The objective of the fast as delineated in the above quoted verses of Sūrah Baqarah is to create the fear of God in a person. The Qur’ānic words used are لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُونَ (that you may attain taqwā). In the parlance of the Qur’ān, taqwā means that a person should lead his life within the limits set by Allah and should keep fearing Him from the core of his heart that if ever he crosses these limits there will be no one except God to save him from its punishment.

How does the fast engender taqwā in a person? To understand the answer to this question, three things are necessary.

Firstly, the fast revives with full force the concept in the mind of a person that he is God’s servant. As soon as certain natural desires of the body are given up, the feelings of servitude spring forth and continue to enhance. These feelings totally overwhelm a person at the time of breaking the fast. Right from fajr to this time, a person does not consume a single bite of food or a single drop of water merely because his Lord has directed him to refrain from them. When the ritual of the fast is observed every year with vigilance, a profound reality is infused in a person and in fact becomes ingrained in his instincts: he is a servant of his Lord and it is only befitting for him that in other affairs of life also he submit to Him and fully accept His authority by making his concepts and deeds totally subservient to the Almighty. With this awareness, a person’s faith in the Almighty becomes a living and vibrant phenomenon. It is because of this that he does not merely believe in God but in fact believes in an All-hearing, All-seeing, All-knowing and All-wise Being Who is just and is fully aware of what a person conceals and reveals and in no circumstances can a person shun obedience. This is the foremost requirement for engendering taqwā.

Secondly, the fast is a means of making a person appreciate the fact from the bottom of his heart that one day he will be held accountable before the Almighty. Although all Muslims believe in this accountability, yet while fasting when the onslaught of thirst, hunger and carnal desire make life difficult for a person it is only this awareness of being accountable before the Almighty that stops a person from fulfilling these needs. For hours during the whole month of Ramadān, he abstains from these needs merely because one day he will have to face the Almighty. In the scorching days of summer when his throat becomes totally dry, he refrains from ice and water which he can easily access and consume; when spasms of hunger unsettle him, he desists from food which is at hand and when a husband and wife can easily satisfy their carnal desires they abstain from doing so – all in order to please the Almighty. This abstention requires a lot of effort. Thus the awareness of being answerable to God is fully implanted in a person. A little deliberation shows that this is the second most important thing in engendering taqwā.

Thirdly, patience is necessary for taqwā and it is the fast that produces patience in a person. In fact, to be trained in the trait of patience, perhaps there is no easy and effective a way than the fast. In a nutshell, the trial that we have been put through is that on the one hand we are pulled by our strong physical and carnal desires and on the other hand we are required by the Almighty to live a life within the limits set by Him. This trial requires that we exercise patience at every step of our life. If the traits of honesty, veracity, justice, forbearance, forgiveness, keeping promises, perseverance on the truth, avoiding evil and eschewing lust are not present in a person, taqwā has no basis and without patience these traits cannot be espoused in a person.

It is this taqwā which is the objective of the fast and the month of Ramadān has been fixed for it. It has been referred to above that the reason for this is that the revelation of the Qur’ān started in this month. What is the relationship of the Qur’ān with the fast? Imām Amīn Ahsan Islāhī answers this question in the following words:

A person who reflects will easily reach the conclusion that intellect is perhaps the greatest gift of the Almighty to man and the Qur’ān is even a greater gift because the intellect receives real guidance from the Qur’ān. Without the Qur’ān, intellect will continue to stumble in the darkness even if it is equipped with the eyes of science. It was only befitting that the month in which this great gift was given to mankind should be devoted to thank the Almighty and to glorify Him so that people are able to constantly acknowledge this favour. To express this gratitude and to glorify the Almighty, the ritual of fast was divinely ordained which is a means of engendering taqwā. It is taqwā upon which rests the basis of religion and its continued existence in this world and for whose followers this Qur’ān was revealed as guidance … in other words, the wisdom of the Qur’ān should be understood in the sequence that only they can truly benefit from the Qur’ān who have taqwā and one special way of attaining it is through the fast. For this reason the Almighty stipulated fasts for this month in which the Qur’ān was revealed. In other words, the Qur’ān is the season of spring for this world and the month of Ramadān is the season of spring and the crop which this spring nurtures and develops is the crop of taqwā.

This objective is necessarily achieved through the fast. However, for this, it is essential that those who fast must refrain from certain wrongdoings which strip the fast off its blessings. Although these wrongdoings are numerous, all those who fast must at least be aware of some of them.

The first of these wrongdoings is that people tend to make the Ramadān a month of savouring their taste buds. They are of the opinion that they will not be held accountable before the Almighty whatever they spend in this month. If such people are affluent too, then this month becomes a month of partying and festivity. Instead of making this month a means of disciplining their desires, they make it a means of nurturing them and spend all their time in preparing meals for the iftār. Throughout the time of fast, they keep thinking of the delicious food that would fill their bellies once they break their fast. The result of this attitude is that they do not gain anything from the fast in the first place and if ever they do, they lose it.

One way to tackle this bad habit is to desist from making eating and drinking one’s prime concern in life. One should eat and drink to sustain one’s self and to gather enough energy for work and not make these needs one’s goal. A person should eat whatever foodstuff is easily available to him and thank God for this provision. Even if he is served with something he does not like, he should not get angry. If he has been blessed with wealth, he should spend it on the poor and the needy instead of spending it on savoring his taste. Such spending will indeed add to the blessings of his fast. The practice of the Prophet (sws) in spending in the way of God is precisely this. Ibn ‘Abbās (rta) says that even in normal times, the Prophet (sws) was the most generous; however, in Ramadān, he would become an embodiment of generosity.

The second wrongdoing is that since hunger and thirst make a person short tempered, some people instead of making the fast a means to control their temper make it an excuse to vent it on others. They lose their temper on their wife and children and servants in very trivial matters. They seldom control their tongue and if the situation gets worse they don’t hesitate in hurling abuses and insults on others. So much so, at times they even thrash their servants. After such bouts of battering, they end up comforting themselves by saying that such things do happen in the fast. The Prophet (sws) has advised a remedial measure for such an attitude: the fast should be used as a shield on such occasions instead of making it an excuse for being enraged. Whenever a person gets infuriated, he should remember that he is fasting. The Prophet (sws) is reported to have said: “The fast is a shield; whoever among you fasts should not indulge in lewd talk nor be overcome by his emotions; then if anyone abuses him or initiates a fight he should respond by saying: ‘I am fasting, my brother, I am fasting.’” It is a proven reality that if a person who is fasting reminds and checks himself in this manner on every occasion he is annoyed, he will see that gradually he is able to control the devil within him and he will be seldom overcome by it. The feeling of being victorious over the devils of his desire will produce satisfaction and a sense of superiority and this reminder initiated by the fast will become a means of his reformation. He will then express his anger on instances which really entail such expression. No one will be able to annoy him on all occasions.

The third wrongdoing is that people try to find replacements for the food and drinks and other things that they have given up – replacements which they think do not harm the fast in any way thinking that they make it easy for them to spend the time of the fast. They will play cards, read novels and plays, listen to songs, watch movies and gossip with their friends and if they are not able to do these, they would end up backbiting and besmearing others. When a person’s stomach is empty, he relishes the meat of his brother in the form of backbiting. The consequence of this attitude is that at times people begin this activity in the morning and only at the time of breaking the fast do they leave it.

One way of tackling this failing is that a person should consider silence to be among the etiquette of keeping the fast and he should try to refrain from loose talk. The Prophet (sws) is reported to have said: “A person who does not desist from lying and practicing it, then the Almighty does not need him to abandon eating and drinking.”

Another remedial measure is that a person should spend his spare time in studying the Qur’ān and the Hadīth and in understanding Islam. He should make good use of this opportunity by learning some supplications mentioned in the Qur’ān and the Hadīth. In this way, he will be able to save himself from trivial involvements and later these learnt supplications would help him in constantly remembering the Almighty.

The fourth wrongdoing is that sometimes a person does not fast for God; he fasts merely to protect himself from the criticism and condemnation of his family members and acquaintances and sometimes he undertakes the hardship of fasting to feign religiosity. This too damages the real objective of the fast.

One way to rectify this tendency is that a person should always keep reminding himself of the importance of the fast and also reminding himself of the fact that if he has left so many cherished things of life, he should do this for the sake of the Almighty. Moreover, he should also try to keep some optional fasts besides the obligatory ones of Ramadān and he should try to conceal these optional fasts as far as possible. It is hoped that in this way the obligatory fasts too would one day be kept by him purely for the sake of Allah.

Following are the optional fasts which the Prophet (sws) himself kept or urged others to do so:

The Fast of ‘Āshūr(10th of Muharram)

Ahādīth mention the blessings of this fast. The Prophet (sws) generally kept this fast and before the fasts of Ramadān were made incumbent, he would necessarily keep it and would urge and direct people to keep it and would be vigilant on them in this regard. According to history, one of the reasons for which this fast was kept was that the Quraysh used to keep it and another reason recorded is that the Jews would keep it. When the Prophet (sws) asked the Jews, they replied: “This day has great significance for us; the Almighty liberated Moses (sws) and his people on this day and drowned the Pharaoh and his people in the sea; it is to express gratitude to the Almighty that Moses (sws) fasted on that day.” At this, the Prophet (sws) said: “We have deeper relations with Moses (sws) than you.” Consequently, he fasted on this day and also asked people to fast.

The Fast of ‘Arafah (9th of Dhū al-Hajj)

Every Muslim is aware of the blessings of this day. The Prophet (sws) is reported to have said that if a person fasts on this day then hopefully the Almighty will forgive his previous and next year’s sins. However, while offering the hajj, the Prophet (sws) did not keep this fast. A probable reason for this is that he did not prefer to add it to the hardship of the hajj.

The Fasts of Shawwāl

The blessings of these fasts are also mentioned in the Ahādīth. The Prophet (sws) is reported to have said that whoever kept the fasts of Ramadān and then followed them up with six fasts in Shawwāl is like a person who kept fasts all his life.

The Three Fasts of each Month

The Prophet (sws) has urged Muslims to keep these fasts and has expressed the same words he said regarding the fasts of Shawwāl referred to above. ‘Ā’ishah (rta) narrates that the Prophet (sws) himself used to keep these fasts. However, days were not fixed for them. He would fast any three days of the month he wanted to. He, however, directed certain companions (rta) to keep these fasts on the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth of each month.

The Fasts of Monday and Friday

The Prophet (sws) kept fasts on these two days as well. When people asked the reason, he replied: “The accounts of people are presented [to the Almighty] on these days.” He also said: “Monday is the day of my birth and on this very day began the revelation of the Qur’ān to me.”

The Fasts of Sha‘bān

Besides Ramadān, it is this month during which the Prophet (sws) would fast the most. ‘Ā’ishah (rta) says that she did not see the Prophet (sws) fast in any month to the extent he did in Sha‘bān.

Apart from the above mentioned optional fasts, people can keep optional fasts whenever they want to. The Prophet (sws) directed the people who wished to fast more to follow the way of the Prophet David (sws) who would fast on alternate days. The Prophet (sws) did not like people to only fast on Fridays nor fast all the year round. He also did not like people to fast during ‘īd days.