By Ziauddin Sardar
March 24, 2008
These verses (al-Baqara 183-189) explore the idea of fasting. For a religious institution, fasting is as universal as prayer. Jews fast on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which is one of the holiest days in Judaism. Hindus fast during certain times of the year, such as the Durga Navmi festival, to purify the mind and the body. Christians, too, were recommended by Jesus to fast (Matthew 6:16, 17). The monks of Mount Athos, who are Greek Orthodox, fast up to 200 days in a year.
In biblical times, fasting was a sign of mourning, sorrow, affliction, or approaching danger. The Qur'an institutes fasting as a form of worship, both as an individual and collective act that has to be carried out for "a certain number of days". The sacred text emphasises the moral and spiritual aspects of fasting and suggests that its purpose is to "learn self-restraint" (183) by controlling one's natural desires. It is prescribed as one of the four main religious rituals, along with daily prayer, payment of Zakat (the obligatory poor tax) and hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.
The fast begins "when the whiteness of the day becomes distinct from the blackness of the night at dawn" (generally, about hour and half before dawn) and continues till sunset. During this time, one has to abstain not just from food and drink but also sex, all kinds of disorderly, abusive and aggressive behaviour, and worldly temptations and desires. The indefinite period in verse 184 becomes the definite duration of "the month of Ramadan" in the next verse. But verse 184 provides us with an interesting hint that I think is lost in translation. Those who cannot fast, because they are too ill or too old, are asked to feed and help the poor instead. But if they can do much more than that, of their own free will, it is better for them.
Fasting, as Madeleine rightly suggests, involves hardship. The word used for doing "much more" is tatawwu, which has the connotation of spontaneously doing good. It also means acting with effort. These two ideas are also connected with fasting itself: it is both an instinctively good act and one that requires effort. The last part of the verse, "And it is better for you that you fast, if ye only knew," seems to acknowledge the fact that fasting requires serious effort. I think the idea of effort in all forms of Muslim worship is crucial. It suggests that as individuals and communities Muslims should inculcate the notion that serious effort is essential for genuine spiritual attainment.
Given all the physical hardship and effort required to fast, there are exceptions. People on medication or those travelling can fast for an equal number of days when there have recovered or their journeys have ended. Those with prolonged afflictions, (for example, the migraines that Madeleine mentions) the disabled, the elderly and breast-feeding mums don't have to fast at all. They attain their spiritual benefits by putting in real effort in what they do as a substitute.
The hardship of fasting, the effort required to refrain from fulfilling the natural desires to eat and drink and suppress numerous other temptations, are undertaken for a higher thirst: the desire to be near God. The effort is reciprocated; and God replies: "I am indeed close." He listens, he says, to "the prayer of every suppliant", everyone who puts in an effort to fast. It is interesting to note that "prayer" here does not refer to prayer in general about health, wealth and material happiness. Of course, God listens to prayers for worldly and temporal benefits, not just from believers but also unbelievers, righteous people as well as the transgressors and, as we are told elsewhere in the Qur'an, he answers "if he pleases" (6:41; 10:22-23, 17:67). (In the case of Muslims, I reckon, he seems consistently to be saying: "No.") The prayer here, a spontaneous outcome of fasting, is very specific: it is about walking "in the right way" towards God. And the answer comes in the form of spiritual fulfilment by attaining nearness to God.
After fasting was established as a religious injunction, many Muslims in the prophet's Medina thought that it was illegal to have sex with their spouses during the month of Ramadan, even at night. This involved additional hardship; and the verse, "God wants ease for you, not hardship," refers to the practice of early Muslims who avoided sex for a whole month. The Qur'an equates sex with hunger and thirst as natural desires. What applies to eating and drinking after the fast is over also applies to sex.
There is also the idea of balance here: that spiritual quest should not be at the expense of physical self. The body and soul need to be in harmony for attaining closeness to God. The idea of mutual balance is continued in the metaphor of "garments" used to describe the relationship between husbands and wives (v187). Just as garments protect one's body, so spouses protect each other. Just as garments give comfort to the body, so husbands and wives are a source of comfort for each other. Just as garments decorate and adorn the body, so the married couple embellish each other, the weakness of one is made up by the strength of the other. What could be more beautiful in a relationship than that?
It was practice of the Prophet Muhammad to spend the last 10 days of Ramadan in his mosque, spending day and night in meditation and reflection. He advised his followers to do the same. These are "devotional retreats" alluded to verse 187 that Madeleine mentions. This practice is not an obligation. But many Muslims voluntarily undertake the exercise.
The Qur'an prescribes fasting during Ramadan for a rather special reason: it is the month when the Qur'an itself was first revealed. The first verses of the Qur'an, "Read in the name of your Lord ...” (96:1-5), were revealed on 27 Ramadan 611. Ramadan thus, in Muslim thought, has an intimate connection with God. It is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, which begins with the Hijra or migration of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina during 622. The Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar: "They ask thee concerning the New Moons. Say: they are but signs to mark fixed periods of time" (v189). As the lunar year is around 11 days shorter than the solar year, the "fixed periods" do in fact move, and months drift with respect to seasons in a cycle of 32.5 years. As such, fasting can be experienced in the extreme heat of the summer as well as the shivering cold of winter.
Towards the end of this section the analogy of eating is used in relation to property (v188). Fasting requires one to abstain from eating, using what is legal. Now we are told not to eat, in a general sense, that which is illegal, or acquired through corrupt means. The Qur'an repeatedly condemns corruption of all kind. After the fast is over, the effort moves to control of one's passion for vanities, for greed and illegal possession. A fitting sequel to where we began: with an exercise in controlling our natural desires.
Isn't Fasting A Hardship?
By Madeleine Bunting
March 24, 2008
"God wants ease for you, not hardship." That's a bit difficult to reconcile with the instruction to fast during Ramadan. Surely no food or water is rather like hardship? I've only ever fasted for much shorter periods of time and I found it punishing - I've never gone without water which I think would give me terrible migraines (a tendency of mine) so how can I understand these verses (al-Baqara 183-189)?
I was a bit confused about the verse in which it is suggested that if you find it hard to fast, you can feed a needy person: perhaps you can explain Zia? And a few other things seem unclear to me - when are the "devotional retreats" in the mosque referred to in verse 187? What does it mean to "consume your property wrongfully"? The final part of verse 188 is a clear condemnation of corruption - does that crop up elsewhere in the Qur'an?