Below are three short blog pieces I wrote last year on the theme of Ramadan and the spiritual technology called siyam/sawm, or fasting. Indeed, the very point of fasting in Ramadan, the fourth pillar of Islam, is to foster a state of detachment from the world, as also from our ego and desires. This creates, as it were, a space in our selves for the remembrance of God and for awareness of His presence: O you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may become mindful of God. [Qur’an 2:183]
The first is called: Ramadan: Time to Slide Out of the Rat Race. It was written to be a wake-up call; a reminder of how we should be easing-off the accelerator of dunya and consumerism in this blessed month, and try and responsibly step out of the frenzy of things.
Written for the latter part of Ramadan; and to spur us on to the finishing line, so to speak, is: Believing in the Ramadan Hope & Healing. For Ramadan is about hope, and about anticipating healing and an immense reward from a Generous Lord.
If you find these articles to be of benefit, please do share; and please do also follow the blog (top right hand corner of the page). Ramadan greetings and blessings to you all.
Allahumma taqabbal minna siyamana wa qiyamana wa tilawatana. Amin.
The sacred month of dhu’l-hijjah (the last month in the Islamic calendar) is upon us, bringing with it all its virtues and blessings. It is the month of the pilgrimage or hajj, in which God has marked out, for pilgrims and non-pilgrims alike, some exceptionally blessed days. The Prophet, upon whom be peace, taught us the spiritual courtesy that Muslims should seek to nurture in themselves in respect to such heavenly downpour; he informed: ‘Indeed your Lord has, in these days of your life, [divine] gifts, so present yourself to them.’1 Among the month’s blessings and lordly gifts that should be avidly sought are:
1.The Ten Best Days of the Year: The Prophet, peace be upon him, said about the first ten days of dhu’l-hijjah: ‘The best days in the world are the [first] ten days.’2 According to most of our Quranic exegists, it is by these very same days that God has taken the following oath: By the dawn and the ten nights. [89:1-2]3 The significance of these ten days lie in the fact that they are intimately connected with the Prophet Abraham and all that the rites of the pilgrimage he instated symbolise – in terms of the oneness and holiness of God, and the life lived in loving surrender to Him.
2.Rewards of Doing Good Deeds in These Days: Given that the first ten days of dhu’l-hijjah are the choicest and most virtuous of the entire year, it won’t come as a surprise that one hadith tells us: ‘There are no days in which deeds are more loved by God than these [ten] days.’4 Another hadith says: ‘There are no days greater with God, nor in which good deeds are more loved by Him, than these ten days. Therefore, increase in glorifying God (tasbih), praising Him (tamhid), declaring His unity (tahlil) as well as extolling His greatness (takbir).’5 Just as pilgrims discharge their duty by making the journey to Makkah so as to give expression to the love that drives them to draw closer to God; so too can non-pilgrims express their yearning by honouring these days and increasing in acts of worship, reverence and remembrance.
3.Fasting the Day of ‘Arafah: The rites of the pilgrimage reveal that Abraham, peace be upon him, is a constant point of reference. It starts with the tawaf, or seven circuits of the Ka‘bah. This is followed by the sa‘y, a speedy walk between the hillocks of Safa and Marwa, commemorating the desperate search of Hagar, Abraham’s handmaiden, for water for her infant son Ishmael. Another rite occurs at Mina, where pilgrims cast pebbles at three stone pillars that symbolise Satan, whom Abraham had repudiated at these three places. It is on the open plain of ‘Arafah, however, that the culminating rite of hajj unfolds. Here the pilgrim, already focused on God by days of uninterrupted worship, have time to look deeply into one’s life. What have we done in the service of God and humanity? What recurrent weakness must we strive to combat? Whom have we wronged? What is holding us back from the purity which is the prerequisite of spiritual knowledge?6 ‘Arafah, then, is the place of profound introspection, cleansing, petition and prayer.
For non-pilgrims, ‘Arafah (the 9th day of the month) is a highly recommended day of fasting. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was asked about fasting the day of ‘Arafah, to which he replied: ‘It expiates the sins of the previous year and the coming year.’7 Another hadith on the matter says: ‘There is no day in which God frees people from the Fire more so than on the day of ‘Arafah. He draws close to those [at ‘Arafah] and then revels to His angels, saying: What are these people seeking?’8
4.Offering the Sacrifice: The tenth day of the month is the Day of Sacrifice (yawm al-nahr) which, again, is a commemoration of the Prophet Abraham, peace be upon him. For it was he who, in devoted obedience to God’s command, was about to sacrifice his son (which according to the majority of Muslims scholars was Ishmael, not Isaac), for whom a ram was miraculously substituted at the very last moment: And when [his son] was old enough to walk with him, [Abraham] said: ‘O my son, I have seen in a dream that I must sacrifice you. What think you?’ He said: ‘O my father! Do what you are commanded. God willing, you shall find me steadfast.’ Then when they had both surrendered to God, and he had turned him down upon his face, We called him: ‘O Abraham!’ You have fulfilled the vision. Thus do We reward those who are excellent.’ That indeed was a clear test. Then We ransomed him with a great sacrifice. [37:102-7]
The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: ‘The greatest day of the pilgrimage is the day of sacrifice.’9 The day of sacrifice (yawn al-nahr) is also called ‘id al-adha: “the Festivity of Sacrifice”. It is the day where the head of the house slaughters a camel, cow, sheep or goat in commemoration of Abraham’s sacrifice. Most scholars say that it is highly desirable to offer a sacrifice, if one has the means to do so. Another group of scholars holds it to be obligatory, based on the hadith: ‘Whoever can afford to offer a sacrifice, yet does not do so, then let him not approach our place of prayer.’10 There is also this injunction expressed in the following hadith: ‘When the ten days commence and one of you intends to sacrifice, let him not cut his hair or nails.’11
5.Extolling the Greatness of God: Starting from the day of ‘Arafah, up until the ‘asr prayer on the 13th, believers are urged to extol God’s greatness (takbir), with as fervent a passion as Abrahamic monotheists can muster. Ibn Taymiyyah said: ‘The soundest view about the takbir – which the majority of the salaf, jurists from the Companions, and leading imams were upon – is to commence proclaiming it from fajr on the day of ‘Arafah, till the last day of tashriq (the 13th day), after each prayer.’12 And although nothing authentic has been related from the Prophet, peace be upon him, in terms of how the takbir should be worded, it is authentically established from Ibn Mas‘ud that he would say: ‘God is great! God is great! None deserves to be worshiped except Him. God is great, God is great. To Him belongs all the praise (Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar la ilaha illa’Llah wa’Llahu akbar Allahu akbar wa lil’Lahi’l-hamd).’13
1. Al-Tabarani, Mu‘jam al-Kabir, 19:234.
2. Al-Bazzar, no.1128; Ibn Hibban, no.3853. Al-Mundhari graded the chains to be hasan and sahih respectively in his al-Targhib wa’l-Tarhib (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 2013), no.1150.
3. Cf. Ibn al-Jawzi, Zad al-Masir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1984), 9:103-4; al-Qurtubi, al-Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1996), 20:27.
4. Al-Bukhari, no.969.
5. Al-Tabarani, al-Kabir, 3:110, with a hasan chain, as per al-Mundhari, al-Targhib wa’l-Tarhib, no.1148.
6. See: Shalabi, Islam: Religion of Life (USA: Starlatch Press, 2001), 77.
7. Muslim, no.1162.
8. Muslim, no.1348.
9. Abu Dawud, Sunan, no.1945. It was graded sahih by al-Albani, Irwa al-Ghalil (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1979), no.1101.
10. Ibn Majah, Sunan, no.3123, and it is sahih. Consult: Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.6490.
11. Muslim, no.1977.
12. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 24:220.
13. Ibn Abi Shaybah, Musannaf, 2:1:2; Hakim, Mustadrak, 1:300, with a sahih chain – as per al-Albani, Irwa al-Ghalil, 3:125, no.653.
In the following extract taken from his monograph explaining the virtues and merits of dhikr – God’s remembrance and invocation, Imam Ibn al-Qayyim (d.751H/1350CE) takes us through the ascending degrees of prayer (salat):
‘With respect to prayer (salat), people are of five levels:
The first [degree] is of he who wrongs his own soul [35:32]; who is negligent [concerning it], and who falls short in his ablution as well as in the times, limits and essential pillars of the prayer.
The second is he who safeguards the times, limits, outward pillars and ablution, but is taken away by the devil’s whisperings and by stray thoughts, which he lacks the inner strength to resist.
The third is he who keeps the limits and essential pillars, and inwardly strives to repel the whisperings and stray thoughts. This person is occupied with striving against his Foe [the Devil], lest he rob him of his prayer. In prayer, he is engaged in jihad.
The fourth is he who stands in prayer, perfecting its rights, limits and pillars. His heart is engrossed in safeguarding its limits and rules, lest he miss any of them. Indeed, his entire focus is on performing the prayer as it ought to be performed; completely and perfectly. By this, concern for the prayer and devotion to his Lord absorb his heart.
The fifth degree is he who stands in prayer and establishes it as the fourth does, but along with this places his heart before his Lord. With this, he beholds his Lord (naziran bi qalbihi ilayhi), is vigilant before Him, and is filled with His love and glory; as if he sees and witnesses Him. Thus all whisperings and stray thoughts vanish, as the veil is lifted between him and his Lord. The difference between this person in his prayer and everyone else is as vast as the distance between heaven and earth. For he is occupied solely with his Lord, in which he finds his source of sheer delight.
[Of the five], the first kind of person is punished; the second admonished; the third redeemed; the fourth rewarded; and the fifth drawn close to his Lord, for his source of delight has been placed in prayer. Whoever is delighted by the prayer in this world, will be delighted by nearness to his Lord in this world and the next. And he who finds delight in God, delights and gladdens others. Whoever does not, leaves this world a loser.’1
1. Al-Wabil al-Sayyib (Damascus: Maktabah Dar al-Bayan, 2006), 55-6.
Muslim religious authorities speak about three levels of fasting: Firstly, the “outward fast,” where one abstains from food, drink and sexual union. Secondly, the “fasting of the limbs,” whereby the eyes, ears, tongue, hands and feet refrain from sins and acts of disobedience. Thirdly, and it is the highest degree of fasting, the “fasting of the soul,” where the above practices are perfected by an abstinence from any thought that may hinder constant awareness of God’s presence: Fasting is enjoined on you, as it was enjoined on those before you, that you may perhaps become God-conscious. [Qur’an 2:183] The first two levels of fasting are types of abstinence that Islam instates as a duty. It is the third level, however, which is the sought after goal.
One of the finest treatments on the inward aspects of fasting was penned for us by Imam al-Ghazali (d.505H/1111CE) in his remarkable fusion of Muslim law, ethics and spirituality, Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din – “Revival of the Religious Sciences”. What follows is a translation of his opening comments on the subject:
“Realise that there are three degrees of fasting: the fasting of the generality (sawm al-‘umum), the fasting of the elite (sawm al-khusus) and the fasting of the elect (sawm khusus al-khusus).
The fasting of the generality involves the stomach and the genitals refraining from indulging their passions, as has previously been explained.
The fasting of the elite involves keeping one’s ears, eyes, tongue, hands, feet – all the organs – free from sin.
As for the fasting of the elect, it is the fasting of the heart from all unworthy concerns or worldly thoughts; a total abstinence from all else besides God, Mighty and Majestic is He. Such a fast is broken by thinking about other than God or the Afterlife; or by thinking about worldly things – except those worldly thoughts conducive to religious ends, for these constitute provisions for the Afterlife and are not of this lower world. Masters of the heart (arbab al-qulub) have even said: “A sin is recorded against he who spends his day concerned with what arrangements he has to break his fast.” This is because it shows a lack of trust in God’s grace and a lack of certainty in His promised livelihood. To this [third] degree belong the prophets, saints and those drawn near to God. We need not dwell on the description of this type of fasting, since its true nature is best revealed in action. It is to be wholly dedicated to God and to turn away from all else other than Him. It is to embody the words of God, when He said: Say: “God” then leave them to play in their vain discourse and trifling. [6:91].”1
1. Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2011), 2:110-11.