Abu Hurairah relates that the Holy Prophet, peace be upon him, said: “Allah, the Lord of Honor and glory says: All other deeds of man are for himself, but his fasting is purely for Me and I shall reward him for it. The fast is a shield. When any of you is fasting he should abstain from loose talk and noisy exchanges. . . [T]he breath of one who is fasting is purer in the sight of Allah than the fragrance of musk. One who fasts experiences two joys: he is joyful when he breaks his fast, and he is joyful by virtue of his fast when he meets his Lord” (Bukhari and Muslim).”
Allah declares that fasting is purely for Him, Subhana wa Ta’ala (Glorified and Exalted). All other deeds that man does, he does for himself. There is a mystery about fasting that sets it apart from other forms of ibadah. Hajj is always public. Salat earns more merit if it is done in public (for men). Zakat can be done relatively privately, yet it involves multiple people including the donor, the recipient, and often intermediaries to ensure it is properly distributed. Yet fasting is inherently private. The only ones who can be certain that you are fasting are you and Allah (SWT).
The fast is a shield. Fasting should prevent us from committing sins. Unfortunately, the way many of us fast, fasting does not perform this function. We think that if we have gone without food and drink, we have succeeded. We need to push beyond this and realize that fasting should raise us higher. I think the problem is that we are satisfied with too little progress. We are so proud of ourselves when we complete a day of fasting or a night of Taraweeh. Why is it in Shawwal, we struggle to do more than 4 rakahs of Isha? Why are the six fasts of Shawwal so much harder to do than the 30 fasts of Ramadan? I think it is because we have lost the appreciation of excellence in religion. We just want to be good enough Muslims. The idea of becoming the best Muslims in the world does not even occur to us.
Still, I do not want to leave on a sour note. We should reflect on how the fasting that Muslims do inspires awe from people of other religions, even religions that themselves teach fasting. The lesson in this is that if we dedicate ourselves to Islam, there is no limit to our spiritual progress.