May there be blessings for the arrival of the moon of the Fast!
May your road be delightful, O fellow-traveller of the Fast!
Mawlana Jalal uddin Rumi, Mathnawi
For believers all around the world, the entire year centres around one core month; Ramadan. It is the axis of spiritual wealth and focus, drawing Muslims further towards the ways of the Beloved Messenger of Allah, whose way of life taught the best of simplicity and spirituality. Ramadan blesses the entire Muslim world with the act of fasting or sawm, and through it we are taught a profound level of purity which takes a believer from physical external struggle to an inner struggle against the weakness of the lower self.
It was during this month that the Qur’an was first revealed, and Prophethood or nubuwwa of the beloved Messenger of Allah was assigned. Thus, Ramadan is known as the month of guidance and taqwa – consciousness of Allah. In this month, the Ummah was blessed with the Book of guidance, and was blessed with the beginning of the Messenger of Allah’s mission to preach the Truth.
Allah Most High says in the Qur’an: “Ramadan is the month in which was sent down the Qur’an, as a guide to mankind, and clear proof for guidance and judgement (between right and wrong).” [2:185]
Thus, Ramadan is the month wherein this guidance is enforced through fasting for 30 days, and through voluntary acts of worship and charity which are further hastened towards at this time of year. Communities draw closer together, charity is increased upon, the masjid becomes packed and the taraweeh prayers see the believers standing row by row for extra worship towards One Whom they fast for during the day; submission.
Allah Most High says: “O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may attain righteousness.” [2:183]
During Ramadan, Allah aids the believer to attain this level of righteousness and purity through abstention, which He helps with by chaining the devils. Thus the only battle for the believer during this month is within oneself, against one’s own nafs. The beloved Messenger of Allah said: “When there comes the month of Ramadan, the gates of Mercy are opened, and the gates of Hell are locked and the devils are chained.” [Muslim]
The internal aspect of sawm is clear in the following extract from a Hadith Qudsi, narrated from the Messenger of Allah 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]
Sayyidina Shaykh Abd al Qadir al-Jilani says in Sirr al-Asraar that 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 to abstain from all evil and to ‘starve’ one’s ego from wrongdoing and sin, so that he may rejoice when meeting his Lord.
Ramadan is ultimately a time for inner personal reflection. It is a time for focusing on one’s character and deeds, and the purity of the heart. The believer should strive to better himself, and the best way to reflect upon this is through dhikr. To turn towards Allah in His remembrance leads a person through the path of goodness, so that through it, his taqwa i.e. his awareness of his Creator, is awakened and he becomes wary of approaching evil. His goal is to please Allah, and his character becomes increasingly inclined towards goodness.
The Messenger of Allah, as it is well known, spent his nights of Ramadan in the Cave Hira. Troubled by the ills of pre-Islamic ignorance, he would meditate and reflect deeply on the darkness and errors of humankind, the purpose of life, the significance of morals and goodness. As Muslims in the modern world, living in times of effortless sin and heedlessness, we can take a great lesson from this. Turn away from society and turn towards Allah within your heart; dhikr (remembrance) and fikr (reflection) are the strengths of the believing heart. Indeed, Allah says: “Verily, in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find rest.” [Qur’an 13:28]
This opportunity is specifically presented during Ramadan in the form of itikaaf. During this month of thorough enlightenment, the believer is encouraged to spend the last 10 days in recluse to obtain the benefit of fikr. This is part of the struggle to strengthen the heart in goodness and faith.
This strengthening of the heart is further enhanced when joined with purification by way of sawm. As reported in the hadith, the supplication of the fasting person is not rejected. This could suggest how the desires and needs of the lower self are a veil between the servant and Allah. The Messenger of Allah says, “… the supplication of the fasting person will not be refused.” [Bayhaqi] 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 to preserve the purity of the heart by eating less and limiting 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, to glorify Him and express the beautiful “music” which is worship and servitude of Him. If we are full of food, often a fulfilment of human desire, 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 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; Tirmidhi; Nisaa’i; ibn Majah]
Sawm is to completely grasp this concept of limits, as so clearly implied in the above hadith. We must observe limits. This is one of the main aspects of fasting; limit the desires of 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 nafs. 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 whomever He wills.