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Dr Suriya Osman

The Muslim Fast and the Body- Pt 1

The Muslim Fast and the Body- Pt 2

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Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem
Published on 25th November, 2002

Polishing the Conscience Through Fasting

By Abdulaziz Sachedina

For most of the required duties (takalif shar`iyyah) in Islam, there are two prerequisites for their fulfilment:

  1. Attainment of the age of maturity (bulugh) and

  2. Properly articulated intention (niyyat) that affirms the purpose of the religious practice

The first prerequisite takes for granted that no duties will be imposed on a person who does not have the capacity to perform them.  Hence, an underage person or an insane and legally incompetent individual are exempt from performance of the duties laid down by the Shari`ah.  

The second prerequisite is connected with the development of sincerity in one’s performance of religious duties.  

Sincerity (khulus)

Without sincerity (khulus), all forms of worship and service to God suffer in quality and impact they have on the development of human conscience.  According to the Qur’an, human conscience is given the ability to know right from wrong, beneficial from harmful, and praiseworthy from blameworthy through its creation in nature (fitrah). All religious duties, whose performance leads to affirmation of one’s relationship to God in sincerity, also lead to the maturity of human conscience.  In other words, religious duties, when performed sincerely, increase the ability of a person to willingly and enthusiastically perform them for their moral and spiritual benefits.  The reason is very simple: whenever we wish to perform anything good, it requires a lot of effort on our part to defeat all those negative forces that try to convince us not to perform it.  This battle with such negative forces is known as jihad bi-n-nafs (the “struggle” to train one’s personhood).  In fact, in order to perform the acts that are covered under `ibadat in the Shari`ah, one has to undertake this `struggle’ (the essential meaning of the word jihad) to overcome the mental laziness and lack of motivation.

Fasting in Ramadhan

Among all the religious duties one performs as part of one’s commitment as a Muslim, it is fasting during the month of Ramadan that is given the most prominent station in the training of the self (nafs) to become purified and worthy of God’s mercy and forgiveness.  However, let us ask this question:

“What is it about the fasting that results in the purification of the self and its placement as the most beneficial spiritual and moral training?” 

Among all the acts of devotion, it is fasting that is least visible outwardly, unless a person makes a show and announces that she/he is fasting.  Unlike prayers that require certain external postures visible to others if one is praying in public, fasting is mostly internal, firmly founded upon a spiritual discipline that controls the movement of entire body in accordance with God’s command to become aware of God’s presence in our life. Hence, while one avoids food and drink from dawn to dusk in fasting, the eyes need to be trained not to look at something that is harmful to one’s morals; the ears need to be trained not to listen to any backbiting or dirty and false conversations; the bodily limbs need to be trained to obey the rules of the conduct that is pleasing to God.  All in all, fasting can become existentially related to the tranquillity and repose of one’s mind (sukun an-nafs), only when this discipline of the self becomes internalised.  When this transformation takes place the person fasting feels the lightness of the burden of duty and enjoys the state of rare purity through the avoidance of everything and anything that is harmful to one’s spiritual and moral health.  Of course, the constant danger that faces the performance of religious acts is the attitude of self-righteousness and pride (`ujb), which actually end up corrupting the benefit of devotional acts, the `ibadat.  In this connection, it is worth remembering Imam Zaynul Abidin’s prayer known as Makarim al-Akhlaq, in which he prays to God in these words:

“O God, do not let my worship become corrupted by self-importance and pride.”

Human conscience is like a mirror that must be kept clean and polished so that it can reflect the true image of an object that is viewed in it.  Fasting is the major source of cleansing and polishing that the self requires.  Closeness (qurbat) to God is conditional on one’s inner purity.  As such, we will not fail to notice that we derive a special pleasure in doing good deeds during the holy month, such as, feeding the poor, inviting families and friends to share the meal with us, praying with extra enthusiasm and care, and so on.  All these acts are key to spiritual maturity and our ability to draw closer to God by coming closer to the people in kindness and forgiveness.  I mention forgiveness because without our ability to forgive and restore those who have wronged us, we should not expect God’s mercifulness and forgiveness.  As the Prophet (peace be upon him and his family) reminds us:

"The one who does not show mercy will not be shown mercy (by God)".

There are several traditions that speak about the merits of fasting on Mondays and Thursdays through out the year.  There are also other days in the Muslim calendar that are mentioned as days of recommended fast.  However, the month of Ramadan is the source of special blessings.  What makes this month a special period is the centrality of the Qur’an and its recitation during the days and nights of Ramadan.  Imam `Ali describes the month of Ramadan as the `spring season’ of the Qur’an during which the recitation of the Qur’an and reflection over its message revives the hearts (rabi` al-qulub).  There is nothing more pleasing to God than to sit in reflection (tadabbur) and remembrance (dhikr) of His special favour to the Muslim community: the Qur’an. 

The recitation of the Holy Book requires preparation of the heart for its message to take roots.  Imam `Ali has pointed out the preparation in a very important passage in the Nahjul-Balagha:

“Reflect on the Qur’an because in it is cure from major diseases, namely, disbelief, hypocrisy, temptation and misguidance.  So ask God through it- apply its (teachings) for (the sake of) His love.”  

Pretension

One of the most severe symptoms of a sick heart is hypocrisy, which is to show something other than what is hidden in one’s heart.  In simple terms, it is pretension to be religious or pious in public. Nothing is more dangerous and harmful to one’s faith than pretension.  The duty of fasting is to combat this satanic tendency.  The Qur’an is the medication to cure this sickness.  The more we recite the Qur’an in this holy month, the more we achieve the inner purity and moral spiritual strength to fight diseases like self-importance, false pride, and pretentious religiosity.  The purification resulting from the fasting and the learnt self-discipline during this month provides us with the energy to meet the life challenges as we face the material world and its temptations.  

Imam Hussayn ibn Ali ('a)

It is worth pondering on a living miracle of the Qur’an in the life of Imam Husayn ('a).  This miracle is the source of “the soul at peace” (nafs mutma`innah) that becomes manifest in Karabala.  As `Allamah Iqbal celebrates in his Mathnavi: “The secret of the Qur’an, we learnt from Husayn.  From his fire we have kindled the flames (of guidance).”  Let us recall here that very sad night in the history of Islam, when the grandson of the Prophet, Imam Husayn, spent his last night praying to God and reciting the Holy Book.  It is instructive and amazing to read about Imam Husayn’s request to the enemy to postpone the impending battle until the following day.  The request was carried to the enemy by his brother, `Abbas b. `Ali, in these terms: “Tell them (o `Abbas) to postpone the attack until tomorrow so that we can pray this night and invoke God’s mercy and seek His forgiveness, for surely God knows how much I love to supplicate to Him and to recite His Book and present my needs to Him.”  This strength of Imam Husayn’s spirit was the result of the `soul at peace’ – the inner discipline - that he had inculcated in himself, his family and friends.  To be sure, the Qur’an was at the heart of the Ahlul-bayt’s devotion to God and to the message of His beloved Prophet.

Dua Iftitah

In the light of this act of devotion to God and His blessing on the community through the Prophet and the Qur’an, we can appreciate the supplication taught by the Ahlul-Bayt, which we recite every night during the holy month.  In the du`a –Iftitah, towards the end, we pray for God’s blessings and salutations on our Twelfth Imam (peace be upon him) and ask God:

O God, make him (i.e., the Imam Zaman), the one who calls people towards Your Book; the one who stands by Your religion, choosing him as the one who represents Your religion in the world, just as You have appointed representatives among those who came before him. Amin.

In other words, the mission that began in the month of Ramadan by the revelation of the Qur’an to our Prophet will be completed by the Twelfth Imam al-Mahdi, who will call people towards the Qur’an, and will revive its teachings by establishing peace with justice in this world.  May God hasten that period of his return.  Amin. 

In the meantime, as we await this return, our duty is to work hard to purify ourselves through devotional acts like praying, fasting, and sharing our wealth with those in need, so that we can qualify to be part of that divine mission under the Imam of the Age.  This is the thrust of the Qur’an, when it connects worship with charity, religious with ethical, and spiritual with moral.  The performance of devotional acts leads to the purification of conscience – the major source of human moral development.  It is worth keeping in mind that the month of fasting (spiritual) ends with the act of charity (fitrah), that is, a concern for the less fortunate (moral).  The philosophy of the Qur’an is very clear: our spirituality should inculcate in us ethical commitment.  This is the connection that exists between `ibadat – acts of devotion – and akhlaq – concern for others as members of human community.  The more we worship with sincerity, the more it results in the brilliance of the mirror of conscience.  In this spirit, the great mystic, Rumi, alerts us:

"Learn from `Ali how to be sincere in your deeds,
Remember that this Lion of God is free from pretence.
(Az `Ali aamuz ikhlas-e `amal, Shir-I Haqqraa daan munazzah az daghal)

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