Islam, first and foremost, is about reigning the preconscious, those very invisible notions which operate beneath our conscious lives and direct our thought patterns, and purifying the soul. The abnegation of food and drink during the month of Ramadan, if done with awareness, has the effect of putting us in control of our nafs, our souls, our sense of self: for, we, in this way, command ourselves against those bodily inclinations for a period of time and gains mastery over ourself, provided that we are aware. This doesn’t means, however, all bodily inclinations are inherently immoral or even undesirable: monasticism and harsh asceticism are not virtues in Islam, per se. Without this awareness, all we have is an empty, grumbling stomach, stinky breathe, and a poor, irritable disposition.
I wanted to share some of the different modes of fasting I’ve been working on this Ramadan. Even though, when we traditionally think of fasting, food and drink come to mind, there are also other dimensions of fasting that I wanted to highlight. Perhaps there are more, ones I hadn’t considered. I’d welcome any feedback, additions, subtractions, etc.
(Note: I just suddenly realized, upon finishing this post, that it sounds “preachy.” I didn’t intend for this post to be didactic. It just sorta came out that way. So, if upon reading this, you got this impression, I sincerely apologize.)
Fasting of the Body
This, I’m convinced, is the easiest of the fasts, even with these long and hot summer days, where we merely abstain from food, drink, permissible sexual relations (i.e. with a spouse) and, in general, avoiding physical contact with those things deemed prohibited. I think this fast is the gateway to others. My opinion, however, isn’t based on any tradition whatsoever, so take it with a grain of salt.
Fasting of the Eyes
Prophet Jesus عليه السلا is reported to have said in the Gospel of Matthew, “And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire. [Matthew 18:9]” I don’t take these supposed words of Jesus literally – somehow I doubt he meant them literally anyway – but, on a deeper level, I believe there is some semblance of truth in them. Shielding the eyes from things which are deemed inappropriate is a difficult endeavor, especially when our society label such things as appealing or even elevate them to realm of “beauty.”
The things we see shape our worldview and our thought patterns, so in this month, let’s try to suppress the desire to gaze at the things we shouldn’t be gazing at in the first instance.
Fasting of the Tongue
Here I am reminded of one of Buddhism’s tenet within the Eightfold Noble Path, that being Right Speech, wherein one abstains from the use of foul and slanderous language, divisive and abusive speech, backbiting (gheebah in Arabic), lying, and senseless, idle prattle.
Consider the following from the Qur’an:
O you who have attained to faith! Remain conscious of God and (always) speak with a will to bring out (only) what is just and true -(whereupon) He will cause your deeds to be virtuous and will forgive you your sins. And (know that) whoever pays heed unto God and His Apostle has already attained to a mighty triumph. [33:70-71]
The interesting thing to note is how Allah juxtaposes awareness of Him with truthful and just speech, implying that when we have taqwa – not simply mere belief in God but consciousness of Him – then it should follow that we will speak in the best of manner. Maybe it doesn’t always workout this way, but that, I suppose, is the ideal, the goal to strive for.
As for backbiting, consider this verse from the Qur’an:
O you who have attained to faith! Avoid most guesswork (about one another) – for, behold, some of (such) guesswork is (in itself) a sin; and do not spy upon one another, and neither allow yourselves to speak ill of one another behind your backs. Would any of you like to eat the flesh of his dead brother? Nay, you would loathe it! [49:12]
And be conscious of God. Verily, God is an acceptor of repentance, a dispenser of grace!
God likens gossiping behind another’s back unto consuming the dead flesh of that same person. That’s pretty serious analogy, not to mention a disgusting one, something to bear in mind.
Again, as with what we see, our speech is connected to our character. This month, speech should reflect the best attributes of our own character.
Fasting of the Mind (the Conscious)
Purify the thoughts and intentions which run through the mind, in a sense, “getting the mind out of the gutter.” The mind is as an intransigent horse though, unyielding and difficult to control, making the task is much easier said than done. Frank Herbert summarized the problem of the mind the following succinct passage from Dune: “The mind commands the body and it obeys. The mind orders itself and meets resistance.”
Often times, we aren’t willing to come to grips with certain faulty aspects of our “psychological hardwiring.” Either we are too proud to admit they exist or we lack the necessary courage to challenge them or we lack the cognizance and alertness to even realize that they exist in the first place; and thus, we let them operate in the backdrop, unperturbed, unchallenged. It’s important this month that we be willing to expose these shortcomings for what they are and, in earnest, to combat them, to take to the affairs to God with both assertiveness and humility. In this way, I am yet again reminded of Buddhist Eightfold Noble Path, this time of the precept of Right Mindfulness, of being aware of what’s going on both within the mind and the body in the here and now.
I see in Islam the mastering of what I call the Destiny of the Mind. I assert little control over the external affairs of the world, especially as someone with little to no clout in the political theatre, but, at the very least, I can exert dominon over my intentions, thoughts, prejudices, etc. In this way, I’ll only be a slave to God, being that my mind is free from the caprices of this world.
And yet, this too is an ideal, something to struggle for.
O YOU who have attained to faith! Remain conscious of God; and let every human being look to what he sends ahead for the morrow! And (once again): Remain conscious of God, for God is fully aware of all that you do; and be not like those who are oblivious of God, and whom He therefore causes to be oblivious of (what is good for) their own selves: (for) it is they, they who are truly depraved! [59:18-19]
Fasting of the Heart
Suspend any malice, pessimism, cynicism, or negativity against your fellow man, be they Muslims or non-Muslims. Converse the inner light and integrity inherent in the heart: we shouldn’t let the putrid bog our world is quickly becoming darkened and ossify our hearts this month, for darkness in matters of the heart is all consuming: darkness upon darkness, until everything is consumed, and eventually, we consume ourselves.
Cynicism, I’m convinced, is a form of ingratitude because it leaves one is shackled solely in the affairs of this world and one is thus taken away from the remembrance and wisdom of God. It quells the resolve needed to fix the affairs, and while there is much awry today – even within our own communities – and likewise while many wrongs need redressing, we shouldn’t let these issues deter us from the greater truth and wisdom at the end of all things.
…those who believe, and whose hearts find their rest in the remembrance of God – for, verily, in the remembrance of God [men’s] hearts do find their rest… [13:28]
All of these are tall orders to fill. The point, though, is to make a concerted effort at controlling these impulses we have. We may not succeed entirely or at all. We could even be destined for failure. But we are obligated to try.
Reigning the preconscious, purifying the soul: this is the real jihad.