy Quran, 2:187).

References mentioned above:

“For a certain number of days. But whoever among you is sick or on a journey, (he shall fast) a (like) number of other days. And those who find it extremely hard may effect redemption by feeding a poor man. So whoever does good spontaneously, it is better for him; and that you fast is better for you if you know.” (The Holy Quran, 2:184)