Why Do Muslims Fast? By Seyyed Hossein Nasr

I have read many texts on Fasting, and sat in many lectures on this topic–as I am sure many of you have–yet, each time and every year just before Ramadan I return to this perspective on “Why Do Muslims Fast” by Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, I am astounded at the fresh insights and wisdom which is transmitted to me at each and every reading from this very same article found in Dr. Nasr’s “Islamic Life and Thought”. Perhaps the fresh new insights received are due to the lessons learned from emptying ourselves anew as much as God Permits through fasting in Ramadan and throughout the year. May God preserve Professor Nasr, one of the rare Sages of our times whose life and thought embody that Quranic Wisdom which is “Neither of the East nor the West”.–Amen!

Ramadan Mubarik to all.
“Certain truths are by nature evident and need not be discussed in normal circumstances.But, in a day and age when the most evident truths are shrouded by the clouds of doubt and questioned, one is forced to discuss even the most obvious of them.One such truth is the necessity for an ascetic element in human life. Without an element of self-denial and asceticism no religion and therefore no human culture is possible.One must withdraw occasionally from the full life of the senses even in order to be able to enjoy the fruit of sensual perception.As the Taoist saying affirms, it is the empty space of the wheel which makes the wheel. It is only a certain degree of restraint from the material objects of the senses that makes even the life of the senses balanced, not to speak of making possible an opening in the human soul for the spiritual life.One such practice of restraint is fasting, promulgated in Islam as obligatory for the month of Ramadan and recommended for other periods of the year. As the Holy Qur’an asserts, it is a practice which existed in older religions and in Islam it was only revived and institutionalized in the form of the sawm of Ramadan.Fasting during this month possesses, of course, many social and external benefits and features which have been discussed often and in fact even somewhat overemphasized in certain quarters, where the chief virtue of fasting is reduced to charity towards the poor.This element of charity is, of course, there but like all true charity it becomes spiritually significant only when it is directed towards God. And in fasting it is the obeying of the Divine Will which has as its fruit charity towards the poor and the needy and an actual participation in their hunger and thirst.But the most difficult aspect of the fast is the edge of the sword of abstention directed toward the carnal soul, the al-nafs al-ammarah of the Holy Qur’an.In fasting, the rebellious tendencies of the carnal soul are gradually dampened and pacified through a systematic submission of these tendencies to the Divine Will, for at every moment of hunger the soul of the Muslim is reminded that it is in order to obey a Divine command that the passions of the carnal soul go unheeded. That is also why the fast does not include only food but also abstention from every form of lust and carnal passion.As a result of this systematic restraint, the human soul becomes aware that it is independent of its immediate natural environment and conscious that it is in this world but not of it.A person who fasts with complete faith becomes aware very rapidly that he is a pilgrim in this world and that he is a creature destined for a goal beyond this material existence. The world about him loses some of its materiality and gains an aspect of “vacuity” and transparence which in the case of the contemplative Muslim leads directly to a contemplation of God in His creation.The ethereal and “empty” nature of things is, moreover, compensated by the appearance of those very things as Divine gifts. Food and drink which are taken for granted throughout the year reveal themselves during the period of fasting more than ever as gifts of heaven (ni’mah) and gain a spiritual significance of a sacramental nature.

To fast is also to wear the armor of purity against the passions of the world. It is to incorporate even “physically” in one’s body the purity of death which is of course coupled with spiritual birth.

In fasting, man is reminded that he has chosen the side of God over the world of passions. That is why the Holy Prophet loved fasting so much. It was a basic element of that “Muhammadan spiritual poverty” (faqr), about which he said, “al-faqr fakhri” (spiritual poverty is my glory).

This death of the passions cleanses the human soul and empties it of the putrid water of its negative psychic residues. The individual and through him the Islamic community is renovated through this rite and reminded of its moral and spiritual obligations and goals.

That is why the arrival of the blessed month is greeted with joy. For in it the doors of heaven are opened further for the faithful and the Divine Compassion descends upon those who seek it. To have completed the fast of Ramadan is to have undergone a rejuvenation and rebirth which prepares each Muslim to face another year with determination to live and act according to the Divine Will.

The fast also bestows a spiritual perfume upon the human soul whose fragrance can be perceived long after the period of abstinence has come to an end. It provides for the soul a source of energy upon which it feeds throughout the year.

The holy month has therefore been called “the blessed”, mubarak, one in which the grace or barakah of God flows upon the Islamic community and rejuvenates its deepest sources of life and action.”

Suggestions for further reading:
“Islamic Life and Thought” by Seyyed Hossein Nasr (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981). This perspective on fasting is excerpted from this book.

4 thoughts on “Why Do Muslims Fast? By Seyyed Hossein Nasr

  1. Thank you for this post. I cannot recall any article that better elucidates the spiritual benefits of this holy month, and hence neither one that better alludes to the gravity of it. I somewhat recall a moment, of years ago, in which i felt the explanation of “to feel like the poor people do” for fasting in Ramadan seemingly not strong enough for what Ramadan actually was. Dr. Nasr’s explanation, although a small point in this grand article, of the charity aspect of Ramadan as a fruit of the fast rather than the prime impetus, and rather the prime impetus being more of a spiritual kind, is helpful. In this regard, perhaps one can say to the misconception that the impetus of fasting is charity towards people that it rather is “charity” towards God, in that one gives their whole selves to God rather than their passionate and demanding carnal selves. The *fruit* of this includes charity towards people. I had known this before, but to read it in this article was helpful, especially with regards to nuance.

  2. On a similar note, the reminder that “at every moment of hunger the soul of the Muslim is reminded that it is in order to obey a Divine command that the passions of the carnal soul go unheeded” i find especially insightful at this moment. How wonderful that we have a feeling within us that reminds us throughout the day of the illusory nature of the material world and the Reality of Divinity who, in our fasts, we consciously turn to. How wonderful the voluntary feeling of hunger in light of its spiritual significance. Masha’Allah to this all. I hope to learn/realize/internalize something new with each read of this, as you have. Many thanks for this Ramadan gift. May you have a blessed month and fruitful in regards to the things that matter most.

  3. Thank you for your comments Munjed. As to your first comment, it is interesting that many a born Muslim first learns from their parents that fasting is prescribed by God so we can “feel what poor people feel”. And this understanding, without doubt, has its wisdom. But as one matures religiously and spiritually, the benefits and the spiritual realities pertaining to the fast also are realized or appreciated more fully.

  4. As to your second comment Munjed, yes, I found that perspective very profound. What a wonderful way to transform (or transmute) our physical hunger to a kind of “spiritual hunger” for obeying God’s Will and Command! May God accept our Siyam (fasts). Ameen.

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