By Aslam Abdullah
June 16, 2015
Should we call it the month of fasting or the month of abstinence? Well, our scholars say that "the word saum means "to abstain from something" and according to the Fiqh it means abstaining from eating, drinking, sexual acts and all evil actions with the intention of pleasing Allah, from true dawn to sunset." This definition needs further explanations.
1. All those who are fasting are required not to eat and drink from dawn to dusk. They can eat during night.
2. Only the married couples are required not to indulge in conjugal relations during the time of fasting.
3. Physical intimacy between unmarried male and female members of the Muslim community is prohibited regardless of the month.
4. Intention to please Allah is not confined from dawn to dusk. It is a part of one's life.
5. Avoiding evil is also not confined to dawn to dusk in the ninth lunar month of Islamic calendar. It is a commandment that is valid for all time and all months.
So what is so significant with this month of abstinence?
The main purpose is to empower each individual to take control of him or herself and ensure that they emerge stronger in every aspects of their life. So Ramadan is not the peak of one's commitment to Islam. It is the beginning as it prepares those who abstain for the next 11 months as well to live a meaningful and disciplined life.
Before the season begins for National Foosball League or Baseball or Basketball, the players go through a vigorous and rigorous training schedule to prepare them for the season. Similarly, those abstaining have a month long training to prepare them for the rest of the year.
There are two aspects to the abstinence.
1. Physical endurance
2. Spiritual enhancement
Physical endurance is a very subjective issue. For instance those living in Australia or South Africa would have 9 to 10 hours fasting in 2015 and it would not be as hard for them to abstain from food and drink as it would be for people in Nordic countries. Depending on the climatic conditions one lives, the physical endurance would be different for different people. So one cannot say that the fasting was primarily for the purpose of physical fitness or detoxification.
We cannot also argue that it is to help us go through the feelings of those who live in constant poverty and hunger. The fact of the matter is that despite whatever we say, we hardly care for finding a solution to poverty and hunger. Every year Muslims spend millions of dollar in serving food to those who are already fed. During the last 1400 years we have not found any institutional solution to hunger as the gap between poor and rich has been on the rise in Muslim majority countries. If going through the hunger and thirst was meant to help us identify with poverty struck people, then we did not fulfill the purpose, not only us but the very learned and very pious as well.
Let us understand the real purpose of abstinence as described by the Quran that reminds us that "you may act responsibly or become conscious of Allah." Being conscious of Allah means we adhere to his guidance in all aspects of life and we respect the fellow human beings as we are required to do. It means living a disciplined life in this world.
Hence, the Prophet was very clear about the purpose of abstinence. He recognized that people will abstain from food and drink and will go through the cycle of hunger and thirst and he advised that unless there is a qualitative change in the behavior, attitude and action, abstinence from food or water would not be considered valid act of worship.
Thus the prophet said that those who lie, who backbite, who make false oaths, who complain all the time and who lustfully look at their fellow human beings would lose the essence of abstinence as the saum would become invalid for them.
It is a simple statement that fasting is more than physical endurance. It is spiritual mainly. It is for this reason that those abstaining are advised to spend most of their time in reflecting on the message of the Quran.
It is a ritual on the part of Muslims to finish reading or listening to the entire Quran during this month regardless of their level of understanding. Sometime, even those who recite the Quran in their melodious voice do not understand what they are reciting. The guidance comes when we know what the guidance is and what it is all about. So we need to focus on the process of understanding the Quran in whatever language we speak or understand in addition to our readings in Arabic language.
If we find an improvement in our behavior and attitude towards ourselves and others, and if we find ourselves a better person, the purpose of this training would be served and the reward for this would be immense in this life and the life hereafter. Otherwise, it would be just a ritual and rituals often do not produce desired results.
Aslam Abdullah, I am a naturalized US citizen originally from India. I am the editor of the Muslim Observer, published from Detroit as well as director of the Islamic Society of Nevada. I have written several books on Islam and human rights, non-violence issues. I work in Las Vegas and my family is in Southern California to ensure that the education of my children is not disrupted. I worked as an editor of the Minaret magazine published from Los Angeles as well as the Arabia magazine published from London. I have been part of anti-nuclear movements. Non-violence is passion and I advocate it passionately. I am also a trustee of the American Federation of Muslims of Indian Origin, a philanthropic organization working for the educational upliftment of Muslim Indians. I also joined the Muslim Council of America, a Washington-based organization dedicated to serve Muslim Americans. I have written books on Prayers of the Prophet, Morals and Manners and Prophet's Letters as well as Youth Movement in Asia.