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Beyond Appetite: Mysteries of Fasting

Beyond Appetite: Mysteries of Fasting

Imam Ghazali r.a. is the greatest thinker of the world of Islam, famous sufi and devout. His book Ihya Ulum al-Din (The Revival of Religious Learning), is a sea of knowledge, full of arguments and logic, supported by Quranic verses and traditions of Rasul Allah  Salallahu Alaihi Wassalam, and of the comapanions and saints of early ages. It is no exaggeration to say that the modern opinion of Islam is much due to Imam Ghazali’s thoughts. His views on Sufism were accepted by later sufis the like of Maulana Rumi r.a., Shah Waliullah r.a. and other such noted men.

The following excerpt on the inner, spiritual dimensions of fasting is from Kitab Asrar al-Sawm (Chapter on Mysteries of Fasting) in Imam Ghazali’s aforementioned book, Ihya Ulum al-Din (The Revival of Religious Learning).

Know that fasting is of three successive grades. Sawm al-umum (the fasting of the general public) is restraining from eating, drinking and sexual passions; this is the lowest degree of fast. The fasting of the elite (sawm al-Khusus), is where, besides the things mentioned above, one restrains from sins of the senses and limbs and parts of body. The fasting of elite of elite, the select few (sawm khusus al-khusus) is, apart from the legal rulings of fasting, includes the fast of the body and the mind, where the only thought is of Allah and the next world. This is the highest form of fast and rests on six duties to gain perfection.

1.   To restrain eyesight from looking at evil and blameworthy things that divert attention from Allah ta’ala’s remembrance. Rasul Allah Salallahu alaihi wassalam said: Eyesight is a poisonous arrow out the arrows of the devil. He who, for fear of Allah abstains therefrom, will receive from Him such belief (imaan), the sweetness of which will fill his heart.

2.   To restrain the tongue from useless talk, backbiting, slander, obscenity, abusive talk, to adopt silence and keep the tongue busy in the remembrance of Allah ta’ala and reciting the Quran. Hazrat Mujahid r.a. said: Two things spoil fast; backbiting and falsehood. In a hadith it is quoted that two women kept fast at the time of Prophet Salallahu alaihi wassalam. They were so over-stricken with hunger at the end of the day that their lives were in danger. They were brought to the Prophet so that he may order their fasts to be broken. He sent a cup for them telling them to vomit in it. Both vomited fresh blood and fresh flesh which filled the cup. The Prophet Salallahu alaihi wassalam said: These two women fasted with lawful food but broke it with unlawful food. They backbited about people and ate their flesh.

3.   To restrain the ear from listening to evil talk because what is unlawful to utter is also unlawful to hear. For this reason Allah ta’ala placed the eater of unlawful food and the hearer of unlawful words on the same level: Why do not the God-fearing men and the worldly renunciated men prohibit talking sinful words and unlawful eating. (5:68). Rasul Allah Salallahu alaihi wassalam said: The backbiter and the hearer of backbiting are co-sharers in sin.

4.   To restrain the rest of the senses from sin, to restrain the hand to reach evil, to curb the feet from pursuing wickedness and other body parts from sin and to save the belly from doubtful food before fast and after breaking fast. There is no meaning of fast kept or broken with questionable food. He is then like the man who destroys a town to construct a building. For lawful food is harmful not because of its quality, but because of its quantity and fasting is designed to induce moderation. An unlawful thing is like poison because it destroys religion, and a lawful thing is like medicine because a  little of it benefits and too much of it spoils. Rasul Allah Salallahu alaihi wassalam said: There are many fasting men who do not gain by fasting except hunger and thirst. On being asked the reason he said: He refrains from lawful food and breaks fast with unlawful food; eating human flesh by backbiting.

5.  To not eat even lawful food so much at the time of breaking fast that it fills up the belly. A belly filled with too much lawful food is hated by Allah more than all other reserviours. The object of fasting is to keep belly vacant in order to control passion and increase God fear. But if, on breaking fast, a person eats an amount equal to what he would have eaten during day and evening, he would reap no benefit from the fast because in a full belly sexual passion, greed and temptation reign supreme. In fact, of the proprieties of fasting is that a person sleeps little during the day so that he feels the pangs of hunger and the flames of thirst and become conscious of the weakness of his flesh so that his heart is purified.

6.  To keep the mind between fear and hope, because a fasting man does not know whether his fast will be accepted or not. This should be the case for every divine service. Once Hassan Basri r.a. was passing by a group of men who were playing and sporting. He said: Allah ta’ala made this month of Ramadan a race-course where men compete in His worship. Some have won the race and were crowned with success, while others lagged behind and lost.

The object of fasting is to anoint oneself with the Divine attribute of Samdiyat: to be bereft of hunger and thirst, and to follow the angels as far as possible by being free of passion. The rank of a man is far superior than that of an animal as he can control his passions by his superior intellect, but lower in rank than an angel as his passion is strong and he is tried by it. Rasul Allah Salallahu alaihi wassalam said: Fast is a trust. Let everyone of you keep that trust. When he read this verse: Allah orders you to give trust to its rightful owners. (4:61)……he placed is hands on his ears and eyes and said: Ear is a trust and eye is a trust.

So it appears that for every act of worship, there are is an outward form and an inner secret, an external husk and an internal pith. It is now up to you to observe both the open and secret matters or to observe either of them, to be content with the husk or join the company of the wise and learned.

May Allah ta’ala grant us success in following the teachings of Rasul Allah Salallahu alaihi wassalam and our pious elders. May He, with His infinite mercy, make this and all successive Ramadans a source of our spiritual uplifting and guide us to strive to attain the fasts of the select few; may He accept our meager efforts to please Him. Aameen.

Excerpted by Ustadha Almas Taufiq from Imam Ghazali’s Kitab Asrar al-Sawm (Chapter on Mysteries of Fasting) in his book, Ihya Ulum al-Din (The Revival of Religious Learning).



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