Why Do We Fast?

“Sit down and feed, and welcome to our table.”

William Shakespeare,
As You Like It


There’s a cool scene in Shakespeare’s play As You Like It, where the character Orlando encounters the exiled Duke Senior and his companions in the forest, who are just about to eat their dinner. 

Orlando, who is starving, desperately unsheathes his sword and demands that the Duke give him food, or die. Duke Senior tells him to calm down, and admonishes him for being a savage.

Duke Senior tells Orlando, “Your gentleness shall force, more than your force move us to gentleness.” 

Orlando replies, “I almost die for food, and let me have it.” The Duke remains calm and simply tells him, “Sit down and feed, and welcome to our table.”

In turn, Orlando is humbled by the Duke’s warmth and kindness, and he explains to the Duke that his hunger had led him towards desperation and violence. 

As I write this, it is the first day of Ramadan, the holy month when Muslims are obligated to fast. Naturally, I got to reminding myself on why fasting is so important, and I also thought about this scene. 

There’s a lot of wisdom in fasting, and it’s no coincidence that it is made a priority in not only Islam, but in other religions as well, including Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, albeit with varying rulings. 

As the scene tells us, hunger can bring out the worst in ourselves. After all, to eat and drink are part of our most basic physiological needs as human beings. When we’re starved from food and drink, our body practically screams at us to do something, anything, for its needs to be fulfilled, or we could possibly die. 

When we’re hungry, we get irritable, we get hangry

This is where the wisdom in fasting is. Fasting, especially as it is understood in Islam, views hunger as a sort of spiritual training ground — because if we can resist our hunger, we can be better equipped to resist other negative impulses that we may have. 

Even if you’re not a very spiritual person, you can at least relate with the hunger that you have, because you physically feel it. You can understand what it means for your heart to be in charge and say no to eating and drinking, when your body is starving. 

With that being said, fasting in Islam isn’t just about not eating and drinking per se. From dawn to dusk, we must also abstain from sex, as well as avoid indecent behavior such as lying, backbiting, and arguing. In a nutshell, fasting is meant to make us more mindful. 

As it is said in the Qur’an (2:183): “O believers! Fasting is prescribed for you — as it was for those before you — so perhaps you will become mindful (of Allah)”

And the beautiful thing about Ramadan is that fasting is only part of it. During this time, we are especially encouraged to not only increase our acts of worship, but our acts of charity as well, as we are promised great rewards for doing so. 

The Prophet (peace be upon him) himself is said to be “the most generous of people, and he was most generous during Ramadan,” according to hadith verified by Bukhari. 

The pang of hunger in our stomach is a reminder that there are many people in the world who are suffering. While this hunger may only be a dawn-to-dusk Ramadan thing for us, it’s an everyday thing for other people. We can decide to use this opportunity for us to be at our most generous, to give as much of ourselves as we can for the people who need it. 

Happy Ramadan, dear reader. I pray that this month would make you better in every way there is. May you only grow to be more empathic, kinder, and stronger in every sense of the word. 

Thinking back about the scene in As You Like It, yes, hunger can bring out the worst in ourselves, but only if we let it. Perhaps we can shift the focus away from our own hunger and towards that of others — and just like the Duke — we may find it in our hearts to offer a loving, caring hand. 

Hunger can also bring the best in ourselves. And that is what fasting is about. That is what Ramadan is.

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