وَأَنْ تَصُومُوا خَيْرٌ لَكُمْ ۖ إِنْ كُنْتُمْ تَعْلَمُونَ
Wa-an tasūmū khayrun lakum in kuntum ta‘lamūn
And that you fast is better for you, if only you knew.
(Sūratِ al-Baqarah, No 2, Āyat 184)
With the approach of the holy month of Ramadan in a few days, Muslims around the world are preparing to fast. In obedience to the command of Allah ‘azza wa-jall they will abstain from food, drink, sexual gratification, as well as other things, during the days of the holy month. It is a time of worship and spirituality; Islamic centers all over will be abuzz with throngs of people gathering for the evening prayers and recitation of the Holy Quran.
The month of Ramadan is a venerated guest that brings with it many blessings for us. The fasts during the day and the worship at night make this a special experience. But it is not always easy to fast. It requires faith and patience. What helps is the perspective that none other than God, in His wisdom, has prescribed this for the human being. There is much good in it, both physically as well as spiritually. In the verse above which is part of a passage on the month of Ramadan, Almighty Allah says it is better for you to fast if only you understood its benefits. All acts of worship commanded by Allah subhānahu wa-ta’ālā for human beings are for the benefit of human being himself. There is no benefit to God. He only prescribes it as He knows what exactly is required for human progress towards perfection.
Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī outlines the various benefits of fasting in his Tafsir of this verse. He says among the most important benefits is the refining of the soul. Fasting makes it softer and purer, more disciplined and stronger. It sets the human being apart from animals who eat at the dictates of their desires. It generates inner strength and an ability to tolerate hardship. it strengthens the will and makes a person determined and focused. Imam Ali ‘alayhis salām explains this philosophy of fasting in Nahjul Balāgha: Allah has laid down . . . fasting as a trial for the sincerity of mankind (Saying 262).
Fasting also has social benefits. It helps the wealthy understand the state of the underprivileged. Remaining hungry and thirsty allows a believer to physically experience what other people may be forced to go through. It brings compassion and understanding. A man wrote a letter to Imam Hasan al-‘Askarī (a) asking him: “For what reason did Allah make fasting compulsory?” The Imam (a) wrote in reply: God has made fasting compulsory so that the rich shall find the pain of hunger, so they have a mercy upon the poor (Bihār, v.96, p.339).
The health benefits of fasting are indisputable. Science and medicine have always talked about fasting as a means of maintaining health. The Holy Prophet (s) has said: fast and you will be healthy (quoted in Tafsīr Namūne)
All these benefits pale in comparison to the ultimate of all benefits, the closeness to Allah (swt) that the fast brings. Those who fast in the true sense of the word fast from all things other than achieving Allah’s pleasure. They fill the mind and heart with God alone and detach from all else. This is the fast of the heart, a much higher stage than the fast of the body. It is what all fasting believers aspire towards.
Let this verse remind you that there is much good in fasting. We may or may not be aware of all its benefits but there is no doubt much wisdom in the command to fast the month of Ramadan. May we be from those who benefit fully from the month.
Sources: Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (Ed.), Tafsīr-e Namūneh