On the Mysteries of Fasting

Abu Haamid al-Ghazaali

March 15, 2024

Know that fasting is of three grades, namely, the fasting of the general public (ṣawm al-ʻumūm), the fasting of the select few (ṣawm al-khuṣūṣ), and the fasting of the elite among the select few (ṣawm khuṣūṣ al-khuṣūṣ).

The fasting of the general public involves refraining from satisfying the appetite of the stomach and the appetite of the sex, as has already been discussed.

The fasting of the select few is to keep the ears, the eyes, the tongue, the hands, and the feet as well as the other senses free from sin.

The fasting of the elite among the select few is the fast of the heart from the mean thoughts and worldly worries and its complete unconcern with anything but God. Such a fast is broken by thinking on anything other than God and the Last Day, as well as by concern over this world, except in so far as it promotes religion, which belongs to the Hereafter. Thus, those whose hearts are sanctified have said, “He who spends his day worrying over what he will have for breaking his fast, sins.” This is because he has little confidence in the bounty of God and little faith that the livelihood promised onto him will be received. In this rank stand the prophets, the truthful and the intimates of God, the Most High. We shall not dwell very long on the verbal description of the kind of fasting but shall define it through its active operation. It is to seek God with all of one’s strength and to turn aside from all other things besides Him. In short, it is to embody the words of God when He said, “Say ‘God, then leave them in their pastime of cavilings.” al-An’ām: 91.

The fasting of the select few, which is the fasting of the virtuous men, is to keep the senses free from sin and is accomplished through six things: first, to refrain from looking at anything blameworthy and disapproved, or anything which occupies the person and diverts him from remembering God. The Messenger of God, God bless him and grant him peace, said, “the coveting glance is one of the poisoned arrows of the devil. He who for fear of God abstains therefrom will receive from Him a faith, the sweetness of which will fill his heart.”

Jabir related on the authority of Anas that the Messenger of God, God bless him and grant him peace, said, “Five things break the fast: the telling of lies, backbiting, tale-bearing, perjury, and the casting of coveting and lustful eyes.”

The second is to keep the tongue free from raving, lying, backbiting, tale-bearing, obscenity, abusive speech, wrangling, and hypocrisy, and to impose silence upon it. Furthermore, it should be employed in the remembrance and glorification of God and engaged in the reading of the Qur’an. Of such is the fasting of the tongue. We have it on the authority of Bishr ibn-al-Ḥārith that Sufyān [ath-Thawrī] once said, “Backbiting renders fasting of no effect.” Quoting Mujāhid, Layth once said, “Two traits render fasting of no effect: backbiting and lying.”

The Messenger of God, God bless him and grant him peace, said, “Verily, fasting is like a shield; therefore whenever one of you fasts, let him not speak unseemly or act foolishly. If anyone disputes with him or swears at him, let him say, ‘I am fasting, verily I am fasting.” In another tradition we read about women who lived during the lifetime of the Messenger, God bless him and grant him peace. As they were fasting one day, pangs of hunger and the darts of thirst proved too much for them to endure, they sent to the Messenger of God asking him permission to break their fast. In reply he sent them a cup saying, “vomit into this cup what you have eaten.” To the amazement of all present, one of them filled half the cup with pure blood and tender flesh and the other filled up the second half of the cup with the same thing. Thereupon the Messenger, God bless him and grant him peace, said, “These two women have fasted from that which God had made lawful onto them and have broken their fast by doing that which He had made unlawful to them. They sat down and engaged in backbiting. The flesh and blood which they vomited is the flesh and blood of those people whom they have traduced.”

The third is to close the ears to every reprehensible thing because everything which is unlawful to utter is also unlawful to hear. For this reason, God regarded the listener and the ‘sharks’ of unlawful trade alike when He said, “Listeners to falsehood, ‘sharks’ of the unlawful trade.” [al-Ma’ida:42]. And again, “Why do the rabbis and the priests not forbid them from uttering wickedness and devouring unlawful trade?’ [al-Ma’ida:63]. Silence therefore, in the face of backbiting is unlawful. God, Exalted is He, said, “You are then just like them.” [al-Nisā’:140]. The Messenger, God bless him and grant him peace, also said, “The backbiter and he who listens to him are partners in sin.”

The fourth is constraining the rest of the senses from sins, restraining the hand from reaching evil, and curbing the foot from pursuing wickedness, as well as avoiding questionable foods at the break of the fast. Otherwise, if the fast is going to be abstinence from lawful things and breaking it is going to be with unlawful things, it will have no significance at all. Such a fasting man is like one who builds a castle but destroys a region. For lawful food is harmful not because of its quality but because of its quantity and fasting is designed to induce moderation. Similarly, the person who, for fear of the bad effect of an excessive dose of medicine, resorts to taking a dose of poison, is indeed foolish. The unlawful is poison detrimental to religion while the lawful is like a medicine a little of which is beneficial but the excess of which is harmful. The purpose of fasting is to induce moderation therein. The Messenger of God, God bless him and grant him peace, said, “How often a man gets nothing out of his fast except hunger and thirst” (al-Nasā’ī and Ibn Māja). In explanation of this it has been said that [the Messenger] meant the person who breaks his fast on unlawful things. Others said that he meant the person who abstains from law­ful food and breaks his fast on the flesh of men through backbiting which is unlawful. Still others said that the Messenger, God bless him and grant him peace, meant the person who does not keep his senses free from sin.

The fifth is that when breaking his fast, a person should not overeat of [even] the lawful food, thereby stuffing his belly full. For there is no vessel more abominable to God than a belly stuffed with lawful food. How could anyone expect to overcome the enemy of God and subdue his own appetite through fasting if, when he breaks his fast, he compensates himself for what he had missed during the day and even helps himself to have more foods and drinks of diverse kinds. It has thus become the custom to store up all the food for the month of Ramaḍān, wherein more food and drink are devoured than in several months. Yet it is well known that the purpose of fasting is hunger and the suppression of lust so that the soul might be able to attain piety. If the stomach were not given any food from the early morning until the evening so that its appetite became aroused and its desire increased and then it were fed with delicacies and stuffed to satiety therewith, its pleasure would be enhanced and vitality doubled, consequently giving rise to passions otherwise dormant.

The spirit as well as the secret of fasting is to weaken the flesh which is Satan’s tool for turning men back to evil. [Such weak­ening of the flesh] is never achieved unless a person reduces his food to the amount of food which he would have eaten in the evening if he were not fasting. But if, on breaking his fast, he should eat an amount of food equivalent to what he would have eaten during both the day time and the evening, he would reap no benefit from his fast. As a matter of fact, among the proprieties of fasting is that the person should not sleep much during the daytime but rather stay up so that he might feel the pangs of hunger and the flames of thirst and become conscious of the weakness of the flesh, with the result that his heart would be cleansed and purified. He should maintain his flesh in such a state of weakness during the Night of Power so that he might find his night prayer (tahajjud) easier to per­form and his awrād easier to read. It is hoped, then, that Satan will not hover around his heart and that he will be able to lift his eyes to the kingdom of heaven. In this connection, the Night of Power represents the night on which a glimpse of the invisible world is revealed to man. It is also the night which is alluded to by the words of God when He said, ‘‘Verily We have sent it down on the Night of Power” (al-Qadr:1).

He who buries his head deep into a nose-bag full of food, cannot hope to see the invisible world. Even if he keeps his stomach empty, he will not be able to remove the veil and see the invisible world unless he also empties his mind from everything except God. This is the whole matter, the basis of which is to cut down the amount of food one eats.

The sixth is that, after breaking the fast, his heart should remain in state of suspense between fear and hope, since he does not know whether his fast will be accepted, and consequently he will be one of the intimates of God, or rejected, and he will then be one of those who have incurred divine disfavor. He should remain in such a state of suspense after every act of worship.­

It has been related that al-Ḥasan ibn Abī al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī once passed by a group of men who were rollicking and laughing and said to them, ‘‘Verily God has made the month of Ramaḍān a race­course where men compete in His worship. Some have won their race and were crowned with success, while others lagged behind and lost. We are surprised and astonished at the man who wastes his time in indolence and laughter on the day when the earnest finish victorious and the idle meet with failure and disaster. By God, if the veil were to be removed, you will find the good man occupies with his good works and the evildoer with his evil deeds.” In other words the joy of the man whose fast has been accepted will occupy him and keep him from indolence, while the agony and regrets of the man whose fast has been rejected will take all joy from his heart and make laughter impossible.

It was related on the authority of al-Aḥnaf ibn Qays that he was once told, “You are an old man, and fasting would make you weak.” To which he replied, “This fast is my preparation for a long journey. Verily to endure the yoke of God’s service is easier than to endure the yoke of His torture.” Such words depict the inward meaning of fasting.

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