It was a bright sunny Friday, Jummah prayer was over. As I was walking out of the mosque, I bumped into one of the familiar brothers of the congregation. We exchanged greetings. His face was shining from some undefined excitement. He seemed unable to hold in his enthusiasm long, and burst out, “Are you excited about Ramadan?! It‘s just another week.”
Several pre-Ramadan programs were available in our mosque. Today’s khutbah also centered on the same topic. However, the excitement and glow of his face caught me off guard. A guilty feeling was forming inside since I didn’t have the same level of excitement. At the same time his emotions made me curious: what made him so excited? Is my level of faith that low? Is my knowledge lacking? Or what is the secret to his attitude?
Instead of making any personal assumptions, I asked, “What excites you the most about Ramadan? Is it that: Satan will be chained? Or, our good deeds will be multiplied 70 times? Or, the month of blessing is coming? Or, the door of paradise will be wide open? Or, the door of hellfire will be closed? Or, the arrival of a night that is more special than a thousand nights?”
Without missing the opportunity to make it a bit dramatic, he smiled and replied, “All those are mere features to prompt you for the actual purpose of Ramadan: receiving your own revelation.”
I was startled and speechless. Before doubting his sanity, he added, “Don’t think me insane, but contemplate it. Since the beginning of the universe, this has been happening! We just don’t pay attention or prepare for it.”
As he left, the very thought of receiving revelation preoccupied me. Since our Prophet Muhammad (s) received revelation while he was fasting during Ramadan, I turned my attention to this widely followed practice. I found, fasting is not merely for Muslims or Jews or Christians; rather it’s universal. All major religions, even including smaller tribal communities, embrace fasting as a primary spiritual practice. Their greatest leaders exercised intense fasting for the highest spiritual attainment.
History bears the same evidence. The oldest religion Hinduism, dating back to 5000 BCE, has neither founder nor any specific sacred scripture. Yet, it emphasizes fasting to achieve the Hindu Trinity of purity, passion and inertia. Judaism is the next chronologically oldest religion dating from 1500 to 1350 BCE. It holds that Moses, or Prophet Musa (s), the great prophet fasted for 40 days before he received his prophethood.
Going forward, Jainism, originated in 600 BCE, teaches that Mahavira attained his nirvana while he was fasting. At the same time in 550 BCE, Buddhism emerged and Buddha fasted for forty-nine days and nights to attain enlightenment.Then Christianity arrived around 1-33 BCE, when Jesus, or Prophet Isa (s), received his scripture by fasting for 40 days. His example established the practice of the Lenten fast.
Finally, in 570-632 CE, Prophet Muhammad (s) established Islam. He received his revelation while meditating on mount Hira in the month of Ramadan. Consequently, fasting became one of the five foundational pillars of Islam and became obligatory during Ramadan to all non-ill and conscientious adult Muslims.
Despite the differences, why is fasting one of the most powerfully pervasive phenomenon within the realm of religion? Why have all prophets and religious leaders practiced fasting to attain the pinnacle of prophethood? Because fasting liberates us from the slavery of daily impulses, which forfeit our freedom, to leap toward the prophetic kingdom.
In Arabic, the term for fasting originated from the word “sawm” which means making one’s self free. This adjective includes: freedom from all sensory appetites; keeping all limbs and organs free from performing possible errors and sins to obtain an endless freedom.
Ironically, freedom is a very gullible expression to easily beguile us to misdirection. Today, we are preoccupied with the idea of freedom, but our perception is simply indulgence into self-deception. Our daily food, drink, drug, fear, worry habits, and hundreds of their close kin are directly culpable for our blind bondage.
However, actual freedom is breaking bondage of our baggage. True freedom is to – listen to our heart; feel the full series of human emotions; create a time and space in our heart to scrutinize our every activity; embrace a rhythm that includes the days and weeks of the ordinary; fathom the full capacity of human emotion in order to live passionately without the slavery of desirous habits. Fasting provides the fertile ground for harvesting such true freedom.
Absence of food relieves our body from a forced condition of slavery. Our eyesight is erased of the haze that shadows the vision of a glutton. Our breath is cleansed of the burden caused by pent-up organs; our speech becomes distinct; our mind reaches purity. Thus our bodies become their most natural, and so our minds can reflect the true vicegerent of God. And with continuous fasting during Ramadan, our beings become the bedrock for receiving revelation from God.
I started to connect the ideas of fasting, freedom and revelation with the words of the brother who spoke about his Ramadan “revelation.” Instead of getting stuck with the literal meaning of revelation, the Qu’ranic reference regarding individual revelation helped me:
“And it is not for a man that Allah should speak to him except by direct revelation, or from behind a veil, or by sending a messenger to reveal by His command what He pleases. Surely, He is Mighty, Wise. And thus have We revealed to thee the Word by Our command. Thou didst not know what the Book was, nor what was the faith. But We have made the revelation a light, whereby We guide such of Our servants as We please. And truly thou dost guide mankind to the right path.” (Holy Qu’ran, 42:52-53)
As the Qu’ran explains, revelation is a light, which illuminates us to gain insight into the meaning of life and God to the people. Fasting forces an environment to immerse into that insight by facilitating an integration of body, mind and spirit connected to everyday realities. All leaders and prophets, regardless of their religion, left path for people to follow, satisfying the same belief.
Such reflection opened a new avenue of fasting dynamics to me. Fasting is not refraining from everyday permissible dietary and customary but solely to contemplate on the divine Deity. Such abstinence seemed more meaningful because: it’s not the poison of the devil that ruins our longing for divine, but it’s the dribble of plain water that we drink in routine; it’s not the banquet of the wicked that diverts us from being noble, but the endless nibbling at our dining table; it’s not the toxin of Satan that turns us away, but the indulgence into the gracious gifts of God, that lead us astray from His love. Only mindful fasting could liberate us from this mundane serfdom to enter into the transcendent dominion. The light of spiritual transformation and individual revelation by new insight could shine in Ramadan to the extent that we consciously engage in the true practice of fasting. As the month of Ramadan is right around the corner, I hope we don’t fall off from the final favor of fasting.