By Babatunde Jose
A deep reflection on the institution of Fast reveals the various ways in which fasting helps in the mending of habits and development of character and God consciousness. There is no doubt also that fasting aids moral development and spiritual rejuvenation and most importantly it engenders compassion. Ramadan is the month of heightened God consciousness, of attaining taqwa(piety), of training ourselves to achieve the best in character while mending our bad habits. Morality describes the principles that govern our behavior and relates to our behavior at three levels; how we as individuals ensure that we are honest, just and compassionate; how we interact with and contribute to society, as asset or liability; and how conscious we are of our accountability to our Creator.
Taqwa In An Amoral World
In a world, increasingly amoral, perception is considered reality. How one appears to the world has overtaken the substance of who we really are. Taqwa is in reality character development coupled with God-consciousness. Character is not only the face in the mirror, but the real person behind the face. The pursuance of piety begins by making our reputation a reflection of our character. In many people, reputation precedes the character and there is a distinction to be made. Reputation is what you lead others to believe you are, character is what you really are. Reputation is the wrapping, character the content. Reputation is the outer reflection, character the inner reality; Reputation is made in a moment, character is built in a life time: Reputation may be reflected in what people write about you on your tombstone, character is what angels report about you to Allah.
Changing Bad Habits
Habits are conditioned responses, formed through repetition, until the actions or reactions become second nature; they end up as unconscious behavior, automatic reactions in a particular situation: It was Shakespeare, who said:” First we make our habits, then our habits make us “. The Roman poet Naso Ovid rightly said,” habits eventually become character”.
According to Islam, habits classified as virtues or vices, are repeated actions that are in conformity with or contrary to the rules of morality. Good habits, unfortunately, seem so much easier to give up than bad habits. Bad habits are like a comfortable bed; easy to get into but difficult to get out of. Habits decrease or disappear by abstaining from exercising them and then replacing them. In the words of Roman orator, Cicero,” consuetudo consuetudine vincitur; habit is conquered by habit”. Ramadan is an ideal training period for filtering out bad habits and developing virtuous character.
Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said: “Your practice of faith will not be correct unless your actions are correct, and your actions will not be considered correct unless your heart is correct.” Ramadan is therefore a period for spiritual rejuvenation as it offers the opportunity for a unique expression of worship.
Mode of Enhancement
Fasting in the Islamic tradition requires dawn till dusk abstention from food, drink and intimacy. It is, however far more than mere abstention from these necessities of daily living. To Muslims, fasting is a mode of enhancing self-discipline. It is an opportunity for regulating one’s attitude and conduct, it serves as a protective shield; and is a means of attaining taqwa/piety, which the Qur’an considers as the pinnacle of human development.
Islam emphasizes this special institution of Fasting as highly spiritual and moral discipline; both in motive and form. In motive, it requires purity of intention and honesty of purpose; and in form it demands abstention from engaging in any form of unlawful and improper behavior. This degree of sincerity coupled with self-control is an expression of mastery over one’s carnal self, so necessary in developing a better human being, focusing on the larger purpose of existence.
From ethical and moral perspectives, we should contemplate the higher purpose and the deeper meaning of our lives, trying to live meaningfully; balancing our physicality with our spirituality.
While Fasting, we are far more aware of the hunger of the poor and the suffering of the oppressed and are therefore instructed to be more generous this month. This promotes attentiveness to social responsibility, interest in the welfare of society and inspires a continued spirit of generosity. The Qur’an refers to the fasting ones as sa’ihin/spiritual wayfarers. So, the journey of Ramadan motivates each person to perpetuate the positive spirit being imbibed and to continue on the spiritual journey towards fulfilment and excellence.
Three Grades Of Fasting
It should be known that there are three grades of fasting: ordinary, special and extra-special. Ordinary Fasting means abstaining from food, drink and sexual satisfaction.
Special Fasting means keeping one’s ears, eyes, tongue, hands and feet – and all other organs – free from sin.
Extra-special Fasting means fasting of the heart from unworthy concerns and worldly thoughts, in total disregard of everything but God. This kind of Fast is broken by thinking of worldly matters, except for those conducive to religious ends, since these constitute provision for the Hereafter and are not of this lower world.
Those versed in the spiritual life of the heart have even said that a sin is recorded against one who concerns himself all day with arrangements for breaking his Fast. Such anxiety stems from lack of trust in the bounty of God, and from lack of certain faith in His promised sustenance.
As for Special Fasting, this is the kind practiced by the righteous. It means keeping all one’s organs free from sin. Jabir relates from Anas that God’s Messenger said: ‘Five things break a man’s Fast: lying, backbiting, gossiping, perjury and a lustful gaze.’ Guarding one’s tongue from idle chatter, lying, gossiping, obscenity, rudeness, arguing and controversy; making it observe silence and occupying it with remembrance of God and with recitation of Quran. This is the fasting of the tongue. Said Sufyan: ‘Backbiting annuls the Fast.’ Layth quotes Mujahid as saying: ‘Two habits annul Fasting: backbiting and telling lies.’
Fasting Teaches Moderation
Keeping our limbs and other organs away from sin: the hands and feet from reprehensible deeds, and the stomach from questionable food at the time for breaking Fast. It is meaningless to Fast – to abstain from lawful food – only to break one’s Fast on what is unlawful. Lawful food is injurious in quantity not in quality, so Fasting is to reduce the former. The unlawful is a poison deadly to religion, while the lawful is a medicine, beneficial in small doses but harmful in excess. The object of Fasting is to induce moderation: In essence, we are not to over-indulge in lawful food at the time of breaking Fast, to the point of stuffing one’s belly. Of what use is the Fast as a means of conquering God’s enemy and abating appetite, if at the time of breaking it one not only makes up for all one has missed during the daytime, but perhaps also indulges in a variety of extra foods? It is well known that the object of Fasting is to experience hunger and to check desire, in order to reinforce the soul in piety. It is therefore essential to cut down one’s intake to what one would consume on a normal night, when not Fasting. No benefit is derived from the Fast if one consumes as much as one would usually take during the day and night combined.
Fasting Teaches Compassion
It is easy to talk about the world’s problem of hunger. We can feel sorry that millions of people go to bed hungry each day. But not until one can actually feel it in one’s own body is the impact truly there. Compassion based on empathy is much stronger and more consistent than compassion based on pity. This feeling must lead to action. Fasting is never an end in itself; that’s why it has so many different outcomes. But all the other outcomes are of no real moral value if compassion is not enlarged and extended through fasting.
As the prophet Isaiah said, “The kind of fasting I want is this: remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor” (Isaiah 58:3-7)
By fasting we assert that we need not be totally dependent on external things, even such essentials as food. If our most basic need for food and drink can be suspended, how much more our needs for all the nonessentials. But in our overheated consumer society it is necessary periodically to turn off the constant pressure to consume, and to remind ourselves forcibly that “Man does not live by bread alone.” (Deuteronomy 8:3)
Fasting And Self Control
Fasting is an exercise in will-power. Most people think they can’t fast because it’s too hard. But actually the discomfort of hunger pangs is relatively minor. A headache, muscle pains from too much exercise, and most certainly a toothache, are all more severe than the pains hunger produces. The reason it is so hard to Fast is because it so easy to break your Fast, since food is almost always in easy reach; all you have do is take a bite. Thus the key to fasting is the will power to decide again and again not to eat or drink. When people exercise their will-power and Fast, they are affirming their self-control and celebrating mastery over themselves.
As Ramadan unfolds, it behoves each fasting person to open a page from the book of muhasabah (critical self-evaluation) and to reflect on what is being achieved through the month. What benefits are derived, which behaviors are adjusted, what good practices are adopted, which bad habits are being relinquished? How does the prayers and fasting of Ramadan influence attitudes and perspectives; how is it improving relationships with families, friends and neighbors; how much has it increased consciousness of responsibility towards the destitute; how is it impacting on the body, the heart, the mind and the soul. If there is a genuine effort towards the spiritualization of one’s being, the moralization of consciousness, empathy in attitude and goodness in conduct; then perchance a concerted effort is being made of treading on the pathway towards the objective of fasting – the attainment of taqwa (piety). Truly, the month of Ramadan is a season for spiritual stocktaking.
Barka Jumuah and Ramadan Kareem