One of the interesting things of the forms of worship that Allah (ﷻ) has sent us is their variety. Our worship takes various forms; such as praying, paying Zakah, fasting, Hajj, making dhikr, reciting Qur’an, supplications, and most probably others also. Thus, one is able to approach one’s Lord through any individual form of worship or through combinations of such forms. Sometimes some forms have built in requirements of other forms. In the salah itself for example, we recite Qur’an and make dhikr. The salah itself is referred to as supplication and consists of a combination of movements accompanied by adhkar. All very interesting! Hajj especially, its rights and ceremonies take different forms. And so all of these forms of worship or aspects of them, indicate the variety of approaches to our Creator.
Perhaps the one that stands out as very special because it consists of primarily one feature is fasting. In fasting, the form of worship consists of “staying away” from certain things which we normally do every day. I must repeat, it is only in fasting that the principle of “staying away” or abstinence from certain things, is used. Perhaps it is this principle of “staying away” from the norm that makes fasting so special. Eating, drinking, sexual relations, are all very normal things that we do; and the fact that one has to stay away from those things from Fajr to Maghrib, introduces a different element in our day-to-day affairs. This is because the “staying away” from these things is classified during the month of Ramadan as a form of worship (of course, with the necessary religious intention). I must add here, also very quickly, that there is another aspect in all of this. And that is the preservation of one’s dignity as human beings during this month. So, fasting, in a certain sense, does not have any “pure” aspect of ibadat in it. In fasting therefore, it is the abstinence that is important.
What is it that makes fasting so special; that we have to engage in it for a full month during Ramadan and also for other periods throughout the year? There must be something special in fasting otherwise it would not be given the status in Islam that it has. Let us see what happens when one fasts and here I am excluding other forms of worship for the time being. One rises before Fajr to eat and already at this stage and later, there is a different awareness in one of what one is busy with. It has nothing to do with the staying away from certain normal things that we do. But one feels different in a strange kind of way. The fact that one does not eat or drink or indulges in sexual relations, has little impact on the awareness that one is in, that this is a special month, the days of the month are sacred, one is participating in some sacred activity and one feels religiously good, because of what one is doing. The hunger pains mean nothing, the dry throat means nothing, the sexual desires mean nothing. What is it that means something? It is almost as if one is functioning in another dimension. This is very strange, but it is like that. When one thinks about the fast and its length, one does not think of one’s appetite, one thinks that this month is sacred and it is the sacred that invigorates one to fast, and to do the additional things one is requested to do. Perhaps part of the sacred is the desire to please one’s Lord. I do not know whether there is any other religious feature in which a personal sacrifice to please one’s Lord is such a special feature. One in fact does not think much about food and drink when one is fasting. The mind is on other things. And so one introduces in one’s daily routine, other than the obligatory salahs, matters such as Qur’anic recital, adhkar, nafl salahs, readings on different aspects of Islam, and other things. The awareness that one is in sacred time encourages one in all these things. I do not know whether it is like this for all people, but for some it is definitely like that. All the religious things that one does, have to do with making maximum use of the sacred time of Ramadan. Perhaps this is the reason why so many people do things differently during this month otherwise they would be showing disrespect to the sacred.
This strange feeling that one has, which in fact cannot be defined, sometimes comes before the start of Ramadan. Perhaps it is anticipation or anxiety or perhaps it is the soul at work. Is it possible for the soul to anticipate a month of deep religious activity that will benefit it in immense ways? Is it possible? We do not know. We only know that already from before Ramadan, it is almost as if one is fasting already and when one enters the month of fasting, one is functioning in another dimension; the dimension of approaching one’s Lord with one’s stomach free of food, with one’s throat dry and with one’s sexual desires suppressed. The display of one’s dignity as a human being and refraining from those things that demeans one, is just another aspect of our fasting.
I have over the years tried very hard to understand fasting. And why the knowledge of its reward lies only with Allah’s (ﷻ). It is very strange that the rewards for all our ibadat are clarified, but not for fasting. What the reward is, and how it is stored in one of the Treasure Houses, is Allah’s (ﷻ) concern. We do it for His sake, but the reward and whatever else is involved in this, lie with Allah’s (ﷻ). Of course this also applies to all other ibadat in some way or other, but not in the special way it applies to fasting. All the pious people speak about the role of abstinence in their spiritual development and how the combination of that abstinence with other forms of religious worship, catapults one forward in one’s spiritual growth. How can one reach Ramadan year after year and not be destined for Paradise?
All the different forms of ibadat that I have mentioned at the beginning of this letter, have to do with the purification of the soul and its preparation to enter Paradise. There are no other reasons. Every time these forms of ibadat are performed, there is a greater purification of the soul and some additional steps have been taken in one’s religious quest. Of course this religious quest doesn’t only have to do with Paradise. Even before the granting of Paradise, to different people, many of them are taken to different spiritual stations by their Lord. And so, through these forms of worship, Allah (ﷻ) grants us a variety of spiritual stations at which we already enjoy the contents of those stations. You see, it is not only Paradise. It is also stations that one achieves on the road to Paradise, or even greater on the road to experience the Countenance of our Lord. This is the greatest; the greatest blessing, and the greatest reward.
In all of these, fasting becomes a special experience by the servant in his relationship with his Lord. The stomach is empty, the throat dry, the sexual desires suppressed and the bad aspects of the personality thrown aside, while the servant, under all these conditions, calls out to his Lord. He avoids the norms of his life in order to achieve something special by his Lord. Perhaps it is Paradise. Perhaps there is something better than that, and that is the Countenance of his Lord. Our appeal is that our Lord lets us go through experiences of His Countenance whilst standing on the grounds of Paradise, amin.