With the Name of Allah, All-Merciful, Most Merciful
Inner Aspects of Ramadan
Three Levels of Fasting
Imam al-Ghazzali, in his Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din (Revival of the Sciences of Religion), describes the following three levels of fasting (cf. Inner Dimensions of Islamic Worship, publ. Islamic Foundation, which is a translation by the late Mukhtar Holland of an extract from the Ihya’):
- Fasting of the body: abstaining from food, drink and sex
- Fasting of the tongue: abstaining from backbiting, gossip, slander, idle talk, etc.
- Fasting of the heart and soul: abstaining from the remembrance of anything or anyone except God and engaging constantly in dhikr Allah, the mention or remembrance of God
Patience & Gratitude (Sabr & Shukr)
Allah says often in the Qur’an (e.g. 14:5, 34:19, 42:33), especially in regard to the ups and downs of life and history that constitute the Days of God (ayyam Allah), “… In this there are Signs for every extremely patient one, given to much gratitude.” (sabbar shakur, both intensive active participles derived from sabr and shukr, respectively)
The Prophet (peace be upon him) taught, “One who eats gratefully is like one who fasts patiently.” (al-ta’im al-shakir ka l-sa’im al-sabir, a sound hadith found in the Sunan collections) Thus, eating wholesome food with thanks to God is spiritually equal to depriving oneself of food and drink for the sake of God.
Some of the early Muslim authorities (Salaf) said, especially in explaining the above Qur’anic ayah, “Faith has two halves: half of faith is patience; the other half is gratitude.” (al-iman nisfan: nisf sabr wa nisf shukr)
Thus, as Imam Ibn al-Qayyim explains, Patience and Gratitude are two sides of the same coin of faith: we are required to have patience in troubled times, and show gratitude to God in good times. This is why these two qualities are mentioned in the Qur’an alongside lessons from time and history, or the Days of God.
Showing gratitude to God includes being grateful to people through whom we receive God’s favours. It also includes using our God-given talents, skills and faculties for good and noble purposes, rather than for disobeying God and engaging in mischief and evil: all good actions thus become part of the worship of God.
Imam Ibn al-Qayyim, further explains the importance of balancing these two qualities to achieve true faith and grow closer to God, with the following simile: “Patience and Gratitude are like the two wings of a believer in their flight to their Lord.”
Another beautiful teaching of the Prophet, peace be upon him, that reinforces these themes, is the following: “Wonderful is the situation of the believer! If he or she is afflicted by misfortune, he or she is patient, and this is good for him or her. If he or she is touched by good fortune, he or she is grateful, and this is good for him or her. This (grace) is not available to anyone except the believer!” (A sound hadith transmitted by Bukhari and Muslim)
(For further reading, refer to Patience and Gratitude by Ibn al-Qayyim, trans. Huda Khattab, publ. Dar al-Taqwa, London)
Life & Death
The Prophet (peace be upon him) famously taught that “The person fasting enjoys two moments of happiness: (1) happiness upon breaking the fast and (2) happiness upon meeting the Lord.”
Thus, the joy of iftar or Fitr (breaking the fast) is a foretaste of the joy of meeting God.
The daily cycle of fast and break-fast is a symbol of life and death: the daily fast symbolises the constraints, difficulties and tribulations of life; the daily break-fast symbolises the joy of death and meeting God, for the believer.
These inner meanings are wider: the entire month of fasting symbolises the tribulations of life, whilst ‘Id al-Fitr (the Festival of Breaking the Fast) symbolises the joy of meeting God.
The practice of I’tikaf (Seclusion in the Mosque) during the last ten days and nights of Ramadan, partly in order to seek the greatest night of the year, also contains reminders of these themes, amongst many other benefits. Seclusion in the mosque entails devoting time to prayer, remembrance of God and other types of worship, avoiding worldly matters completely and minimising profane thought and talk. Seclusion affords much time for silence and reflection. The time of I’tikaf, i.e. the last third of Ramadan, is followed immediately by the ‘Id celebration.
I’tikaf may thus be seen and felt as a foretaste of our time in the grave, followed by ‘Id, which we hope is a foretaste of Paradise!
The authentic Sunnah (Way of the Prophet, peace be upon him) is that women may also stay in the mosque also for the spiritual seclusion of I’tikaf: many of the Prophet’s wives and female disciples engaged in this practice. Mosques should thus be available to women for this uplifting bodily-and-spiritual practice.
Ramadan Cheer, Generosity and Spirit
As described by his Companions, Allah be pleased with them, the Prophet, peace be upon him, was the most generous of people and was especially generous during the month of Ramadan: even more generous than the winds that herald live-giving rains. He, peace be upon him, himself explained why this was so: it was because the Archangel Jibril (Gabriel), the Ruh al-Qudus (Spirit of Holiness or Holy Spirit), would visit him daily to rehearse the Qur’an with him, consolidating during each Ramadan all that had been revealed of the Qur’an so far. In the final Ramadan of the Prophet’s life, Jibril rehearsed the Qur’an with him twice, indicating that the revelation of the Qur’an was almost complete. All the minor variations in the Qur’anic revelation were thus superseded by this “final rehearsal” (al-‘ard al-akhir), as it is known in Qur’anic studies.
Much may be learnt from this breathtaking meeting of Spirits (the Prophet Muhammad, the Noble Qur’an and the Archangel Gabriel) during Ramadan in Madinah during that Blessed Age:
- The importance of visiting each other to strengthen spiritual contact. The Prophet, peace be upon him, would sometimes complain to Gabriel outside Ramadan that the latter did not visit him enough, upon which the verse of the Qur’an was revealed, describing the movements of the angels, “We do not descend, except by the command of your Lord …” (19:64)
- The blessed practice of rehearsing as much as one knows of the Qur’an during Ramadan, especially with someone who has preserved it equally or better (e.g. a teacher or colleague). This should be done whether a person knows one verse or ten, one surah or ten, and in the case of preservers of the whole Qur’an (huffaz), one recitation (qira’ah) or ten.
- The blessings of spirituality and generosity that arise from the above two matters: the Prophet’s generosity peaked during Ramadan due to these two factors.
Thus, Ramadan is the month of: fasting, recitation of the Qur’an, remembrance of God, generosity, mercy, charity and Jihad (struggling against all forms of evil). And just as our Christian friends speak about “Christmas cheer,” Muslims should manifest the “Ramadan cheer, generosity and spirit.”
Tips for Getting the Most out of Ramadan
The following obvious tips may be derived from the Divine guidance to the Prophet, peace be upon him, “So when you have completed and become free (of worldly matters), stand (in worship). And to your Lord, turn your desire!” (94:7-8)
- Take time off work if possible
- Get important worldly matters out of the way before Ramadan, e.g. house/car/furniture purchases and maintenance, bills, payments, etc.
- Devote time to worship in all its forms, e.g. prayer, fasting, charity, reconciliation amongst people, serving people and the rest of God’s creation in general
May Allah shower upon us all the blessings of Ramadan, this year and every year.
© Usama Hasan