Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Meaning and Dimensions of Fasting in Ramadan

"The real fast is the blossoming of the inner heart. Fragrance must emanate. The qualities, conduct, behavior, and disposition that accompany this blossoming make no sound. Light and fragrance must dawn in the inner heart. The one point which is God must resplend.

Do fast, but make sure the heart blossoms; make it fragrant. The flowering scent must emanate, and when that space is perceived, the One who inhales that perfume will come. The One who perceives that fragrance will come.

He is the Lord."

- The Fast of Ramadan, Inner Heart Blossoms,
by M. R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen


"Turn unto Him with Fasting" - St. James

The most anticipated month in Muslim calendar is the 9th month of lunar calendar, which is the blessed month of Ramadan. This is the month of spiritual renewal and rebirth. It is a month to teach how to be in the 'world' and still remaining above it and how to be with God secretly. Depending when the new moon will be visible, Ramadan this year most probably begins from 22nd August all over the world.

God invites all who securely believe to observe fasting in this month and those who are unable to do so for being sick or traveling to make up with number of other days or for those who are able to feeding a poor person. The Final Testament Quran has the following verses related to this exalted month of Ramadan and Fasting therein:

O you who securely believe, fasting is prescribed for you just as it was prescribed for those who came before you, that you might preserve yourselves (for God) - (by fasting) for the numbered days. And if any of you are sick or traveling, then number of other days. And for those who are able to, there is an expiation: feeding a poor person. Yet whoever voluntarily does good, it is better for him. And fasting is better for you if you only knew.

The month of Ramadan is in which the Quran came down as guidance for the people and Clear Proof of that guidance and differentiation (between illumination and darkness). So who from you (lives) to see the month, let him or her fast in it, and if any of you are sick or traveling, then number of other days.

God wants ease for you, and does not want hardship for you, and to fulfill the number (of fasting days) and for you to magnify God for having guided you, and to render thanksgiving.

And when my worshipers ask about Me, so (know that) I am near. I answer the call of the caller when he calls Me, so let them respond to Me, and believe in Me, so that they may be rightly guided. - The Quran 2:183-186


Interestingly in these verses it is reminded that fasting as an ancient and universal spiritual practice prescribed to other times and traditions. Thus it addresses to those who securely believe to renew this practice by observing fast for a number of days, and the number is determined by the lunar cycle, a symbol that is greatly linked to earth and this earthen body of human self. The Quran prescribe to fast from before the apperance of dawn (when the first white thread is viewed) till the sundown or till the appearance of night. In this way the body fasts in harmony with the cycle of great nature. Externally Muslim fast is fast from all food, drinks, smoking or sexual relations. Internally Muslim fast is fasting from all negative thoughts and actions.

Tent of Abraham website explains on the meaning and dimensions of fasting:

Ramadan has many dimensions, including physical, psychological, social and spiritual dimensions. Ramadan orients the believer to balance between all these dimensions of his/her existence. Physical dimension of Ramadan includes abstaining from all kinds of food, drinks, smoking and sexual contact from sunrise to sunset. It helps physical attunement of the body through cleansing and relaxing, and provides a break in the cycle of rigid habits or overindulgence.

Psychological dimension of fasting is related to patience, forbearance and perseverance. Through observing fasting, the believer enriches his/her patience, forbearance, self-worth, self-strength, self-control, self-reflexivity, self-training and discipline. Through fasting Muslims strive for controlling their urges and resist temptation. And through meditative practices of praying, reading the Quran and remembering God, they are reminded of the bigger picture, and develop an understanding about purpose of creation. Thus, fasting helps dealing with stress, trauma, attain inner peace. Therefore Ramadan helps healing psychological problems.

In terms of social dimension, fasting calls for remembering those who are poor, who do not have food or shelter. Fasting is a way of experiencing hunger and developing sympathy for the less fortunate, and of learning thankfulness and appreciation for all of God's bounties. It calls for purifying ones actions towards others. It reminds believers of their social responsibility, it calls for generosity, sharing and forgiving. It calls for compassion towards those who are in need and are suffering. During this month Muslims are especially called for resolving their conflicts, forgiving each other and asking for forgiveness.

Ramadan is also the month of mercy. Muslims are called to show mercy, compassion, generosity, and care for all Gods creatures, including themselves, other human beings, animals and the environment as the vicegerents of God on earth. By partaking in Ramadan, and experiencing it together creates a social space that is shared by many Muslims across the globe. This creates a unique sense of solidarity among Muslims around the world. By sharing the feast with friends and relatives during Eid ul Fitr, and by giving charity (fitra) and alms to the poor and needy (zakat), Muslims take part in healing social wounds, knitting closer ties with others, redistributing wealth, connecting with those who are in need. This aspect of Ramadan contributes to creating a just and compassionate society based on sharing and giving rather than focusing on consumerism.

Finally, in terms of its spiritual dimension, fasting redirects the hearts away from worldly activities, towards The Divine. During this month, Muslims ask for mercy and forgiveness from God. Purity of thought and action is paramount. Fasting is a deeply personal act of worship in which Muslims seek to raise their level of God-consciousness. During Ramadan Muslims feel the peace that comes from spiritual devotion as well as kinship with fellow believers. Ramadan calls for inner-reflection, rethinking of meaning of life and ones place thereof. It is a month for repentance, mercy and spiritual attunement. Because their attention is diverted from the satisfaction of bodily appetites and wants during fasting, Muslims receive a certain amount of ascendancy in terms of their spiritual nature. Thus they become closer to God.

In an article Fasting in Ramadan and Developing Self-Control by Yuksel A. Aslandogan writes further on the Spiritual Dimension of Fasting from Psycho-Spiritual view point:

In the spiritual dimension, fasting during Ramadan is an act of obedience. It leads to sincere thankfulness, which is the heart of worship. It also empowers our spiritual side over our physical tendencies. If we imagine our body as a vessel, such as a ship, our mind, heart and carnal desires are like hands that are trying to control this vessel. Fasting weakens the effect of the carnal self and strengthens the effects of the mind and the heart on the control of the body.

The experience of hunger in fasting breaks the illusory lordship of the carnal self, or ego, and, reminding the carnal self of its innate helplessness, convinces it that it is only a servant. Self consciousness, or the notion of “I,” is part of the “trust” that has been given to humans as the vicegerents of God on earth [The Qur’an, Ahzab 33:72]. “The All-Wise Creator entrusted each human being with an ego that has clues and examples that urge and enable them to recognize the truths about the attributes of the Lord of Creation and His essential qualities.

Although God is closer to us than our jugular vein [The Qur’an], His names and attributes cannot be fully comprehended as they are infinite and we are finite, mortal, limited creatures. The virtual attributes that God gives us can serve as units of measure for comparison and for a better appreciation of God’s names and attributes.

Ego contains thousands of states, attributes, and perceptions that, to some extent, disclose and make knowable the Divine Attributes and essential Qualities. It is like a measure, a mirror, or an instrument for seeing or finding out, an entity with an indicative function.

It is not necessary for a unit of measure to actually exist; like hypothetical lines in geometry, a unit of measure may be formed by hypothesis and supposition. It is not necessary for its actual existence to be established by concrete knowledge and proofs. The self, however, sometimes forgets its true nature and imagines its “knowledge,” “power,” “ownership,” and “ability” to be real. When the self forgets its true nature and the purpose of these feelings, it becomes a seed that may grow into a tree of arrogance.

God declares: [A person] gives up food and drink and sexual passion for my sake. Fasting is like a shield, and he who fasts has two joys: a joy when he breaks his fast and a joy when he meets his Lord. Fasting is Mine and it is I Who give reward for it. - Sacred Tradition of Islam

"Anyone who fasts during this month with purity of belief and with expectation of a good reward (from his Creator), will have his previous sins forgiven," said Prophet Muhammad, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam. "Anyone who stands in prayers during its nights with purity of belief and expectation of a reward, will have his previous sins forgiven."

For the preparation for Ramadan and background, read Preparation for Ramadan | the quintessential month of fasting.

Also listen to a talk given at Shadhili gathering on Ramadan - According to Sharia, Tariqa and Haqiqa. This webcast recorded on 8/15/09 offers a detailed understanding of the blessings, outer practices, inner meanings, and gnostic reality of fasting. This give a deep understanding of how to fast according to the stations of the beginning, middle and end of the Sufi Path.


# Related:
. Purpose of Ramadan
. A Day in Ramadan | Faith and Anticipation
. Start of Ramadan
. Fasting in Hadith
. The Meaning of Ramadan by Khalid Baig
. Ramadan Resources via Islam City
. Secrets of Fasting from Futuhat-ul- Makkiyah by Ibn-al-Arabi
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