As you fast from what is ordinarily permissible, you learn to fast from what is prohibited at all times.
The questions about Ramadan are always pretty much the same. First there is interest in how we observe the sacred month, which began this week. Then there is shock at how intense the requirement of fasting is:
“Wait, so you fast all the way from before sunrise to sunset?”
“You can’t even drink water?”
“I could never do that.”
Don’t worry, it doesn’t cause us self-doubt, nor do we get offended. In fact, it’s pretty cool when your friends think you have superhuman abilities.
The reality, though, is that fasting is very doable, and rewarding. There are, of course, those Muslims who should not fast, due to illness or some other temporary condition; they are excused, and they make it up if and when they can. If someone is permanently unable to fast, they are required to feed a poor person for every day missed.
But most of us are able to overcome the effects of fasting within the first few days of Ramadan. You may miss your coffee, and fatigue and hunger still happen, but the body does adjust.
One question remains: Why do we fast during the month of Ramadan?
Firstly, it is a requirement in the Quran and pillar of Islam. The Quran states, “Oh you who believe, fasting has been prescribed upon you as it has been prescribed on those who came before you so that you may attain God-Consciousness.”
Fasting, in other words, has been the way of prophets and nations before us and is specifically intended to make us more conscious of our Lord. When we become mindful of our physical intake of blessings we otherwise mindlessly consume, we become more mindful of the one who bestowed those blessings upon us.
This has numerous intended benefits. The physical discipline of fasting also helps us to be more mindful of our spiritual consumption as well: The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) taught, for instance, that God has no use for the one who refrains from food but not from false speech, or lying and gossip.
Besides denying ourselves what is prohibited spiritually, fasting helps us live positively as well. Since sin is born out of ingratitude, fasting makes us more aware of our blessings, hence more grateful and driven to good. The end result of Ramadan mentioned in the Quran is that you “complete the term of fasting and glorify your Lord for what He has guided you to, and so that you may be amongst the grateful.”
This is what makes us more conscious of God: We become more conscious of his blessings. When we become more conscious of His blessings upon us, we become more conscious of how we use those blessings ourselves. We in turn become more conscious of those who don’t have regular access to those blessings that we are voluntarily refraining from. We become more intentional about channeling those blessings to those we may have otherwise forgotten.
The great Muslim scholar and sage Imam Ibn Rajab once said, “Some of the pious predecessors were asked, “Why has fasting been instituted? They responded, ‘So that the rich will taste hunger and thus will not forget the hungry.’”
So what may be lost on many of us regarding the fasting of Ramadan is that it’s just as much about filling our souls and transforming our society with goodness as it is about restraining our bodies from food and drink. We live our best selves in Ramadan; we fall in love with it despite its restrictions.
What may surprise some is that most Muslims actually enjoy Ramadan so much that they grieve when the month comes to an end. We miss reading the Quran throughout the day and in long nights of prayer, and pushing ourselves to be charitable through it all: charitable with our wealth, with our words and with our spirits to everyone around us.
We come to the realization that true happiness is in feeding the soul and being satisfied with your sustenance, that prayer is better than sleep and that charity is better than consumption.