By M Aamer Sarfraz
May 30, 2018
Fasting may be defined as abstinence from eating or drinking or both for religious, ethical or health motives. It has been practiced among the mankind since time immemorial, as recommended by physicians, Prophets, and activists against injustice.
Religious fasting was traditionally practiced by priests before approximating the deities, for repentance of sins and by mystics to attain higher states of holiness. All mainstream religions prescribe fasting in one form or another. Zoroastrianism is the only religion which prohibits fasting because it weakens the adherents in their battle against evil.
Intermittent fasting has conventionally been accepted as nature’s ancient remedy for many quandaries. Even the animals fast when they are unwell. Fasting gives the body a stress-free interlude to repair that cannot transpire otherwise. There is evidence to suggest that intermittent fasting results in weight loss, better mood, and improved metabolism. Celebrities, such as Beyoncé and Hugh Jackman, have spoken publicly about fasting to remain in good shape.
Extended fasting in Ramzan has been a matter of much debate. Several studies in the Arab world and Turkey have shown that symptoms linked to cholesterol and diabetes increase by a quarter because of overeating. Migraine attacks increase three-fold and non-compliance with prescribed medications escalates. Low energy and lack of motivation lead to low performance, and contribute to lack of productivity. A Danish Minister recently stressed that Muslims shouldn’t work during Ramzan because the month-long fasting poses safety hazards in some professions and it makes the practice dangerous for others.
Muslims fast because God has commanded so. The question is that (in the light of adverse consequences of fasting) what benefit one billion people get by staying hungry during the days for one month? Why did Allah want them to suffer physically, socially, and economically for one month every year?
Self-monitored and prolonged day-time fasting along with its prohibitions (food, drink, sex, bad manners) in the month of Ramzan is called Siyam. This mandatory requirement was ordained in the 2nd year of Hijra so that Muslims are prepared to follow the code of conduct in their lives. An important article in that code is their readiness for combat as a community under threat. Seventeen days into the first Ramzan, the battle of Badar came upon them, which they won convincingly.
Islam perceives every Muslim to be a corporal for the cause so that the regular army is small. Quranic scholars consider that the main idea behind fasting and prohibitions was to instil self-discipline along with acquiring and revival of martial skills. Therefore, a refresher time for military exercises was entailed upon them once a year. This was also mandated an Ibadat — the real meaning of which is to go ahead according to the guidebook (Quran). “Fasting men and fasting women, God has prepared forgiveness and a splendid wage for you”.
When in a battle, daily routines including that of eating and drinking are compromised. Whatever you take for granted as adults, e.g. sex, is prohibited during the exercise. Soldiers can end up without rations for days and sexual relations are non-existent. Ramzan is about going into that battle mode — a time for rehearsal. This was, therefore, made obligatory only for adults, and the infirm and children are excused. Those travelling are also exempted but they need to complete this mandatory training on other scheduled days.
All Ibadat in the Quran are given in plural. Therefore, mosques in a Muslim country become the centres for this training for the local communities. All reservist higher officials/commanders, who train with their forces during the day, need to carry out admin and forward planning during the nights. As the intensity increases towards the end, while stock-taking & feedback need coordinating, they are required to leave their homes and move into the mosques for the last 10 days of Ramzan. This time away from home, which is a part of their training manual, is called Aitakaf.
Quran is very careful that people do not mix this fasting in Ramzan with traditional methods of mysticism where higher stations of spirituality are achieved through a process of abstinence from food, drink and sex etc. Therefore, Muslims are prohibited from these things only during the day when they are among people (unlike mystics who are in solitude) but this sanction is lifted once they return to their families in the evenings. The only exception is those who stay in the mosque during the last 10 days of the month for Aitakaf.
Prayer is perceived as reaching out for the unseen; fasting is about letting go of all that is seen and worldly. Fasting helps express, develop, and bolster the resolution that Muslims are ready to sacrifice anything to attain what they seek as the Kingdom of Heaven. Revelation of the Quran started in the month of Ramzan. Fasting (Siyam) was ordained in this month to keep the memory of this unprecedented event alive. In fact, the only Eid Muslims are ordained to celebrate in the Quran is the celebration of the revelation of the Quran and it coincides with their completion of annual training/fasting in Ramzan.
M Aamer Sarfraz is a Consultant Psychiatrist and Visiting Professor.