A short reminder on avoiding the hit-and-miss approach.
‘Fasting is prescribed on you as it was prescribed on those before you so that you may achieve taqwā.’
(The Holy Qur’ān, Surat Al-Baqarah (2:183))
Upon the advent of each Ramadān, our attention seasonally returns to inevitable questions about the mechanics of fasting; has the moon been sighted; what nullifies a fast; what is permissible; etc? The answers to these questions are necessary to increase and protect the value of the fast. However, the legislated fast is a means to an end. This is a brief reminder to consider the intended journey toward piety, or God-consciousness. Whilst various respected theologians each correctly assert that there are two aims or three degrees of fasting, one matter will be clear – that there is physical abstention for the purpose of attaining taqwā. You may not find in the following paragraphs a checklist of things to do for this end. The purpose is to ignite the impetus to research and map out our spiritual journey through the month ahead. Ramadān is quickly approaching but it is not too late.
The physical workings – a natural need.
It is self evident that fasting requires a physical struggle and results in a physical impact upon our bodies. Whether this is positive or negative depends upon how we approach each fast – for example through our chosen patterns of work, consumption and rest. The renowned fourteenth century theologian and physician, Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyya, writes about the physical benefits of fasting in his work, ‘Medicine of the Prophet’,
‘It has a wonderful effect in preserving health, melting the superfluities, restraining one from consuming things which could be harmful; this is especially so when it is moderate and practised at the best times according to the revealed Law and the body’s natural need for it. Then indeed it contains such rest for the faculties and the organs as to preserve their powers.’
Taqwā is not a by-product of fasting – it requires a conscious effort.
Taqwā means godliness, devoutness or piety. Crucially, as the verse above (2:183) makes clear, fasting is not merely about physical abstinence or exertion. However, we are not guaranteed the attainment of taqwā merely by subjecting ourselves to the physical parameters of fasting. The Prophet Muhammad (s) said,
“All that some people get from their fasting is hunger and thirst.”
This makes it clear that taqwā is not an automatic by-product of fasting.
In understanding this, it is worth considering that Imam Al-Ghazzāli wrote that there are three degrees of fasting. Firstly, the fast of ‘the ordinary person’ – consisting of abstinence of the appetite, sexual intercourse, noise, arguing, etc. Next, there is the fast of ‘the select few’, who keep the ears, eyes, tongue, hands and feet together with all the other senses free from sin. Finally, there is the fast of ‘the elite’, which is the fast of the heart from bad thoughts, worldly worries and anything else that may divert from anything but thoughts of Allāh (swt).
The Arabic word, taqwā, is derived from waqā which means to guard or to preserve. Al-Jawziyya thus elaborates that fasting protects from ‘illnesses of the spirit, heart and body’. He articulated that ‘[o]ne of the two aims of fasting is protection [junna] and defence [wiqāya], which is of great benefit. The other aim is the consolidation of the soul’s powers in the love of God and His obedience.’
Despite the immense benefits we could gain, for this life and the next, we often take a hit-and-miss approach to Ramadan, hoping that physical abstinence alone will do the trick. We assure ourselves that everything else will fall into place. Sadly, it is not uncommon for a fasting person to feel burdened – as though he has been denied many of his rights whilst his responsibilities remain and fulfilling those responsibilities feels more difficult due to the lack of energy or his lowered morale. This often results in a downward spiral whereby a person gradually becomes increasingly irritable and uncomfortable within himself. He becomes impatient for the end of the blessed month! We must appreciate that attaining psycho-spiritual benefits often requires specific, conscious endeavours. It is therefore necessary for each of us to plan, reflect and consider how fasting can enable us to actualise our purpose as human beings, serving Allāh (swt), ensuring that we realise the goal of fasting – taqwā.
Preparing your appetite for life.
Consider the following explanation by Al-Jawziyya on the narrations concerning the Prophet Muhammad (s) breaking his fast with fresh dates or dried dates.
‘[f]asting clears the stomach of food; the liver finds nothing to attract and to send on to the faculties and organs. Sweet substances are the quickest to reach the liver being what it likes best, especially rutab [fresh dates]; so it eagerly accepts them, and thus both the liver and the faculties benefit thereby. Next come tamr [dried dates] because of their sweetness and nutriment. If not these, then broth of water, which extinguishes the burning of the stomach and the heat of fasting, and then the stomach is prepared for food and accepts it with good appetite.’
On one hand we have clear, practical advice. On the other, we may draw an apt parable from Allāh’s (swt) creation. When we protect and defend against evil more intensely during Ramadan, we create a spiritual clearance and detoxification – a purification – within our selves. If we then nourish that craving void with goodness, through enjoining good deeds and ‘ibādah, we are preparing our selves to filter, accept and manage the highs and lows of our psycho-spiritual living once Ramadan is over.
Whether we decide that fasting has two, three or more elements (or three degrees divided by two aims?), we can be clear that there is physical abstention for the purpose of attaining taqwā.
Interestingly, one particular form of classical Arabic poetry, the qasīda, was employed to illustrate the human transition from one state of being to another, namely from dependence to independence, childhood to maturity – from being a consumer to being productive. This style of poem is divided into three parts. First the poet depicts the nasīb – the original state of childhood, dependence or need – the starting point which the ‘hero’ is mentally preparing to leave behind. Next, the poet describes the rahīl – the journey which is full of hardship and hunger, fear of the unknown and darkness, battles against beasts, difficult territories and desert mirages, self-doubt and survival. Finally, he illustrates the madīh. This is the praise, relief, rejoicing and sense of victory the hero feels when he finds himself triumphant at his destination. He has overcome a challenge that each human being faces when making a transition from one state of being to a more responsible state of being such as adulthood, independence, or a provider. The change is natural. It is a rite of passage. Yet, the change needs conscious will and effort in order to achieve success through it.
The state of fasting can be likened to this transitional struggle. Our focus is forced away from dependency on nourishing or indulging ourselves. The landscape of our daily routine is lined with temporarily forbidden temptations and other challenges (the aroma of your colleague’s Veggie Delite Subway (most foods are imagined to be quite delicious when you are hungry) or the sight of a chilled, unopened bottle of, well, any drink). However, we become aware of more subtle, behavioural challenges (the temptation to sleep through the blessed time of sahur, the useless whiling away of time, counting down till iftar, engaging in behaviour which suggests poor character, etc). The desire to successfully travel through this troublesome terrain is driven by a deeper need – the need to examine, cultivate and beautify the landscapes of our hearts through ‘ibādah, obedience, and good deeds. We pray that Allāh (swt) facilitates through this, our arrival at the destination prescribed for us in the verse above – a sense of God-consciousness. For this, we would feel relieved, grateful and blessed! Amīn!
‘And it has a special property which causes its preference, which is its ability to make the heart rejoice, here and hereafter. […] For it is a defence and a protection for the servant against what harms his heart and body, here and hereafter.’
Ramadan approaches. Let us recognise that physical abstention is a means to non-physical ascension (if He wills!). Let us plan on consuming only what is enough to maintain us evenly on this path to piety, rather than causing states of extreme saturation and lethargy by over-eating. Let us not take a scatter-gun approach to fasting, but strategise how we will regulate our days and our deeds to reap the most beautiful reward of Ramadan – taqwā.
Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyya, Medicine of the Prophet,
translated by Penelope Johnstone, Islamic Texts Society, Cambridge, 1998.
 Sahih Hadith – Ibn Majah, Ad-Darimi, Ahmad and al-Bayhaqi.
 Al-Ghazzali, The Mysteries of Fasting, Inner Dimensions of Islamic Worship, Ed. 12/1999
 Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyya, Medicine of the Prophet.
 Obviously, these lists of examples are far from comprehensive and will not be relevant to all people.
 Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyya, Medicine of the Prophet.