Fasting is an Education and Training
Commentary by Sayyid Qutb
Translation by Adil Salahi and S. A. Shamsi
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
O Believers! Fasting is decreed for you as it was decreed for those before you, so that you may remain God-fearing. Fast for a certain number of days. But whoever of you is ill, or on a journey, shall fast, instead of the same number of days later on. Those who find fasting a strain too hard to bear may compensate for it by the feeding of a needy person. He who does good of his own account does himself good thereby, for to fast is to do yourselves good, if you but knew it.
(The Cow, "Al-Baqarah" 2; 183-4).
It is only natural that fasting should be decreed to the nation which is duty-bound to launch a campaign of struggle to establish the Islamic way of life which Allah has laid down for mankind, and to call on people to accept it and to testify against them in respect of their attitudes to it. Fasting is a manifestation of man's determined will and his relationship with his Lord which is based on total submission to Him. It is also a demonstration of man's deliberate disregard of all his physical needs in order to win Allah's pleasure. These are necessary elements in the training of the believers so that they are able to bear the hardships of the way they have chosen. On both sides of it there are all sorts of pleasures and temptations which beckon its travellers, trying to force them off their course.
Fasting has numerous advantages for health which continue to be discovered as time passes. I am personally not inclined to relate religious duties to their physical advantages. I do not deny any benefit which scientists thus discover. It goes without saying that Allah takes into consideration the physical constitution of man. We must not however, relate our religious duties solely to what our limited human knowledge discovers.
Allah realises that man requires help and motivation in order to respond to duty and fulfill it regardless of its benefits. It takes time for man to get used to a certain duty and to be convinced of its wisdom. Hence, the decree of fasting starts with the address made to the believers which reminds them of their essential quality, that is, they believe in Allah. They are then told that fasting has always been a duty required of the believers in all religions. Its principal aim is their education and training so that their hearts acquire a high standard of sensitivity and purity and that the fear of Allah is well established in them: “Believers, fasting is decreed for you as it was decreed for those before you, so that you may remain God-fearing.”
To fear Allah, then, is the great aim of fasting which looms large before our eyes. As the believers fulfil this duty, in total obedience of Allah and in pursuit of His pleasure, they feel the quality of fearing Allah to be a life within them. This is indeed the quality which guards their hearts against spoiling their fasting by indulging in sin, even if it is of the type which only passes through the mind. Those who are addressed by the Quran are fully aware of the value Allah attaches to this quality of fearing Allah and being conscious of Him. Its acquirement is something for which they yearn. Fasting is a tool with which it is achieved. Hence, the Quran raises it before them as a noble objective.
Allah wishes to make things Easy
They are then told that fasting is prescribed only for a certain number of days. Exempted from it, however, are the sick until they have recovered, and the travellers until they have settled: “Fast a certain number of days. But whoever of you is sick, or on journey, shall fast instead the same number of days later on.”
Taken at its face value, the statement concerning the exemption of the sick and the travellers is general, unrestricted. Hence any illness or journey is a good reason for exemption from fasting, provided that compensatory fasts are held when those reasons no longer obtain. This is my understanding of this journey; it is related to sickness and travelling generally. The purpose of the exemption is that it is Allah's wish to make things easy, not hard, for man. We cannot claim to have full knowledge of the divine wisdom behind relating this exemption to sickness and travelling generally. There may be some hardships which may not immediately appear to us or we may tend to overlook. Since Allah has not attached this exemption to any particular reason, we refrain from making any judgement concerning it. We obey any statement Allah has made, even if its wisdom does not appear immediately to us. What is certain is that there is a wisdom behind it, whether we recognize it or not.
Islam does not compel people to be Obedient
Some people may fear that such an opinion may cause people to neglect their worship for any reason indeed, this is what has prompted Islamic scholars to adopt a more strict attitude and to lay down conditions. This argument, however, does not justify, in my opinion, attaching any restrictions to an unqualified statement made by Allah. Islam does not compel people to be obedient. Its method is to implant in them the consciousness of Allah so that they obey Him. The acquisition of the quality of fearing Allah is the particular aim of this worship. He who tries to use a certain concession made by Allah in order to evade fulfilling a duty is, in the first place, devoid of goodness. With such an attitude, the aim behind the religious duty cannot be fulfilled. We must not forget that Islam is a religion laid down by Allah. Allah knows best that this religion achieves a perfect balance between the relaxation of certain duties and strict adherence to duty. A certain concession may serve a certain interest which cannot be served otherwise. Indeed, this must be the case. Hence, the Prophet has ordered Muslims to make use of the concession Allah has allowed them.
If it so happens that people, in a particular generation, have become corrupt, their reform cannot be achieved through an extra strict application of Allah's rules, but through their education and motivation to acquire the quality of fearing Allah. If a strict application of the rules which govern human transactions may be used as a deterrent or as a means to prevent evil when corruption spreads, the same cannot be applied to matters of worship. Worship is a relationship between man and His Lord which has no direct effect on the interests of human beings, in the same way as the rules governing human transactions have. Appearances in matters of worship are irrelevant, unless worship is based on fearing Allah. If this quality is prevalent, no one would try to evade a duty or utilize a concession except when he is fully satisfied that making use of it is preferable, in obedience to Allah, in the particular situation in which he finds himself. A strict application of the rules which govern acts of worship generally or a tendency to restrict the exemptions which have not been qualified originally may cause some people to refrain from using them when they need them. Moreover, it has little effect in checking those who want to be evasive. It is far better to handle matters in whatever way Allah has made clear to us. He has far more wisdom than us.
As for the exemption from fasting in cases of illness, it appears to me that the exemption applies to every case which may be reasonably described as illness, regardless of its nature or intensity. It is compulsory for anyone who makes use of the exemption to compensate for the days of Ramadan for which he missed the fasting due to illness or travelling. Each day is compensated for by fasting one day any time during the year.
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