Fasting and Spiritual Maturity
Fasting is not starvation; it is a spiritual discipline that awakens our Fitrah, or natural disposition towards God, and keeps in check different negative traits of our human ego. Thereby, through mindful fasting, our souls are able to transform from a soul that has become accustomed to evil tendencies to a serene soul firmly aligned to the Straight Path. Failing to manage the negative traits of our ego may corrupt our Fitrah and impede our journey to God. This brief article outlines negative traits (red flags in our spiritual journey) and describes how fasting can strengthen our immunity to the intense appeal of developing such traits.
Red Flag 1: “Nay, man does transgress all bounds, when looking upon himself as self-sufficient!” (96:7-8).
it is easy to be deceived by the luxury we have, the technological advancement we enjoy, the military power we develop or the medical services we are offered. Some may unconsciously feel that they do not need Allah, and others may act as gods! However, none of these material advancements will change our big human reality; that is, we have a built-in need for our Creator who makes our very existence possible. Instead of expressing more gratitude with authentic humility and love, we sometimes get so overwhelmed with the gifts that we forget or even deny the Giver!
Fasting offers a spiritual exercise to fight back any potential arrogance or egotism that may arise from focusing on the gifts. It does this by compelling a break from these gifts and a reflection of how our life looks like with Divine Providence. To al-Ghazali, through mindful fasting and temporary hunger, we receive an opportunity to develop more humility and keep our ego in check as we recognizes how fragile and weak we become in the absence of some morsels and water. Furthermore, Ibn al-Qayyim beautifully depicts the different stages humans experience starting from the moment of birth to the zenith of youth. Having talked about our helplessness and fragility as babies, Ibn al-Qayyim is puzzled over how our behavior changes as our different faculties and powers are developed. He writes: “As God perfects our hearing, sight and reason and as He makes the universe subservient to us, we poor humans start to think that we have a share in this kingdom and look at ourselves with different lenses. We even forget our early state of helplessness, poverty and need as if we never experienced these features and as if we are different creatures!” Basically, look at a baby and observe its need and helplessness. Now, recognize you were one before!
Al-Ghazali goes on to assert that if we fail to recognize our humility and limitations, we will undoubtedly fail to recognize the Divine power and sovereignty. The Quran awakens the arrogant by depicting a big irony: “He created man from a sperm-drop; yet behold he become an open opponent!” (16:4) The word yet in this translation is (إذاidhaal-fujaiyyah) in Arabic which is better translated as “suddenly” or “unexpectedly” as it is usually followed by an unexpected behavior. Once we deny our human weakness and limitations and think of ourselves as gods, we will always see the doors of guidance closed! The Quran reads: ” I shall turn away from My Signs those who magnify themselves wrongfully in the earth, and if they see each token believe it not, and if they see the way of righteousness choose it nor for (their) way, and if they see the way of error choose if for (their) way. That is because they deny Our revelations and are used to disregard them” (7:146).
When I said earlier that fasting is an exercise, this was literal. No one can say that it is meaningless for armies to carry out a series of tactical exercises to stimulate the conditions of war. Similarly, fasting is like a spiritual maneuver which prepares us to face difficult times and hard situations with patience, love and support of one another. Instead of lamenting others for the trials we experience, we are trained to be more mature: to resort to Allah with a humble heart and/or stand by the oppressed.
In Islam we believe that this worldly life is not supposed to feel perfect. It is difficult. It is a test. It is short. However, that does not mean that life is horrible. It all depends on our attitude. Difficulties and trials in life do not mean that Allah abandoned us. It is a chance to approach God with a heart that has surrendered optimistically, not in rebellion, despair or depression. In communicating with Allah about their trials and heartbrokenness, some early Muslim awliya were reported to have experienced so much spiritual joy that they forgot about their trials and wished their state of heartbrokenness would remain!
Take for example this Hadith which illustrates the fact that trials do not mean that God is not in control but rather we have the responsibility to demonstrate actions which align with great values like hope, generosity, courage and sympathy. These great values typically do not manifest except in trials and difficulties. Imam Muslim reported that: “Allah will say on the Day of Resurrection: O son of Adam, I fell ill and you did not visit Me. He will say: O Lord, and how could I visit You and You are the Lord of the worlds? He will say: Did you not know that My servant So-and-so had fallen ill and you did not visit him? Did you not know that had you visited him you would have found Me with him? O son of Adam, I asked you for food and you did not feed Me. He will say: O Lord, and how could I feed You and You are the Lord of the worlds? He will say: Did you not know that My servant So-and-so asked you for food and you did not feed him? Did you not know that had you fed him you would surely have found that (the reward for doing so) with Me? O son of Adam, I asked you to give Me to drink and you gave Me nothing to drink. He will say: O Lord, how could I give You to drink when You are the Lord of the worlds? He will say: My servant So-and-so asked you to give him to drink and you gave him nothing to drink. Had you given him to drink you would have surely found that with Me.” Similarly, the reward for accepting unchangeable trials with humility is gaining Divine support and tranquility.
Red Flag 2: “And few among my servants are the truly thankful” (34:13).
The power to see, hear and understand and the availability of water and basic food are among the Divine blessings that we would never trade. Why do many forget to thank Allah for these indispensable favors? Simply because they unconsciously feel that countless people enjoy the same blessings and thereby they do not feel special! Here comes fasting to teach you not to take anything for granted and to deal with each blessing as a special favor to you. To many, the most precious thing at sunset is simply a water bottle and a couple of dates.
Red Flag 3: “And you love wealth, you love wealth ardently” (89:20).
In Ramadan, we are able to feel the hunger and thirst experienced by millions of people around the world, and thereby develop a strong sense of empathy for them. This empathy turns into action in Ramadan in the form of giving. Giving undoubtedly purifies our hearts from greed and living a self-centered life. In the Quran, the rights of Allah and the rights of people are usually connected. Notice, for instance, how Salah or ritual prayer (the right of Allah) is frequently associated with Zakah or charity (the right of people).
Red Flag 4:”The love of desires is made alluring to people …” (3:14)
In his ‘Ihya’, Imam al-Ghazali argues that our bodily desires are fueled by food and energy. Therefore, fasting weakens lusts and desires temporarily to give an opportunity for the soul to lead the body and to communicate with Allah. This is a lesson in self-discipline and self-control. One is trained to be the master of the body, not the other way around. So remember that you are skipping a meal for a spiritual reason. Unfortunately some people overeat during the ‘iftar period to make up for the meal they missed, and may end up gaining weight by the end of the month!
Red Flag 5:”If only I had not taken so and so as a friend. He led me away from the Revelation after it reached me. Satan has always betrayed mankind” (25:28-29).
Tell me who your friends are and I will tell you who you are! This indicates the importance of whom we choose to associate with. Lacking good friends, being disconnected from your local mosque and abandoning benevolent acts may place your faith at great risk. Ramadan is like an intensive course in good deeds which include: Taraweeh in the masjid, sadaqah for the needy, annual Zakah, reading and studying the Quran, inviting people for ‘iftar, developing stronger family connections …etc. This faith-filled environment increases our opportunities to be more connected with Allah.
Red Flag 6: “When they [hypocrites] stand up to pray, they do so sluggishly, showing off in front of people, and remember God only a little” (4:142).
In Islam, for an action to be moral and accepted by Allah, it is not enough that the action be good. The motive behind the action has to be good and the action has to be done for a good intention: for God. This is called ‘ikhlas, the opposite of which is riya’ (doing something seeking people’s approval and praise, not Allah’s pleasure and glory). During our fast, we stay away from food and drinks and other invalidators of fasting even if no one is watching us. In doing so, we are trained to live in the presence of Allah and do good deeds to glorify Him alone. Wallahu A’lam.