Summary Lessons from the IHYA(6): Mysteries of Fasting

Every living organism needs a constant supply of energy to survive for each temporary or transient journey it takes. For human beings, food is essential for survival, especially for nourishment and energy to carry out their activities.  Too much food will however lead to laziness or render one inactive. This means that food must be seen as a medicine for survival, where poor prescription (or consumption) will have side effects. In other words, a sensible person pays attention to the quality and quantity of food intake knowing it plays a role in the wellness of his/her being. The tradition of temporarily abstaining from food which is known as fasting is common in all traditions and cultures, connoting wellness in the being both in the physical and the spiritual sense.  However, what constitutes fasting takes varying forms but, the common theme is to abstain.   

In Islam, this form of abstention has an obligatory and voluntary prescription. It is also believed to be a good form of seeking reward and closeness to God.  And because food is one of the main energy providers a person will abstain from while fasting, many have internally reduced the essence of fasting to a form of exercising the body by starving it for some time. Hence, when it is time to break a fast, some make it a feast and try to fill their empty containers with the same portion they had missed during the day.  It is impossible that God will starve you of the temporary thing except that He has something better or permanent to give in return. Fasting, in reality, weakens our connection with the mere material world. Fasting exposes our attachment to excessive eating and drinking which keeps us alive to desire more of this world. The energy we get from food instigates us to commit all forms of atrocities.  Therefore, taking the minimum not only helps maintain balance and focus but also forces us to reconnect with our inner being and connect to the spiritual realm. No wonder, all spiritual teachings advocate fasting, and in essence, they are advocating for us to reduce our connection with the cravings for the world. 

Fasting has a deeper meaning to Muslims. Especially in the month of Ramadan when all Muslims are commanded to abstain for 29 or 30 days. Fasting helps to reconnect us to God while realizing and accepting that He is free of need and that we depend on Him as the source of the materials for survival.  This leads to the purification of the heart and clarity in reflection. Upon realization of this state of our weaknesses caused by hunger, our heart is softened to turn to God, an opportunity to be dutiful to Him leaving all forms of lowly and blameworthy traits and breaking the desire for sins. There are legal components in jurisprudence that must be adhered to keep us upright during fasts. We are disciplined to follow those rules which makes it easy to continue in that spirit beyond the state of fasting.  Surprisingly, in a fasting mood, we gain the strength to carry out acts of devotion either willingly or just because there is no option to do the opposite while realizing we are in the mood for purity only. 

In reality, all forms of worship have a form of abstention from the material to the spiritual realm. When giving out Zakat, the heart is made to detach from the love of wealth, in salat the heart is made to detach from worldly activities and connect to God. These rituals have outward and inward realities. 

As for the outward aspect;

The outward aspect of fasting is to abstain from specific characteristics and to avoid some things you normally enjoy of the world (like food, drink, and sex) from dawn into sunset and to continue in the state for 29 or 30 days for the month of Ramadan. Another outward aspect is to connect us with the nature around us, looking at the moon, using the sun to gauge the dawn and the sunset, and helping us reflect on the way the cosmos work in relation to our existence and their obedience to the creator. You never hear of the sun being late, they are obedient to the command of their Lord. And they are made for you, they are executing their duties and they will not get a reward. So, what about you?!  

As for the internal aspect; 

Imam Ghazali further explains that fasting subjugates Satan whose inroads to us is through our cravings. And they are not strengthened by anything other than food that we take on a daily basis. Satan travels through the body just as the blood flows. Fasting tightens up these inroads by hunger. It works tirelessly to incite and distract us so we can remain in the sensory realm, where only the limbs and the sensory organs translate things to us and the heart is made inactive.  If the heart is active, it sees and comprehends beyond the senses, it can transcend to the spiritual and the unseen. In so many verses of the Qur’an, Allah clarifies the ability of the heart and the effect of a dysfunctional heart. 

Have they not travelled throughout the land so their hearts may reason, and their ears may listen? Indeed, it is not the eyes that are blind, but it is the hearts in the chests that grow blind.

Al-Hajj (22) : 46 

The removal of the veils of false desires and the enemy who suggests them is the objective of the fast. From this perspective, we can see how fasting is the door to worship. i.e. giving up what is temporary 

Fasting or abstention comes in three levels;

The first is the level of an act of worship to God. Refraining from the things that invalidate the fast as stipulated in the law – leave off the urges of the stomach and those of the private parts from the desires. And this is the fasting of most people 

The second is the level of being in the state of worship. It requires building on the first category and advancing by refraining from all forms of sins committed by the limbs. 

And the third is to be in complete certitude. At this level, the heart abstains from everything that distracts it from the divine presence of Allah. This is the fasting of the people of Ihsan.  

“Men who are not distracted, either by commerce or profit, from remembering God, keeping up the prayer, and paying the prescribed alms, fearing a day when hearts and eyes will turn over.”

An-Nur (24) :37

So, the best of fasting especially in the month of Ramadan is to learn how to busy one’s heart with Allah as one engages in other affairs of the world. 

“Our Lord, let not our hearts deviate after You have guided us and grant us from Yourself mercy. Indeed, You are the Bestower.” Al-e-Imran 3:103

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