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Tuesday, October 19, 2004

True Spirit of Fasting

Abul Ala Maududi

Spirit and Form

Essentially every work that we do has two components. The first is its purpose and spirit; the second, the particular form which is chosen to achieve that purpose. Take the case of food. Our main purpose in eating is to stay alive and maintain our strength. The method of achieving this object is that we take a piece of food, put it in our mouth, chew it and swallow it. This method is adopted since it is the most effective and appropriate one to achieve our purpose.

What would we say if someone tries to eat mud? We would say that he is mad or ill. Why? Because he clearly does not understand the real purpose of eating, and erroneously believes that chewing and swallowing constituted eating. Likewise, we will also call someone mad who thrust his fingers down his throat to vomit up the food he had just eaten and then complained that the benefits of eating were not happening. Rather, on the contrary, he was daily getting thinner. This person blames food for a situation that is due to his own stupidity. Although outward actions are certainly necessary, because without them the bread cannot reach the stomach, the purpose of eating cannot be achieved by merely fulfilling these outward actions.

The Outward Replaces the Real

Perhaps we can now understand why our ‘Ibadah has become ineffectual and empty. The greatest mistake of all is to take the acts of Prayer and Fasting and their outward shape as the real ‘Ibadah. If we do so, we are just like the person who thinks that merely performing four acts – taking a piece of food, putting it in the mouth, chewing it, and swallowing it – make up the process of eating. Such a person imagines that whoever does these four things has eaten the food. He, then, expects that he should receive the benefits of eating irrespective of whether he pushed down into his stomach mud and stone, or vomited up the bread soon after eating it.

Otherwise, how can we explain, that a man who is fasting, and is thus engaged in the ‘Ibadah of Allah (SWT) from morning till evening, in the midst of that ‘Ibadah, tells a lie or slanders someone? Why does he quarrel on the slightest pretext and abuse those he is quarrelling with? How dare he encroach on other people’s rights? Why does he make money illegally and give money to others illicitly? And how can he claim, having done all these things, that he has still performed the ‘Ibadah of Allah? Does this not resemble the actions of that person who eats mud and thinks that by merely completing the four requirements of eating he has actually done the job of eating?

How, too, can we claim to have worshipped Allah (SWT) for many long hours throughout Ramadan when the impact of this whole exercise in spiritual and moral upliftment vanishes on the first day of the next month? How many still retain any traces of true piety and virtue by the second day of ‘Id?

Wrong View of Worship

The reason most of us behave as we do is that the very meaning and purport of ‘Ibadah has become distorted in our minds. We think that mere abstention from eating and drinking throughout the day is the Fasting. We therefore are very particular to observe the details about it. We fear Allah (SWT) to the extent that we avoid even the slightest violation of these rules; but we do no realize that merely being hungry and thirsty is not the purpose but only the form.

This form has been prescribed to create in us such fear of Allah (SWT) and love, such strength of will and character, that, even against our desires, we avoid seemingly profitable things which in fact displease Allah (SWT), and do those things which possibly entail risks and losses but definitely please Allah (SWT). This strength can be developed only when we understand the purpose of the Fasting, and desire to put to use the training we have undergone of curbing our physical desires for the fear and love of Allah (SWT) only.

But what happens as soon as Ramadan is over? We throw to the winds all that you gain from the Fasting, just as a man who has eaten food vomits it up by thrusting his fingers down his throat.

Fasting as a Way to Piety

This is why Allah (SWT), after ordaining the Fasting, has said that Fasting is made obligatory on you, "so that you may attain to God-consciousness", la’allakum tattaqun.

Note that there is no guarantee that you will definitely become God-conscious and righteous. Only someone who recognizes the purpose of the Fasting and strives to achieve it will receive its blessings, someone who does not, cannot hope to gain anything from it.

Conditions of True Fasting

The Prophet, peace be upon him, has in pointed out the real spirit of fasting.

Abstention From Falsehood

Once the Prophet, peace be upon him, said: "If one does not give up speaking falsehood and acting by it, Allah (SWT) does no require him to give up eating and drinking" (Bukhari).

On another occasion, he said: "Many are the people who fast but who gain nothing from their fast except hunger and thirst; and many are those who stand praying all night but gain nothing except sleeplessness" (Darimi).

The lessons are clear and unequivocal: merely being hungry and thirsty is not by itself worship, but a means for performing real worship. Real worship means desisting from violating the law of Allah (SWT) out of this fear and this love of Allah (SWT), pursuing activities that please Him, and refraining from the indiscriminate satisfaction of physical desires. If we fast while ignoring this essence of the Fasting, we are simply causing unnecessary inconvenience to our stomachs.

Faith and Self-scrutiny

The Prophet, peace be upon him, draws attention to another aim of fasting, "Whoever observes the Fast, believing and counting, has all his past sins forgiven" (Bukhari, Muslim).

Believing means that faith in Allah (SWT) should remain alive in the consciousness of a Muslim. Counting means that we should seek only Allah’s pleasure, constantly watching over our thoughts and actions to make sure we are doing nothing contrary to His pleasure, and trusting and expecting the rewards promised by Allah (SWT) and the Messenger, peace be upon him. Observing these two principles brings the rich reward of all our past sins being forgiven. The reason is obvious: even if we were once disobedient, we will have now turned, fully repentant, to our Master – and "a repentant is like one who has, as it were, never committed a sin at all", said the Prophet, peace be upon him (Ibn Majah).

Shield Against Sins

On another occasion, the Prophet, peace be upon him, said, "The Fast is like a shield (for protection from Satan’s attack). Therefore when one observes the Fast he should (use this shield and) and abstain from quarrelling. If anybody abuses him or quarrels with him, he should simply say: Brother, I am fasting (do not expect me to indulge in similar conduct)" (Bukhari, Muslim).

Hunger for Goodness

The Prophet, peace be upon him, once directed that a man, while fasting, ought to do more good works than usual and ardently desire to perform acts of kindness. Compassion and sympathy for his brothers and sisters should intensify in his heart because, being himself in the throes of hunger and thirst, he will all the more be able to realize the misery of other servants of Allah (SWT) who are destitute.

"In Ramadan, whoever provides food to a person who is fasting to break that Fast will earn forgiveness for his sins, deliverance from the Fire and as much reward as the one who is fasting, without any reduction in the recompense of the latter" (Baihaqi).

Abul Ala Maududi


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