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Lesson - 33
"O you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you,
as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may guard
against evil. 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."
Unbridled passions the cause of spiritual decline
of a nation
The subject matter of the preceding several lessons dealt with
some of the basic principles of Islamic culture and civilization.
Historically there have been many examples of human civilizations
before, and since the advent of Islam. They have all had one common
feature. In their earlier stages of development they all had some
good and admirable characteristics, particularly when they were
still influenced by the spiritual, and the moral values of their
respective faiths. Eventually, however, the inner animal passions
of the members of these faiths became predominant over their moral
and spiritual values. This unbridled freedom of emotions, and desires
led to their eventual decline. To observe this we do not have to
go very far into our past. In our own times we have witnessed the
historically unparalleled worldly progress, and dominance of the
western nations. The West has been very proud of its culture and
civilization, and remains so, to this day. The whole world has practically
adopted their values. Careful observers can, however, perceive even
now the ultimate fate of this civilization. During the advent of
the modern civilization, when the moral values of Christianity were
influential in their society, it had some admirable qualities. The
Christian religion has tried to treat human internal spiritual,
and moral ailments by encouraging its followers to become monks
or nuns. As a result of this it has been unable to keep its followers
on the right path, and today the western civilization manifests
the consequences of unbridled human emotions and desires. Humanity
has fallen below the level of animals because even animals do not
indulge in acts contrary to their natural instincts. In the western
society today, unnatural acts are not only committed without any
inhibitions, but also have the sanction of the law.
Islamic teachings suited to human nature
Islam does not give the impracticable advise of giving up one's
biological emotions and desires. Instead it teaches their proper
control and usage, so that it can lead towards achieving the goal
of human spiritual development. Man's body resembles that of other
animals. That is why medical experiments with drugs are first carried
out in animals before being tested on humans. The basic emotions
and desires that are generated in human beings are, therefore similar
to those of other animals. These emotions and desires are also the
basic motive forces of man's struggle in life, without which he
cannot advance. Let us take the example of a car engine in which
motion is generated through the production of heat. This, when properly
controlled, and utilized by the driver has numerous benefits, and
can transport man with all his necessities from one place to another.
Improperly controlled, this energy can lead to destruction, and
irreparable damage. All motive forces act in a similar manner, irrespective
of the fact that they are human emotions, or desires, or the physical
forces that move a railway engine, an airplane, or a rocket which
has propelled man into space.
Fasting the means to regulate human passions
Islam has clearly identified the high moral, and spiritual values
it seeks to inculcate in society. In addition, it has prescribed
fasting to regulate human emotions, and desires which provide the
motive force to achieve these lofty goals. If we observe animal
behavior we find that there are three basic desires in every animal
including man i.e., eating, drinking, and the sexual urge. A person
who follows only these basic instinctive drives, as is quite common
in the modern western society, wastes his lifetime. The desires
in themselves are not bad, and in fact all human activities of daily
living are dependent upon them. The desire to eat motivates many
of man's worldly activities, and human progress, and endeavor have
evolved from his struggle to gather food for himself, and his family.
Similarly, the desire for sex leads to procreation of the human
race, and various aspects of his social existence.
Divine Wisdom behind Fasting
Just as an animal does not appreciate being restrained, the inner
animal within man also does not like interference, or constraint.
It disobeys, and rebels against such measures. Any animal trainer
will confirm that in order to discipline a circus animal, it has
to be subjected to deprivation of food and sex. Likewise by fasting,
and abstaining from food, and sex from dusk till dawn for thirty
days, a person can discipline and control the animal within him.
Only then can he successfully mount it and journey on to higher
stages of his moral, and spiritual development. The Holy Quran has
referred to riding, and controlling this very animal in Chapter
16, verses 8 and 9, where the physical and externally manifest theme
of the creation of animals for riding, in verse 8 is immediately
changed in verse 9 to the spiritual one of guidance.
Fasting enjoined on all Nations
The plain and simple words of the Holy Quran possess great wisdom.
The verse pertaining to fasting begins with the words:
"O you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you, as
it was prescribed for those before you."
Let us look into the wisdom behind this statement. The institution
of fasting exists in all religions, but it does not extend over
a period of thirty days as in Islam. The Christians fast for three
days during Easter, while the followers of Hinduism do not have
a prescribed schedule and fast as they wish, and have made it easier
for themselves by just abstaining from a particular type of food.
Islam is unique in that it obligates fasting continuously for thirty
days, during which eating and drinking is prohibited from dawn till
dusk. Does this mean Islam is more rigid than other faiths? The
Holy Quran states that this is not the case, for all these nations
had been commanded to fast in a similar manner, and with similar
restrictions. They, however changed this Divine injunction, and
retained fasting only as a token; Muslims are enjoined not to do
so. Praise be to Allah! Since the Holy Quran is safeguarded, the
institution of fasting has also remained intact.
Fasting for the sake of spiritual development
To an observer, from a superficial point of view, restriction
to eat and drink from dawn till dusk, in the heat of the summer,
or the cold of the winter, appears to be excessive. Doctors have
now determined the health benefits of fasting, but not many western
oriented people, despite knowing about he medical benefits, will
be willing to commit to this effort for thirty days? The Holy Quran
states that the believers, should accept this challenge more so
for its spiritual, rather than physical benefits. When a doctor
prescribes a medication which is very strong, and could have harmful
side effects, or recommends an operation which could be life threatening,
we accept his advise. This is because we believe in what he says,
and accept his advise even though we do not know the outcome of
his recommendations. In case of fasting, besides the command of
Allah, we have the testimony of hundreds, and thousands of prophets,
the truthful (siddiq), and saints (auliya), and other
righteous servants, to the fact that based on their own experience,
fasting is the best remedy for the purification of the soul. We,
however, do not listen to their advise.
It is a great benevolence of the Holy Quran that it does not enjoin
anything without explaining its benefits. It tells us that the efforts
of fasting is for our own good, for it will develop within us the
ability to guard against evil (taqwa). Taqwa also means guarding
one's soul against harmful and noxious elements. Nobody wants to
be exposed to such detriment, but even so why is it that the whole
world is so deeply involved in evil, and misdeeds despite the fact
that there is nothing more painful, harmful and grievous to the
human soul? This is a consequence of unbridled freedom of the low
desires, and emotions that I have already mentioned. The inner animal
of man representing his biological desires can be as uncontrollable
as a wild animal. The human spirit which is sensitive and fragile
in comparison, is assisted by man's intellect and instinct, but
it can be overwhelmed by the animal drive. Unless the animal instincts
of man are controlled by means of fasting; other means such as,
intellect, worldly education, cultural factors, or an internal guidance
system, can be of no avail. We can clearly observe this in the modern
western society today.
After striving for a whole month in the way of Allah, by abstaining
from lawful sustenance, and sexual relationship in accordance with
His command, it becomes difficult for man to commit unlawful acts.
A believer abstains from food and water only for the sake of Allah,
despite the fact that no one is observing him, and he may have the
most delicious food, and the coolest drink available in his house.
This strengthens his belief in Allah, and whosoever develops such
strength, all his actions evolve towards righteousness.
Those exempted from Fasting
The verses under discussion ends with the statement:
"For a certain number of days,"
which means that the days of obligatory fasting are numbered. A
sick person, or a traveler is allowed exemption of fasting during
Ramadan, but must complete the fasts on other days. Jurists have
gone into lengthy discussions as to what length of journey, or what
type of illness falls into this category. How can it be appropriate
for us to dig into such details when Allah and His Messenger have
not specified any such matter? In any case the distances which the
jurists have fixed were applicable only to journeys on foot, or
on camel and horseback, and are not applicable to modern means of
fast travel by car, trains or airplanes. Every individual has a
different limits of toleration and, therefore it is inappropriate
to put limitations. In any case, it is improper for anybody else
to prescribe limits when Allah and His messenger did not do so.
To discourage people from misusing this privilege, attention is
drawn to the fact that righteousness does demand some sacrifice,
therefore if one chooses to fast with some tolerable exigency it
is better for the person.
In the end it is stated, those who find it extremely hard to fast
should feed a poor man. This also includes the elderly who find fasting
an unbearable burden due to feebleness of age, and those in ill health
who are unable to fast even at any other time because of medical advise.
Pregnant women, and those breast feeding also fall in this category.
Fasting is also not allowed for menstruating women, and they should
make up for the missed fasts.