When Ramadan comes and it is time to fast I have discussions with friends on how to best fast. For example, if Ramadan occurs in the May-to-July period, and we live in Northern countries with almost 18 or more hours between sunrise and sunset the question of whether it is permissible to use some other daylight standard (such as based on the sunrise to sunset interval in Mecca) is asked. My friends follow different rulings by different scholars on this and similar kinds of questions on what is permissible and what is not as we live in complicated situations.
Important as these discussions are, we almost always forget the equally important question of how we should live so our fasting pleases Allah. The prophets had much to say about this and their message about living for proper fasting is as important for us today as it was when they lived.
The Prophet Isaiah (PBUH) lived in a time (see historical timeline) when the believers practiced their religious obligations (like prayers and fasting) strictly, so they were religious,
but it was also a time of great corruption. (See article introducing Zabur for overview of this period). The people were full of fighting, corruption and disputes. That sounds like us today does it not? So this message is important for us too.
58 “Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
2 For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’
“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings. (Isaiah 58: 1-12)
Do not these promises for true living with fasting sound wonderful? But the people in that time did not listen to them and other messages warning them of judgment if they did not repent (see here on what the prophet Yahya PBUH taught about repenting). So they were judged as Prophet Musa (PBUH) had prophesied in Taurat (here). This message remains as a sign and warning to us since how the prophet described the way they were living while fasting sounds like us today.
We each have to decide if we will obey this message and repent from how we are living and treating each other. But it will be of no use to fast, with whatever fasting rules our imams permit, and still fail to please Allah by living in a way that displeases him.