How to make your Fast extraordinary

Excerpts taken from Imam Ghazali’s ‘Ihya Ulum al-Din

Imam Ghazali said there are three grades of fasting:

  1. Ordinary
  2. Special
  3. Extraordinary

Ordinary fasting means abstaining from food, drink and sexual satisfaction. Special fasting means keeping one’s ears, eyes, tongue, hands and feet and all other organs free from sin. Extraordinary fasting means fasting of the heart from unworthy concerns and worldly thoughts, in total disregard of everything but Allah.

The extraordinary kind of fast is broken by thinking of worldly matters. The Prophets and the saints of Allah belong to this third degree. It can’t be described in words, as its true nature is best revealed by action. It consists of utmost dedication to Allah, to the neglect of everything other than Him. “Say: it is Allah, then leave them to amuse in their idle chatter” [al-An’am: 91].

As for Special fasting, this is the kind practised by the righteous. It means keeping all one’s organs free from sin and six things are required for its accomplishment:

Don’t look at things that displease Allah:
A chaste regard, restrained from viewing anything that is blameworthy or reprehensible, or that distracts the heart and diverts it from the remembrance of Allah. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: ‘The furtive glance is one of the poisoned arrows of Satan, on him be Allah’s curse. Whoever forsakes it for the fear of Allah will receive from Him, faith – the sweetness of which he will find within his heart.’ Jabir relates from Anas that Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) said: ‘Five things break a man’s Fast; lying, backbiting, gossiping, perjury and a lustful gaze.’

Don’t speak false
Protect your tongue from idle chatter, lying, gossiping, obscenity, rudeness, arguing and controversy; making it observe silence and occupying it with the remembrance of Allah, Great and Glorious is He, and with the recitation of Quran. This is the fasting of the tongue. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: ‘Fasting is a shield; so when you are fasting don’t use foul or foolish talk. If someone attacks or insults, say: ‘I am Fasting, I am Fasting!’ According to another hadith, it’s narrated ‘Two women were fasting and they were so fatigued towards the end of the day, from hunger and thirst, that they were on the verge of collapsing. They asked the Messenger for permission to break their fast. He gave them a bowl and said: ‘Tell them to vomit in this bowl.’ One of them vomited and half filled the bowl with fresh blood and tender meat, and the other brought up the same so that they filled it between them. The onlookers were astonished. Then the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: ‘These two women have been fasting from what Allah made lawful to them, and have broken their fast on what Allah, Exalted is He, made unlawful to them. They sat together and indulged in backbiting, and here is the flesh of the people they maligned!’

Don’t listen to…
Closing one’s ears to everything reprehensible; for everything unlawful to utter is likewise unlawful to listen to. That is why Allah, Great and Glorious is He, equated the eavesdropper with the profiteer, in His words, Exalted is He: ‘Listeners to falsehood, consumers of illicit gain‘ [al- Ma’idah: 42]. Allah said: ‘Why do their rabbi’s and priest’s not forbid them to utter sin and consume unlawful profit?‘ [al-Ma’idah: 63]. Silence in the face of backbiting is therefore unlawful. Allah, Exalted is He, said: ‘You are then just like them‘ [al-Nisa: 140]. That is why the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: ‘The backbiter and his listener are co-partners in sin.’

Don’t eat haram…
Keeping all other limbs and organs away from sin; the hands and feet from reprehensible deeds, and the stomach from questionable food at the time for breaking fast. It is meaningless to fast, to abstain from lawful food – only to break one’s fast on what is unlawful. A man who fasts like this may be compared to the one who builds a castle but demolishes a city. A person might well give up excessive use of medicine, from fear of ill effects, but he would be a fool to switch to taking poison. The unlawful is a poison deadly to religion, while the lawful is a medicine, beneficial in small doses but harmful in excess. The object of fasting is to induce moderation. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: ‘How many of those who fast get nothing from it but hunger and thirst!’ This has been taken to mean those who break their fast on unlawful food. Some say it refers to those who abstain from lawful food but break their fast on human flesh through backbiting, which is unlawful. Others consider it an allusion to those who do not guard their organs against sin.

Avoid Overeating
Not to over-indulge in lawful food at the time of breaking fast, to the point of stuffing one’s belly. There is no receptacle more odious to Allah, Great and Glorious is He, than a belly stuffed full with lawful food. Of what use is the fast as a means of conquering Allah’s enemy and abating appetite, if at the time of breaking it, one not only makes up for all one has missed during the daytime, but perhaps also indulges in a variety of extra foods? It has even become the custom to stock up for Ramadan with all kinds of foodstuffs so that more is consumed during that time than in the course of several other months put together. It is well known that the object of fasting is to experience hunger and to check desire, in order to reinforce the soul in piety. If the stomach is starved from early morning till evening so that its appetite is aroused and its craving intensified, and it is then offered delicacies and allowed to eat its fill, its taste for pleasure is increased and its force exaggerated; passions are activated, which would have laid dormant under normal conditions.

The spirit and secret nature of fasting are to weaken the forces, which are Satan’s means of leading us back to evil. It is therefore essential to cut down one’s intake to what one would consume on a normal night, when not Fasting. No benefit is derived from the fast if one consumes as much as one would usually take during the day and night combined. Moreover, one of the properties consists in taking little sleep during the daytime, so that one feels the hunger and thirst and becomes conscious of the weakening of one’s powers, with the consequent purification of the heart.

One should let a certain degree of weakness carry over into the night, making it easier to perform the (tahajjud) and to recite the praises (awrad). It may then be that Satan will not hover around one’s heart, and that one will behold the Kingdom of Heaven. The Night of Destiny represents the night on which something of this Kingdom is revealed. This is what is meant by the words of Allah, Exalted is He: ‘We surely revealed it on the Night of Power‘ [al-Qadr: 1].

Look to Allah with Fear and Hope
After the fast has been broken, the heart should swing like a pendulum between fear and hope. Who knows if one’s fast will be accepted or rejected, whether one has won Divine favour or rejection? Hasan al-Basri once passed by a group of people laughing. He said: ‘Allah, the Glorious has made the month of Ramadan a racecourse, on which His creatures compete in His worship. Some have come first and won, while others lag and lose. It will be strange to find anybody laughing and playing on a day when success comes to the victor, and failure to the idler. By Allah, if the veil were lifted, the mindful would be preoccupied with good works and the evildoer with evil deeds.’