It is clear that the body and soul are interconnected and affect each other. Having a good physical regimen also helps the spirit, and having a good spiritual routine also helps the body.
Fasting is obligatory for healthy Muslims during the ninth lunar month of the Islamic calendar, meaning the holy month of Ramadan. When fasting is mentioned, many people usually think that it means not to eat and drink. However, it is much deeper than that. In one sense, we can divide fasting into two parts: physical fasting and spiritual fasting.
It is clear that the body and soul are interconnected and affect each other. Having a good physical regimen also helps the spirit, and having a good spiritual routine also helps the body. Islam has encouraged us to recognize this close relationship and not to neglect either one, but to take care of both.
Fasting means to refrain from the nine things that invalidate the fast from dawn to night in order to carryout the command of God. These nine things are:
- Eating or drinking.
- Sexual intercourse.
- Masturbation, which means to do any act to oneself that leads to ejaculation. Not only does it invalidate the fast, it is also forbidden.
- Attributing a lie to God, the Holy Prophet, the Twelve Imams, and based on precaution, to Lady Fatima (peace be upon them all).
- Allowing thick dust to reach the throat.
- Putting one's entire head under water. The head means the head, face and neck.
- Remaining in the state of sexual impurity (Jinabah), menstruation and post-birth bleeding (Nifas) until the dawn.
- Having a liquid enema.
- Intentionally vomiting.
If a person refrains from these nine things from dawn to dusk during the month of Ramadan with the intention of fasting, his physical fast is in order. However, there is much more to fasting than just these matters. Fasting must be carried out in a way that it benefits both body and soul. In other words, the objective of fasting must be attained, meaning self-control and piety. As the Holy Qur'an states, "O you who believe, fasting has been prescribed for you just as it was prescribed for those who were before you, so that you may develop self-control and become pious." (2:183)
In this phase of fasting, a believer must strive to purify his soul by refraining from committing sins with his body. There are many people who fast who imagine that if they carry out the outer etiquettes of the fast, their act will be accepted and they will reap the benefits of it. There is a narration in Wasa'il al-Shia (vol. 1, p. 72) which states: "How many fasting people are there who do not gain anything from their fasting except thirst and hunger." When Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Sadiq Shirazi was asked about the intent of this narration, he replied, "The intent is that the fasting person must distance himself from sins, and his eyes, ears, tongue and other body parts must also be fasting so that his fast is accepted."
Bihar al-Anwar (vol. 94, p. 351) relates another narration from Imam as-Sadiq (peace be upon him) which states: "Fasting is not only to refrain from eating and drinking…when you fast, you should safeguard your tongues, lower your gaze, and you should not dispute with or envy one another."
In reality, the greatest philosophy of fasting is its spiritual and esoteric effect. A person who has various types of food and drinks available to him and can use them at any moment of hunger or thirst is like a tree that grows behind the protection of a wall near a stream. These newly fostered trees are very weak and un-lasting. If water was cut from them for some days, they would become withered and eventually dry up. But those trees that grow in between rocks, in the heart of mountains and deserts, and the caregivers of their branches from the very beginning are harsh storms, the burning sun, and the winter cold and are constantly faced with deprivation are firm, lasting, resilient, hardworking, and strongly built.
Fasting also has the same impact on the human being's spirit and soul. With temporary limitations, it gives him firmness, power of determination, and the strength to combat difficult events. And because it controls the wild instincts, it gives his heart light and purity.
In short, fasting raises the human being from the world of animals into the realm of the angels. The sentence "maybe you will be of the pious" is a signal to all these realities. Also, another indicator of this matter is the famous tradition which says, "Fasting is a shield against the fire of hell." (Bihar al-Anwar, vol. 96, p. 256)
Sayyid Baqir Imrani is a popular speaker among North American Shia communities. Further articles and lectures by him can be found on http://www.mzk4.org.