Ramadan and its fast are some of the most recognisable aspects of Islam. While viewed by some non-Muslims as a mere deprivation of food and drink, in reality fasting embodies a deep spiritual connection between man and the Divine. It catalyses and nurtures spiritual awareness, pushing the believer to perfect, as best as he can, their understanding and practise of their faith.
As an Ismaili, I was raised acutely aware of the two complimentary facets of our tariqah — the outwardly, exoteric (zahir) and inner, esoteric (batin) — which infuse themselves throughout our philosophy and practices.
Consider, for example, sujood (prostration). We do not prostrate as a ritual motion, devoid of any other significance or meaning, but rather we prostrate because doing so evokes in us — in ways only physical actions as sometimes can — a profound sense of humility as we literally bow down before Allah. No matter how deep our spiritual humility, physically prostrating oneself — to that which you acknowledge in your heart as your Master — is a profoundly fulfilling spiritual gesture that resonates deep within us.
I, however, cannot view fasting as one or the other, as either zahiri or batini, forsaking one for the other.
Similarly, fasting has a physical aspect and a spiritual aspect. The zahiri — or physical — fast prescribes abstinence from food for 30 days, while the batini — or spiritual — fast prescribes abstinence from sin and wrongdoing to purify ourselves, all year long, not just for 30 days. I, however, cannot view fasting as one or the other, as either zahiri or batini, forsaking one for the other. Such a dichotomy undermines the innate, complimentary relationship between zahir and batin — as though fasting was some archaic practice, a superfluous outer, exoteric, manifestation of inner, esoteric, spiritual realities. For me, the physical and spiritual fasts are a beautiful and divinely intended pairing where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and tunes the soul. When viewed from this perspective, fasting becomes, as I explain in this article, a valuable, even practical means for bettering myself and coming closer to Allah.
Perhaps the most obvious, tangible consequence of fasting is it helps cultivate empathy, and perhaps with more potency than any other means. No matter how much we try to fast “esoterically,” actual, physical fasting — without doubt — best develops our empathy for the impoverished, the hungry and the destitute around the world. I have yet to see someone prove to me otherwise. It is deceivingly easy to go about our lives, with an abundance of food around us, and assume we can empathise with the hungry. But to truly understand hunger, we must, as it is said, we must walk a mile in another’s shoes. And hunger is best understood — perhaps only really appreciated — by experience, not imagination or theory.
Hunger is best understood — perhaps only really appreciated — by experience, not imagination or theory.
Fasting makes us acutely conscious of, and grateful for, the barakat we are blessed with, motivates us to become more charitable and share those blessings, and be more mindful of those struggling in our midst as well as around the world. Going through my daily fast, I become keenly aware of those less fortunate than me and I go out of my way to try and be a better person to those around me.
Those who live in the Muslim world — especially non-Muslims — note the deep cultural ethos that surrounds Ramadan fasting and the many practices performed because of fasting.
Visiting each other’s houses for iftar meals and prayers kindles kinship, friendship and brotherhood.
Take for example iftar, when families gather to share a meal. Normally, with the hustle and bustle of life, it is easy to overlook and ignore this important part of family life. It is said the family that eats together, stays together. Fasting brings us together. It forces us to slow down and break bread communally, with our friends and families. Visiting each other’s houses for iftar meals and prayers kindles kinship, friendship and brotherhood.
Fasting and Ramadan also inspire a more sensitive charitable culture, where the hungry become our spiritual brethren and we feel their suffering first hand.
As valuable as empathy and cultural benefits may be — and we all know the world, and even families, need as much empathy and brotherliness as we can cultivate — refraining from food and drink has a more profound impact on us at a personal, individual level.
Fasting is one of the most rigorous examples of self-discipline. And self-discipline is vital for a fulfilling, satisfying life, spiritually and materially. Indeed, Allah says in the Holy Qur’an fasting was specifically prescribed for this purpose:
Fasting is prescribed to you (by Allah) as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may (learn) self-restraint.
2:183, Holy Qur’an, Yusuf Ali translation
Although I know that I could secretly break my fast and no one would be the wiser, I choose not to.
Self-restraint is practiced in many ways, abstaining from food being one. Guarding our thoughts, tongues, eyes, and hands, are other forms of abstinence and self-restraint. While abstaining from gossip, lust, and violence should be part of a momin‘s everyday life, abstaining from food is uncommon. It is a unique and demanding form of self-control.
Although I know that I could secretly break my fast and no one would be the wiser, I choose not to. Not because I’m not allowed to but because I choose, instead, to be true to myself — accountable to my conscience — and, thereby, enhance my relationship with my Creator. I strive to do the right thing, not the easy thing. Islam does not teach us to be virtuous for the sake of others, but, rather, to be virtuous for our own sake. Fasting hones that sense of personal accountability and self-discipline in me.
While all new habits require some measure of self-control and discipline, research shows 30 days repetition is required for them to take root. And this, I believe, is one reason why Allah prescribed a full month of physical fasting. The repetition helps strengthen our self-restraint and discipline that we, otherwise, might not force ourselves to do.
But perhaps repeated fasting’s greatest benefit is that it makes us God-conscious which itself is a reminder to be virtuous.
Similarly, Ramadan reminds us to make an extra effort to practice, spiritual attitudes and actions, like performing bandagi and du’a when we rise early each day, at Bait ul Khayal time, to commence our fast. But perhaps repeated fasting’s greatest benefit is that it makes us God-conscious which itself is a reminder to be virtuous.
Spirituality should be a constant part of our daily lives, but the sad fact is that it is very easy to go through the day without even thinking of our faith or remembering Allah (zikr), even though the Qur’an advises us to “remember Allah much” (62:10).
Fasting, however, helps us remember Allah throughout the day, every day, and makes God-consciousness all but impossible.
Fasting, however, helps us remember Allah throughout the day, every day, and makes God-consciousness all but impossible. I would be hard-pressed to find any other action I could take that could instil such an inescapable state of continuous God-consciousness, or ibadah (worship). Perhaps this is one reason Allah, in His infinite knowledge, advises fasting. Because He knows self-imposed hunger, for His sake, will remind us of Him and bring us closer to Him. Indeed, the Qur’an recognises this benefit of fasting and calls piety developed through fasting taqwa, or “God-consciousness” and Allah singles out fasting as the one deed we do for Him, rather than for ourselves:
Allah said: ‘Every deed of the son of Adam is for him except fasting; it is for Me and I shall reward for it.
#1761, Sahih Bukhari
Perhaps this is because fasting is, above all, a sacrifice that provides us with no material benefits, as such. I choose to fast for Allah’s sake and yet despite this, it only increases my empathy towards others, strengthens my familial relationships, increases my self-discipline, improves my spiritual habits and makes, for me, God-consciousness continuous and second nature.
And yet, aren’t all these the foundations of the batini or spiritual fast, if not the batini fast itself?
Unlocking the spiritual or batini fast
Whenever I ponder all of these benefits from fasting, Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah’s Memoirs, and the reason he gives for fasting there, resonates strongly with me:
Reasonable fasting for a month in every year, provided a man’s health is not impaired thereby, is an essential part of the body’s discipline through which the body learns to renounce all impure desires. [Emphasis added]
He says fasting is a divinely-chosen, essential practice to discipline and, through that, purify ourselves. As someone who fasts during Ramadan, I can say this has been my experience. Fasting for a month does indeed instil a large dose of self-discipline and does indeed cement virtuous habits that help me to “renounce all impure desires” and lead a purer life all year long. And so, without doubt, I can attest to the fact that “reasonable fasting” for a month is an invaluable practice that helps cultivate the spiritual habits and attitudes we all yearn for. And once formed, these habits remain with us, all year.
Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah says fasting is a divinely-chosen, essential practice to discipline and, through that, purify ourselves.
It is easy to speak of the importance of the yearlong batini, or spiritual, fast — of abstaining from impure thoughts and actions throughout the year, and not just in Ramadan — in principle, but how many of us can truly say we fasted spiritually every day of Ramadan, let alone all year? And how many of us can say we remember during Ramadan, let alone all year, to make continuous changes in our daily lives the spiritual fast demands?
Like New Year’s — which provides us with an annual reminder to make or renew resolutions to improve ourselves — so too, Ramadan, provides with not only an annual reminder, but an annual opportunity to cultivate and cement those habits that make the batini fast second nature and effortless for us. Ramadan fasting is a scheduled practice which directly affects all those other areas of our spiritual lives we want to improve. Aspects of our lives which, more often than not, we never seem to actually get around to improving and always put off for “tomorrow” for one reason or another. Human nature being what it is, sometimes just being told “do it, and do it now” gives us the impetus to actually do it!
In his 2005 Message to the Amman Conference, Mawlana Hazar Imam said that our faith is in “harmony” with “Sufi principles of personal search and balance between the zahir and the spirit or the intellect which the zahir signifies.” That is, we must not forsake the zahir for the spiritual, but instead balance the two, for the zahir signifies the spiritual.
Similarly, the physical, or zahiri, fast is the catalyst that unlocks the batini fast …
Thus, for me, every zahiri practice evokes, fosters and helps unlock the deeper spiritual — the batini — meaning and understanding. Similarly, the physical, or zahiri, fast is the catalyst that unlocks the batini fast and thus makes it a critically important — nay, an “essential,” as Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah says — practice for me.
About the author
Armaan Kassam is a student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He is passionate about religious issues and takes particular interest in Ismailism as it relates to the broader Ummah.
Article: Armaan Kassam