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The Spiritual Context of Fasting ─ a Synoptic View


Fasting among the Pillars of Islam:

The five pillars of Islam are: Declaration of Faith, Salat, Zakat, Saum and Hajj.

In the declaration of Faith, viz. La Ilaha Illallah, Muhammadur Rasoolullah (i.e. nothing worthy of worship except Allah, and Muhammad (s) is the Messenger of Allah), we become conscious of the individual positions of Allah, the Holy Messenger Muhammad (s) and the rest of the Creation. It signifies that every soul has come from Allah, and every soul goes back to Allah. A successful return back to Allah is only possible through the Message and Guidance given by Allah Himself. As a matter of fact, Allah has appointed the Holy Messenger Muhammad (s) to convey His message to every soul in order to guide them towards the destination earmarked for them. Therefore, when we say Muhammad (s) is the Messenger of Allah, it is not only an assertion of the high status of the Holy Messenger Muhammad (s), it is at the same time a reminder of the functional relationship of the Holy Messenger Muhammad (s) with Allah on the one hand and with the rest of the Creation on the other.

Salat (devotional Prayer), Zakat (minimum Charity), Saum (Fasting) and Hajj (Pilgrimage) are the mechanics applied for that journey back to Allah. The pre-requisites in these mechanics are the high moral standards of good conduct exemplified by the Holy Messenger Muhammad (s); and the efficiency of these mechanics is a reflection of the spiritual relationship one establishes with Allah.

Briefly, Salat is a vehicle which continually brings the soul into the Presence of Allah. One may say, it is the rehearsal for the soul, before it stands in the Grand Presence at the end of its journey. [A training in the protocol, before visiting the King].

Zakat is a vehicle which reminds the soul that it is not alone in the journey. The soul has to share the given resources with other souls, so that everyone can have an easy passage towards the destination.

Hajj is a vehicle which brings home the message of the Grand Gathering (Mahshar) that will take place at the end of the journey.

Last but not the least, Fasting is a vehicle which brings the soul closer to Allah by virtue of practising Samadiyyat, i.e. by emulating the divine attribute As-Samad ─ One who is not dependent on anything.

What is said above about Salat, Zakat, Hajj and Fasting does not do any justice to the extent and depth one can go in describing these mechanics. The idea here is to put Fasting in the picture as a whole, and then look at it in a bit more detail ─ especially in the spiritual context.

The Unique Role of Fasting:

The central theme of all divine worship is to perfect the ability of recognising the greatness of Allah; to glorify Him as He must truly be glorified; and to surrender to Him in the absolute terms. One who has done that to the maximum limits of one’s potential is said to have acquired divine qualities. That is exactly what the Holy Messenger Muhammad (s) required of us when he said, takhallaqu be-akhlaqillah i.e. inculcate in you the qualities of Allah.

Now, in all the other forms of worship, viz. Salat, Zakat and Hajj, the soul achieves a certain measure of purification which determines the measure of its divine qualities. In these forms of worship, attention may not be directly focussed on aquiring divine qualities, although the end result is just the same.

In contrast, the primary attempt in Fasting is to emulate Allah in His attribute of As-Samad. Allah does not depend on anything for sustenance. He does not need any food or drink. In short, He is free from any biological needs. He is above biology and bio-chemistry. However, our souls are entrenched in our bodies, which are purely organic, i.e. they undergo growth and decay; and therefore, for their biological function they need sustenance; food, drink, sleep and a few other things.

Allah has decreed that the rank or position of khalifa, i.e. His deputy or vicegerent, in short, the position nearest to Him, be given to human beings. The various forms of worship are nothing but the secrets revealed by Allah to man, to help him achieve that rank.

Fasting, in which we abstain from supplying the body its biological needs, goes a long way in achieving that nearness. What we actually do in Fasting is copy Allah, as it were, and live outside the bounds of biology.

That is why Allah has said in a Hadith Qudsi, “as-Saumo Lee wa Ana Ajzi Behi”, i.e. Fasting is for My sake, and it is I who will give the rewards for it. There are two things in this statement. One, the rewards for all other good deeds will be distributed, as it were, by the Angels; of course, as per the command of Allah. But the reward for Fasting will be given by Allah Himself. Second, the reward for all good deeds has been mentioned in the Holy Quran and the Sacred Ahadith. But the reward for Fasting is the vision of Allah Himself. That is why, the above Hadith Qudsi is also read as, “as-Saumo Lee wa Ana Ujziya Behi”, i.e. Fasting is for My sake, and I will be the reward for it.

Fasting ─ a Training in Self-Restraint:

Let us look back at what is really denoted by Fasting. It would seem that, if abstinence from food and biological functions is the only requirement in Fasting, then the reward just mentioned is too great,. Had it been so, Fasting would be no different from starving, which people undertake to reshape their body; or from hunger-strike, which is used as a weapon in a non-violent agitation; or from the starving of a poor man, who is compelled to do so because of lack of provisions. As a matter of fact biological abstinence is mainly physical and very little spiritual, if at all. Whereas what we are looking for is the spiritual connection, or the spiritual context, in Fasting.

Allah therefore, in giving the reasons for Fasting, has summed up the whole issue in one short, albeit comprehensive, phrase : “La’allakum Tattaqoon”, that you may learn self-restraint. When we talk of self, we do not mean body alone; we mean body, mind and soul.

Needless to say, in Fasting, restraint for the body is ‘abstinence’ from food, drink and carnal desires. If one has to do it voluntarily, it does require some level of spiritual strength. Even so, this is the lowest kind of Fasting.

Restraint of the mind would require ‘control’ over all the limbs of the body, in order to stop them from committing the sins they usually commit. This is the Fasting of the selected muslims.

Restraint of the soul means to remain ‘vigilant’, so that the soul does not stray away from the Presence of Allah, i.e. the remembrance of Allah. This is the Fasting of the very elect.

One may point out that, restraint of the mind and restraint of the soul are not specific to Fasting. They should be practised all the time, fasting or not fasting. The truth of the matter is, when the body is subjected to the rigours of Fasting, it becomes easier for the spirit to take hold of the activities of the mind and the soul. Herein lies the special significance of Fasting. No wonder, it becomes much more productive when undertaken as a month-long program, as in Ramadan.

This is the time during the year, when such a concerted effort is devoted to repairing all the damage done to our body, mind and soul.

To repeat, Fasting is the totality of control imposed on all aspects of self, so that all our overt and covert actions are in complete accord with the commands of Allah.

Restraint of the Mind:

In elaborating what has been termed as restraint of the mind, Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali (may Allah be merciful with him) has said the following:

1. Restrain your eyes from looking at what may give you evil ideas, or what will divert your attention from the remembrance of Allah. The Holy Messenger Muhammad (s) has said: Five things destroy Fasting ─ falsehood, backbiting, slander, perjury and to see with lust or animal passion.

2. Restrain your tongue from useless and vain talks. Stop false-speaking, back-biting, slander, abusive speech, obscurity, hypocrisy and enmity. Adopt silence. Busy your tongue with the mention of Allah and the recitation of the Holy Quran.

The Holy Messenger Muhammad (s) has said: Fasting is like a shield; if a man is fasting, let him not rebuke and dispute. If a man wants to assault or start a quarrel, say to him, ‘I am fasting.’

Two women were fasting at the time of the Holy Messenger Muhammad (s). They became so much over-stricken with hunger, that order was sought from the Holy Messenger Muhammad (s) for them to break their fast. He asked for a cup and told them to vomit what they had eaten. Both of them vomitted fresh blood and flesh. The Holy Messenger Muhammad (s) said, “The two women fasted with lawful food, but broke their fast with unlawful food. The two women back-bited people and ate their flesh.”

3. Restrain your ears from hearing evil talks. What is unlawful to utter, is unlawful to hear. To remain silent at the time of back-biting is unlawful.

The Holy Messenger Muhammad (s) has said, “The back-biter and the hearer of back-biting are equal co-sharers in the sin.”

4. Restrain your hands, feet and other organs from sins. Save your belly from doubtful things at the time of breaking fast. It is also injurious to eat lawful food in excess.

When you commit a sin, you are drinking poison and destroying religion. When you do a lawful thing, it is like a medicine. The Holy Messenger Muhammad (s) has said, “There are many who do not gain by Fasting, except hunger and thirst.

5. Restrain eating even the lawful food so much, at the time of breaking fast, that it fills up the belly. The usefulness of Fasting is lost, when you eat all that you could not eat during the day. To the sages, it is a sin to spend the day preparing different food for breaking fast. The object is to keep the belly empty, in order to control passion, and increase God-fear (Taqwa). The belly which remains full from morning to evening increases baser passions, greed and temptation.

Restraint of the Soul:

With respect to restraint of the soul, Imam Ghazzali (may Allah be merciful with him) says the following:

The soul of one who is fasting, should remain in a constant state of fear and hope, because he does not know whether his fast will be accepted or not; whether he will be near Allah or not. This should be the case for every divine service.

Once, the great Hasan of Basra (may Allah be merciful with him) was passing by a party of men who were playing and sporting. He said to them, “Allah has made the month of Ramadan in which people should be running and competing each other for good deeds.”

The object of Fasting is to anoint one with one of the divine attributes. That attribute is Samadiyyat, which means, not only to be bereft of hunger and thirst, but also to free oneself from all passions, like the Angels.

The rank of man is superior to animals, in that he can control his passions using intellect. But he remains lower than the Angels as long as he has not won the trials of his passions.

The Holy Messenger Muhammad (s) has said: “Fasting is a trust. Let everyone of you keep that trust. To explain the point, he read the verse from the Holy Qur’an, ‘Allah commands you to give the trust to its rightful owners’ (4:58).” While reading the verse he (s) placed his hands on his ears and eyes, and said: “Ear is a trust and eye is a trust.” Had it not been a trust, he would not have said to the person who wanted to pick a quarrel, ‘I am fasting’, in other words, ‘I have kept my tongue as a trust, I have to save it from countering you.’

So it appears that for every affair there is an open matter and there is a secret matter. There are things that we observe physically, and there are things that we observe in our mind and soul. The totality of all that is the spiritual context in which Fasting should be observed.

- by M. Alamgir
  July 13, 2014 / Australia 



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Technology of the Heart: The Spiritual Context of Fasting ─ a Synoptic View
The Spiritual Context of Fasting ─ a Synoptic View
What are the spiritual context of fasting and how they are addressed within the practice of fasting in Islam - an article by M. Alamgir
Technology of the Heart
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