The Quran prescribes fasting for believers in these words, “O you who believe, the fasts have been enjoined upon you as they were enjoined upon those before you, so that you may have taqwa” (2:183). Hence, the intent and effect of fasting as described in the ayah is to acquire taqwa. Presence of taqwa helps protect from committing sins and overcome the passions of flesh. There is no equivalent English word for taqwa. In Islamic terminology, taqwa refers to a state of consciousness where one constantly feels the presence of his Creator, obeys His commands to attain His pleasure, and avoids disobedience to Him, not only out of His fear but also for the love of Him.
Sayyidna Ubay Ibn Ka’b gave a comprehensive explanation of taqwa in response to a query from Hadrat Umar Farooq radi Allahu anhuma. Hadhrat Ka’b questioned, “O Amirul Momineen, have you ever walked on a path full of thorns?” Hadhrat Umar replied, “Yes”. Hadrat Ka’b then enquired, “What did you do?” In reply, Hadhrat Umar stated, “I gathered my clothing and lifted it up to my shin, thereafter I watched my steps and took each step carefully from the fear of thorns lest they prick me”. Hadrat Ka’b said, “This is taqwa”.
In Hadrat Ka’b elucidation of taqwa, the world is a like a passage full of thorns (sins), a believer treads through it very carefully saving himself from the harm of sinful actions and attractions by adhering to the do’s and don’ts of Islam.
Taqwa is a measure of a person’s real worth. A slave with a higher level of taqwa is better than the master, and a pauper with greater conscious of Allah is more respectable than a prince. Allah judges a person’s honor and esteem according to the level of his taqwa. In a hadith, Prophet Sallallahu ‘alaihi wassalam tells us that some people, who are poor, weak, and have no position in society, if they take oath by Allah, Allah will fulfill it because of their purity and strength of piety (taqwa). In the sight of Allah, the honorable are not the ones with wealth and position, but with taqwa. The most honorable is the one with the most taqwa.
A belief in Allah, His Prophets, and His Books will save a person from eternal condemnation, but mere belief minus taqwa will not be enough to save him from the punishment in the hereafter, except the one on whom Allah has mercy. A conscientious Muslim strives to develop taqwa in his life for he knows, “Allah will deliver those who had taqwa to their place of salvation: no evil shall touch them, nor shall they grieve” (39:61), and, that Allah has prepared jannah for the muttaqeen, people of taqwa. (3:133)
Human beings are weak and susceptible to fall into errors and sin; it takes a little distraction and heedlessness to slip from virtue to vice and from piety to perversity. To protect men and women straying from the path of righteousness and falling into transgression, Islam has chalked out spiritual programs on a daily and yearly basis for its adherents, if followed sincerely and faithfully it will greatly minimize the chance of straying from the right course.
Among the various program intended to awaken the spiritual life of a believer, Ramadan, the month of fasting, contains the most intense training to instill taqwa in the hearts of believers.
The paramount significance of Ramadan can be seen from the love and yearning the Holy Prophet showed for the month. He used to start preparing for Ramadan two months in advance in Rajab with the supplication, "O Allah, make the months of Rajab and Sha’ban blessed for us, and let us reach the month of Ramadan (allow us to live till coming Ramadan so that we may benefit from its blessings)."
Ramadan is a month of fasting from dawn to sunset. It is a month of special nightly prayers (travih). In one of its nights, good deeds performed are better than a thousand months of virtuous deeds. Itikaf, secluding into Masjid, away from worldly distractions, in the last ten days of Ramadan with the intention of seeking closeness to Allah, gives a tremendous boost to a believer’s spiritual life. Umrah in the month of Ramadan is as one has performed hajj in the company of the Holy Prophet sallallaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam. A voluntary good deed in Ramadan merits the same reward as an obligatory act in any other month, and an obligatory deed is rewarded seventy times over.
Of all the pious exercises connected with Ramadan, fasting is the main feature and the only obligatory act of the holy month. The remaining activities are supererogatory but of immense importance and value in breathing new life into spiritual body that may have become dormant during the year.
As heart is the spiritual center of the human soul, the belly is the center of sensual appetite. When the belly is pampered, the fleshly desires are stimulated, which in turn may lead to sin and arrogance and disinvest one of taqwa. On the other hand, controlling one’s appetite and eating just enough to satisfy hunger keeps a person away from lust and evil thoughts and the weakness of soul that comes with the over indulgence of food. A belly filled to brim tends to be rebellious, while a bit empty stomach remains calm and conforming.
Hence the Prophet, sallallaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam advised moderation in consuming food and drink, he said, "A human being does not fill any vessel worse than his stomach. Enough for the son of Adam are a few morsels to keep his back straight. If it cannot be avoided, then a third is for food, a third for drink, and a third for breath." He also said, "We are a people who do not eat until we are hungry and when we do eat, do not eat our fill."
As it is said that the “lusts of stomach leads to the lusts of the flesh”; satiety in food is sexual stimuli and sexual stimuli triggers sexual arousal. To an unmarried person gluttony may lead him to satisfy his desires in sinful ways. To reign in sexual temptations, fasting is recommended. Prophet Sallallahu ‘alaihi wa sallam said, “O young men! Whoever among you can afford to get married, let him do so, for it is more effective in lowering the gaze and protecting one’s chastity. Whoever cannot afford it, let him fast, for it will reduce his sexual desire”.
Fasting in the ordinary sense of the word simply means depriving the flesh from the pleasure of food and drink. The Ramadan fast also means the same, however, the physical abstinence from food and drink in Ramadan, with the intent to obey and worship Allah, takes a higher and nobler dimension, it becomes the nourishment of the soul.
A fasting person’s soul experiences an exhilarating sense of taqwa when on a long hot summer Ramadan day his throat is dry, stomach is growling, no one is watching him, and yet he abstains from taking a few sips of water or a few morsels of food. What makes him curb his desires in seclusion, away from the eyes of people? It is the consciousness of presence of Allah that causes him to control his hankering for sustenance and submit to Allah’s Will and Command. The voluntary denial of food and water to body nourishes the soul to be strong and virtuous and become a shield against the evil thoughts and acts, and a mean to protect from the hellfire. This is what the Holy Prophet meant when he eloquently said, “Fasting is a shield.”
However, a mere voluntarily abstaining from food and drink is not enough for the fast to be accepted or effective in purifying soul and inculcating taqwa. With giving up food and drink, it is imperative that the fasting person must also faithfully heed all prohibitions and perform all duties prescribed by Allah and His Holy Prophet. The Holy Prophet Sallallahu ‘alaihi wa sallam made this point abundantly clear in more than one of his sayings. At one occasion he said, “Whoever does not give up vain speech and evil actions, Allah is not in need of his fasting”, i.e. Allah will not accept his fasting.
In an another hadith, the Holy Prophet warned, "How many persons fast and get nothing out of their fasting except hunger and thirst and how many persons pray at night and get nothing out of it except sleeplessness."
These and other ahadith tell a fasting person that the fast from food and drink must accompany the fast of tongue for his fast to be valid and beneficial. Fast of tongue means one should completely protect his speech from vain talk and foul language including lying and slandering. Also, fasting without the five daily obligatory prayers is of little avail; it becomes devoid of spiritual benefits.
The fasting in the blessed month of Ramadan is of vital importance among the scheme of things that Islam has planned for a believer to secure the motivation and acquire taqwa. If done properly, fast will take a believer forward to the next eleven months to live in Allah’s Will.
Ramadan is aptly called a taqwa training month.