Why Do Muslims Fast? (Part 1 Of 2)
Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips
The Libidinal Level
The sexual instinct and drives (libido) are harnessed on this level of
fasting. In these times where the media continually plays on sexual desires to
promote and sell products, the ability to control these powerful desires is a
Fasting physically reduces sexual desires and the fact that the fasting person
has to avoid anything which could stimulate him psychologically helps to
further lower the libido. Prophet Muhammad, may the mercy and blessings of God
be upon him, said, «O youths, whoever among you is able to marry let him do
so, for it restrains the eyes and protects the private parts. He who is unable
to marry should fast, because it is a shield» (Saheeh Al-Bukhari).
By restraining oneself from sexual acts which are permissible, the fasting
person makes it easier for himself to restrain himself from forbidden sexual
acts when he is not fasting.
The Emotional Level
Fasting on this level involves controlling the many negative emotions which
simmer in the human mind and soul. For example, among the most destructive
emotions is anger. Fasting helps to bring this emotion under control. Prophet
Muhammad said, «When one of you is fasting, he should abstain from indecent
acts and unnecessary talk, and if someone begins an obscene conversation or
tries to pick an argument, he should simply tell him, 'I am fasting'» (Saheeh
Thus, on this level, whatever negative emotions challenge the fasting person
must be avoided. One must abstain from lewd conversation and heated arguments.
Even when one is in the right, it is better to let that right go and keep
one's emotional fast intact.
Likewise, the negative emotion of jealousy is reduced, as every fasting person
is reduced to the common denominator of abstinence; no one is externally
superior to another in this regard.
The Psychological Level
This level helps the fasting person psychologically to control evil thoughts
and trains him or her, to some degree, how to overcome stinginess and greed.
The Prophet was reported to have said, «Allaah has no need for the hunger and
the thirst of the person who does not restrain himself from telling lies and
acting on them even while observing the fast» (Saheeh Al-Bukhari).
In this age of immediate gratification, when the things of the world are used
to fulfill human needs and desires almost as soon as they have them the
ability to delay gratification is an important skill. What is between
immediate gratification and delayed gratification is patience. During the
fast, the believers learn patience and the benefits of it.
From a psychological perspective, it is good to be somewhat detached from the
things of the world. There is nothing wrong with enjoying a good and full life
- in fact, one can and should expect that.
However, it is important that people are able to detach ourselves from
material things so that they do not become the most important part of their
lives. Fasting gives one the opportunity to overcome the many addictions which
have become a major part of modern life.
Food, for many people, provides comfort and joy, and the ability to separate
oneself from it gives the fasting people the psychological benefit of knowing
that they do have some degree of control over what they do and what they do
The Spiritual Level
In order to establish this, the highest and most important level of fasting,
the level of God-consciousness, Prophet Muhammad made the renewal of the
intention for fasting a requirement before every day of fasting. He was
reported to have said, «Whoever does not intend to fast before Fajr (the dawn)
will have no fast» (Abu Dawud).
The daily renewal of intention helps to establish a spiritual foundation of
sincerity essential for the spiritual cleansing effects of fasting to operate.
Sincere fasting purifies and atones for sin, as the Prophet said, «Whoever
fasts Ramadan out of sincere faith and seeking his reward from God, his
previous sins will be forgiven».
He was also reported to have said, «From one Ramadaan to the next is atonement
for the sins between them».
Sincere fasting brings one closer to Allaah and earns a special reward. The
Prophet informed that there is a gate in paradise called Rayyaan reserved for
those who fast and he also said, «When Ramadan comes, the gates of Paradise
are open» (Saheeh Al-Bukhari).
Fasting is primarily between the person and God, as no one can be sure that
any person is actually fasting. Because of this intimate aspect of fasting,
Allaah was quoted by the Prophet as saying, «Every act of Aadam's descendants
is for themselves, except fasting. It is meant for Me alone, and I alone will
give the reward for it» (Saheeh Muslim).
When combined with the previous levels of fasting, this level transforms a
person from within. It restores, revives and regenerates the fasting person's
spirituality and radically modifies his or her personality and character.
These are the precious products of a heightened state of God-consciousness.
On the first day of the following month, after another new moon has been
sighted, a special celebration is made, called Id al-Fitr. A quantity of
staple food is donated to the poor (Zakat al-Fitr), everyone has bathed and
put on their best, preferably new, clothes, and communal prayers are held in
the early morning, followed by feasting and visiting relatives and friends.
There are other fast days throughout the year. Muslims are encouraged to fast
six days in Shawwal, the month following Ramadan, Mondays and Thursdays, and
the ninth and tenth, or tenth and eleventh of Muharram, the first month of the
The tenth day, called Ashurah, is also a fast day for the Jews (Yom Kippur),
and Allah commanded the Muslims to fast two days to distinguish themselves
from the People of the Book.
While fasting per se is encouraged, constant fasting, as well as monasticism,
celibacy, and otherwise retreating from the real world, are condemned in
Fasting on the two festival days, Id al-Fitr and Id al-Adha, the feast of the
Hajj, is strictly forbidden.