On fasting

Published 19.06.2015 19:54
Updated 20.06.2015 01:17

Fasting enables us to give up material comfort to attain spiritual contentment. In fasting, we refrain not only from eating and drinking during the day, but also, and more importantly, from moral evils and sins

The Islamic holy month of Ramadan is a time of reflection on the meaning of existence and our place in it. Fasting takes us from an ordinary mode of existence to one in which we use our intelligence and freewill to concentrate on what really matters. As the month in which the holy Quran began to be revealed, it invites us to seek guidance in that which is everlasting. Commenting on the famous saying that the "universe is 'insan kabir,' " i.e., "a big man," Ikhwan al-Safa (the Brethren of Purity), the 10th century group of scholars, philosophers and mystics, described the world of existence as a living organism comparable to the human person. As a microcosm, man has his body and soul, so has the universe as a macrocosm. Both have a material and spiritual substance. The human person is part of this world. But the meaning and purpose that one brings to the world makes one more than the sum total of the physical universe.

The world of creation presents a paradox in that it both veils and reveals the meaning behind it. On the one hand, it is a prison that tempts the human person to be content with material desires, lowering one below their dignity and purpose. The world and its pleasures can veil the true meaning behind it. On the other hand, the world is a sign to be read to reach one's ultimate destination. It is a place of liberation where the human person can rise above what is ephemeral and hedonistic and realize one's true nature. The struggle to overcome the temptations of the world with intelligence and will is what makes the human person a special being in the universe. Fasting is an act of intelligence and will that moves us beyond mere appearances. Here, the Brethren of Purity used the prison metaphor to describe our relationship to the world. "Know my brother!" they said, "not all the souls that have come to the world of generation and corruption are imprisoned in it in the same way that not everyone who enters a prison is necessarily a prisoner there. Perhaps that person enters the prison with the intention of taking the prisoners out of it ..."

Being in this world does not necessarily make us a prisoner of it. To the contrary, it gives us a 'good fight' whereby we show resolve and determination to rise above the tribulations and pettiness of an ephemeral world. This is where revelation and intellect guide us to our escape from the prison of worldly existence. The Brethren of Purity put it as follows: "The prophetic souls have come to the world of generation and corruption to save these souls that have been imprisoned in the prison of base nature and immersed in the sea of material existence - the souls that have become prisoners of material desires."

Fasting enables us to give up material comfort to attain spiritual contentment. In fasting, we refrain not only from eating and drinking during the day, but also, and more importantly, from moral evils and sins. While fasting we remain in the world but do not become a mere part of it. We rise above it. Like other forms of worship, fasting introduces a different mode of relationship with the world without falling for the two extremes of denying its existence or surrendering to it. The Islamic intellectual tradition espouses a view of the world that neither denies its existence nor eulogizes it. The Quran presents all of creation as God's work and as having a value in itself. Contingent beings, which Plato would accept only as shadowy existence, are not evil in and of themselves, but can be a vehicle of moral good if they are placed in their proper place within the total scheme of things.

True, the material world presents obstacles and traps on the path to spiritual perfection. Yet it is not to be rejected completely since this would be denigrating God's creation and missing out on the moral significance of the worldly existence. The key is to "put everything in its place," which is the original meaning of the Arabic word for justice - "adl." We can be deluded by the world and forget about our proper place in it or we can live in it to give it its true meaning and purpose.

The world or, more precisely, the life-world - "hayat al-dunya" - as the Quran calls it, is not a thing or place, but a context of relations, a realm of existence where the principles of good and evil take precedence over the physical composition of the earth. The world is thus not something to be described, but cultivated. The world that we inhabit as human beings is a moral space, a context of beliefs and attitudes that define the human state. How we as a microcosm behave in this world as a macrocosm shape the course of our journey. Fasting is a joyous occasion to ponder along this journey with intelligence and will.

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