Most of us are aware of the basic rules and purpose of the Holy month of Ramadan. While we might think of fasting as mainly physical, since it is a holistic prophetic practice and discipline, it is also psychological, emotional and spiritual. So our inner spiritual potential in Islam and our outer physical adherence to the prophetic way are interdependent. This is the middle way. This means that the outer practices of Ramadan, while beneficial in themselves, must be combined with deeper spiritual practice and understanding in order to reap the full benefits and blessings of this special time.
The month of Ramadan is usually divided into three parts of ten days each. In the first part it is recommended to establish the basic outer practices and understand their meaning: obedience to God’s laws & gratitude to Him for our sustenance; refraining from things which are haram (forbidden) or makruh (not recommended); experiencing & empathising with the deprivation of the poor and needy; strengthening moral behaviour & solidarity of Muslim family and society; improving one’s health and feeding the spirit by enjoying the blessedness of the month! At this time one could also carry out a physical purification of the body through detoxification accompanied by de-cluttering of one’s house and possessions. ‘For everything, there is a zakat and the zakat of the body is fasting.’ (Prophet Muhammad(s))Zakat is basically purification.
During the second period we continue with all these and begin mental de-cluttering, that is breaking some of the bad habits of the nafs and replacing them with good habits. For example being impatient and quick to anger can be replaced with patience and forgiveness.
During the third period, we continue all these but intensify our spiritual practice. We need to be consistent with outer practice in order to benefit spiritually. We all think we know the meaning of shirk, i.e. worshipping other gods than God, but at a deeper level, shirk means worshipping ‘to be seen by others’ and seeing an ultimate cause in anything other than God. It is said that fasting is for Him, meaning that other people need not know whether we are fasting or not. The Prophet(s) said that ‘In Ramadan, the gates of the garden are opened and the gates of the Fire are closed.’ Also said, ‘Everything has a door and the door to acts of Devotion is fasting’.
This means that God has given us Ramadan as a special opportunity to receive openings from Him. Of course, He is always there, but we put up veils and distractions between us and Him. To remove these veils as well as outer abstention, we practise ‘inner abstentions’.
- Restraining our thoughts from pre-occupation with a base or worldly concerns.
- Turning our thoughts and intellect towards contemplation of God’s attributes, and trying to cultivate those attributes in ourselves, for example, generosity, compassion, fair dealing.
- Restraining our fantasies. We can use our power of imagination for good, for example, meditating on God’s light.
- Trying to get rid of delusions and illusions, for example, the illusion of status, wealth, ownership, importance, and attachments.
- Seeing God in everything – even what appears to be ‘bad’ has meanings and lessons for us.
Because we have more time when we are not eating and drinking and watching TV etc, God has given us space to practise these and gain the ultimate joy of His presence. We can reflect on the weaknesses of our Self and ask ourselves questions like what are my attachments? What do I love about my life other than God? After the ritual prayers, we can ask Him for guidance in changing our self, for example, ‘I am too attached to my control over my family/my wealth/ my status; help me to give this up by remembering God and taking practical action.’ If we sincerely practise these abstentions we are truly fasting and will achieve the state of the ‘tranquil soul’ (nafs al mutma’inna) when we are not possessed or controlled by the lower self.
The Night of the Decree (Laylat al Qadr) is especially important for these inner practices. On this night the Holy Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet in totality. Scholars take this to refer to the inner revelation/meaning, as the outer was revealed over a period of time (17:106). We are recommended to spend a few days and nights in ‘Itikaf (retreat), in silence, leaving behind all our normal activities. Mobile phones especially are switched off! We eat very sparingly at Suhur (early breakfast) and Iftaar (breaking the fast), maintain silence, and try to stay awake during the night, as it is well known that most spiritual progress occurs late at night until dawn.
This is a night of great significance when creational energies are at their most powerful. ‘In it descends the Angels and the Spirit by permission of their Lord – empowered for every affair – Peace! It is until the break of dawn’. (97:5) The word for spirit–ruh– is related to the word for ‘breeze’ or ‘breath of life’ which was breathed into us at our birth and gives us special spiritual renewal on this night. So if our hearts are pure and we are in our optimum state of trust, equilibrium and readiness we may receive the blessings of inner peace, tranquillity and certainty, which we can build on during the rest of the year. Muhsin Fayd al-Kashani, a sage of the 10th century, described the benefits of Ramadan as follows:
‘Fasting is a screen from the evils of this world and barrier from the punishment of the next. When you fast, make the intention to restrain yourself….purify your innermost from any impurity, distraction or darkness which cuts you off from the meaning of allegiance to the fact of God the most High. Fasting eliminates the elements of the lower self and reduces the grip of desires. From it comes purity of heart and faculties, the wellbeing of the inward and outward, gratitude for blessings, beneficence to the poor, increase in supplication to God, humility and weeping. Fasting is the rope of taking refuge in God and the cause of the breaking habits and desires…. the benefits are immeasurable.’
Basically, therefore, the true fast is not just abstention from food; the greatest spiritual benefits can only be received through practising the inner abstentions, which are intensified during the last ten days.
Jullia Khadija Lafene graduated in Modern History from Oxford University.
Since embracing Islam she has studied Islamic Psychology and Self-knowledge.