SINCE July 21, Muslims have been fasting, and will continue to do so for a full month. Ramadan celebrates the divine revelation of the Quran to Prophet Muhammad.
According to the following verse, it is obligatory for Muslims to fast throughout Ramadan: "Ramadan is the month during which the Quran was revealed, providing guidance for the people, clear teachings and the statute book. Those of you who witness this month shall fast therein" (Surah al-Baqarah, verse 185).
The fasting month is the ninth of the 12 months in the Islamic lunar calendar. Fasting is the fourth of the five pillars of Islam, and it is required upon every sane, adult and healthy resident who is not travelling at that time.
Fasting is not required of heretics, the insane, minors, the sick or ill, those who are travelling, those menstruating or going through post-natal bleeding and breast-feeding, pregnant women or the elderly. Those who break the fast can make up for the missed days by doing so at a later time. Healthy adults who cannot fast have to pay "fines", which will be used to help the poor.
Ramadan is as much the month of the Quran as it is the month of fasting. Since the Quran can be divided into 30 sections, Muslims are encouraged to complete a reading of it during the month by reading a section each day.
This is the month when the gates of Heaven are thrown open and the gates of Hell are closed and the devils chained. What makes Ramadan a special and sanctified month for Muslims is the weight of blessings attached to every good deed performed. Muslims fast so that they may achieve taqwa -- righteousness and total submission to God.
By fasting, we bring our life into total submission and surrender to the creator, Allah. There is no love greater than the love for Allah, a love that puts everything else aside in the battle for Allah's pleasure and for being obedient to Him. What love could be higher than the love to the creator?
Fasting means worshipping Allah and abstaining from physical nourishment, food, drink and sexual intercourse, from the break of dawn until sundown. Our tongue, eyes, ears and other limbs are equally obligated to be restrained if we want to gain greater rewards of fasting. In the hadith (sayings of the Prophet), documented by Abu Hurairah, Prophet Muhammad was reported to have said: "Fasting is not only to restrain from food and drink; fasting is to refrain from obscene (acts). If someone verbally abuses you or acts ignorantly towards you, say to them, 'I am fasting; I am fasting'."
When Muslims carry out the mandatory five daily prayers, they are only taking periodic breaks; they are not commanded to isolate themselves from the world. Similarly, during Ramadan, they are not asked to relinquish their worldly duties, but to participate in an intensive training for the whole month.
Ramadan offers a comprehensive programme for the spiritual overhaul of those who fast. It offers Muslims an avenue to purify their hearts and souls, and to remove the evil effects of sins they have committed. The virtues and benefits of fasting are many. Fasting enhances man's belief, confidence and reliance on Allah. With Allah's assistance, man will be stronger and more steadfast in overcoming and solving the bitter situations in life.
Ramadan will inculcate among Muslims a greater sense of responsibility. They will be more conscious of the hunger and the discomfort faced by the less unfortunate. By experiencing the pain and suffering of the have-nots, he who fasts will become more compassionate.
Ramadan also inculcates a greater sense of generosity and forgiveness among the Muslims. It will rekindle in them a spirit of sacrifice for others. An arrogant being who fasts will eventually become a better person upon submission to Allah.
The month, therefore, becomes a training ground in endurance for Muslims. By going through it, they will develop courage, fortitude and fighting spirit.
Through Ramadan, a Muslim should be able to conquer anger and develop self-control and patience. The fasting month is like a therapeutic programme in controlling and managing anger.
Fasting will also inculcate tolerance among human beings even when faced with the unpleasant discomforts of life. Islam gives unmatched attention to society. It forbids false accusation, slander and mischief -- the entire unpleasant recipe for disharmony.
From another hadith, Prophet Muhammad was reported to have said: "If, during Ramadan, someone does not refrain from backbiting, lying, slandering, arguing, or fighting with someone, then Allah is not interested in his keeping himself hungry and thirsty. And be certain that a Muslim is one from whose hand and tongue other people are safe."
He further said, "There is many a Muslim man or woman who obtains nothing from Ramadan except an empty belly and a dry mouth," meaning the whole point of fasting was missed. In other words, there is a great difference between fasting and merely keeping oneself hungry.
At the end of Ramadan, Muslims will be "purified" and they will imbibe a greater sense of humility and brotherhood in the community. The important brotherhood and social awareness during Ramadan is best described by sociologist Hammuddin Abd al-Ati: "No sociologist or historian can say that there has been at any period of history anything comparable to this powerful institution of Islam -- fasting in the month of Ramadan. People have been crying throughout for ages for acceptance and belonging, for unity, for brotherhood and for equality; but how echoes of their voices have been, and how little success they have met."
Prophet Muhammad said to the Muslims: "Fast and you will be healthier." This healthier status would be attained by the Muslims if they do not consume excessively when breaking their fast. Fasting cleanses the human system of impurities due to uninterrupted eating throughout the year.
In the book Medical Benefits of Ramadan, Shahid Athar M.D. mentioned the physiological effects of fasting included the lowering of blood sugar, cholesterol and systolic blood pressure. He recommended fasting as a treatment of mild to moderate, stable, non-insulin diabetes, obesity and essential hypertension.
At the first International Congress on Health and Ramadan, held in 1994 in Casablanca, Muslim and non-Muslim researchers alike noted that fasting did not worsen the patient's health or baseline medical condition. However, it must be pointed out that Muslims fast during Ramadan because they are ordained by the Quran. The health benefits are added values.
At the end of Ramadan, Muslims will celebrate Eid (Eid ul Fitr), the festival of breaking the fast. It marks the victory of Muslims, their souls and minds over worldly desires. They will celebrate after a great season of spiritual enlightenment, hoping that their sins will be forgiven, enmity replaced by brotherhood and friendship, and minds and bodies cleansed.
To conclude, the institution of Ramadan is extremely important because it reminds man that the real joy in enjoying Allah's bounties is not in overindulging, but lies in moderation and restraint. A Muslim who fasts will be free from bad or harmful habits, from selfish desires and capricious impulses, from unbridled animal instincts and from social blindness. By reducing his worldly relations and emotional desires, man will elevate himself to a higher level. He will ultimately attain a pristine noble state of being, in the heavens as well as on earth.