We live in a time of instant gratification. One where we want everything immediately. Slogans are all about the immediate, “obey your thirst”, “have it your way”, and “just do it!” are statements we see and hear on a daily basis calling us to give in to what we desire. What if we paused for a moment and asked ourselves what would happen if we replaced instant gratification with delayed gratification? Fasting is a daily practice of delayed gratification. The purpose of fasting, according to the Quran, is to attain this thing called taqwa which is self-discipline that results from a consciousness of God.
What exactly is delayed gratification? It is often defined as the ability to resist the temptation of instant pleasure. Instead of giving in to temptation, you hold out in the hopes of getting a better or longer-lasting future reward. Put simply, delayed gratification means waiting for what you really want. On the other hand, instant gratification is settling for something immediate instead of waiting for what you want.
Many people who experience discomfort seek to immediately deal with it using temporary forms of relief such as drinking, drugs, gambling, or never-ending screen time. Every action we take is done in an effort to attain pleasure or avoid pain, and they are often done at the expense of each other. For example, if someone wants to lose weight, eating a donut brings immediate pleasure, but this is later followed by the pain of remorse. The solution to many of our problems often requires the path of delayed gratification. Delayed gratification, although more challenging, has remarkable returns on investment and allows people to avoid significant pain.
In 1972, a Stanford psychologist conducted an experiment called the Marshmallow test. In this study, a child was offered a choice between one small but immediate reward, or two small rewards if they waited for a period of time. In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT score, educational attainment, body mass index, and other life measures.
A more recent study that was conducted in 2020 found that children performed better on the Marshmallow experiment when they cooperated together. Fasting during the month of Ramadan encourages Muslims to practice delayed gratification on a daily basis, from sunrise to sunset. To make it easier for them, God has ordained that all Muslims do it together. It is only recently that studies have emerged about the benefits of delayed gratification, but these benefits are embedded in the Islamic ritual of fasting. God, in His ultimate knowledge and wisdom, does not want Muslims to face hardship, but knows that fasting will have a lasting impact that will be better for humans in the long run. In fact, the verse on fasting ends with God saying: Allah intends ease for you and He does not intend hardship (Quran 2:185).
Fasting instills in the person a sense of self-discipline that is completely between them and God. Because eating and drinking can easily be done without others knowing, the reality of whether one is truly fasting or not is between them and God. This instills a sense of honesty and truthfulness with oneself about their following the law. Fasting is meant to instill in people the ability to police themselves to do what is good. One does not need to refrain from stealing because there are cameras, but because God is watching and knowing that this is ultimately an evil thing to do. When you gain the ability to forego immediate pleasures for long-term goals, you ultimately become a happier person.
Self-control is at the core of fasting. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him said: “Whoever does not give up false speech and acting upon it, Allah has no need of his giving up his food and drink” (Bukhari). The Prophet, peace be upon him, also said: “If any one of you is fasting, let him not utter obscenities or act in an ignorant manner, and if anyone insults him or wants to fight him, let him say, I am fasting” (Bukhari). We see that refraining from food and drink is not the purpose of fasting, but the ability to control oneself.
In life, there is always a tradeoff. Do you want to play video games or study? Do you want to buy the latest gadget or save money for a home? Delayed gratification, although more difficulty, provides a better reward than one would get in the short term. Fasting the month of Ramadan helps instill the idea of delayed gratification in the lives of Muslims. Society today is obsessed with immediate gratification. However, is this ultimately good for us? The Quran gives us the formulas used by those who enter paradise and those who enter the fire.
Then as for those who transgressed and preferred the fleeting life of this world, the Hellfire will certainly be their home.
And as for those who were in awe of standing before their Lord and restrained themselves from ˹evil˺ desires, paradise will certainly be their home (Quran 79:37-41).