There are two main feasts in Islam: Eid al-Fitr, the feast of the breaking of the fast at the end of Ramadan, and then Eid al-adha (also called the Feast of Sacrifice), which is the commemoration of the prophet Abraham, and is celebrated about two months after the end of Ramadan. The order of these feasts is significant. First fasting, then the Feast of Sacrifice.
First let us remember that fasting is one of the pillars of Islam (by Islam, I literally mean “surrendering to the will of God”). We have often heard that fasting brings spiritual fulfillment and that the month of Ramadan is a month of blessings. But what happens when we fast? What is so special about fasting? People often say that when you fast, you remember the hungry and share what God has given you with those in need. But I think if we don’t understand the meaning of fasting, we tend to think about food all day; and we may become even more self-centered and forget about the needy.
When Muslims (literally meaning those who strive to surrender to the will of God) fast, they realize how weak they are, how fragile the human body is. We realize that we are so needy and are dependent on so many things that we take granted for, like water and air. It is a situation that makes us wonder who we really are.
We often say that we are created beings but we are seldom aware of what that means. To be created means to be needy: we are in need of being created continuously, hence we are not self-sufficient. Our needs are countless but because we are usually unaware of our need for things like air, we take them for granted. Also, if I am created, if I am needy then everyone, everything else is like me. Everything is created with all of their qualities. Everything and the attributes/qualities of everything, belongs to their Maker alone. This is the beginning of the process of tawheed which is an ongoing process of unifying God and realizing that absolutely everything belongs to Him alone.
Tawheed is not only to believe in one god as opposed to two or three. It is to realize that all lovable attributes of perfection belong to their Maker alone and not to the things themselves. The Qur’an teaches tawheed in this way: “there is no deity (anything worth of being loved and worshipped) save He, to Him alone belong the attributes of perfection” (Qur’an, 20:8).
So if we reflect on the meaning of fasting, it helps us experience tawheed. When we fast, we are hungry and the food tastes good. We appreciate the value of food and we realize how precious a gift it is and we are filled with gratitude. This makes us reflect on the countless gifts of mercy that we have been given, like health, sight, and so on…and everything becomes valuable; everything is a blessing and we realize how great a mercy air and water are.
Everything becomes a sign speaking of God’s mercy and generosity and other attributes of perfection. Food becomes a token of love, a sign of divine favor; a sign that turns our attention from food itself to the bestower of the favor. We also understand that hunger has not been given to us just to fill our stomach and derive temporary pleasure from eating, but to make that pleasure a sign, a means to recognize the giver of the pleasure and thus be grateful to Him alone.
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 care and love. This pleasure is the essence of worship; it is the seed of the pleasures of paradise. 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. Feasting is centered on worship rather than food. The feast is celebrated with communal prayers and glorification of God that lasts 3 days. People visit and offer presents to each other to express their gratitude to God and reflect His attributes of bestower and compassionate in their own life. Feasting is basically rejoicing at being the honored guest of the merciful creator, a state that we realize best when we fast with the intention of achieving tawheed. Indeed, the more we realize how needy we are, the more we feel showered by blessings (ni’ma), and our whole being is filled with gratitude for the compassionate creator. Those who surrender to this reality say: Praise be to God, lord of all the worlds i.e. Lord of all gifts, the Lord of everything. Praising the merciful creator is the gist of worship.
Fasting reminds us of our needs. And our needs are the means to taste all things, to feel empathy for the needy (and everything is needy). Through our needs we communicate with the rest of the world in the name of God. We realize that we are not alien to other people or to other beings. Then the spirit rejoices to these good news even if the stomach yells. God says in the Qur’an:
“For them there is the glad-tidings of happiness in the life of this world and in the life to come” (Qur’an, 10:64).
Then we can share everything with everybody because we are not anxious about providing for our needs as the Merciful Creator has already taken care of them. It is the end of egotism. We are liberated from the illusory world of the ego. Giving and sharing with others is not a sacrifice anymore because nothing is ours anyway, everything is continuously given to us and as we share with others we remember and affirm this reality of given-ness; that is why sharing is a source of joy and a source of realizing our position as the honored guests of the Lord of this world.
So if we fast with this awareness, we remember the true owner of bounties and lovable things. Food is not mere food but a gift from God that is to be eaten and used in the name of God. We then love food in the name of its Creator who made it lovable and offered it to us as a gift of love and friendship.
If we love things for themselves, if we imagine that the qualities that make them lovable are inherent to them, then we are making them into idols. For love is worship. And the love (i.e. worship) of idols is just the opposite of tawheed. The Qur’an teaches that to ascribe partners to God is to ascribe qualities manifested on objects and in ourselves to the things themselves rather than to their Maker.
Things are not beautiful. They are made beautifully! We love beauty but beauty belongs only to the Creator. Thus things should be loved in the name of their Maker, and that is what bismillah – In the Name of God- is supposed to remind us of. In other words, in order to submit to the cosmic reality of tawheed, we need to break our idols, we need to ‘slaughter’/or kill our illusion that things are good/lovable in themselves and from themselves as though they were independent of their Creator.
This is what is symbolized by the sacrifice of a sheep at Eid al-Adha. This feast of sacrifice is the most important feast of the Muslim calendar. It is about two months after the feast of the breaking of the fast and it concludes the Hajj, the Pilgrimage to Mecca. It lasts for four days and commemorates Abraham’s surrendering to the will of God. The feast re-enacts Abraham’s faithfulness by sacrificing an animal. The family donates 2/3 of the meat to the poor and the neighbors. In Islam, Abraham is known as the father of tawheed; the Qur’an says that he is the model of taslim (surrendering to God’s will):
“Surely Abraham was a man who combined within himself all virtues, devoutly obedient to God’s will, turning away from all that is false, and ,not being of those who ascribe divinity to anyone but God . He was grateful for the blessings granted by Him who had elected him and guided him unto a straight path. We gave him good in this world, and in the next he will most surely be among the righteous” (Qur’an, 16:120-121).
“And We made him [Abraham] pure in this world and in the hereafter; he is most surely among the righteous. When his Lord said to him, ‘Surrender yourself unto me [aslim],’ he said, ‘I surrender myself to the Lord of the Worlds’” (Qur’an, 2:130-131).
Abraham destroyed all the idols that his people worshipped; i.e. he destroyed idols in the outer world. He knew that none besides God was worthy of being worshipped. Ultimately, he had to destroy all idols in his inner heart so that all love will be for the sake of God alone. But how? Not by renouncing the world physically as he first thought. The Qur’an says that God accepted his intention but God also taught him that the renunciation is only metaphorical. The world is not an obstacle to the love and worship of God; everything is in fact an ayah making God known. The problem is not with the world but with our vision of the world and thus with our relationship with the world. In the same way, the problem was not with Abraham’s child but with the nature of Abraham’s love for his child.
God taught Abraham that the solution was not to kill his son but to love him in the name of his Creator. Abraham surrendered to God’s will because he knew that God made him love his son, and he trusted God’s infinite mercy and wisdom. And God taught him that in order to confirm the reality of tawheed in his life he didn’t need to leave the world and renounce/kill his son, but rather he had to love his son in the name of God. He didn’t have to renounce the world physically. For why was the world created then? And how are we going to know God then? Not by imagining Him. Only by witnessing God’s works of mercy can we know and become friends with Him. That is in Islam, asceticism is only metaphorical; the world is not an obstacle to our relationship with God, on the contrary everything in the world is a form of speech, explaining us God’s Divine Attributes and making Him known to us.
This revelation is also the occasion of a great feast, where prayers and worship are at the center. At the eve of this great feast, it is the tradition to recite the chapter of ikhlas (the declaration of tawheed) a thousand times as a reminder of the essence of the story of Abraham and his son. Muslims are asked to repeat the words Allahu akbar (God is the Greatest), for a few days after all their daily prayers. So in this sense, fasting from idolatry is feasting and rejoicing at God’s friendship and love. This is what tawheed is about. Let us not forget that tawheed is also the main purpose in the teachings of the Qur’an. Tawheed is the gist of Islam and the gist of worship; it the gist of fasting and the gist of feasting.
 I would like to thank Dr. Yamina Mermer for allowing me to use an edited version of this text.