Seeking Spirituality Through Fasting

No Comments | May 2017

Waking up in the morning to red-tinged skies and an almost spiritually infused air, a man looks into the distance and sees a flock of birds flying overhead. Captivated in the moment, he tries to take in whatever he can, engraving that beautiful moment in his mind, knowing that he might not be able to capture it again as the birds fly away. As he stands in this moment of catharsis, he asks himself if he will be there again to experience such a moment, perhaps in bittersweet reflection. Such is the feeling of a believer in the month of Ramadan.

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The famous Persian Sufi Rumi has described this feeling of ecstasy in his alluring Persian poetry:

Celebrate! The month of fasting has come.

Pleasant journey to the One

Who is the company of the fasting.

I climbed the roof to see the Moon,

Because I really missed the fast

By heart and soul.1

Indeed, this feeling of ecstasy and heightened spirituality has been recognised across religions.  In this way, fasting is a unique phenomenon.

Fasting in Other Religions

When we look at prophets across religions, we see a strong correlation between their love of Allah and their dedication to fasting.

Describing this, Allah states in the Holy Qur’an:

“O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may become righteous.”2 Here, the Holy Qur’an specifically mentions the fact that some form of fasting exists in other religions. Indeed, we see many examples of this.

When the young and sheltered prince – whom we know today as the prophet Buddhaas – ventured into the world, his first response to becoming aware of the painful realities of life was to fast. It is even narrated that he would often survive off a grain of rice per day.

Prophet Mosesas is recorded to have fasted during two very important periods of his life, both for forty days. Firstly, when he received his tablet of commandments on the Mount, and secondly when he came back to his people and dicovered them preoccupied with the worship of an idol. The Old Testament records his words:

“When I was gone up into the mount to receive the tables of stone, even the tables of the covenant which the Lord made with you, then I abode in the mount forty days and forty nights, I neither did eat bread nor drink water; and the LORD delivered unto me two tables of stone…And the Lord said unto me, Arise, get thee down quickly from hence; for thy people which thou hast brought from Egypt have corrupted themselves;… So I turned and came down from the mount… And I fell down before the Lord as at the first, forty days and forty nights: I did neither eat bread nor drink water, because of all your sins which ye sinned.”3

The prophet Jesusas, who experienced great pangs of difficulty during his life, would often fast. It is recorded in the Bible:

“Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward ahungered.”4

In light of the above examples of the prophets, the followers of Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity continue some form of fasting. For example, adherents of Judaism mainly fast during the times of Yom Kippur. Additionally, they restrain themselves from the use of creams, the wearing of leather shoes and sexual relations whilst they fast. Christians practise a forty day fast known as Lent, in commemoration of the forty days of tribulations that Jesusas went through whilst fasting in the wilderness. During Lent, many Christians give up something up for forty days. Similarly, in Hinduism, fasting is known as Upavasa and is a religious practise done as part of an ascetic routine.

But while all religions have some sort of fasting ritual as part of their faith, Islam was the first to develop and codify it even further, by strictly dedicating one month to fasting, and providing specific instructions on how to complete the fast, who is exempt from fasting, and what can serve as a suitable substitute if one is exempt.

Fasting in Islam

After the commandment to fast was prescribed in the second year of Hijrah, God Almighty commanded the Muslims to embark upon a form of religious worship each year known as ‘Ramadan’. God Almighty says in the Holy Qur’an:

“The month of Ramadan is that in which the Qur’an was sent down as a guidance for mankind with clear proofs of guidance and discrimination. Therefore, whosoever of you is present at home in this month let him fast therein. But who is sick or is on a journey, shall fast the same number of other days. Allah desires to give you facility and desires not hardship for you.”5

Accordingly, the ninth month of the second Hijri became the first ever prescribed month of fasting. Today, the believers begin the month with the sighting of the new moon. They wake up early in the morning and fast until the time of Maghrib Prayer (immediately after sunset), when the fast is completed.

This month-long routine is meant to help purify those who undergo it. Indeed, Ramadan comes from the Arabic root word ‘ramdh’, which means scorching heat. The Holy Prophetsa taught: “Ramadan has been given this name, for it burns away all sins”.6

Fasting can be found in the history of most world religions and was practised by all prophets – indicating that the connection between fasting and spiritual progress is a universal one.
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But Ramadan – although synonymous with fasting – is not just about abstinence from eating and drinking. It requires a discipline of the soul, taking one towards the love of Allah. The Promised Messiahas very beautifully explains:

“Fasting is not merely staying hungry and thirsty; rather its reality and its impact can only be gained through experience. It is human nature that the less one eats, the more one’s spirit is purified and thus his capacity for [spiritual] visions increases. The will of God is to decrease one kind of sustenance and to increase the other. A person who is fasting should always be mindful that he is not just required to stay hungry. On the contrary, he should remain engaged in the remembrance of God so that he can cut asunder ties of worldly desires and amusements and is wholly devoted to God. Hence, the significance of fasting is this alone that man gives up one kind of sustenance which only nourishes the body and attains the other kind of sustenance which is a source of comfort and gratification for the soul.”7

Thus, the essence of fasting in Islam does not lie with simply restraining oneself from food and drink, but is rather a complete submission to Allah. He puts his soul in the hands of Allah and complies like a puppet in the hand of a puppeteer. His main goal in the end is to wholly win the love of Allah. The Holy Prophetsa said, “When the month of Ramadan enters, the gates of heaven are flung open and the gates of hell are shut, and satans are chained.” We see that our Holy Mastersa took full advantage of this and used his every word and action to win the love of God. The Holy Prophetsa would teach his companions to restrain their emotions, giving them a model of how a Muslim should live his life. He said:

“When you are fasting, abuse not anybody nor quarrel with any; and if any person quarrels with you, turn away from him, saying, “I cannot quarrel with you, for I am observing a fast.” His main concern was to tell his companions to live a life of a true believer and shun all forms of hypocrisy within them. He further warned the Muslims:

“He who does not shun telling a lie by word and deed, should know that God needs not his abstention from food and drink.”

And in fact, the Holy Prophetsa himself was an exemplar in how to keep the fast. He would spend most of his time deep in prayer. He would often perform Tahajjud prayer (voluntary night prayer) with great fervour and spent a large majority of his nights  supplicating with love for his companions. He said: “Whoso stands in tahajjud prayer in Ramadan with firm faith and with the intention of achieving the pleasure of God, all his previous sins are forgiven.”

In Ramadan, as soon as the sun sets, Muslims break the fast for the day and say the Maghrib prayer while it is still twilight.
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The Holy Prophetsa gave great emphasis to reading the Holy Qur’an in Ramadan. The Holy Qur’an was revealed in the month of Ramadan and the Holy Prophetsa would make its recitation a large part of his daily routine. It is often mentioned that he would complete the reading of the Holy Qur’an several times over during the course of Ramadan.

Thus, fasting can lead one to an extraordinary spiritual level. It is a means of softening of the soul and brings out the raw emotions of man, so that he can run into the arms of the Almighty. But additionally, it makes man sympathetic to all the creation of Allah Almighty.

Sometimes, those living in first-world countries do not understand the real plight of those living in  the toughest of conditions. Such conditions mean having to bear poverty and its consequences, knowing that there may be no escape and that one has to  endure the  cries of hunger of loved ones. Fasting is a means by which one can become empathic to those in pain and understand how blessed he is with the resources that he enjoys. For many, this is a temporary exercise, knowing that an abundance of food will be available at the end of the day. Yet, for others, this lack of resources is a harsh reality often overlooked by other people.  Fasting puts a spotlight on this plight.

Allah the Almighty most lovingly assures the believer as has been related by the Holy Prophetsa:

Abû Hurayrah relates that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “Allah says: ‘Every deed of the child of Adam is for himself, except for fasting. It is for Me and I shall reward it.’ Fasting is a shield, so if it is a day of fasting for any one of you, then he should engage in no obscenity or shouting. If anyone belittles him or fights with him, he should just say ‘I am a person who is fasting’. I swear by Him in whose hand is Muhammad’s soul, the smell of the fasting person’s breath is sweeter to Allah on the Day of Judgment than that of musk. The fasting person has two occasions for joy, one when he breaks his fast because of his breaking it and the other when he meets his Lord because of the reward for his fast.”

The Prophet Muhammadsa set a perfect guideline to combat the problem of hunger and inequality. He would exhort society to become one and cater to the needs of all and would not leave anyone destitute. It is said that the Holy Prophetsa was the most generous of men, but during the month of Ramadan the speed of his generosity excelled a fast wind. Indeed, his beauty was that everyone whom he came across was as if touched by a sweet breeze.

The fifth Caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmadaba, has very beautifully summed up fasting and its benefits:

“When fasting is based on taqwa (righteousness) it produces a beautiful society, creating a spirit of sacrifice for each other. One is drawn to the needs of one’s under-privileged brothers and this is very important because it was the blessed model of the Holy Prophetsa that during Ramadan his alms-giving and charity would gain intense momentum like a gale storm. This becomes a source of removing anxiety from society and creates feelings of empathy for the less fortunate among those who are well-off; and feelings of love and gratefulness in the hearts of under-privileged believers for their well-off brothers.”8

But in addition to societal benefits, fasting also provides many health benefits. It reboots the immune system, helps the body detox of dangerous chemicals and lowers blood pressure. In a recent study published by the journal Cell, fasting regenerates a diabetic pancreas and helps in rebuilding the part of the organs that no longer function.9 Overall, in many aspects, fasting provides great benefits to Muslims.

One of the defining differences between Islamic teachings and other religion lies in the comprehensive commandments in Islam for all groups in society regarding fasting. Specifically, Islam gives those who cannot fast options for partaking in the blessings of Ramadan, while ensuring that those for whom fasting might be harmful do not feel obligated to fast. God Almighty commands in the Holy Qur’an:

“The prescribed fasting is for a fixed number of days, but whoso among you is sick or is on a journey shall fast the same number of other days; and for those who are able to fast only with great difficulty is an expiation — the feeding of a poor man. And whoso performs a good work with willing obedience, it is better for him. And fasting is good for you, if you only knew.

The month of Ramadan is that in which the Qur’an was sent down as a guidance for mankind with clear proofs of guidance and discrimination. Therefore, whosoever of you is present at home in this month, let him fast therein. But whoso is sick or is on a journey, shall fast the same number of other days. Allah desires to give you facility and He desires not hardship for you, and that you may complete the number, and that you may exalt Allah for His having guided you and that you may be grateful.”10

Allah knows that there are some who cannot genuinely fast, and so he has not made it mandatory for a traveller, sick individual or a pregnant or nursing woman to fast. Such people either make up the fasts when they return to health, or pay a financial compensation (fidya) for not fasting, which feeds the poor. This furthers the lesson of empathy given to all during the period of fasting, whilst allowing everyone to enjoy the blessings of the month.

Prophet Muhammadsa used to spend most of his night in prayer. Today, Muslims try to emulate his example by getting up in the middle of the night to offer Tahajjud [pre-dawn voluntary prayer] before they consume breakfast.
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Ramadan comprises three periods, focusing on three main phases of growth for a believer. The first ten days are those to seek Allah’s Mercy, the second ten days to seek his forgiveness and the final ten days to seek refuge with Allah. These last ten days are marked by a search for Laylatul Qadr or ‘the night of destiny’, in which a believer is promised the power of the prayers of a thousand months. According to the Holy Prophetsa, it is to be found in the odd nights of the last ten days. Many try to spend these last ten days in a special ritual called itekaf, following the practise of the Holy Prophetsa, by living in a small section of the mosque and spending those ten days in isolation and forgoing the outside world to spend the ten days only in worship.

Overall, the ultimate goal of Ramadan is summed up in the hadith of the Holy Prophetsa where he stated:

The most beloved things with which a servant of Mine comes nearer to Me, is what I have made obligatory upon him; and My slave continues to advance closer to Me through voluntary effort beyond that which is prescribed until I begin to love him [with a particular love]. When I love him, I become his ears by which he hears, and his eyes with which he sees, and his hands with which he grasps, and his legs with which he walks. When he asks Me, I bestow upon him and when he seeks My protection, I protect him.”11

The end of Ramadan is marked with the seeing of the new moon, filled with bittersweet emotion for the believer. He grieves at the end of a month so blessed and wishes that he could permanently experience such a miraculous time. However at the same time, he is happy to have completed a  spiritual journey, marked by a divinely appointed celebration, Eid ul Fitr, in which all come together in celebration of the month, and in the hopes that the spiritual journey made during Ramadan will become a strong foundation for future progress.

 

About the Author: Serjeel Ahmad is a recent graduate of Jamia Ahmadiyya Canada, the training school for missionaries for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, and is currently serving as an imam.

 

Endnotes

1. Jalaluddin Rumi, a ghazal from the Divan-e-Shams-e-Tabrizi, translated by Nevit Ergin.

2. Holy Qur’an, 2:184.

3. The Bible, Deuteronomy 9:9-10, 12,18 (King James Version).

4. The Bible, Matthew 4:1 (KJV).

5. The Holy Qur’an, 2:186.

6. Hazrat Mirza Bashir-ud-Din Mahmoodra, The Holy Qur’an with English Translation and Commentary,Vol.1,  (Tilford: Islam International Publications, 1988), 239.

7. Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas, Malfuzat, Vol. 5, (Rabwah: Nazarat Isha’at Rabwah Pakistan), 102.

8. Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmadaba, “Friday Sermon: Ramadan – Virtues of Fasting.” Al Islam. 17 June 2014. http://www.alislam.org/friday-sermon/2013-07-12.html.

9. Cheng, Chia-Wei, Valentina Villani, Roberta Buono, Min Wei, Sanjeev Kumar, Omer H. Yilmaz, Pinchas Cohen, Julie B. Sneddon, Laura Perin, and Valter D. Longo. “Fasting-Mimicking Diet Promotes Ngn3-Driven β-Cell Regeneration to Reverse Diabetes.” Cell 168.5 (2017): n. pag. Web.

10. The Holy Qur’an 2:184-186.

11. Sahih Al-Bukhari, Kitab Ar-Riqaq, Bab At-Tawadhu’i.

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