The True Meaning of Fasting
“O you who have believed, decreed upon you is fasting as it was decreed upon those before you that you may become righteous”.
Come Ramadhan and this verse will be the highlight of talks and sermons everywhere. Speakers will stress on how this holy month is a chance for us to cleanse our souls, and an opportunity for us – all of us – to gather and return to our Lord, that He may grant us His Mercy.
But how does fasting make us righteous?
What is proper fast in the first place?
The root word of ‘sawm’ means to abstain from something, whether it is from food, drinks, speech or any bad thoughts or actions. To fast therefore is to guard ourselves against not just eating and drinking but all things that can be negative or bad for ourselves. It is an exercise in self-control and a form of ‘correction programme’ for people to break out of their bad habits.
In Imam Al-Ghazali’s ‘Revival of the Religious Sciences’, he categorized the 3 levels of fasting; the ordinary fast, the fast of the elect and the fast of the elect.
The first is the ordinary fast, that is to say, the layman’s level of what it means to fast. This kind of fast requires a person to abstain from eating, drinking and sexual desires. This is the most basic of fasts, and whoever completes their fast having abstained from all the aforementioned things has thus made a valid fast.
Saiyidina Uthman narrated that the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said: “Fasting is a shield against the Fire”. In another hadith narrated by Abu Hurairah, the Messenger of Allah said: “Whoever does not give up false speech and evil deeds while fasting, then Allah is not in need of his leaving food and drink”.
It is evident from these hadiths that the act of fasting is not something Allah needs. In fact, Allah is free from needs as He is Self-Sufficient. Rather, fasting is meant to help us by ensuring that we refrain ourselves from bad deeds. Which brings us to the second level; the fast of the elect.
The fast of the elect means guarding all our body parts – our eyes, ears, mouth, hand, and feet – from sinning. This is where the value of fasting begins to manifest. It is not enough that we starve our physical body from its desire to consume, but it becomes a duty for our own selves to ensure that what we see, hear and say is free from sin. Our speech is one good example whereby fasting makes us more aware of our interactions with the people around us; is it good? Is it beneficial? Does it bring more harm than good? From here, we can take notice of the areas we are lacking and more importantly, take proactive steps to change.
Changing our habits is hard. That’s a given.
Habits are repetitive behaviors that become a specific set of patterns in our reality. Studies tell us that retraining our minds is possible, although it requires a lot of patience and determination, coupled with an environment that nurtures this positive change. It also takes time; some saying it takes 40 days, others say 66. Given that Ramadhan is 30 days long and everyone around us is trying their best to do as many good deeds as possible, it is the best opportunity for us to change for the better.
Never prayed before? You can start now. Never worn the hijab? Now’s a good time. Never did voluntary work at the mosque? Hey, what do you have to lose? The key is to keep on trying, one small deed at a time, as the Messenger of Allah said: “Take on only as much as you can do of good deeds, for the best of deeds is that which is done consistently, even if it is little.”
This brings us to the final level; the fast of the muhsin (one who has perfected his faith). This is the fast of the prophets and the saints as this is the highest example of fasting. This fasting is the fasting of the heart from all other things besides Allah. Words cannot begin to describe the degree of obedience needed to attain this level, for only those who have reached this peak can say.
At the end of this, what have we learned?
We realize that fasting is not just a physical experience, but it is a wholistic obligation which allows us to reach a higher level of awareness of ourselves, and if performed wholeheartedly, will alter us physically, mentally, emotionally and most importantly spiritually in a way that will make us better individuals. The key is effort – a continuous one, with the hope that Allah will be there to guide us along the way.
Allah, the Exalted and Glorious, said:
“When My servant draws close to Me by the span of a palm, I draw close to him by the cubit and when he draws close to Me by the cubit, I draw close to him by the space (covered) by two arm spans, and when he comes to me walking, I go in a hurry towards him”.
Contributed by Ustaz Mizi Wahid of Safinah Institute as part of the #SalamTodayRamadan series with SalamToday and SalamWeb.