Why we fast

By Elias Karmi

The month of Ramadan is when Muslims worldwide are required to fast, meaning to refrain completely from eating and drinking from dawn to sunset. It is also a month when Muslims perform more worship than they would during the rest of the year: praying more at night, reading more Qur’an, giving more in charity, etc.

A question that I hear frequently from my Minnesotan colleagues is: “Why do you do that?” – meaning, why do we fast. To Muslims, God’s order to fast is more than enough reason to do it, regardless of its health benefits that have been revealed over the years. But the question carries an interesting subtlety. The way the question is verbalized and the body language used suggest my colleagues are really asking: “Why do you have to make yourself suffer so much?” or “Why do you have to put yourself through this for a whole month?”

Looking deeper into the question, it is not the act of fasting itself that fascinates Americans; the principle of fasting is well established in several religions. Rather, it is the humility it takes for someone to submit, to the degree that fasting for a month per year becomes normal. To someone looking from the outside, it would appear as if Muslims are subjecting themselves to something they should refuse.

This appears to be stemming from the unfortunate fact that American culture has somehow acquired many widely accepted notions that are, in fact, opposite to humility. These notions and behaviors actually create a line of division between Muslim and American cultures.

Muslims view many things in America as displays of arrogance. Motorcyclists showing off, people dressing indecently, men talking too loudly in casual conversations, people blasting music in their cars, people walking proudly facing up and staring other people in the eyes, or simply “acting tough” at all times for no reason. All seem to be results of the “I do what I want when I want” attitude and all of which are things that Muslims see as contradictory to humility. And humility in the way we walk, talk, and otherwise act is very highly recommended in Islam – it is almost mandatory. Indeed, if you have Muslim friends who really like you, it is very likely that you show little or no arrogance at all.

So Ramadan comes as an annual reminder for us to adhere to humility in how we feel about ourselves. Arrogance with others implies an attempt to turn someone else into, figuratively, a slave even for a short time. Arrogance within ourselves implies denial of what we really are. We are all literally owned by God no matter how wealthy or influential we become. One of the basic tenets of Muslim faith is Uboudiya, or “enslavement” to God: the complete and unconditional obedience to our Owner.

Now that is a whole lot of humility! But many Americans who are humble by nature can readily understand this. The attitude that accompanies the acknowledgment of our enslavement to God makes the act of fasting not restrictive, but merely consequential.

–Elias Karmi
Burnsville, Minn.

4 thoughts on “Why we fast”

  1. A couple of days ago, one of my instructors at the U found out about my fasting. She asked me how long Ramadan lasts, and after telling her that it’s a complete month, she said: “Oh my God…you must be starving!” That, I realized, is definitely a very common statement (as stated in the article above) of which I found that many people think that we fast because our religion is too harsh, forcing us to starve ourselves solely for that purpose. They are missing the very essence and importance of Ramadan in our lives.

    It’s a very nice article by the way, and in addition, I have something I would like to include that makes Ramadan a very important part of my personal life and helps me become closer to Allah. No one is perfect; therefore, I find that one important element of Ramadan for me is that it gives me an opportunity to change (at least) one element in myself that I feel is weak. For instance, this Ramadan I decided to spend more time reading Quran…not only during Ramadan, but during the rest of the year as well. I end up getting busy with the heavy school load and don’t find time for my religion. So, that’s what I decided to change about myself during this blessed month and forever (with God’s will).

  2. There is one thing about Fasting which was missed in this article. Not only do we give up food and drink during Ramadan but we also try not to raise our voices, argue or speak badly about others during this time. This is to me the hardest part of fasting.

    Yes, we do more acts of worship during Ramadan but we are assured the rewards for these acts are greater during this time.

    I hear from others is, “You give up WATER,” as if day time was such a long time to go without. Modern Christians have changed their fast to cover only giving up one or two things which are important to themselves, where in the Old Testiment it shows the prophets fasted the same as we do. Perhaps they think we do as they do for their holidays and fast continuously for the whole time of the fast. Perhaps they do not reolise we can eat from sun down to sun up. I know I have gone from morning to evening without food many times just because I was too busy to stop to eat. I am sure it is no hugh sacrifice to do the same to show my obedience to Allah.

  3. About the nature of fasting – i would like to add my own experience and that is: Hunger for food is the most basic need & want that man has some control over. Consider needs & wants as ‘desires’ then hunger for food is the most basic of all desires. It is more rooted than sex and material consumption (i.e. shopping). When i am fasting my hunger trumps my deisres for everything else. When my stomach is full i tend to desire other things from this world like more.

    Thus the nature and purpose of fasting is to be stripped of all these excess desires, and if one can strip themselves from the desire of food also then they have arrived at the footsteps of the door of One who is to be desired, and that is Allah. That is the deep purpose of fasting that few achieve, most of us get stuck at the food part.

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