The purpose of fasting in Islam

In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful

The purpose of fasting is to develop the quality of righteousness (taqwa), inwardly and outwardly, by abstaining from sinful deeds and training ourselves to control our thoughts and desires. Fasting is a deeply spiritual practice that is meant to benefit us in body, mind, and heart.

Allah said:

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا كُتِبَ عَلَيْكُمُ الصِّيَامُ كَمَا كُتِبَ عَلَى الَّذِينَ مِن قَبْلِكُمْ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُونَ

O you who have faith, fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, that you may become righteous.

Surat al-Baqarah 2:183

The word taqwa comes from the root meaning “to guard” and it is variously translated as mindfulness, righteousness, and Godfearing piety. Fasting is meant to instill this noble quality within us and its associated virtues of good character, generosity, patience, purity of heart and mind, and so on.

Ibn al-Jawzi concisely states the purposes of fasting in general, and Ramadan in particular, writing:

وَلِلصَّوْمِ آدَابٌ يَجْمَعُهَا حِفْظُ الْجَوَارِحِ الظَّاهِرَةِ وَحِرَاسَةُ الْخَوَاطِرِ الْبَاطِنَةِ فَيَنْبَغِي أَنْ يُتَلقَّى رَمَضَانُ بِتَوْبَةٍ صَادِقَةٍ وَعَزِيمَةٍ مُوَافِقَة وَيَنْبَغِي تَقْدِيمُ النِّيَّةِ وَهِيَ لازِمَةٌ فِي كُلِّ لَيْلَةٍ وَلا بُدَّ مِنْ مُلازَمَةِ الصَّمْتِ عَنِ الْكَلامِ الْفَاحِشِ وَالْغِيبَةِ فَإِنَّهُ مَا صَامَ مَنْ ظَلَّ يَأْكُلُ لُحُومَ النَّاسِ وَكَفُّ الْبَصَرِ عَنِ النَّظَرِ إِلَى الْحَرَامِ وَيَلْزَمُ الْحَذَرَ مِنْ تِكْرَارِ النَّظَرِ إِلَى الْحَلالِ

Fasting has etiquette which can be summarized as guarding the outward limbs and keeping watch over inward thoughts. One should receive Ramadan in a state of sincere repentance and corresponding determination. One should precede with intention, which is required every night (before fasting), and one must necessarily be silent from speaking evil words and from backbiting, for he is not fasting who continues to eat the flesh of people. One should restrain his gaze from looking upon the unlawful and he must be cautious from returning his sight again and again, even if it is lawful.

Source: al-Tabṣirah li-Ibn al-Jawzī 1/74

We are to take extra precaution to avoid outwards sins and bad inward thoughts while fasting, especially staying away from sins of the tongue like backbiting. In this way, fasting acts as a shield which protects us from sin and ultimately from the punishment of Allah in the Hereafter.

Uthman ibn Abi al-‘As reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

الصِّيَامُ جُنَّةٌ مِنْ النَّارِ كَجُنَّةِ أَحَدِكُمْ مِنْ الْقِتَالِ

Fasting is a shield from the Hellfire, just like a shield of yours in battle

Source: Sunan Ibn Mājah 1639, Grade: Sahih

There are three levels of fasting that correspond to its outward and inward components: abstaining from food and drink, abstaining from sins, and abstaining from bad thoughts.

Al-Ghazali writes:

اعْلَمْ أَنَّ الصَّوْمَ ثَلَاثُ دَرَجَاتٍ صَوْمُ الْعُمُومِ وصوم الخصوص وصوم خصوص الخصوص وَأَمَّا صَوْمُ الْعُمُومِ فَهُوَ كَفُّ الْبَطْنِ وَالْفَرْجِ عَنْ قضاء الشهوة كما سبق تفصيله وَأَمَّا صَوْمُ الْخُصُوصِ فَهُوَ كَفُّ السَّمْعِ وَالْبَصَرِ وَاللِّسَانِ وَالْيَدِ وَالرِّجْلِ وَسَائِرِ الْجَوَارِحِ عَنِ الْآثَامِ وَأَمَّا صوم خصوص الخصوص فصوم القلب عن الهضم الدَّنِيَّةِ وَالْأَفْكَارِ الدُّنْيَوِيَّةِ وَكَفُّهُ عَمَّا سِوَى اللَّهِ عز وجل بالكلية

Know that there are three degrees of fasting: the fasting of common people, the fasting of the elite, and the fasting of the elite of the elite. As for the fasting of the common people, it is restraining the stomach from fulfilling its desires, as has been mentioned. As for the fasting of the elite, it is restraining one’s hearing, sight, tongue, hands, feet, and all limbs from sin. As for the fasting of the elite of the elite, it is the fasting of the heart from unworthy concerns and worldly thoughts and to restrain it entirely from everything besides Allah Almighty.

Source: Iḥyāʼ Ulūm al-Dīn 1/234

Hence, we must be especially careful to guard ourselves from all kinds of sin while we are fasting. We should abandon unbeneficial speech, specifically arguing and debating with others. If anyone tries to argue with us while we are fasting, we should simply respond by saying we are fasting and leave them.

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

إِذَا أَصْبَحَ أَحَدُكُمْ يَوْمًا صَائِمًا فَلَا يَرْفُثْ وَلَا يَجْهَلْ فَإِنْ امْرُؤٌ شَاتَمَهُ أَوْ قَاتَلَهُ فَلْيَقُلْ إِنِّي صَائِمٌ إِنِّي صَائِمٌ

When one of you wakes up in the morning for fasting, then he should not use obscene language or behave foolishly. If anyone abuses him or fights with him, he should say twice: Indeed, I am fasting.

Source: Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 1151, Grade: Sahih

In another narration, the Prophet said:

إِنَّ الصِّيَامَ لَيْسَ مِنَ الأَكْلِ وَالشُّرْبِ فَقَطْ إِنَّمَا الصِّيَامُ مِنَ اللَّغُوِ وَالرَّفَثِ فَإِنْ سَابَّكَ أَحَدٌ أَوْ جَهِلَ عَلَيْكَ فَقُلْ إِنِّي صَائِمٌ

Verily, fasting is not only from eating and drinking. Rather, fasting is from vanity and obscenity. If someone abuses you or acts foolish against you, then say: Indeed, I am fasting.

Source: Ṣaḥīḥ Ibn Ḥibbān 3561, Grade: Sahih

And in another narration, the Prophet said:

لَا تُسَابَّ وَأَنْتَ صَائِمٌ فَإِنْ سَابَّكَ أَحَدٌ فَقُلْ إِنِّي صَائِمٌ وَإِنْ كُنْتَ قَائِمًا فَاجْلِسْ

Do not insult anyone while you are fasting. If anyone insults you, then say: Indeed, I am fasting. If you are standing, then sit down.

Source: Ṣaḥīḥ Ibn Khuzaymah 1994, Grade: Sahih

Umar ibn al-Khattab, may Allah be pleased with him, said:

لَيْسَ الصِّيَامُ مِنْ الطَّعَامِ وَالشَّرَابِ وَحْدَهُ وَلَكِنَّهُ مِنْ الْكَذِبِ وَالْبَاطِلِ وَاللَّغْوِ وَالْحَلِفِ

Fasting is not merely from food and drink alone. Rather, it is from lies, falsehood, vain talk, and swearing.

Source: Muṣannaf Ibn Abī Shaybah 8882

Jabir, may Allah be pleased with him, said:

إذَا صُمْتَ فَلْيَصُمْ سَمْعُكَ وَبَصَرُكَ وَلِسَانُكَ عَنِ الْكَذِبِ وَالْمَآثِمِ وَدَعْ أَذَى الْخَادِمِ وَلْيَكُنْ عَلَيْكَ وَقَارٌ وَسَكِينَةٌ يَوْمَ صِيَامِكَ وَلَا تَجْعَلْ يَوْمَ فِطْرِكَ وَيَوْمَ صِيَامِكَ سَوَاءً

When you fast, then let your hearing, seeing, and tongue fast as well from falsehood and sins, and avoid harming your servants. Rather, you must have dignity and tranquility on the day of your fasting. Do not make days you do not fast and days you fast as if they were the same.

Source: Muṣannaf Ibn Abī Shaybah 8880

Mujahid, may Allah have mercy on him, said:

خَصْلَتَانِ مَنْ حَفِظَهُمَا سَلِمَ لَهُ صَوْمُهُ الْغِيبَةُ وَالْكَذِبُ

Whoever is safe from two characteristics will secure his fasting: backbiting and falsehood.

Source: Faḍāʼil al-Awqāt 65

Ibrahim al-Nakha’i, may Allah have mercy on him, said:

كَانُوا يَقُولُونَ يعني السلف الْكَذِبُ يُفْطِرُ الصَّائِمَ

The righteous predecessors used to say that telling lies will break the fast.

Source: Muṣannaf Ibn Abī Shaybah 8888

Abu al-‘Alyiah, may Allah have mercy on him, said:

الصَّائِمُ فِي عِبَادَةٍ مَا لَمْ يَغْتَبْ وَإِنْ كَانَ نَائِمًا عَلَى فِرَاشِهِ

The fasting person is in an act of worship as long as he does not backbite anyone, even if he is sleeping on his bed.

Source: al-Zuhd li Hannād ibn al-Sarī 1202

Maymun ibn Mihran, may Allah have mercy on him, said:

إِنَّ أَهْوَنَ الصَّوْمِ تَرْكُ الطَّعَامِ وَالشَّرَابِ

Verily, the easiest part of fasting is leaving food and drink.

Source: Shu’ab al-Imān 3373

Saying this is as much a reminder to ourselves as it is to others. When we are tempted to commit sins or engage in bad thoughts while fasting, we should remind ourselves that we are fasting and change our thinking towards something good and beneficial.

If we do not abstain from bad words while fasting, as well as sins and bad inward statements, then our fasting has not achieved one of its most important purposes. Allah certainly does not need any of us to fast, so we must remember that the benefits of our fasting might be nullified by these sins.

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

مَنْ لَمْ يَدَعْ قَوْلَ الزُّورِ وَالْعَمَلَ بِهِ فَلَيْسَ لِلَّهِ حَاجَةٌ فِي أَنْ يَدَعَ طَعَامَهُ وَشَرَابَهُ

Whoever does not leave evil words and deeds while fasting, Allah does not need him to leave food and drink.

Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 1903, Grade: Sahih

In another narration, the Prophet said:

رُبَّ صَائِمٍ لَيْسَ لَهُ مِنْ صِيَامِهِ إِلَّا الْجُوعُ

A person might fast and he gets nothing from his fast but hunger.

Source: Sunan Ibn Mājah 1690, Grade: Sahih

And ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, may Allah be pleased with him, said:

لَيْسَ الصِّيَامُ مِنَ الطَّعَامِ وَالشَّرَابِ وَحْدَهُ وَلَكِنَّهُ مِنَ الْكَذِبِ وَالْبَاطِلِ وَاللَّغْوِ وَالْحَلِفِ

Fasting is not merely from food and drink. Rather, it is from lies, falsehood, vain talk, and swearing.

Source: Muṣannaf Ibn Abī Shaybah 8683

In addition to keeping away from sins, we can use the exercise of fasting as a means to develop self-control over our lower desires. Fasting generates will power within the heart that can be transferred to other situations in which we need to overcome temptation.

Zuhair reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

إِذَا دُعِيَ أَحَدُكُمْ إِلَى طَعَامٍ وَهُوَ صَائِمٌ فَلْيَقُلْ إِنِّي صَائِمٌ

If one of you is invited to a meal while he is fasting, then let him say: Indeed, I am fasting.

Source: Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 1150, Grade: Sahih

If we can turn down a delicious meal and refreshing drink when we are hungry and thirsty, then we can strengthen our motivation to overcome other desires as well. For this reason, the Prophet (ṣ) told young men who could not get married to fast in order to control their natural urges.

Ibn Mas’ud reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

يَا مَعْشَرَ الشَّبَابِ مَنْ اسْتَطَاعَ مِنْكُمْ الْبَاءَةَ فَلْيَتَزَوَّجْ فَإِنَّهُ أَغَضُّ لِلْبَصَرِ وَأَحْصَنُ لِلْفَرْجِ وَمَنْ لَمْ يَسْتَطِعْ فَعَلَيْهِ بِالصَّوْمِ فَإِنَّهُ لَهُ وِجَاءٌ

O young men, if you are able to support a wife, then get married. Verily, it restrains the eyes and protects the private parts. Whoever is not able to do so, then he must fast as it is a means of control.

Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 1905, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi

Fasting should also be a means of gaining control over our anger. True strength is in the ability of a person to control his or her mind and behavior while they are being provoked to anger. For this reason, we should not argue or respond to the bad words of others while fasting.

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

 لَيْسَ الشَّدِيدُ بِالصُّرَعَةِ إِنَّمَا الشَّدِيدُ الَّذِي يَمْلِكُ نَفْسَهُ عِنْدَ الْغَضَبِ

The strong are not the best wrestlers. Verily, the strong are only those who control themselves when they are angry.

Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 6114, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi

Moreover, fasting is a means of acquiring compassion for the poor and gratitude for the favors of Allah. When we feel the the pain of hunger, we have to remember that many people in the world go hungry without choosing to do so. We should sympathize with their pain and help them as much as we can. Reflecting on the situation of those in need will also generate gratitude to Allah and contentment for the blessings in our lives.

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace  and blessings be upon him, said:

انْظُرُوا إِلَى مَنْ أَسْفَلَ مِنْكُمْ وَلَا تَنْظُرُوا إِلَى مَنْ هُوَ فَوْقَكُمْ فَهُوَ أَجْدَرُ أَنْ لَا تَزْدَرُوا نِعْمَةَ اللَّهِ

Look to those lower than you and do not look to those above you, lest you view the favors of Allah as trivial.

Source: Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2963, Grade: Sahih

Hassan ibn Ahmad reported: He asked the commander of the faithful Al-Ma’mun ‘Ali ibn Musa al-Rida, may Allah have mercy on him, “Is there any benefit to fasting in the wisdom?” Al-Ma’mun said:

عَلِمَ اللَّهُ مَا يَنَالُ الْفَقِيرُ مِنْ شِدَّةِ الْجُوعِ فَأَدْخَلَ عَلَى الْغَنِيِّ الصَّوْمَ لِيَذُوقَ طَعْمَ الْجُوعِ ضَرُورَةً حَتَّى لا يَنْسَى الْفَقِيرَ مِنْ شِدَّةِ الْجُوعِ

Allah Almighty knows what the impoverished endure of severe hunger, so He made the rich perform fasting that by necessity they might taste the flavor of hunger, until they do not forget the severe hunger of the impoverished.

Source: Tārīkh Baghdād 18/161

Ibn Rajab reported: Some of the righteous predecessors were asked, “Why has fasting been instituted?” They said:

ليذوق الغني طعم الجوع فلا ينسى الجائع

That the rich will taste hunger and thus will not forget the hungry.

Source: Laṭāʼif al-Maʻārif 1/168

Finally, the ultimate end goal of developing virtues, performing good deeds, and controlling our sinful passions is to be forgiven for our sins and to be admitted into Paradise.

Abu Umamah reported: I said, “O Messenger of Allah, tell me a deed to do.” The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

عَلَيْكَ بِالصَّوْمِ فَإِنَّهُ لَا عَدْلَ لَهُ

You must fast, for there is nothing equal to it.

Source: Sunan al-Nasā’ī 2223, Grade: Sahih

Jabir reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

إِنَّ لِلَّهِ عِنْدَ كُلِّ فِطْرٍ عُتَقَاءَ وَذَلِكَ فِي كُلِّ لَيْلَةٍ

Verily, Allah has people He redeems at the time of breaking fast, and that is during every night.

Source: Sunan Ibn Mājah 1643, Grade: Sahih

We ask Allah Almighty to accept our fasting and instill within us all of its virtues, both outward and inward.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.