Fasting is the shield donned by the soul. It represents the human inclination towards the soul in the battle between the soul and the body.
Fasting in other faiths
According to this statement in the Holy Qur'an, all divine religions prescribe fasting:
The reason why fasting constitutes a form of worship in its truest form in all religions throughout history is the need to discipline human nature, which does not change, despite changes in time. Fasting helps a great deal when a person tried to adopt good manners, perfect their morality, refine their soul, as well as compensating for deficiencies, dislikes and inconsistencies in one's personality and manners.
However, in other religions, fasting has been stripped of its essential purpose as a form of worship and thus relegated to a sort of diet, with alterations being made to the acts that are forbidden during fasting and the length of the fast.
Why should we fast?
Fasting is one of the main five pillars of Islam and one of its greatest obligatory acts of worship. As we have mentioned when talking about the wisdom of worship, the greatest wisdom in fasting is respecting Allah and expressing our loyalty to Him as He has ordered us to; fasting is a manifestation of obedience and servitude to Allah. Waking up for the sahoor because Allah has ordered us to so, waiting for the call to prayer while we sit at our iftar tables, extending our hands and reaching for food because Allah has asked us to do so... What an incredible experience this is. Our Creator is educating us through fasting; He is teaching us how to submit to Him and express our obedience. He is teaching us to submit to Him and become attached to Him without questioning His commands.
Fasting in order to understand the value of Allah's blessings
Fasting allows one to completely appreciate the blessings of life, reminding us of the blessings that we have constant access to, and which we often take for granted. Through fasting we come to understand how wonderful and valuable a mere cup of water is.
Fasting to train our willpower
Fasting allows one to control their fondness of eating, drinking and sexual relations. The fast does not destroy the lust, rather merely breaking it and setting it on the correct path. It allows one to experience the joy of self-control. Fasting allows one to temporarily attain the level of the angels. As is known, the more a person becomes occupied with what is forbidden, the closer that person comes to Satan, while the more a person becomes occupied with what is allowed -- i.e. earthly matters (eating, drinking and other pleasures) the closer one becomes to animals. Fasting controls all of our hedonistic desires and informs us of what is truly important. As indicated by the Islamic scholar Elmalı Hamdi Yazır, "A human being's humanity is in their control over the desires of their stomach and genitals. If a person is to rise or descend morally, he will rise or descend for these two reasons."
As noted by Imam Ghazali, in his essence human beings have one desire: food. When a child, human beings have no desire or drive other than eating. Thus, all human desires stem from this. If you can teach human beings to control themselves regarding this matter, they may also learn to control themselves in other matters of lust. Fasting is the most important aid for the development of willpower and in avoiding the pressure of the nefsi ammara (the soul prone to evil).
Most problems that human beings experience in life are connected to willpower. Similarly, the development of the human being in every realm is related to their willpower. When we look at the matter as a deficiency in our religious lives, we see that, as stated in the words of Sheikh Yazır, "The power of our deeds are connected to our willpower, our willpower is dependent on the power of our belief." Thus willpower is the step between the deed and the belief. If a person has faith, but their willpower is weak then that belief will never reflect deed at the desired level.
Religiously speaking, we exercise our willpower five times a day. To perform the prayer five times a day, regardless of what else takes place on that day, is an incredible exercise of willpower. Allah has ordered prayer, fasting and almsgiving as ways to train the willpower, each having a different level of difficulty. Prayer teaches one to direct their lives. It is a way for people to show that they are in control of their time. Almsgiving is indicative of control over our possessions. A person who gives from their possessions as ordered is in control of their possessions, not vice versa. And fasting allows us to control our physical pleasures. When we imagine a person who performs all of these acts as has been ordained, we can see that they have a morality that is in control of their life, possessions and desires.
Fasting for ethical development
When we fast, we do not merely abstain from eating, drinking or engaging in sexual acts. At the same time we learn how to control of ourselves. While fasting, one must not engage in fighting, speaking badly, we should refrain from looking, hearing, touching or thinking things that are forbidden. One must keep their minds free of all forms of bad thoughts. Fasting is a total opportunity for spiritual training. Let us think of someone who began fasting around the age of 10 and is currently 30 years of age. This person will have received a total of 20 months of spiritual training. This 30-year-old will more easily be able to control themselves, refrain from saying the first thing that comes to their mind, not eating the first thing that they think of, or engaging in a physical relationship with every person they encounter.
Fasting is also a deed of the heart. While fasting, one must not speak in a bad way, nor think ill thoughts, even controlling themselves in terms of sexual thoughts so as not to harm their fasting. In this respect, fasting is the spice of life, a beautiful experience which helps one to understand the value of willpower and to reaffirm one's respect and self-esteem for themselves. A person who cannot devote all of their faculties to the fast may have physically fasted, but they have not captured its essences.
We cannot see such beauty and kindness in those who become angry while fasting due to their addictions, thus lashing out at those around them, using their fast as an excuse for their anger. There can be no better way to create aversion towards fasting in those around us. There are people around us who make people think, "Oh no, it's Ramadan again. What are we going to do?" Such people practically torture those around them for a full month. These Muslims, who have faith but make life difficult for those around them due to their addictions, need to exert extra effort to control themselves during this sacred time. There can be no greater opportunity for seeing how weak addictions can make a person. While fasting, Allah the Almighty opens our eyes to our willpower. He allows us the joy of being in control of ourselves and eliminating our decisions. This is a great source of joy. This experience also instills hope in us regarding our next spiritual step. Fasting is the epitome of all forms of disciplining the soul in Islam.
Every fast (indeed, every act of worship) certainly provides benefit to humanity in some way, shape or form. Some people who are not able to see this say "What kind of fast is that?" when they see the displeasing acts of those who are fasting, stating this disappointment in acts that they see are not compatible with fasting. What we really should be saying at times like this is, "And would they have done that if they had not been fasting?" before we assume that fasting makes them better or not
In all schools of Tasawwuf, in all tarikahs, fasting is an important method of training the soul. Our Prophet has stated, "There is not good in a believer whose state at the beginning of Ramadan is the same as his state at the end." We should examine ourselves in this respect during the month of Ramadan. We should, by the end of Ramadan, have added value to ourselves and our faith.
Fasting is a stone that is thrown at the ego. For this reason, Prophet Muhammad has advised that young people who cannot get married due to financial constraints, and are thus not able to fulfill their sexual desires through lawful means, should fast.
Fasting for intention and development of awareness
Just as in all other forms of worship, intention is very important in fasting. If a person does not eat anything from sunrise to sunset, but has not made the intention to fast, then they will not be considered to have fasted. Intention connotes resolve and awareness of an act. Intention is made in one's heart and its verbal manifestation is the Sunnah. Allah wants us to be cognizant of what we are doing. He wants for us to be aware and to perform a deed with an awareness of the deed that is being performed. Thus Allah makes us aware that acts which are not considered and decided upon with freewill are of no value.
Because we are not considered to be fasting if we have not made the intention and as no one else can know of our intention, fasting is an act of worship in which there is very little room for hypocrisy. And for this reason, of all the acts of worship, Allah rewards fasting the most. In a Hadith Qudsi narrated by our Prophet, Allah the Almighty says: "With the exception of fasting, all deeds are for man himself. Fasting is for me and I will reward it." The reward given for other acts of worship, which range between 10-700 times their value, has been lifted in the case of fasting, making its rewards unlimited.
Fasting in order to attain taqwa (piety through fear of Allah)
The verse in which fasting is proscribed (Surah Baqarah, 183) describes the goal behind this commandment as being, "so that you may gain taqwa." This verse is very important because it explains the purpose behind fasting. Why do we fast? What is our purpose? Allah the Almighty teaches us the reason. We want to be people of taqwa and we want fasting to bring us closer to this state. We must recall this verse at the beginning of every Ramadan and each time we make the intention to fast. Fasting, which is a path explained by Allah to attain love and fear of Him, is a path that will allow for us to refrain from evil, foul matters and the unlawful.
This verse is divine attestation to the wisdom, benefits and contributions of fasting to human beings in addition to the reason behind the ordainment of this act of worship. Taqwa is a term which encompasses all the reasons behind a person aiming to arrive at performing a religious act. All humane qualities can only be attained by person who has taqwa.
In order for fasting to fulfill its goal of allowing one to gain taqwa, one must not think of Ramadan as a mere festival of iftar dinners or a season of eating. Of course a human being needs to experience these joys as well. If no one else, our children need this joy and blessing that pleases one in order to perceive the month of Ramadan in a positive light. What matters is not stepping outside this acceptable criterium of celebration, not over-exaggerating or indulging, remembering that the Creator rewards us in multiplicity with each good act we perform. "Fast and find health," is a hadith which reiterates the point that Ramadan should not be perceived as a sort of month of feasting or celebrations.
Ramadan: The Sultan of the other 11 months
Ramadan is a month that is praised by Allah in the Qur'an, as it was the month that was chosen for the revelation of the Holy Qur'an and chosen according to the Qur'an (Surah Al-Baqarah, 184) among all the other months to be the month of fasting, a form of worship that is of high value. There are certain times that have been blessed so that we may become aware that our lives are fading away with the passage of time, so that we may come to our senses and compensate for the times we have spent in a state of ignorance, such as the month of Ramadan within the year, the day of Friday within the week and the time of dawn within the day. Acts of worship that are performed at these times are answered in multiplicity and give us the opportunity to make up for time lost. For this reason, they are special bestowments from our Lord.
Fasting and partaking in taraweeh prayers in order to increase the spiritual affect of fasting, as well as itikaf, where we cut our ties with the world and devote ourselves to prayer, are all acts of worship which we enjoy that increase our share of this blessed offerings, which we are familiar with through the advice of our Prophet.
According to our Prophet, another great bounty of our Creator is the chaining of Satan during the month of Ramadan. In this respect, Ramadan is a season of ease in the training of the ego. It is a period in which we are taken into training, both in terms of our morality and desires. In short, it is a period of opportunity. For this reason, all of our good deeds and worships, which we perform regularly in our lives, must be increased during the month of Ramadan. The fact that alms-giving has been made mandatory during this month as well as the giving of fitr (an amount that is sufficient to feed one person) indicates, as stated by our Prophet, that the winds of this month are more generous, encouraging us to increase not just our individual accomplishments, but social sharing, communal unity and cohesiveness as a Muslim community. Thus, Ramadan becomes a journey that is taken by all Muslims to a spiritual world.
Fasting outside of the month of Ramadan
Our Prophet indicates that in order not to limit the spiritual-physical benefits of fasting to the month of Ramadan, we should not remain content with fasting in the month of Ramadan, but rather there should be days throughout the year in which we make fasting a habit. The 13th, 14th and 15th of each lunar month, and Monday and Thursday of each week, in addition to other days of the week are suitable for voluntary fasting.
We must remember that the most valuable act of worship is that which has been made mandatory by Allah. Sometimes people are not able to comprehend their value and begin searching for "extra-curricular" worship. However, the most valuable form of dhikr is the recitation of the Qur'an; the most valuable form of salawat is that found in the prayer and the most valuable form of worship is that which has been ordered by Allah: prayer, fasting, pilgrimage and the supererogatory forms of these acts of worship. To search for innovative forms of worship while there are acts that have been advised by Allah and his Messenger, reaffirmed by the Qur'an and the Sunnah, is similar to a person who sits atop a treasure while searching for food in the garbage that surrounds him. What we must embrace most whole-heartedly is that which we know best.