Self-purification as the goal of fasting during Holy Ramadan!
-Dr. Abdul Ruff Colachal
Once again the Holy Ramadan month has arrived as the chief blessings of Allah (God) with to help the humanity of believers live much better now during and after the holy month. Fasting on Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam, referred here as duties. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar which is a month of blessed, month of revelation of the Holy Quran, and month to achieve Jannah, and therefore the best month in a year Muslims look forward each year to fulfill their spiritual duties.
The fast is one of Islam’s five main pillars (the others being the belief in one God and the Prophet Mohammed as His Messenger, praying five times a day, completing the pilgrimage to Mecca for those who are able and giving charity or “zakat”). It is mandatory for all Muslims upon reaching puberty, as long as they are mentally and physically sound. The elderly and chronically ill are exempt from fasting; however, it is incumbent upon them to feed the poor instead if they possess the financial means.
While fasting, Muslims are expected to reflect upon good and bad things that have happened in the past, especially during last year. Those Muslims who have helped others in difficult positions, who have been upright with truth, who have kept the word given to others – are the blessed ones. Especially those who undertook the fasting and did only good things, thought only of good positive tidings! Remember, Allah warns us of consequences for each of our good or bad action and we are held accountable.
The Holy Quran informs the believers, the Muslims, that fasting is prescribed for them. “O you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may guard against evil.” (Holy Quran, 2:183) Allah says: “And when My servants ask you (O Prophet) about Me, surely I am nigh. I answer the prayer of the suppliant when he calls on Me, so they should hear My call and believe in Me that they may walk in the right way.” (ibid, 2:186)’ “And swallow not up your property among yourselves by false means, nor seek to gain access thereby to the authorities so that you may swallow up other people’s property wrongfully while you know.” (ibid., 2:188)’ “He who does not give up uttering falsehood and acting according to it, God has no need of his giving up his food and drink.” (Holy Prophet Muhammad (SAS). Prophet Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights, and explained it by saying: “..Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:2-4.) Prophet Moses also had fasted forty days and forty nights (Exodus 34:28).
Fasting is a spiritual practice to be found in all religions. The great Founders of various faiths (Buddha, Moses, Jesus, etc.) practiced quite rigorous fasting as a preliminary to attaining their first experience of spiritual enlightenment and communion with Allah (God). It is not that only Holy prophets who fast but also all believers do so, but they all do so not as a mere formality but with a secret purpose useful for the human lives.
Fasting in Islam does not just consist of refraining from eating and drinking, but from every kind of selfish desire and wrong-doing. The fast is not merely of the body, but essentially that of the spirit as well. The physical fast is a symbol and outward expression of the real, inner fast.
Purpose of fasting in Islam as practiced by the Holy Prophet Muhammad (SAS) include (a) develop and strengthen our powers of self-control, so that we can resist wrongful desires and bad habits, and therefore guard against evil. In fasting, exercising our ability of self-restraint, so that we can then apply it to our everyday life to bring about self-improvement; (b) attain nearness and closeness to Almighty Allah (God) so that He becomes a reality in our lives. The rigors of fasting purely for the sake of following a Divine commandment, knowing and feeling that He can see all our actions however secret, it intensifies the consciousness of God in our hearts, resulting in a higher spiritual experience; (c) learn to refrain from usurping other’s rights and belongings. In fasting we voluntarily give up even what is rightfully ours; how can then we think of taking what is not ours but someone else? (d) charity and generosity is especially urged during Ramadan. We learn to give, and not to take. The deprivation of fasting makes us sympathize with the suffering of others, and desirous of alleviating it; and it makes us remember the blessings of life which we normally take for granted.
The object of fasting is that a person should abstain from the food which nourishes the body and obtain the other food which satisfies and brings solace to the soul. Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad said: “People are unaware of the true nature of fasting.. Fasting is not just the state of remaining hungry and thirsty. Its nature and effect can only be discovered by experience. The human makeup is such that the less food is consumed the greater is the purification of the soul and the development of the powers of inner vision. God’s purpose is that you should reduce one kind of food (physical) and increase the other kind (spiritual). The person fasting must remember that the aim is not simply to remain hungry; he should be engrossed in the remembrance of God so as to attain severance from worldly desires.
Those who truly fast for the sake of attaining to God – and not merely as a custom or formality- should be absorbed in the praise and glorification of God, and in meditating upon His Unity. Maulana Muhammad Ali said: “The real purpose of fasting is to attain righteousness. A person who undergoes hunger and thirst, but does not behave righteously, has done nothing. If someone is told the aim and object of doing a certain duty, and he does that duty but does not attain the required aim and object, it is as if he has not done that duty.” The Maulana used very strongly to urge the members of the Muslim community to say the tahajjud prayers during the month of Ramadan: “You have to rise early in any case to begin the fast; rise even earlier, by half an hour or an hour, and say tahajjud prayers.”
The entire global nation of over 2 billion people, men and women, young and old, rich or poor – all together, for a whole month – not eating, not drinking and not having intimate relations, during the daylight hours. This describes the month of Ramadan.
Many people have tried different kinds of fasting. Some will drink only juice for a day, or eat only fruit, or stay away from any sugar or starches, or leave alcohol for a period of time. Yet, it seems strange to most folks, the idea of Muslims fasting in the month of Holy Ramadan.
What is the significance of Ramadan? Isn’t it a very harsh practice? Is it just a time when Muslims sleep and fast and hardly work all day; and eat, drink, enjoy and stay awake all night? What really is the spirit of Ramadan?
There are as many levels of fasting as there are facets to being human. Proper fasting should encompass all dimensions of human existence for it to have the divinely intended effect. The following are some of the major levels of fasting: Ritual Level: This level of fasting requires that the basic rules for fasting be fulfilled, which are avoiding food, drink and sexual intercourse between dawn and sunset for 29 or 30 days each year. On this level, one is basically following the letter of the laws regarding fasting without particular consideration for the spirit of fasting. It is the entrance level which must be fulfilled for the fast to be Islamically correct, but the other levels must be added for the fast to have any real impact on the fasting person. Fasting on this level alone will not benefit one spiritually, except from the perspective of submission to divine instructions, if one chooses to follow the ritual consciously and not merely according to tradition. Thus, by itself, the ritual level will not purify one of sin or atone for sin.
Fasting on the “physical” level causes the fasting person to experience the pangs of hunger and thirst – when the prophetic (Sunnah) way of fasting is observed. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) used to consume a very light meal before the dawn (suhur) and moderate meal (iftar) to break the fast at sunset, while scrupulously avoiding filling his stomach. He is reported to have said, “The worst container a human being can fill is his stomach. A few morsels of food to keep a person’s back straight are sufficient. The Prophet (peace be upon him) used to break his fast with a few fresh or dried dates and a glass of water just before beginning the sunset prayer. This level allows the fasting person to experience the pangs of hunger and thirst and thereby develops sympathy in him or her for those starving and dying of thirst in other parts of the world.
On the physical level, some chemicals in the brain that transmit messages and create feelings, called neurotransmitters, are affected by fasting. Fasting encourages the endorphin neurotransmitter system, related to the feeling of well being – and euphoria, to produce more endorphins and, in fact, makes us ‘feel’ better. This is similar to the effect of exercise but without the physical work. It has also been noted by medical experts that fasting improves the physical health in numerous ways. For example, during the fast the body uses up stored cholesterol (fat) that is often deposited in the blood system, as well as in other fatty areas of the body. So, we find it does help keep the body firm and minimizes the danger of heart attacks.
The difference between the ritual level and the physical level is, a person doing only ritual fasting may eat large meals prior to beginning the fast and immediately upon ending the fast, and not feel any hunger or thirst throughout the whole month. However, like level one, if the fasting person does not incorporate the other levels of fasting, the fast will only be physically exhausting. The Holy Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him) said, “Maybe a fasting person will gain nothing but hunger and thirst from fasting.”
The sexual instinct and drives (libido) are harnessed on this level of fasting. In these times where the media continually plays on sexual desires to promote and sell products, the ability to control these powerful desires is a plus. Fasting physically reduces sexual desires and the fact that the fasting person has to avoid anything which could stimulate him psychologically helps to further lower the libido.
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “O youths, whoever among you is able to marry let him do so, for it restrains the eyes and protects the private parts. He who is unable to marry should fast, because it is a shield.” By restraining from sexual acts, even though they are permissible, the fasting people make it easier for themselves to restrain from forbidden sexual acts when they are not fasting.
Fasting on this level involves controlling the many negative emotions which simmer in the human mind and soul. For example, among the most destructive emotions is anger. Fasting helps bring these emotions under control. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “When one of you is fasting, he should abstain from indecent acts and unnecessary talk, and if someone begins an obscene conversation or tries to pick an argument, he should simply tell him, “I am fasting.” So, on this level, whatever negative emotions challenge the fasting person must be avoided. A person has to abstain from lewd conversation and heated arguments. Even when one is in the right, it is better to let that right go and keep one’s emotional fast intact. Likewise, the negative emotion of jealousy is reduced, as every fasting person is reduced to the common denominator of abstinence; no one is externally superior to another in this regard.
In fasting, humans realize several levels of meanings of life. The psychological level helps the fasting person psychologically to control evil thoughts and trains him or her, to some degree, how to overcome stinginess and greed. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “Allah has no need for the hunger and the thirst of the person who does not restrain himself from telling lies and acting on them even while observing the fast.” In this age of immediate gratification, when the things of the world are used to fulfill human needs and desires almost as soon as they have them – the ability to delay gratification is an important skill. What is between immediate gratification and delayed gratification is patience. During the fast, the believers learn patience – and the benefits of it.
From a psychological perspective, it is good to be somewhat detached from the things of the world. There is nothing wrong with enjoying a good and full life – in fact, one can and should expect that. However, it is important that people are able to detach ourselves from material things so that they do not become the most important part of their lives. Fasting gives one the opportunity to overcome the many addictions which have become a major part of modern life. Food, for many people, provides comfort and joy – and the ability to separate oneself from it gives the fasting people the psychological benefit of knowing that they do have some degree of control over what they do and what they do not do.
In order to establish the spiritual level, the highest and most important level of fasting, the level of God-consciousness, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) made the renewal of the intention for fasting a requirement before every day of fasting. He was reported to have said, “Whoever does not intend to fast before Fajr (the dawn) will have no fast.” The daily renewal of intention helps to establish a spiritual foundation of sincerity essential for the spiritual cleansing effects of fasting to operate. Sincere fasting purifies and atones for sin, as the Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “Whoever fasts Ramadan out of sincere faith and seeking his reward from God, his previous sins will be forgiven.” He was also reported to have said, “From one Ramadan to the next is atonement for the sins between them.”
The fast is not simply about denying your body food and water. It also involves arguably the more taxing challenge of avoiding ill speech, arguments, loss of temper and malicious behavior. When combined with the previous levels of fasting, the spiritual level transforms a person from within. It restores, revives and regenerates the fasting person’s spirituality and radically modifies his or her personality and character. These are the precious products of a heightened state of God-consciousness.
Sincere fasting brings one closer to Allah and earns a special reward. The Prophet (peace be upon him) informed that there is a gate in paradise called Rayyan reserved for those who fast and he also said, “When Ramadan comes, the gates of Paradise are open.”
Fasting is primarily between the person and God, as no one can be sure that any person is actually fasting. Because of this intimate aspect of fasting, Allah was quoted by the Prophet (peace be upon him) as saying. “Every act of Adam’s descendants is for themselves, except fasting. It is meant for Me alone, and I alone will give the reward for it.”
Fasting, like other Islamic requirements like prayers, holy Hajj, is not a mere formality to be completed somehow as a burden but it has a spiritual significance attached to it and hence it needs to be performed with utmost sincerity and complete commitment.
Self-purification could be attained only by performing the fasting cum prayers at all its levels. If Muslims fast with ill-feelings intact and just for dirty money or similar other favors, they do not seek self-purification, On the contrary, by such selfish or negative motives in fasting they refuse to be self purified in spiritual form. These Muslims care nothing about the Hereafter life.
Self-purification as the central part of spiritual development is the goal of fasting during Holy Ramadan. It is obviously wrong to presume that just fasting without any spiritual commitment in the Holy month of piety and compassion would add more wealth to us. Fasting is performed as a duty of Muslims for Allah’s kindness toward us.
Truth and truthfulness, kindness and compassion are the foundations of self purification. Whether they fast or not, if Muslims do not tell lies or at least avoid telling lies they could be sure of reaching the truth zone. But if they decide to continue to avoid lies, they indirectly approach the spiritual domain. However, if upon the close of holy fasting, Muslims resume all bad habits, including telling lies, they in fact directly kick the holy fasting month.
If humans- Muslims – have not changed their life patterns, even after fasting 30 days year after year it could only signify hopelessly permanent hollowness in humans! That also may mean Muslims systemically refuse to accept the importance of arrival of Holy Prophets to the world to guide the humanity.
Importantly, Muslims could perform fasting, prayers and other religious duties not merely as a formality for favors from God or people. Spirituality and self-purification have got much to do with this notion. If Muslims have fooled, deceived or harmed anyone, deliberately or otherwise, they need to repent.
Patience and mercy are the important virtues we all need in these harried times to live as good humans. Month of Ramadan is viewed as a month-long school where graduates leave with a developed sense of self-control in areas including diet, sleeping and the use of time. The degree to be obtained by the believers could be called as Self-purification.
For this to happen, let bad, cunning or negative thoughts leave your mind and good thoughts enter your mind system in order to help you make a better and purposeful spiritual life. Holy month of Ramadan is the best time for that auspicious endeavor.