The Mysteries of Fasting (Reflections on Al Ghazālī’s Kitāb Asrār al-Siyyām)

Tamim Mobayed *

 

Praise be to God who bestowed upon His servants an immense blessing when He shielded them from ruses and artifices of Satan and thwarted his hopes and designs. For He made fasting a citadel and a shelter for His friends, opened to them thereby the gates of heaven, and gave them thereby the gates of heaven, and gave them the knowledge that Satan enters their hearts through hidden appetites, and by curbing those appetites, the soul at peace might subdue its adversary[1]

 

Abu Hamid Al Ghazālī’s (d. 1111) impact on the Islamic field of knowledge was so great, and the admiration he earned so widespread, that he attained a raft of titles to supplement the one he was most famous for in Hujjat Ul Islam (The Proof of Islam). These included Nasir al-Din (Protector of the Religion), Muhyi’Ulum al-Din (Reviver of the Sciences of Religion) and al-Mujaddid (The Renewer)[2]. The one of arguably most relevance to this paper is that of Zayn al-Din (Adornment of Religion). An adornment often bestows those who wear it, and all who set their eyes on it, with a feeling of awe. The myopic might claim it is superfluous, while those in tune with the reality of the human condition, and the way in which beauty play a critical role in human experience, and the stirring of emotions, recognise its value.

Al Ghazālī’s adornment of Islam is witnessed within his seminal work, Ihyā’ ‘Ulūm Al-Dīn. His magnum opus was designed to be a guide for Muslims in fundamental matters of everyday life and belief:

The entire Ihyā’ is designed to be a detailed and accessible handbook for human perfection, beginning with the outer, action-orientated perfection of the person’s worship and social dealings and culminating in the inner, disposition-orientated perfection of the mind or heart [3].

The 40 books that comprise his Ihyā’ begin with The Book of Knowledge and naturally end with The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife. The heart of the Ihyā’, numerically and metaphorically, pay tribute to Al Ghazālī’s superior and teacher, The Prophet (SAW), in his Book of Prophetic Ethics and the Courtesies of Living in book 20, while book 21 looks at Wonders of the Heart. Earlier in the Ihyā’, within the heart of the first quarter that focuses on Worship, the sixth book is that of The Mysteries of Fasting.

In this book of the Ihyā’, Al Ghazālī details six ways in which the believer can strive for elevating the level of their fasting to that of “the elect of the elect”. These include instructions on increased sensory vigilance, ensuring that what is being consumed by the eyes and crafted by the tongue are of benefit; as well as warning against the illicit, Al Ghazālī condemns the trivial. His guidance also centres on increased ethical responsibility; by way of ensuring, one is not breaking their fast with questionable food. In his instructions pertaining to the ears, we again see calls for cleansing the stimuli that the faster is consuming, but also, an interesting elevation of the level of ethical responsibility, where there is no room for being a passive absorber of one’s surroundings. He concludes his advice with a path that focuses on both hope and fear, with the believer instructed to engage with both of these emotions. This emotional dynamism creates fertile ground for the believer to remain God-conscious, while allowing an adaptive form of self-critique to germinate, all the while, not being consumed by a debilitating negativity.

 

The Mysteries of Fasting and Ramadan

Al Ghazālī marks the opening of this book by highlighting the sheer importance of fasting, covering ideas such as fasting being half of patience, with patience being half of faith, and so fasting equalling one quarter of faith. More stirringly, he reminds his reader about the exceptionality of fasting in relation to other acts of worship, due to its status as being for God (“It is for Me and I reward it”[4]). This status might be related to the fact it is an unobservable form of worship: “Fasting is abstention; giving something up, by its very nature, is concealed, with no observable action”[5]. Thus, fasting enjoys the unique status amongst the pillars of Islam as being an act of omission rather than commission. Al Ghazālī also grants significance to fasting on the grounds of it being a mean to overpower “God’s foe”, as Satan “works by means of the appetites”[6]. The relationship between fasting and self-control is well documented, as well as the relationship between self-control and a raft of life attainment and satisfaction measures[7], including ills such as drug addiction, maladaptive relationships and both physical and psychological illness.

Al Ghazālī goes on to provide a useful overview of the core principles that must be adhered to for fasting Ramadan to be accepted[8], according to his Shafi’i school of jurisprudence. While these principles are critical, and certain discussions pertaining to them are illuminating and intricate, their core are widely known.

While there is no flower without roots, to truly attain the sweetness of the scent, and the beauty of the nectar, there is a need to strive for adornment. Zayn al-Din offers his readers some means to attain more from this month, to allow their fasts to blossom into a spiritual practice that goes beyond hunger, thirst and tiredness. He offers a path for those seeking to deepen what the month means to them, by way of tightening their practice and adding further components to their worship.

Al Ghazālī’s hierarchal classifications might sit uneasily with certain modern readers, however, who can dispute the Quran’s unambiguous classification of hierarchy, based on Taqwa (Quran 49:13)[9]. Al Ghazālī describes three classes of fasting:

  1. The fasting of the common people
  2. The fasting of the elect
  3. The fasting of the elect of the elect

The first level “consists in keeping the stomach and private parts from satisfying their desires”[10], representing the most basic level of fasting. The more demanding second level brings in more facets of the sensory world; “the fasting of the elect consists in keeping the hearing, sight, tongue, hands, feet and all other members of the body free from sin”[11]. The commitment required to attain this level of fasting is steep. The nature of cognitive evaluation, so dependent on ordering and reference points, leads us to mistake a middle level as relatively easy and attainable. Reflecting on the level of commitment and discipline needed to complete a Ramadan in this state, I would estimate with confidence that the clear majority of readers will not be able to attain it, while I know with a degree of certainty that I will not. This is essentially mapping out a Ramadan without behavioural sins; any act that involves doing something sinful with one of these body parts. However, those that do, or even those that come close to fulfilling this, will have ascended to a psycho-spiritual state that is beautified.

 

Fasting of the “Elect of the Elect”

Al Ghazālī deems his third and loftiest level as the fast of “the prophets, the veracious, and those who are near to God”[12].

The fasting of the elect of the elect [involves] the heart; fasting from worldly concerns and mundane thoughts and completely refraining from [focusing on] anything other than God [13]

This strand of fasting would witness an intense level of engagement of the heart and mind. Training oneself to exercise mastery over thoughts, whims and inclinations, demands an individual who is conquering their lower self. This goes beyond outward acts of worship, and the cessation of outward acts of disobedience, with the arena becoming one’s inner world. Of critical note here is that it is impossible to think of this battle even being attempted while the first two of Al Ghazālī’s stages have not been completed; this can only occur when the basic conditions of fasting are met (level one), and one has largely ceased engaging in sin (level two).

Its deepest meaning is to focus our entire aspiration to God, to turn away from what is other than God, glory be to Him, and to be completely enveloped by the meaning of His words [14]

Al Ghazālī’s highest level of fasting is a journey in channelling one’s cognitive and cardiac energy towards the Divine, turning them away from the worldly, in an attempt to gain proximity to God. The prescience of this is even more increased in light of an age of unprecedented distraction and ghaflah. Al Ghazālī elaborates on key aspects of this means of fasting, and characteristically categorises these aspects into six.

 

Al Ghazālī’s Six Means to Bolster what is Attained by Fasting

Al Ghazālī specifies six points of attention, which the seeker must pay particular attention to while fasting.

 

  1. Gaze 

The first [practice] is to lower the gaze and refrain from letting one’s vision extend to anything blameworthy or disapproved of, or [to extend] to anything that preoccupies and distracts the heart from the remembrance of God [15]

This describes the practice of fasting with the eyes, with the first section of the sentence describing avoiding the prohibited and the doubtful, while the second section extends the principle much further, in advocating for the avoidance of the useless and the distracting. There has never been a time in which this advice has been more pertinent, as we spend our waking hours shifting from phones, to laptops to TVs, bombarded by a stream of images. While a sizeable proportion of these images might be ethically questionable, there is no doubt that a large share of them are distracting and relatively useless. However, where useless might suggest a form of being benign, it is perhaps more useful to describe them as counterproductive. With a minor degree of critical reflection, even those activities we deem useful, such as reading the news, can be rendered questionable.

If Al Ghazālī made a connection between the blameworthy sights to be seen in Seljuk Baghdad (or Nishapur, Damascus, and Jerusalem), what might he have advised the modern reader in relation to social media, and on-demand movies and series. The concept of “on-demand” is but another signal highlighting the elevation of the self. Just as the Imam advises his readers, in a somewhat counterfactual process, to lower themselves before their Lord with humility in order to attain a higher position in His Eyes, the contraction of one stream of visual stimuli aids in the expansion of another. Al Ghazālī is after all attempting to guide his readers towards unveiling (kashf). If you are like me and consume an aggressive amount of social media and news daily, you should not enter this month without a specific goal that sees the significant reduction or elimination of your daily consumption habits; turn your gaze to what might elevate you.

 

  1. Tongue

The second is to guard the tongue from babbling, lying, backbiting, slander, obscenity, pettiness, disputation and ostentation [16]

The motif of protecting one’s tongue runs heavily through Al Ghazālī’s Ihyā’. It is described by him as both “one of the wonders of the handiwork” of God, as well as stating that there is nothing “worthier of being cut off”[17] than it. He makes the case for extra vigilance to be directed towards the tongue in this month. While his advice about the eyes describes only omission of the unwanted, he compliments the omission of the unwanted relating to the tongue, with the commission of the desired; “Instead, it should be silent or occupied with the invocation of God, glory be to Him, and the recitation of the Qur’an”[18].

Al Ghazālī brings in the famous teaching from the hadith, in which after describing fasting as a shield, the Prophet (SAW) advises the provoked to instead reply with, “I am fasting”. He also here rails against backbiting; critically, in another section of the Ihyā’, he sets an alarmingly low bar for what constitutes backbiting, describing it as making “mention of someone in a way that he would dislike if he were to hear it”[19]. While the haram is warned about, there are also warnings pertaining to the makruh, with advice being given to instead focus on the good, namely by way of dhikr. Warnings relating to disputation and ostentation should be particularly heeded by the tweeters and instagrammers, respectively.

In another section of the Ihyā’, Al Ghazālī ties the tongue directly to the soul, giving it a special status that is not afforded to other sensory organs; he posits that while most senses experience a unilateral relationship with the soul, the tongue is exceptional in that it reflects the soul, but also, it can impact on the soul. The relationship between the tongue and the soul, according to Al Ghazālī, is reciprocal, making vigilance over how one uses it all the more critical.

 

  1. Ears

The third is to keep the ears from listening to anything reprehensible, for anything that is forbidden to say is forbidden to hear [20]

This represents a significant escalation of the accountability that one must consider for their self. It is not only the act of speaking an ill that is reprehensible, but also that of hearing it without turning away or advising against it. There is no room here for falling back on complacency; the believer, and especially the fasting believer, is to be morally enlivened and not a passive agent merely existing within their surroundings. This prohibition is tied to the Quran (Quran 5:42) and the Sunnah (“the backbiter and the one who listens to him are partners in sin”[21]).

We again here see Al Ghazālī seemingly attempting to protect the seeker from negative external stimuli, presumably on the assumption that as one reduces the amount of impurity that is ingested, one’s heart and spiritual faculties become awakened. In this sense, the fast can be a reduction in ingestion of more than simply food and drink. Significantly, ceasing from eating, drinking and copulation require the cessation of certain acts, which are typically instigated by the individual. Listening to another is qualitatively different, in that it does not necessitate any actions from the individual listener, and could occur completely independent of them. However, the individual is being held responsible; this is an act of ensuring one’s surrounding are also of a worthy ethical standard.

 

  1. Rest of Body 

The fourth is to guard the rest of the members of the body – the hands and feet – from sin and from things that are disapproved of… [22]

While this warning covers all parts of the body, paying particular attention to the hands and feet, the rest of this section focuses instead on the stomach. Of primary concern are those who spend their day fasting only to break their fast on unlawful or ethically questionable food: “this is like building a castle and destroying a town”[23]. While this might initially seem undaunting, consider how the Mercy to All the Worlds (SAW) might have reacted had he witnessed the brutality of factory farming, as well as the sheer absence of responsibility most of us cloak ourselves in as convenience and monetary value takes precedence over ethics when choosing our food. This month could be utilised to initiate a new chapter in growing responsibility and compassion relating to the food we consume.

Coming back to Al Ghazālī’s explicit intention, and he mentions two possible invalidators, tying them to the hadith, which describes those who gain nothing but hunger and thirst from their fasts. As well as questionable food, another interpretation sees those who break their fast with the unlawful as being due to their backbiting during the month, drawing from the Quranic verse that likens this to eating the flesh of a dead sibling (Quran 49:12).

Whether it is the legality of the food, or the words being spoken by the tongue, we see here again a call to vigilance and responsibility. Cessation of eating, drinking and sexual intercourse are seemingly not the complete goal, rather, they are a starting point from which wider engagements with ethics and consideration should begin. The basic level of fasting is designed to ignite the initial thrust towards a more moral way of being, with this then facilitating proximity with God.

 

  1. Stomach 

The fifth is to not eat so much, at the time of breaking the fast – even though the food is lawful – that his stomach becomes completely full, for no vessel angers God more than a stomach that is filled, even with lawful food [24]

Here, Al Ghazālī repeats a well versed warning relating to overeating during Ramadan. While the previous section centred on the questionable source of the food, this one focuses on the contradictory nature of overeating during the month, and especially when breaking the fast. The indulgence, of which many of us descend to, is problematic: “how can fasting serve to overcome God’s foe and subdue a person’s appetite if, when breaking the fast, a person makes up for whatever he missed…or perhaps even adds to it a variety of foods?[25]”. Scholars have commented on the continuing voice of Al Ghazālī, describing him as imperceptibly modern; these words are resoundingly more applicable to many today than they would have been to the diners at the grandest palace of the 11th century.

Al Ghazālī speaks of this as undoing the benefit of the daily fast, and merely becoming a cycle of denial and indulgence: “the spirit and mystery of fasting [involves] weakening the physical energy that Satan uses to turn people towards evil, and this weakening cannot be achieved except by reducing”[26]. To consume the same amount of food over the course of Ramadan, albeit at different timings, is not only spiritually inert; medically speaking, it could be problematic. In modern parlance, Ramadan should see a calorie deficit occur, while being mindful of the fact the term deficit only implies less than what was before. The modern condition is such that in many cases, what was before was excessive. Fasting should be corrective, not merely a rearrangement.

Al Ghazālī goes further in this spirit, championing the merits of not sleeping too much during the day so that one can feel the pangs of hunger, the yanking of thirst, and “experience physical weakness, and thereby cleanse his heart”[27]. The functionality of weakness and yearning is instructive; these states that are difficult to experience, even unpleasant and painful, are of value to the individual, and assist the seeker in purifying themselves. The value afforded to “negative” states here echoes Al Ghazālī’s writings within the Ihyā’ pertaining to the value of pains and heartache of regret. Amongst his most famous passages in his Ihyā’ is his deployment of the words, “I am with those whose hearts are broken for My sake”[28]; there is value in difficult experiences, and they are often means to attaining betterment. For all the joys of Ramadan, the month should also involve a degree of pain.

Al Ghazālī strikes his direst warning when he writes that the benefits of The Night of Power might be veiled from those who “place a feeding bag between [their] heart and…breast”[29]. To him, it is not enough to simply cease eating. One must also not “aspire to anything but God”[30]. Reflecting the deeper meaning of Al Ghazālī’s view on fasting, he writes that unveiling is the ultimate goal, with reducing food intake representing just the beginning of that process.

 

  1. State 

The sixth: On breaking the fast, the heart of the one who fasted should remain in suspense between fear and hope, because he does not know whether his fast has been accepted and he has been brought nearer to God, or rejected, and he has incurred God’s anger [31]

The purposes of this piece of advice are numerous, and surely many of its goals elude me. One that I do identify is the sheer importance of humility, with this echoing Al Ghazālī’s writings within his book of the Ihyā’ about the dangers of pride. Ultimately, no one is aware of the status of their worship, and cannot become prideful or complacent due to believing they have performed well. Just as the end of the prayer is marked with utterings of ʾastaġfiru-llāh, the moment of breaking the fast should also contain undercurrents of concern stemming from uncertainty about whether one’s worship has been accepted.

However, he is not calling for an exclusively fearful state, rather, one that is tempered, engaging the possibilities of both failure and success. Were he to call for either pole, it would likely be counterproductive. The view of success might stunt further drives towards improving while also allowing pride to ensue, while an exclusively negative outlook might lead to the germination of hopelessness, with resignation setting in. This balance between the two allows for a sense of critical reflection to evolve, as well as nurturing internal appeals towards the Divine for acceptance. Perhaps most significantly, this practice, and it would indeed need to begin by way of effortful practice, reminds the believer that ultimately, their whole being and all of their efforts are in the hands of their Creator.

This principle is exclusively internal, and does not involve any outward action of behaviour. Al Ghazālī is guiding his reader towards shaping the way they reflect on their fast, and the inclinations of their heart in that poignant moment at the end of each day of Ramadan; hope and fear. Ramadan might then represent a microcosm for one’s whole life, with each day of fasting akin to every act of worship one engages in; these two emotions, when deployed meaningfully as Al Ghazālī instructs, can allow the individual to stay driven and God-orientated.

 

Conclusion

Al Ghazālī does discuss the possibility that those who do not follow the inner aspects of fasting are not among the truly fasting, however, that critical scholarly argument falls out of the scope of this paper, and the knowledge base of the paper’s author. He likens the one who fasts according to the outward aspects while ignoring the inner, as one who makes wudu by rubbing their hands over the successive body parts, but without using water. It might be argued that not using water would be disregarding one of the outward aspects of wudu. Regardless, the point the Imam is making is clear.

Al Ghazālī’ positioned much of his work as a means for the believer to engage in better practice, that one might achieve unveiling. This concept is often tied to the ability to better perceive reality, and it is interesting to note that it is described as emerging once one contracts their engagement with the world. Of the benefits mentioned by Al Ghazālī in relation to Ramadan, there is often an unexpected link, wherein a contraction leads to an expansion, or a descent to an ascent. Attempting to walk the path of Ghazālī’s Ramadan of the “elite of the elite” centres around denial of aspects of the self, and mastery over others. The pains that this will induce will eventually give way to pleasure and contentment. There are messages from within his work on the Mysteries of Fasting that are distinctly esoteric, however, calls for responsibility and ethical maturity deal with the exoteric too. Ultimately, Al Ghazālī is calling his readers to engage with the month with the degree of effort, self-discipline and self-sacrifice that it warrants.

Al Ghazālī’s instructions transcend the earthliest aspects of fasting that demand a cessation of one’s fundamental bodily needs, and call for an engagement with higher aspects of the self. He affords a positive functionality to pains arising due to the sacrifices that are made in this month, tying that to the overall benefit that might be derived; struggle and aches are not to be avoided or pacified. The sensory and appetitive are included within these instructions, by way of the eyes and the stomach, while focus on the tongue elicits aspects of the soul, the mind and the heart; these faculties are to submit to their Lord and engage in fasting too. Going higher still, Al Ghazālī’s calls for increased exoteric ethical responsibility, by way of the source of food consumed at iftar, and esotericism, by way of the emotional engagement with both hope and fear, are means to attain a higher degree of fasting, and a more pronounced form of meaning from the holy month.

 

 

* Tamim Mobayed works as a media researcher, and has Master's degrees in Autism (Queen's University Belfast), Behavioural Science (The LSE), and is completing an MA in Islamic Ethics at HBKU (Doha).

 

[1] Al Ghazālī, A. H. (2018). The Mysteries of Charity and the Mysteries of Fasting (M. A. Fitzgerald trans.). Fons Vitae: Louisville. p. 79.

[2] Al Ninowy in Al Ghazali, A. H. (2019). The Book of Prophetic Ethics and the Courtesies of Living (A. Setia, trans.). Louisville, Kentucky: Fons Vitae.

[3] Gianotti, T. J. (2001). Al Ghazālī’s Unspeakable Doctrine of the Soul. Brill Publishing: Leiden.

[4] Al Ghazālī, A. H. (2018). The Mysteries of Charity and the Mysteries of Fasting (M. A. Fitzgerald trans.). Fons Vitae: Louisville. p. 79.

[5] Ibid. p. 81.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Mobayed, T. (2017). The Psychology of Self-control and the Potential Benefits of Fasting. Research Centre for Islamic Legislation and Ethics. Retrieved from:

https://www.cilecenter.org/resources/articles-essays/psychology-self-control-and-potential-benefits-fasting

[8] 1. It is Ramadan. 2. Intention to fast is made (every night). 3. Abstaining from ingesting anything into the body during fasting hours. 4. Abstaining from sexual relations during fasting hours. 5. Abstaining from masturbation during the fasting hours. 6. Abstaining from induced vomiting during the fasting hours.

[9] Al Ghazālī’s hierarchies do go beyond these unambiguous trends, into more ambiguous territory.

[10] Al Ghazālī, A. H. (2018). The Mysteries of Charity and the Mysteries of Fasting (M. A. Fitzgerald trans.). Fons Vitae: Louisville. p. 93.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid. p. 94.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Al Ghazālī, A.H. (2002). On the Treatments and Harms of the Tongue (M. N. Abus Salam trans.). Illinois: Kazi Publications Inc. p. 27.

[18] Al Ghazālī, A. H. (2018). The Mysteries of Charity and the Mysteries of Fasting (M. A. Fitzgerald trans.). Fons Vitae: Louisville. p. 94.

[19] Al Ghazālī, A. H. (2015). Vigilance and self-examination (A. F. Shaker, trans.). Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society. p.96.

[20] Al Ghazālī, A. H. (2018). The Mysteries of Charity and the Mysteries of Fasting (M. A. Fitzgerald trans.). Fons Vitae: Louisville. p. 95.

[21] Ibid. p. 96.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.  

[24] Ibid. p. 97.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Al Ghazālī, 2015, The beginning of Guidance: The Imam and proof of Islam (M. Al-Allaf, trans.). London: White Thread Press. p. 128.

[29] Al Ghazālī, A. H. (2018). The Mysteries of Charity and the Mysteries of Fasting (M. A. Fitzgerald trans.). Fons Vitae: Louisville. p. 98.

[30] Ibid. 

[31] Ibid.

 

 

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