By: Abdullah Ali
Fasting is a universal and ancient practice. It is known that the Romans, the Babylonians, the Cynic, Stoic, Pythagorean and Neo-Platonist philosophers commended fasting. The followers of Hinduism, Jainism, Confucianism and Zoroastrianism practice it.
The Jews observe annual fasting on the Day of Atonement in commemoration of the descent of Moses from Sinai after spending 40 days of fasting to be able to receive revelation.
Jesus observed fasting for 40 days in the desert and commanded his followers to fast.
The reasons for fasting varied then. Fasting marked repentance or penance, mourning or celebration for some particular occasions.
It was also meant to ward off apprehended danger, to control an epidemic, to gratify and please a deity or to add pressure to achieve a certain desired end.
That is why, the holy Koran states that “it is prescribed to you, as it was prescribed for people before you so that you may ward off evil”.
And now, Ramadhan comes again and invites Muslims to join the breaking of the fast, a party of self-contemplation and self-salvation with its main refreshments and buffet — thirst and hunger.
It is a party where every invitee is free to taste and enjoy it to their fullest.
A good Muslim will surely be happy to welcome and join the party as if he gets the dream he has been longing for in his whole life. No wonder the splendor of Ramadhan is always clearly visible in any parts of our country whether it is in big cities or remote villages.
However, we cannot but say that people tend to show physical ornaments in different natures: food, cakes, clothing, etc. This in turn pushes the consumption and the price of things closely related higher. Alas!
The Muslim fasters must hear this word “imsak” every time Ramadhan comes. People perceive this as an action to refrain from food and drink once they hear the loud speakers shout the words: “imsak … imsak”.
This is not entirely wrong; we are supposed to understand this as to refrain from doing anything sinful, and even from the detestable (makrouh). It is stated in one of the traditions that when you fast, all your senses — eyes, ears, tongue, hands and feet — must fast with you.
Hunger and thirst are on the main menu of this fasting party. You may ask what the significance of being thirsty and hungry is. The answer is that it has both spiritual and social benefits.
Spiritually, we are commanded that we engage ourselves in self-struggle (jihad al-nafs) through the means of hunger and thirst, whose reward is equivalent to the reward of those who participated in the armed struggle for Allah’s sake and there is nothing more superior before Allah’s sight than tolerating hunger and thirst during fasting.
The scholars of moral ethics have also described numerous advantages of hunger, one of which is purity of heart and insight, because over-eating and fullness creates a state similar to drunkenness, which slows down one’s sense of perception, reducing one’s ability to quickly grasp, thus, ultimately resulting in the heart’s blindness.
Whereas, hunger results in the mind becoming sharp and bestows comprehension upon consciousness, thus, making the heart readied for enlightenment. In this regard Prophet Muhammad explained that whoever kept his stomach hungry would keep his thinking culminated to the highest level, thus, making his reflections stronger.
As to one of the social benefits it is something one wishes to reach. If someone observes fasting for the sake of Allah, i.e. hunger and thirst, it makes the faster aware of the pangs and discomforts of suffering by the less fortunate among our brothers and sisters who have to put up with difficult conditions all through their lives. Hence, hunger and thirst kindle a spirit of sacrifice leading to change toward their suffering brethren.
Finally, the other benefit is the one inevitable in our present time and our future, namely health, because fasting is also the key to good health. Prophet Muhammad says, “Fast to be healthy.” Swiss physician Dr. Barsilus said that the advantage of hunger as a remedy exceeded those ingesting medicine several times. Generally speaking, fasting hastens the destruction of the decaying tissues of the body by means of hunger, and then builds new tissues through nutrition.
This is why some scientists suggest that fasting be regarded as an effective means of restoring youthfulness and longevity.
Apart from the benefits, there are things the fasters must abstain from, such as food, drinks and sexual relationship that will spoil fasting. People are usually engrossed in these kinds of activities and not aware of their risks, so these activities should be contained, or we will get nothing but hungry and thirsty. They are, among other things, backbiting, as stated by the Prophet that a fasting person is in a state of worship, even when (asleep) in bed, except when he backbites another Muslim, and falsehood in speech or action.
The Prophet said: “He who does not abstain from falsehood in words or deeds, Allah has no need for him to abstain from his food and drink.” The Prophet added: “Five things spoil a man’s fast — lying, slander, calumny, the false oath and the lustful look”.
Being hungry and thirsty will not elevate the fasters to higher forms of their spirit for such actions. Furthermore, these kinds of actions lead to disorder in their social life.
In other words, there is neither worship nor devotion. Let us, henceforth, start the real jihad al-nafs to make spiritual and social splendor of the holy fasting month of Ramadhan meaningful.
Footnote: This opinion article has been displayed in an online newspaper, The Jakarta Post, in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Friday, July 12, 2013; and in Paper Edition, it is printed at page 6. The original and full article is also vailable at: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2013/07/12/the-spiritual-and-social-splendor-ramadhan.html [accessed in Majapahit Hotel at Surabaya City, East Java, Indonesia: 12 July 2013].
The writer is a Lecturer at the Pekalongan University, Central Java, Indonesia.