How I Can Benefit from Fasting: Resist the Ordinary, Practice the Extraordinary

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It was Ramadan and Hasan al-Basri saw a group of people sitting and laughing, he addressed them: “Allah made the month of Ramadan a racecourse, here His creatures compete in His worship. Some are first and win, others lag and lose…” Let’s explore how we can be the winners this month, with the help of Imam Ghazali, we will learn how to fast like the elite, the chosen ones, the pious.

The Iceberg Metaphor

The Iceberg metaphor nicely represents how most of us view fasting as an ordinary, ritualistic and outward activity. From dawn to sunset, we stop eating, drinking, and having marital relations. But this is just an outward form of fasting that Muslims are familiar with. It is just the bare minimum expected of us and it is just the beginning.

The iceberg metaphor tells us that there is far more going on underneath. That is ‘Extraordinary Fasting’, which means keeping the ears, eyes, tongue, hands and feet free from sin. This includes refraining from seeing, saying, and hearing things that are against the Divine Will. That’s controlling the five senses; no gossiping and no backbiting. It means only eating Halal wholesome food and avoiding overeating at Iftar. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said “Fasting is a shield; so, when you are fasting, don’t use foul language or foolish talk. If someone attacks or insults you, say: ‘I am fasting, I am fasting!” (Ibn Majah).

The Hidden Aspect of Fasting

It is narrated in a hadith “Two Fasting women were so fatigued towards the end of the day, from hunger and thirst, that they were about to collapse. They asked the Messenger (peace be upon him) for permission to break their fast. He (peace be upon him) said: ‘Tell them to vomit in this bowl’. One of them half-filled the bowl with blood and bits of meat, while the other brought up the same so that they filled the whole bowl between them. The onlookers were astonished. Then the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: ‘These women have been fasting from what Allah made lawful to them, and have broken their fast on what Allah made unlawful to them. They sat together and indulged in backbiting, and here is the flesh of the people they slandered” (Ahmad).

The idea of Ramadan is to see ourselves as worshippers and not consumers. During Ramadan, our intake should not mirror our usual consumption (2100 calories per day) as in a regular 24-hour cycle. Instead, we should be turning away from the desires of the flesh and looking towards Allah – looking with fear and hope.

Grades of Fasting

Imam Ghazali was a great scholar and saint, he had a seminal influence on medieval European and Muslim scholars, he said there are three grades of fasting:

  1. Ordinary: This describes the visible aspects of fasting: Refraining from eating, drinking, and abstaining from sexual activities from dawn until sunset. It’s a customary practice familiar to the majority of Muslims globally.
  2. Extraordinary: This means doing the ordinary whilst also ensuring that the ears, eyes, tongue, hands, feet, and all senses abstain from any form of sin.
  3. Elite: This form of fasting involves the heart’s detachment from trivial concerns and mundane thoughts, focusing solely on Allah, and ignoring all else. For the devout, even a fleeting thought of worldly affairs can disrupt this elite fast.

These are the realities of fasting. If we can try to make our fast extraordinary and resist the ordinary, then we will have advanced this Ramadan in leaps and bounds. This is the portrayal of Ramadan as explained by a devout follower: Fasting enhances your discernment, refining your capacity to differentiate between right and wrong, and between truth and falsehood.