In the Name of God, the Kind the Beautiful
Today, in many parts of the Muslim world, the month of Ramadan will start. Continuing until September 9, Muslims the world over will abstain from food, drink, sexual relations, and other sensual pleasures from 90 minutes before sunrise until sunset. And, I must admit, I am a little nervous becuase of the long, long, long days of August. This year, the fast will last from about 4:15 AM until 8 PM. Since the Islamic calendar, like the Jewish calendar, is a lunar one, the month of Ramadan moves earlier each year by about 11 days. Thus, it is not too long before we will have 17 hour fasts in the dreadful heat of the summer. In fact, Ramadan will be in the summer months for the next decade or more.
Those are real fasts.
And I fully admit that this dread I have is out of weakness: weakness to forgo food and drink for a portion of the day for the sake of the Precious Beloved. Yet, I do not hesitate to ask Him for everything I need in life, knowing that He will not fail to deliver. He won’t be “weak in the knees” when I ask Him for so many things. That’s why He is beautiful, and I am ugly.
That is why I need to stop and reflect about the essence of the fast: indeed, it is a spiritual – more than physical – exercise at increasing one’s piety. Indeed, fasting is a way for those who are more fortunate to feel for those who are less fortunate, those who forgo food and drink, not by choice, but out of sheer poverty. Indeed, fasting teaches one patience and generosity.
Yes, fasting is about all of those things.
But, as I thought about it more, the act of fasting comes down to one thing:love. It is all about love.
I am sure that some of you who have been reading me for a while now are rolling their eyes. Oh, here he goes talking about love again. But, truly, it is my belief that the fundamental basis of the relationship between God and humanity is one of love, not fear. There are many who claim otherwise, but it is simply not true. Even though there is no verse in the Qur’an that says, “God loves you,” I can tell by reading the Qur’an that love is gushing out of its pages.
We must all realize that God loves us…period. Because He loves us, then it is only right, proper, and honorable that we love God back. But, loving God is not simply an act of the tongue. Love is manifested in action. One cannot tell his spouse, “I love you,” but abuse her both mentally and physically. What sort of love is that? How can someone claim she loves her spouse, but cheat on him at the same time? Love is not in words… love is in action.
That is why fasting is all about love.
If we love God because He loved us first, then we should show God that love. And few things can embody that love for God than depriving ourselves of the things we love the most – food, drink, and sex – for sake of the Lord. Unlike all of the other acts of worship – prayer, alms, the pilgrimage – fasting is the only thing you cannot fake.
You can fake prayer: you can pray in front of other people so that they can say you pray. You can fake giving alms; you can fake going to Mecca. But you can’t fake fasting. If you are not fasting, you will eat when no one else is looking. In fact, the true challenge of the fast is what to do when no one else is looking: when your hunger and thirst are at their peak, and no one will ever know if you cheated and took a sip of water, or a piece of candy, or a bite of food.
What do you do then? Do you cheat? Or, do you continue to fast when it is at its most difficult (assuming, of course, you are not sick, and it is not dangerous to your health. In that case, it is imperative not to fast).
That is how we can show our love for God: by fasting for His sake. That is why God says in a “Sacred Prophetic saying” that: “He has left his food, drink, and desires for My sake. The fast is for Me. So I will reward (the fasting person) for it, and the reward of good deeds is multiplied ten times.” (Bukhari) When we fast, especially in the coming hot months of summer, we don’t just “talk the talk,” but we “walk the walk.”
And the reward for fasting is so immense: God Himself will give the reward for fasting. God Himself, Who has infinity at His disposal, will reward us Himself for fasting. The hadith literature is full of the rewards of fasting. The month of Ramadan is the month of mercy and forgiveness. It is one of the many, many embodiments of God’s love for us. There is so much opportunity for us to get closer to Him and shed our almost innumerable sins against Him by simply forgoing food and drink during the day.
It is really a small investment with an enormous and infinite return. And all because… God loved us first.
(Photo: John Curley)
Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is called God, Faith, and a Pen.