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
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.