There are many important qualities that we need for calling people to Islam. When we look at how the obligation to fast was prescribed for the Muslim community, we can find valuable lessons for how some of these qualities can be cultivated and put into practice.
Lesson One: Gradualism
Islamic Law came in gradual stages. Ibn al-`Arabī says: “Islamic Law did not come all at once, and its details were not explained in a single instance. It came gradually, in increments, according to the needs of the community and the dictates of great wisdom.”
This is one of the unique qualities of Islamic Law. It applies to religious duties like prayer as well as religious prohibitions like alcoholic beverages. In the early days of Islam, prayers were all performed as two-units. Later, the number of units were increased for prayers offered at home and kept at two units for travellers.
`Ā’ishah said: “Allah first enjoined prayer as two units for residents as well as people on a journey. This remained the case for travellers, and the length of prayer was increased for those who were not travelling.” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī (350) and Sahīh Muslim (685)}
Likewise, the prohibition of wine did not happen all at once. It took place in three stages.
The same can be said for how fasting was prescribed. Some of the early Muslim scholars have told us that fasting had been a general prescription at the beginning of Islam. It has been said that at first, fasting was enjoined upon the Muslims as three days in every month. Before Ramadān was made obligatory, the Muslims were obliged to fast the day of `Āshūrā’. This may have been the first stage in fasting becoming obligatory for the Muslims.
`Ā’ishah tells us:
In the days of ignorance before Islam, the tribe of Quraysh used to fast the day of `Āshūrā’. The Prophet used to observe this fast as well. Then, when he came to Madinah, he continued to fast it and enjoined it upon others. Then, when the fast in Ramadān was revealed, it became the obligation instead, and fasting Āshūrā’ became optional for those who wished to do so.
Lesson Two: Facilitation
It is significant that the verse which prescribes fasting for the Muslims -- Sūrah al-Baqarah: 183 -- begins with an appeal to faith: “O you who believe!” This inspires the listeners to reflect on their faith in their Lord from the start, hearkening them to pay attention and take heed. Then, further encouragement comes in declaring fasting to be an obligation prescribed for them. Had fasting been presented as a recommended act, some people would be less vigilant in observing it.
Then Allah says: “...as it had been prescribed for those who came before you”, telling the Muslims that this obligation has not only been imposed upon them.
Then they are told that they are the ones who are intended by this command, and they are the ones to benefit from it.: “…that perchance you can be God-fearing.”
In the very next verse, Allah makes it clear that the fast does not go beyond a limited number of days. It is only for a short period of time. Even then, there are concessions for those who find difficulty. At the beginning of Islam, those who did not wish to fast could pay an expiation instead.
Even after this ruling changed, many concessions remained which became a permanent part of Islamic Law. One of these is the concession for those who are sick or on a journey to refrain from fasting and make up the missed days later on. Allah concludes this exposition with the words: “Allah want to make things easy for you. He does not want things to be difficult for you.” [Sūrah al-Baqarah: 185}
We see in this passage of the Qur’an many ways in which the obligation to fast Ramadān came in a conscientious way, taking into consideration the people’s needs and circumstances. There is a lesson in this for those who wish to call people to Islam. Here, Allah is calling the Muslims to an essential pillar of Islam, but we see over a dozen ways in which Allah uses a gradual approach, encouragement, and positive appeals to present this obligation. We see how Allah seeks to make things easy on the believers. This shows us that when we call people to righteousness, we should do so kindly and take it easy with them.
Lesson Three: Accessibility
We find this in Prophet Muhammad’s life, and he is our best example. Anas b. Mālik relates the following:
Three men came to the Prophet’s households, inquiring with his wives about how the Prophet worshipped Allah. When they learned about his practices, it seemed that they did not regard it as enough for them. They said: “Where are we with respect to Allah’s Messenger, for whom Allah has forgiven all of his past and future sins?”
Then one of them said: “I will fast without breaking my fast.”
Another said: “I will pray throughout the night and not sleep.”
And another said: “I will forsake marriage.”
When the Prophet learned of what had transpired between them, he said: “What is the matter with some people saying this and that, while I pray as well as sleep, I fast and break my fast, and I marry women? Whoever desires something other than my practice is not from me.” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī (5063) and Sahīh Muslim (1401)}
We find among the Pious Predecessors some of them conducting themselves within the limits of the Prophet’s Sunnah, but doing things that go beyond what following the Sunnah entails. Some of them wished to hold themselves to more than what was required of them. They had different strengths. Some of them had a tendency to be ascetic or had an inclination to study, or to spend in charity. When you read their biographies, it is difficult to imagine how you could ever match their devotion.
However, when we turn to the biography of the one they all emulate, and the one who is the best example for the believers to follow, we find that his example is within reach. This tells us something about moderation, especially in what we should expect from others.
When we wish to encourage people to better their lives, we should not make the path before them appear difficult. We should rather bolster their spirits and inspire them. When they decide to do what is right, Allah will give them the help they need.