Living The Quran
From Issue: 998 [Read full issue]
Al-Baqara (The Cow) Sura 2: Verse 184
"(Fast) for a fixed number of days. But if any of you is ill, or on a journey, then a number of other days. For those who cannot bear it, a penance: the feeding of a poor person. And whoever does more good than he is bound to do does good unto himself thereby; for to fast is to do good unto yourselves, if you but knew it."
As a religious institution, fasting is as universal as prayer. Jews fast on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, one of the holiest days in Judaism. Hindus fast during certain times of the year, such as the Durganavami festival, to purify the mind and the body. Christians observe Lent, a period of renunciation in the run-up to Easter, and have been recommended by Jesus to fast (Matthew 6:16, 17). The monks of Mount Athos, being Greek Orthodox, fast up to 200 days in a year.
In Biblical times, fasting was a sign of mourning, sorrow, affliction, or approaching danger. The Quran institutes fasting as a form of worship, as both an individual and collective act, that has to be carried out for 'a certain number of days'.
Those who cannot fast, because they are too ill or too old, are asked to feed and help the poor instead. But if they can do much more than that, of their own free will, it is better for them.
Fasting involves hardship. The word used for doing 'much more' is tatawwu, which has the connotation of spontaneously doing good. It also means acting with effort. These two ideas are also connected with fasting itself: it is both an instinctively good act and one that requires effort. The last part of the verse, 'And whoever does more good than he is bound to do does good unto himself thereby; for to fast is to do good unto yourselves, if you but knew it' seems to acknowledge the fact that fasting requires serious effort. The idea of effort in all forms of Muslim worship is crucial. It suggests that as individuals and communities Muslims should inculcate the notion that serious effort is essential for genuine spiritual attainment.
Given all the physical hardship and effort required to fast, there are exceptions. People on medication or those travelling can fast an equal number of days when they have recovered or their journeys have ended. Those with prolonged afflictions, the disabled, the elderly, pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers, don't have to fast at all. They attain their spiritual benefits by putting in real effort in what they do as a substitute.
"Reading the Qur'an: The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam" - Ziauddin Sardar, pp. 130, 131