Regarding the excellence of fasting, Imam Muhyuddin ibn Arabi mentions in his Futuhat al-Makkiya that fasting is named sawm in reference to its superiority over all other forms of worship. Sawm is derived from the Arabic word sama, which refers to a peak or height e.g. “When the day reached its height (full extent i.e. sama)…”
Fasting has a significant preference over all other forms of ibadah and it is unlike any of them. Imam ibn Arabi further states, “Allah elevated it by denying that it is like any other act of worship. He denied its ownership to His servants although they worship Him by it, and ascribed the fast to Himself. Part of its affirmation is that He rewards the one who is described by it…” The Messenger of Allah said, “Fasting has no equal and the supplication of the fasting person will not be refused.” [Bayhaqi]
To fast is to abstain from the urges of one’s lower self and to fully focus the heart and soul towards Allah. It is a non-action rather than an action, as mentioned in the Futuhat, because it denies actions which break it. In this way, it manifests the truth of La ilaha illallah, that there is nothing but Him. One who only fasts externally loses the benefit of this, as sawm is to completely abstain from that which disturbs the heart’s contentment and faith; it is not simply to abstain from food and drink. According to Sayyidina Shaykh Abdal Qadir al-Jilani states in Sirr al-Asraar that people break their fast when they eat, yet there are those whose fast continues even after they have eaten. They are those who keep their senses and thoughts free from evil, and keep their tongues and hands from hurting others.
The internal aspect of sawm is clear in the following extract from a hadith of the beloved Messenger of Allah, narrated by Sayyidina Abu Hurayra: Allah Most High says, “…Fasting is like a shield, and he who fasts has two joys: a joy when he breaks his fast and a joy when he meets his Lord.” [Bukhari]
Those who comprehend the inner meaning of sawm say the greater joy is when the fasting person meets his Lord and delights in the pleasure therein. This is through recognition of the fact that sawm is not simply to abstain from food and drink, or its only joy would lie within breaking the fast, but it is through knowing that the essence of sawm is to abstain from all evil and to ‘starve’ one’s ego from wrongdoing and sin, so that he may rejoice when meeting his Lord.
The supplication of the fasting person is not rejected, as mentioned in the hadith, “… the supplication of the fasting person will not be refused.” [Bayhaqi]
This refers to how the urges and needs of the lower self are a veil between the servant and Allah. When the urges of the nafs (ego, lower self) are abstained from and denied, the heart becomes purer and a supplication from that servant reaches Allah in a cleansed form. This is the way of the sufi who teaches one to eat less and limit food to only satiate hunger.
The 13th century scholar and sufi poet, Mawlana Jalal uddin Rumi elaborates beautifully on the reality of fasting and its impact. He says:
“There is hidden sweetness in the emptiness of the stomach.
We are lutes, no more, no less.
If the sound box is stuffed full of anything, there comes no music.”
This is a profound analogy. It attributes the characteristics of an instrument to the servants of Allah. That we are instruments of Allah’s love, created to sing out His praises, glorify Him, and express the beautiful “music” which is worship and servitude of Him. If we are full of food, how can we fully focus our heart and soul towards Him? As the Mawlana so eloquently says, “If the sound box is stuffed full of anything, there is no music.”
In reality, the necessity of food in our lives has easily become a luxury. This is especially due to the fact that we are living in times and circumstances where food, of all types and from all backgrounds, is easily available to us. Food in the modern world has become a mindless form of pleasure; we no longer eat to simply satisfy our hunger, it is a fascination and an enjoyment. This excess of food has made us oblivious to struggle. How can we empathise with our suffering brothers and sisters who barely eat a meal a day, when our own stomachs are full?
The beloved Messenger of Allah said, “No human ever filled a vessel worse than the stomach. Sufficient for any son of Adam are some morsels to keep his back straight. But if it must be, then one third for his food, one third for his drink and one third for his breath.” [Ahmad; Tirmidh; Nisaa’i; ibn Majah]
Sawm is to completely grasp this concept of, as so clearly implied in the above hadith, limits. We must observe limits. This is one of the main aspects of fasting – limit the desires of your self, your lower self so that the best part of you i.e. your heart and soul, can benefit and rise in the emptiness of the carnal self. When a person feels struggle, a person very often finds himself closer to Allah.
Sawm teaches us to fight our desires, and it teaches us to turn away from selfishness and ghafla i.e. heedlessness. It teaches us to turn away from the pleasures of our mind and focus on what pleases the heart; the remembrance of Allah. It teaches us to empathise and find some level of understanding towards the impoverished and needy. It teaches us to surrender ourselves into the Hands of Allah for our bodily and inner strength. It teaches us to sacrifice our desires for the sake of our Loving Creator. It teaches us to realise shukr or gratitude for the blessings of health and provision. It teaches us to humble ourselves, and that we are dependant upon Him.
All in all, the lessons drawn from the essence of sawm are endless. And Allah guides to Himself whomsoever He wills.