After prayer the second obligatory duty which every Muslim is required toper- form is that of fasting during the month of Ramadan. The word sawm which has been used in the Holy Qur'an and the Hadith for fasting means" to abstain" ; thus a horse that abstains from moving about or from eating the fodder is said to be sa'im. In the technical language sawm signifies fasting or abstaining from food and drink and sexual intercourse from the dim beginning of dawn till sunset.
Fasting as an institution for the purification of the soul is common to all Divine religions. The writer of the article on" Fasting" in the Encyclopadia Britannica states that" it would be difficult to name any religious system of any description in which it is wholly unrecognized." This institution was well established among the Jews and the Christians.
The records of the Hadith bear ample testimony to the fact that fasting was a common religious practice among the pre-Islamic Arabs too, and they used to observe fast on the tenth of Muharram because it was on this very day that Allah saved Moses and his companions from the clutches of the Pharaoh who was drowned in the sea along with his army. The Arabs and other people too were familiar with fasting as an act of penitence or of propitiation or a preparatory rite before some act of sacramental eating or an initiation or a mourning ceremony.
In Islam fasting is primarily an institution for a spiritual discipline and selfcontrol. It is in fact an exercise in religious devotion in the form of cheerful and willing renunciation, for a definite period, of all the appetites of flesh lawful in themselves (the unlawful ones being ruled out of course). The Qur'an says:
0 ye who believe! prescribed unto you is fasting even as it was prescribed unto those before you. that haply you may become God-conscious (ii. 183).
Of all the creation of God only man deviates from His path. We will find that two things are mainly responsible for this: the love for material possessions and the tempta- tions of the flesh. Islam has, through the institutions of Zakat and Sadaqat, purged the hearts of its followers from the love of wealth, and has inculcated in him the habit to part with it readily for the sake of God.
Fasting has been ordained as a religious duty for the Muslims for subduing their lust and keeping their appetites well within reasonable bounds so that man may not become their slave and lose control over himself. The Qur'an clearly states that a man cannot attain salvation unless he learns to restrain his self from low desires." And as for him who fears to stand before his Lord and restrains himself from low desires, Paradise is surely the abode" (lxxix. 40-41).
The exercise of abstaining from things otherwise lawful in the ordinary course of life, at the behest of Allah, strengthens man's morality and self-control and deepens in him the consciousness of the Lord. This is what distinguishes fasting in Islam from fasting in other religions.
It should also be borne in mind that fasting does not aim at inflicting punishment upon people or sadding upon them unbearable burdens. The underlying idea behind it is to teach moderation and spiritual discipline so that human temptations may not become so wild and uncontrollable as to flout the commands of the Great Master. To be a true servant of Allah, it is essential that man should be able to conform his behaviour to the moral and spiritual discipline embodied in the Shari'ah of Islam. One cannot achieve this end if one finds oneself helpless before untamed and turbulent desires. Fasting is indispensable for this moral and spiritual training.
Another distinguishing feature of Islamic fasting is that it does not train a person for complete renunication but for perfect and cheerful obedience to the Lord All those things from which man is commanded to abstain during fast, e. g. eating, drinking and sexual intercourse, become permissible for him at the end of the fast. This shows that Islam does not look down upon the appetite of flesh as something ignoble and thus fit to be exterminated root and branch from the human soul. According to Islam, there is nothing profane or ignoble in human personality: both soul and body are sacred and worthy of respect. No aspect is to be ignored and no urge is to be completely curbed. What is required is to keep all these urges well within their proper limits so that none of them transgresses natural bounds and becomes the source of trouble.
That fasting is an institution for moral elevation can be judged from the fact that Allah does not impose check only upon eating, drinking and sexual intercourse from dawn to sunset, but also exhorts His servants to refrain from other foul acts, for ex- ample, backbiting, indulging in foul speech, telling lies, etc. Abu Huraira reported Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: If one does not abandon falsehood and other actions like it, God has no need that one should abandon one's food and drink (Sahih Bukhari).
The social aspect of fasting in Ramadan is that the whole atmosphere is permeated with religious piety and devotion to Allah. There is one extra congregational prayer, Tarawih, during the night, in which the Qur'an is recited and the Muslim is reminded of the fact that it was in the month of Ramadan that the revelation of the Qur'an commenced. The sadaqqt are also given with greater zeal and fervour in this month. Thus the whole Muslim society is inspired by the love of God. Abu Huraira reported Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: When Ramadan begins, the gates of Heaven are opened, the gates of Hell are locked, and the devils are chained (Bukhari and Muslim).
Muhammad Asad, while elucidating the spiritual and moral significance of fast says:" Twofold I learned, is the purpose of this month of fasting. One has to abstain from food and drink in order to feel in one's body what the poor and hungry feel: thus social responsibility is being hammered into human consciousness as a religious postulate. The other purpose of fasting during Ramadan is self-discipline, an aspect of individual morality strongly accentuated in all Islamic teachings (as, for instance, in the total prohibition of all intoxicants, which Islam regards as too easy an avenue of escape from consciousness and responsibility). In these two elements-brotherhood of man and Individual self-discipline -I began to discern nhe outline of Islam's ethical out look" (Road to Mecca, London, 1954, p. 188).