Fasting

Fasting[1]

By Dr. Eren Tatari[2]

“The month of Ramadan (is the month) in which the Qur’an was sent down as guidance for people, and as clear truths of the guidance and the Criterion (between truth and falsehood). Therefore, whoever of you is present this month must fast it…” (Qur’an, 2:185).

Fasting is a type of worship that is shared among the three Abrahamic traditions, though in unique forms. God prescribes healthy adult believers to fast from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan, which is the ninth month in the lunar calendar. Indeed, we are encouraged to fast throughout the year, and some believers follow the tradition of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) to fast Mondays and Thursdays. One of the significances of the month of Ramadan is the fact that the Qur’an was first revealed in this month.

Fasting means not eating or drinking; no water, no smoking, no gum… Yet, it also entails much more than that. All other faculties fast as well. For instance, our tongue fasts by not getting angry, lying, breaking someone’s heart, being mean, etc. Our eyes fast by not looking at unlawful things. Our entire body fasts by using it in acts that would please God, like helping others. Moreover, fasting is to be accompanied by heightened spiritually; trying to get closer to God, increasing our awareness that He is the sole Creator and Sustainer of everything. The Ramadan fast is an intensive course of focusing on worship, contemplation, and social service, such as helping the needy and feeding the poor.

Why was fasting prescribed? What is the wisdom in it? For one, it helps us to see the bigger picture, to see order, the Orderer, and Wisdom and Mercy in everything through contemplation. The Creator knows us better than us. Religion is His guidance and our manual. So we choose to follow this guidance to fulfill the purpose of our creation and to find inner peace. It is healthy for our body and soul, and it disciplines our ego. It helps us to realize our weakness and neediness, which makes us more humble and modest. Fasting teaches us to be more thankful for all blessings. We need to understand hunger and help others. Experience equals confirmation.

If a person goes to a friend’s house, the feast might be ready, but the guest won’t start eating until his host invites him. Why does he wait? Out of respect and to show that he acknowledges and cares for his host. During the month of Ramadan, the month of fasting, it’s very much like that:  We wait all day, from sunrise to sunset, for our divine host to invite us to eat and drink when the call to prayer is recited.

This is an extraordinary experience. Although it’s not easy to fast, when it’s time to break the fast at sunset, there is that wonderful feeling of belonging, of being the guest of the Divine, the guest of the compassionate Creator and Provider. And we rejoice not only at satisfying our hunger but more so at being the guest of the Lord.

Ramadan is a time to refresh the way we look at the world.  It makes us reflect on the “simple” things that are in fact amazing.  Even a cup of tea is not as cheap as it seems to be.  For a tea leaf to grow, the existence of the whole universe is required: the sun, the rotation of the earth, the rain, soil, bacteria, and so on.  Have you ever tried to count the kinds of fruits, vegetables, plants that “come out” of the soil? Is it a simple process?

The Creator has made the whole world like a feast, showing His generosity and compassion. Yet, in daily life we often forget to respond appropriately to these glorious acts of the Creator. And in order to be thankful to God we need to remember that we are given all these gifts, but we also need to recognize the value of the gifts. We quite often underestimate the value of a glass of water or a piece of bread until we give up the daytime meals and snacks in the month of Ramadan. This makes fasting during Ramadan a powerful means of recovering our gratitude to our Merciful Sustainer. When we fast, we are hungry and we appreciate the value of food; we realize what a precious gift it is and we are filled with gratitude. This makes us reflect on the countless gifts and blessings that we have been given; not only  food and  drink, but also health, sight, friendship, air, water, etc. Everything is valuable; everything is a blessing.

Fasting allows us to become more conscious of the compassionate sustainer of the world, and so we turn to our Lord to acknowledge our gratitude. We remember once more that we are guests of God on earth. In Ramadan, we become like an assembly of divine guests waiting the invitation of our host to start enjoying the feast. We respectfully wait in front of the dinner table for the Glorious Host’s invitation to start eating.  The fast of Ramadan helps us remember that we are being taken care of with compassion and generosity.

Everything becomes a sign that speaks of God’s generosity and compassion. Food becomes a token of love, a sign of divine favor; a sign that turns our attention from the food itself to the bestower of the food. We also understand that hunger has not been given to us only to fill our stomachs and derive temporary pleasure from it, but to make that pleasure itself a sign, a means to recognize the giver of the pleasure and turn to Him. And when the food is perceived as a divine favor, the pleasure it gives is far greater than the pleasure obtained from its perishable matter. It gives a lasting delight: the pleasure of feeling in the presence of God’s everlasting compassion and love. That is why every time we break the fast, we experience the good news of everlasting pleasure and we rejoice. Every evening in the month of fasting is a feast. And at the end of the month, the whole community celebrates the feast of the breaking of the fast.

Like Ramadan, Eid or feasting is centered on worship rather than food. However, food is always present during Eid too, because in Islam, everything in the world is sacred;, every event is a sign pointing to its Maker. The feast is celebrated with communal prayers and glorification of God that lasts three days. People visit each other and offer presents to each other to express their gratitude to God.

Feasting is basically rejoicing at being the honored guest of the compassionate Creator, the host. We rejoice at God’s love and care for us as His guests here on earth. Fasting during Ramadan is the opportunity to remember God’s loving presence and to hold our hearts open to receive His compassionate guidance and help.

Technically speaking, the fast of Ramadan is one of the pillars of Islam.  Like other pillars of Islam, it has personal, social and ethical implications. It refreshes our relationship to our Merciful Creator as well as our relations with other human beings. It is basically a month of thanksgiving at various personal and social levels. When we fast, we realize how weak we are; how fragile the human body is; how dependent we are on so many things we take for granted. It’s a situation that makes us wonder who we really are. Our needs are countless, but usually we are not even aware of them because we take them for granted. The more we realize how needy we are, the more we feel that we are bombarded with blessings, and our whole being is filled with gratitude for the compassionate Creator, and when we surrender to this reality, we say, “Praise be to God, Lord of all the Worlds,” which means the Lord of all gifts, the Lord of everything. And praising the merciful Creator is the essence of worship.

Therefore, fasting reminds us of our needs, and our needs are the means to taste all gifts and enjoy them. Without hunger, food would not provide pleasure. Our needs are also the means to feel empathy for the needy; through our needs we communicate with the rest of the world in the name of God, the provider of all. This makes us realize that we are not alien to other people or to other beings. That is why we rejoice at the month of Ramadan even if our stomachs cry out. And maybe that’s why it is said that fasting brings about spiritual fulfillment and that in the month of fasting, rewards are multiplied manifold. Ramadan is also often called the month of blessings.

When we empathize with others, and feel that we are not alien to them, then we can share everything with everybody because we are not anxious about providing for our needs. The Merciful Creator has already taken care of them. We are liberated from the illusory world of the ego that thinks that it provides for itself. Giving and sharing with others does not feel like a sacrifice anymore because nothing is ours anyway; everything is given to us. Sharing with others is an opportunity for us to remember and affirm this reality. Sharing becomes a source of joy, a source of realizing our position as honored guests of our Lord.

When we fast with this awareness, we remember the true owner of blessings and lovable things. Food becomes not mere perishable food, but a gift from God that is to be eaten in the name of God. We then love food in the name of its Maker who made it lovable and offered it to us as a gift of love and friendship. So Ramadan is a month of worship, a time to draw closer to God. It is a special time God chooses to open His extra doors of mercy.

What are the wisdoms of the Ramadan fast? The fast of Ramadan is one of the pillars of Islam.  Like others pillars of Islam, it is a multifaceted act, with profound implications for all aspects of our lives, personal, social and ethical.  It rejuvenates our relationship to our Merciful Creator, as well as our relations with other human beings.  It helps us to be witnesses to God’s glory, be mindful of and thankful for bounties of God, as well as to discipline our ego. In what follows, we will explore some of these aspects of Ramadan fast.

Ramadan fast is a witness to Our Sustainer. It is a time to refresh the way we view the world.  It makes us reflect on the “simple” things that are in fact awesome.  Even an apple is not as cheap as we regard it to be.  For the growth of a single apple, the existence of whole universe is required:  sun, the ordered rotation of earth, rain, soil, bacteria and so on.  Let us just try to count the kinds of fruits, vegetables, plants that “come out” of soil, is it a simple process at all? Indeed, Glorious Creator has made the whole world like a feast table; showing His perfect art, generosity and mercy.  Yet, in daily life we often forget to respond appropriately to these glorious acts of the Creator.

It is in Ramadan that we wake up to a greater consciousness of this merciful and magnificent sustaining of the world.  And, we turn all together, as a unified body of hundreds of millions –even more- believers on the globe, to acknowledge our gratitude to our Lord.  We remember once more that we are guests of God on earth, and we show a palpable sign of this by actually participating in the fast of Ramadan.  Indeed, in Ramadan, we become like a great assembly of royal guests waiting the command of their host in the dining hall to start enjoying the royal feast.  All the Muslims over the globe become one united body, respectfully waiting in front of the dinner tables, for the Glorious Host’s invitation to start eating.  The fast of Ramadan helps us to remember our relationship to the Glorious Creator, as servants in awe and with gratitude.

Ramadan fast enhances our gratitude to our Creator. More specifically, Ramadan is a time to recover our gratitude to God.  If a dear friend of yours sent you precious gifts in mail, would you contend by thanking the mailperson?  Would it be fair for you to forget to thank the sender, while thanking and tipping the deliverer?  Yet, we frequently behave like this, when we receive gifts from God, such as life, health, food, drink or love, we contend ourselves by thanking only (or mainly) the ‘deliverers’ of these gifts—parents, friends, or nature, forgetting the Real Giver of these gifts.  We may buy some bananas or a box of strawberries from the grocery store. As long as we pay several dollars for it, we think we really paid for these.  While, in fact, we are only paying for the cultivation and transportation of these fruits.  We are not paying for its amazing creation from a mixture of mud, or our capacity to taste, enjoy and digest these fruits.  Do any of us, for instance, pay for the sun to shine or for the taste buds in our tongue to work?

Indeed, we need some boost in our recognition of the real Sender. One of the wisdoms in Ramadan fast is to get this boost.   By being barred from eating till the time determined by the Creator (we may not start eating even a minute before the sunset call), we realize that what we thought as ours is not really ours.   This discipline helps us to tell ourself: “here it is, the vegetables I bought with my money and cooked with my own hands in my own oven heat. Yet, this food is really not mine, for I cannot eat it whenever I want. I have to wait for the permission of their Real Owner in the sunset.”   This concrete realization that all that we take for granted are gifts from God encourages us to be more thankful to Him.  By the way, while doing this we need not decrease our thanks to the ‘deliverers’ (so do not give up paying for the grocery bills!)

In order to be thankful to God we need not only remember that all are gifts from Him, but we also need to recognize the value of what is given.  We quite often underestimate the value of a glass of water or a piece of bread- until we give up the daytime meals and snacks in the month of Ramadan.  Thus, Ramadan becomes a powerful way of recovering our gratitude to our Merciful Sustainer.

Ramadan fast is a means of getting to know who we are. God says in the Qur’an, “Be not like those who are forgetful of God, and whom therefore [God] causes to forget themselves” (Qur’an 59:19). He reminds us of our reality:

 

“O humankind! You are all poor before God and in absolute need of Him, whereas He is the All-Wealthy and Self-Sufficient (absolutely independent of creation), the All-Praiseworthy (as your Lord, Who provides for you and all other beings, supplying all your needs)” (Qur’an 35:15).

 

Our ego wants to pretend as if it is independent of God; it does not want to admit its full dependence on its Creator, and wants to ignore the fact that it is a recipient and not the owner of the bounties of God.  In short, we have a part in us that simply does not want to be grateful and humble before the Creator. Add economic affluence and worldly power to this innate inclination of our ego, we may easily end up with a life based on forgetfulness of God, living like a thief of God’s bounties, devouring the bounties without acknowledging the Real Owner!

The good news is that this ego is not what we are all about; it is just a part in us, it is not our real identity.  The ego’s innate duty is to encourage us to forget God, and our innate duty is to say “no” to it (i.e. to strengthen our muscles we have to lift weight).  Ramadan fast is a time for us to do our job of honesty, when it palpably manifests that we are all needy recipients of God’s sustenance.  We realize in Ramadan more profoundly that we are neither self-sufficient nor immortal as our ego falsely claims.  Our ego wants to overlook the fact that we are indeed weak, perishable mortals on earth.  Our ego often wants to pretend that we are immortal, it wants to overlook the fact that we are only transient passengers on this world, destined for an eternal life in the hereafter (and therefore need to prepare for it.)  Fasting becomes a good discipline for our ego’s illusions, by showing how our batteries fall low and our bodies become weak after hours of no ingestion.  In Ramadan, the ego’s tendency to play God like a Pharaoh vanishes and our human reality becomes manifest: we are all poor creatures before God, with perishable bodies, and we are better off by admitting this before our Creator.

Ramadan is also a time to draw closer to Our Creator, for it is a special time He chooses to open His extra doors of mercy.  Moreover, Ramadan has social implications; it reminds us that an important component of being grateful for what God gave is to share it with our fellow human beings.  Ramadan fast also helps spiritual growth by disciplining the “stomach,” and enabling an environment in which we can listen to the message of the Qur’an more attentively.

 


[1] In preparing this section, I have benefitted from Nursi’s “Treatise on Ramadan” (Twenty-Ninth Letter). I also thank Dr. Isra Yazicioglu for sharing her reflections on this chapter.

[2] Dr. Eren Tatari is the author of Surrendering to God: Understanding Islam in the Modern Age  (Tughra Publications, December 2012).  She is an Assistant Professor at Rollins College, FL focusing on Islam and Muslims in the West.

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