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Philosophy of Fasting

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In addition to their physical and material sides, humans are endowed with spiritual and emotional dimensions, each necessitating unique plans for attaining their ultimate perfection. Fasting serves as a program that encompasses both spiritual and material aspects. It offers numerous physical and spiritual benefits, acting as a healer for the body and a source of strength for the soul. It purifies individuals from animalistic vices, plays a significant role in creating righteous individuals and healthy societies, and has a profound impact on refining the self and freeing humans from the mundane and dependencies of bodily needs. Fasting is one of Islam’s transformative commands, the full understanding of which, like other divine decrees, may not be possible for the ordinary person. Human knowledge is limited and cannot unlock all hidden mysteries or guide thoughts to all unknowns. Perhaps one day, human knowledge will reach a level of perfection that opens new vistas to humanity and recognizes the wisdoms and commands of Islam.

Therefore, our lack of understanding of the philosophy behind divine decrees should not deter us from observing them, leading to disobedience or rebellion. This obedience is not blind but based on knowledge and certainty, as Muslims know that God is omniscient and aware of everything, without any flaw or need in His essence that could benefit from human actions or fear any harm. God, the Merciful, desires nothing but good and happiness for His servants. Thus, if He commands something, it is for our good and perfection, and if He prohibits something, it is harmful to us, impacting our material and spiritual well-being.

This discussion briefly mentions the wisdom behind such matters; this article aims to delve into the philosophy and rationale behind the legislation of fasting in the Quran and Sunnah, and what modern sciences have revealed.

The concept of ‘philosophy’

The concept of ‘philosophy’ has various applications and meanings. It can refer to philosophy in absolute terms or in conjunction with foundations of philosophy, history of philosophy, etc. When used as a prefix, it specifies areas like Islamic philosophy, Western philosophy, philosophy of art, philosophy of religion. Philosophy, in the absolute sense, discusses beings insofar as they exist. When used as a suffix, it denotes the theoretical and practical divisions made by philosophers, covering ethics, household management, and civic politics for the practical, and physics, theology, and mathematics for the theoretical. Hence, the history of philosophy explores the emergence, development, and evolution of philosophical discussions and notable figures. However, when used as a prefix, it suggests various new meanings not found in ancient dictionaries. For instance, “Islamic philosophy” pertains to philosophical discussions among Muslim thinkers. “Popular philosophy” focuses on research and studies advocating for freedom-loving inclinations, initiated by Wolf in Germany. In some cases, philosophy is added to a field of study, like philosophy of law, art, or history, where it represents the “study of knowledge” within that field. The subject of the history of science involves past events and their analysis, whereas the philosophy of history concerns the science of history itself. In this writing, we intend a different meaning of philosophy, specifically when discussing the philosophy of divine decrees, aiming to understand the wisdom, benefits, and objectives considered in those decrees.

The conceptual meaning of ‘Fasting’

The term ‘fasting’ in Quranic culture is referred to as “Sawm,” which linguistically means to abstain from doing anything afterward. Some interpret Sawm as holding back, a meaning that aligns with its religious significance of refraining from what is considered nullifying by religious law with the intention during daylight hours. In “Al-Tibyan,” fasting is defined as abstaining from specific things in a particular manner by individuals with certain characteristics, with the formation of intention being a condition.

History of Understanding the Philosophy of Decrees

Exploring the philosophy of divine decrees and seeking to understand the wisdom behind God’s actions and commands is not a new endeavor but has a history as long as the existence of divine religions and human thought in comprehending revelation. Inquiry into the philosophy of divine actions and will is not limited to humans or their history on Earth but, as indicated by Quranic verses, predates the creation of Adam. Angels were informed by God about the creation of a being named Adam on Earth and sought to understand the wisdom behind this creation. The Quran presents this narrative to convey to its readers that even angels, despite their status of obedience and submission to God, had the right to inquire about the philosophy of divine action, to which God provided convincing answers, demonstrating that divine actions are the most knowledgeable and never devoid of rationale and benefit. Many other Quranic verses mention the philosophy and wisdom behind divine decrees and commands, which we will refer to as relevant to our discussion on the philosophy and obligation of fasting. These verses instill in the readers the understanding that no act, decree, will, or word of God is without wisdom or philosophy.

The Reason for Exploring the Philosophy of Divine Decrees

Some express concerns regarding understanding and researching the philosophy behind divine decrees, considering it undesirable for two main reasons:

Firstly, focusing on the outcomes of worship might harm the intention of seeking closeness to God. Secondly, since it’s not always possible to provide reasons for decrees or comprehend their philosophy—given that human intellect may not grasp the benefits and harms of divine laws, and some decrees lie beyond the realm of human reason. Additionally, human knowledge is constantly evolving and changing, it might be better to practice these decrees out of devotion. However, the curious nature of humans, especially educated individuals and intellectual youth, is not satisfied with the notion that decrees are merely to be followed without understanding their limits and rationale. Moreover, most jurists have accepted the principle that “the Sharia is motivated by interests,” acknowledging that reason can recognize the causes and interests behind some decrees, while still considering devotion necessary in other aspects. This is because the Sharia introduces matters as causes, conditions, or obstacles for a decree, the appropriateness of which might not be clear to us.

Furthermore, paying attention to the practices of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), as derived from the Holy Quran, we understand that people during the Prophet’s time would inquire about the philosophy behind certain decrees, like the prohibition of gambling and alcohol. The noble Prophet of Islam did not dismiss these inquiries by saying, “You do not know or understand,” but rather provided thoughtful and logical answers. Sometimes, God Almighty would guide the Prophet to explain the philosophy behind these decrees to the people; for example, in Surah Al-Baqarah regarding gambling and alcohol, God says: “They ask you about wine and gambling. Say, ‘In them is great sin and [yet, some] benefit for people. But their sin is greater than their benefit'” And in another verse, He addresses the evident harms of alcohol and gambling, stating: “Satan only wants to cause between you animosity and hatred through intoxicants and gambling and to avert you from the remembrance of Allah and from prayer.”

If we have made every effort to understand the philosophy behind a decree without finding anything noteworthy, we cannot ignore that decree or claim it lacks any benefit or interest. The lack of understanding does not imply the absence of benefit. Imam Reza (AS) said:

” إِنَّا وَجَدْنَا کُلَّ مَا أَحَلَّ اللَّهُ تَبَارَکَ وَ تَعَالَى فَفِیهِ صَلَاحُ الْعِبَادِ وَ بَقَاؤُهُمْ وَ لَهُمْ إِلَیهِ الْحَاجَةُ الَّتِی لَا یسْتَغْنُونَ عَنْهَا وَ وَجَدْنَا الْمُحَرَّمَ مِنَ الْأَشْیاءِ لَا حَاجَةَ لِلْعِبَاد إِلَیهِ وَ وَجَدْنَاهُ مُفْسِداً دَاعِیاً الْفَنَاءَ وَ الْهَلَاک

We have found that everything Allah, blessed and exalted be He, has permitted contains well-being and survival for His servants, and they need it in a way they cannot do without. And we found that the prohibited things have no necessity for the servants, and they lead to corruption, calling for extinction and destruction.”

The Philosophy and Wisdom of Fasting Legislation

A. The Philosophy of Fasting from the Quranic Perspective

The noble verses of the Quran are the most important and reliable source for understanding the philosophy behind decrees. We encounter numerous verses in the Quran that explain the wisdom of divine actions and decrees. Among these verses is verse 183 of Surah Al-Baqarah, which discusses the legislation of fasting, stating:

یا أَیهَا الَّذینَ آمَنُوا کُتِبَ عَلَیکُمُ الصِّیامُ کَما کُتِبَ عَلَى الَّذینَ مِنْ قَبْلِکُمْ لَعَلَّکُمْ تَتَّقُونَ

O you who have believed, decreed upon you is fasting as it was decreed upon those before you that you may become righteous.”

In this verse, after stating the obligation of fasting, God identifies its divine purpose as attaining righteousness. Righteousness means piety, fearing the Almighty, and keeping the heart away from sin. It is through this righteousness that a person becomes truly insightful. In essence, the ultimate benefit and reason for fasting mentioned in this verse is righteousness, a gain that benefits the individual personally. The advantage of being righteous is undeniable, as every person inherently understands that to connect to the realm of purity and ascendancy and to reach the high station of perfection and spirituality, the first step is to restrain one’s unrestrained self, not indulging unconditionally in bodily pleasures and desires, and to consider oneself above merely pursuing materialistic life goals.

 In summary, it means avoiding anything that distracts from the Almighty. When Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) enumerated the virtues of the month of Ramadan and fasting in the sermon of Sha’ban, Imam Ali (AS) asked, “What is the best deed in this month?” The Prophet (PBUH) replied: الْوَرَعُ عَنْ مَحَارِمِ اللَّهِ To avoid the prohibited acts of Allah.” Hence, fasting serves as a deterrent against sin and suppresses the rebellious soul. This righteousness is achieved through fasting and abstaining from desires, presenting the most direct path and the most effective spiritual regimen accessible to all people across all ages, entailing abstention from a desire common to all humanity across all eras—appetite for food and drink, and sexual desire.

If individuals refrain from these for a period and practice this exercise, they gradually develop the strength to resist sins and gain control over their will, not surrendering to temptation and not faltering in their closeness to God. Clearly, one who responds to God’s call to abstain from eating, drinking, and sexual activities, which are permissible, will undoubtedly be more receptive and obedient to the call to avoid sins and disobedience. This is the essence of لَعَلَّکُمْ تَتَّقُونَ that you may become righteous”.

Mawlawi Says:

Fasting is not just abstaining from food; it’s about complete attention and intention.

While one mouth closes, another opens to consume the seeds of mystery.

Hunger has been given to the special servants of the truth, turning them into mighty lions through the power of fasting.

This verse and the topic of piety as the goal and philosophy of fasting do not mean that there are no other purposes and wisdom behind fasting or that piety and self-development are its only philosophy. It’s possible that while piety and self-improvement are its primary goals and wisdom, there are other objectives and wisdom embedded within, or that piety is the ultimate goal of fasting, with other goals and wisdoms either preceding it or being realized through the act of fasting. For this reason, numerous wisdoms have been described in traditions and sayings about fasting, which we will evaluate further.

B. The Philosophy of Fasting According to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)

Several sayings from the Messenger of Mercy (PBUH) have been narrated regarding fasting, each carrying a message and hinting at the secrets of this religious duty. We briefly mention a few:

The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) stated:

الْمَعِدَةُ بَیتُ کُلِّ دَاءٍ وَ الْحِمْیةُ رَأْسُ کُلِّ دَوَاءٍ

The stomach is the home of every disease, and dieting is the head of every remedy.

He also said:

صُومُوا تَصِحُوا

Fast, and you will be healthy.

Perhaps this is why making up missed fasts is obligatory for everyone. Even menstruating women, who are not required to make up missed prayers, must make up missed fasts. Or as he stated:

لِکُلِّ شَی ءٍ زَکَاةٌ وَ زَکَاةُ الْأَبْدَانِ الصِّیام

Everything has its purifier, and the purifier of the body is fasting.

These statements hint at the physical and health benefits that fasting brings to the body.

Furthermore, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in his Sha’ban sermon said:

وَ اذْکُرُوا بِجُوعِکُمْ وَ عَطَشِکُمْ فِیهِ جُوعَ یوْمِ الْقِیامَةِ وَ عَطَشَهُ

Remember the hunger and thirst of your fasting when you experience hunger and thirst on the Day of Judgment.

This remembrance prompts one to prepare for the Day of Judgment, striving harder to gain Allah’s pleasure.

C. The Individual Philosophy of Fasting

Fasting has various functions in personal and social domains. Here, we delve into the individual philosophy and benefits that fasting brings to a person:

  1. Wisdom and Certainty: The noble Prophet (PBUH) said on the night of Mi’raj:

یا رَبِّ وَ مَا مِیرَاثُ الصَّوْمِ قَالَ الصَّوْمُ یورِثُ الحِکْمَةَ وَ الحِکْمَةُ تُورِثُ الْمَعْرِفَةَ وَ الْمَعْرِفَةُ تُورِثُ الْیقِینَ فَإِذَا اسْتَیقَنَ الْعَبْدُ لَا یبَالِی کَیفَ أَصْبَحَ بِعُسْرٍ أَمْ بِیسْرٍ

“O Lord, what is the inheritance of fasting?” He replied, “Fasting begets wisdom, wisdom begets knowledge, knowledge begets certainty. And when a servant attains certainty, they do not care whether they live in hardship or ease.”

  1. Strengthening Sincerity: Lady Fatima (AS) said:

فَرَضَ اللّه ُ الصِّیامَ تَثبِیتا لِلإخلاصِ

“Allah made fasting obligatory to solidify sincerity.”

  1. Physical Health: Many diseases are caused by overindulgence in various foods; undigested excess materials become bothersome fats in different body parts or remain as excess fat and sugar in the blood. These materials create fertile grounds for various infectious microbes. In such situations, the best combat strategy is to eliminate these breeding grounds through fasting.
  2. Strengthening Patience and Perseverance The Quran invites believers to seek help through patience and prayer:

یا أَیهَا الَّذینَ آمَنُوا اسْتَعینُوا بِالصَّبْرِ وَ الصَّلاةِ

“O you who have believed, seek help through patience and prayer.”

Some interpreters believe that “patience” in this verse refers to fasting. Indeed, fasting strengthens the spirit of patience and endurance, freeing a person from all troubles.

  1. Reminding of the Hereafter: Enduring hunger and thirst while fasting reminds one of the hunger and thirst of the Day of Judgment, significantly impacting one’s behavior and actions. If a person acts with this awareness and admonishes themselves about the meticulous reckoning ahead, they will become more humble, virtuous, and attain greater reward. Imam Reza (AS) explained the philosophy of fasting, saying: “People are commanded to fast so they can feel hunger and thirst, and through it, understand the poverty and misery of the Hereafter.”

Reminding oneself of the hunger, thirst, and meticulous accountability of the Day of Judgment deters one from deviating and indulging in sins. Fasting is a state of humility, distancing evil and rebellion from oneself; when the soul is humbled and subdued before its Lord, it finds peace and submission. The walls of desires and forces leading to disobedience, throwing a person into major sins, are broken down by fasting.

  1. Divine Reward: The noble Prophet (PBUH) said that Allah said:

الصَّوْمُ لِی وَ أَنَا أُجْزَى بِهِ

“Fasting is for Me, and I will reward it.”

This hadith is also narrated in Sunni sources through Tabarani and Bayhaqi, where the Prophet (PBUH) said: “The reward for deeds before Allah has seven categories… and one is such that no one knows the reward except Allah, and that is fasting. Fasting is solely for Allah, and its reward is known only to Him.”

  1. Forgiveness of Sins: The Prophet of Islam (PBUH) said:

مَا مِنْ صَائِمٍ یحْضُرُ قَوْماً یطْعَمُونَ إِلَّا سَبَّحَتْ أَعْضَاؤُهُ وَ کَانَتْ صَلَاةُ الْمَلَائِکَةِ عَلَیهِ وَ کَانَتْ صَلَاتُهُمْ لَهُ اسْتِغْفَارا

“No fasting person joins a group of people eating (not fasting) but that his organs praise God, and the prayer of the angels upon him is for forgiveness.”

  1. Acceptance of Supplication: Imam Sadiq (AS) said:

نَوْمُ الصَّائِمِ عِبَادَةٌ وَ صَمْتُهُ تَسْبِیحٌ وَ عَمَلُهُ مُتَقَبَّلٌ وَ دُعَاؤُهُ مُسْتَجَابٌ

“The sleep of the fasting person is worship, their silence is glorification, their deeds are accepted, and their supplication is answered.”

  1. Weakening of Desires: The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) advised:

علَیکُم بالصَّومِ؛ فإنّهُ مَحسَمَةٌ للعُرُوقِ ومَذهَبَةٌ للأشَرِ

“Adopt fasting, for it cuts off the roots and eliminates vanity.”

D. The Social Philosophy of Fasting

Fasting sometimes accompanies effects that extend beyond personal matters into the social realm. In this section, we delve into and articulate these effects and the wisdom behind them:

  1. Creating a Sense of Empathy and Equality: Fasting teaches equality and equity among members of society. By observing this religious commandment, the well-off can genuinely comprehend the plight of the hungry and deprived, prompting them to assist those in need. Hisham ibn Hakam, a prominent Imami theologian, asked Imam Sadiq (AS) about the philosophy of fasting. The Imam replied that fasting was made obligatory to establish equality between the rich and the poor, allowing the wealthy to experience hunger and fulfill their duty towards the poor; the wealthy usually have everything they desire at their disposal. God desires equality among His servants, allowing the wealthy to experience hunger and suffering to invoke compassion towards the impoverished and hungry.

Imam Reza (AS) also says about the philosophy of fasting: “The purpose of fasting is to experience the pain of hunger and thirst, making a servant humble, beseeching, and patient.”

  1. Promoting Peace of Mind and Spirit: Imam Baqir (AS) said:

الصِّیامُ وَ الْحَجُّ تَسْکِینُ الْقُلُوب

“Fasting and Hajj are tranquillizers for human hearts.”

  1. A Barrier Against Sexual Misconduct: The great Prophet of Islam (PBUH) offers a valuable guideline to the youth for moderating sexual instincts and controlling desires, sternly warning against libertinism and debauchery, thus preserving the natural order from chaos and corruption among the youth. In his wise words, he advises:

یا مَعْشَرَ الشَّبَابِ عَلَیکُم بالبائة فَمَنْ لَمْ یسْتَطِعْ فَعَلَیهِ بِالصَّوْمِ فَإِنَّهُ لَهُ وِجَاءٌ

“O young people, whoever among you can marry should do so, as it helps lower the gaze and guard one’s modesty; and whoever is not able to should fast, for it has a restraining effect.”

  1. The Educational Effect of Fasting on Individuals and Society: In Islam, education is of paramount importance, and the grounds for it are well-prepared. However, education is a delicate matter, and ordinary people have not been very successful in it because, firstly, there is a lack of sufficient knowledge and understanding, and secondly, there is no proper method in education. Each person adopts an educational model without flexibility, insisting on an incorrect matter; forgetting that the Quran states: وَ قَدْ خَلَقَکُمْ أَطْواراً And He created you in stages.” Meaning, the temperament and characteristics of no two humans are alike; therefore, we need as many educational methods and standards as there are humans, neglecting which results in loss.

With this introduction, can fasting have educational effects? One of the significant benefits of fasting is that it refines the human soul, strengthens willpower, and moderates instincts. As Imam Ali (AS) put it: “Fasting is a constructive discipline,” bringing about numerous educational effects. He says:

صَوْمُ النَّفْسِ اِمْساکُ الْحَواسِّ الْخَمْسِ عَنْ سائِرِ الْمَآثِمِ وَ خُلُوُّ الْقَلْبِ مِنْ جَمیعِ اَسْبابِ الشَّرِّ

“The fast of the soul is restraining the five senses from all sins, and the heart from engaging in anything harmful.”

If the human soul observes fasting, the senses will always be alert and will not venture into filth and indecency.

We witness this educational effect of fasting during the blessed month of Ramadan; looking at crime statistics in society during Ramadan, we observe a significant reduction in criminal acts and violations, which is not possible except by the grace of this act of worship.

Concluding Remarks

Considering the decrees and philosophy of fasting, it can be concluded that fasting is one of the best acts of worship that balances the human body and soul and is an effective deterrent against many deadly diseases and ailments. Additionally, fasting elevates the human spirit and purifies the existence of humans from all the filth of sins, serving as a significant means. Fasting is a concealed act of worship between a human and their Creator, and the fruit of this worship is piety and godliness in all circumstances. In essence, genuine fasting can pave the way for human spiritual ascension to the highest realms and activate the springs of wisdom and knowledge in the heart of a believer. It also fills the community of believers with affection, gentleness, and purity, creating a classless and healthy society where crime does not occur.

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