Almighty Allah said I "You who believe Fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that you may (learn) self-restraint."
It is evident from this verse that fasting (siyam) is an ancient form of worship, prescribed for us Muslims as well as other nations which preceded us, ever since the time of Adam. Muslim scholars (ulamas) differed in their opinions as to what is specifically meant by the reference in the verse.
"Fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you..."
Some claimed that the verse referred to the time prescribed for the fast that is to say, that Allah commanded the Jews and Christians also to fast during the month of Ramadan. Jews and Christians, however, added more fasting days over and above the days of Ramadan, then shifted the fasting from Ramadan to other dates.
Other scholars said that the reference deals with the nature of fasting, in that it is an ordinance to abstain from things breaking the fast (muftirat) and forbidden acts (mahzurat).
Some believed that the reference is concerned with fasting as being an obligatory ordinance, that is, Muslims, Jews and Christians alike are called upon to observe it, but that we differ from them as to the time during which it falls and the manner of observance.
The commentary al-Manar has this to say of the fasting of Jews and Christians :
"Nowhere in the books of the Old Testament do we find any definite text to prove that fasting was prescribed. We simply find praise of fasting and commendation of those who fast. It is known that Moses has fasted for forty days and this proves that fasting was considered a form of worship. Nowadays, Jews fast one week in remembrance of the devastation of Jerusalem and they also fast one day in August. It is reported that the Jews were ordered in the Torah to fast the tenth day of the seventh month. They used to fast that day together with its night and it is probably what they used to term ashoura. There are other fasting days which they observe."
Likewise, there is no evidence in the known gospels of the new Testament to prove the obligatory nature of fasting so far as Christians are concerned. Fasting is simply mentioned as praise-worthy and is considered a rite. A person who fasts is ordered, according to the New Testament, to anoint his head and wash his face in order to remove all outward signs of the fast for fear that he might seem a hypocrite like the Pharisees. The best known and oldest of Christian fasts is that of Lent, which precedes Easter. It is the same fasting period observed by Moses and Jesus and his apostles. Church leaders prescribed other forms of fast including abstinence from eating meat, fish, eggs and milk. There are differences, however, among the various churches with regard to these prescriptions. Early Christians used to follow the fasting procedure observed by the Jews, partaking of only one meal every twenty four hours. It was later modified to fasting from midnight to mid-day.
According to the commentary Al-Manar, "Fasting is an ancient form of worship recognized by previous religions - even heathen ones. It constituted an essential part of every religion. It was known to the ancient Egyptians, from whom it passed on to the ancient Greeks, who used to enforce it, principally, upon their women. The Romans also observed the fast and pagans in India and elsewhere practise fasting to this day"
Other pagans who observed the fast include:
1) The Sabaeans of Harran : they were ordered by their religion to abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset for thirty days.
2) The Manoites (followers of Mani) : their religion commanded that they also abstain from food and drink in the same manner and for the same period.
3) The Indians have certain holy days upon which they fast. For certain spiritual ends they have to fast completely for a whole month. In order to attain some of those spiritual objectives they may fast a whole year, breaking the fast only once on the first day of each of the twelve months.
"That you may (learn) self-restraint." Allah followed up the command to observe fasting by these words :
"That you may (learn) self-restraint..." since genuine fasting helps us overcome lusts and thereby sets us at the beginning of the road leading to perfection.
To take this path, it is necessary to be always on the alert lest those lusts afflict the heart once more, and this is the meaning of taqwa or self-restraint.
(Taqwa) indeed, is a function of the heart and is a voluntary effort comprising the elements of caution, alertness and fear of God. The Prophet used to point to his chest saying:
"Here is the seat of taqwa."
According to Abu Sulayman al-Darani: The pious (al-Muttaqun) "are those whose hearts are purified by Allah from all lusts." In fact, once a person's heart has been thus purged, his actions will be for the sake of Allah, his speech addressed to Allah and his fate controlled by Allah alone. This would be the road leading to perfection.
Al-Bustani was once asked to define a pious person (al-Muttaqi). He said : "He is one whose speech is addressed only to Allah and whose work is meant for Allah".
Ubbay Ibn Ka'ab understood (taqwa) to mean cautiousness.
Once Omar asked him to define it and his reply was :
" Have you ever walked along a thorny road ?"
"Yes ." Omar answered ".
"What did you do ?" Ubbay asked.
Omar said : "I was cautious".
"That is taqwa", said Ubbay.