Fortitude is as a sweet cloud, wisdom rains from it.
Because it was in such a month of fortitude, that the Qur’an arrived! Jalal ad-Din Rumi (Diwan-i Shams-i Tabrizi)
In this verse Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi is referring to the month of Ramadan, the ninth month in the Muslim lunar calendar, during which verses of the Qur’an al-Sharif were first revealed to Prophet Muhammad, (peace be upon him). Rumi calls it the month of fortitude because during Ramadan Muslims around the world practice fasting, seeking piety, spiritual fulfillment and renewal. During this holy month we also celebrate Laylat al-Qadr (Night of Power, Night of Destiny).
The tradition of fasting in the month of Ramadan is considered an important pillar of Islam and is amongst the most widely practiced Muslim traditions. The Holy Qur’an, 2:183, says:
O believers, fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that you may develop God-consciousness.
Some early tafsirs of the Qur’an state that, in response to this verse, the Prophet fasted on what was known as the Day of Ashura, which is comparable to the Jewish fast of atonement or Yom Kippur and encouraged his followers to observe it.
This practice continued until two years after the Prophet’s migration from Mecca to Medina, when a subsequent verse was revealed where the fast of Ramadan was specifically prescribed. In the same verse, exemptions from fasting were made for those who were ill, traveling, or otherwise unable to bear the burden of fasting, [2:185]. This, Allah explains, was because He did not wish to create hardship for the believers.
Fasting is primarily a moral and spiritual discipline. It has always been a means of spiritual exercise with all the Prophets on whom divine inspiration was revealed. Prophet Moses (pbuh) fasted forty days before he was given the Ten Commandments, Prophet Jesus (pbuh) fasted forty days before he received the Gospel and Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) also fasted before he was blessed with Divine revelation. Fasting is an important practice as well in Buddhism and Hinduism.
Fasting has many spiritual advantages in so far as it helps to suppress sensuality. Most incentives for sinning are tied to access to animality. Human beings possess both animal and angelic instincts. Access to animality has its origin in food, drink, and indulgence in carnal desires. Fasting helps human beings dominate and diminish their animal nature and increase in angelic nature.
Fasting activates patience, forbearance, truthfulness, honesty, and steadfastness in suffering and deprivation. Fasting is not only to abstain from eating and drinking, it also means abstaining from other foul acts.
Hazrat Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah (Aga Khan lll) has written in his Memoirs (Page 176):
“Reasonable fasting for a month in every year, provided a man’s health is not impaired thereby, is an essential part of the body’s discipline, through which the body learns to renounce all impure desires.” Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah (a.s.) has maintained that a true fast involves purifying ourselves by exercising piousness and keeping pure in mind and spirit.
A person who only refrains from eating and drinking and does nothing else to guard against other evils gains nothing except thirst and hunger from his fast. Fasting consists in keeping one’s senses and body organs away from sin, such as: sins of eyes from lustful looks, ears from listening to evil gossip, feet that walks towards bad intentions/deeds, hands from stealing or hurting someone, tongue from foul/vain words as well as miss use of other body parts. One must abstain from idle pleasures and undesirable acts all year around. As Imam Sultan Mohamed Shah (a.s.) has recommended that we try to keep our eyes, tongue, hands and everything else pious, and that nothing should remain but piety.
Even though the whole purpose of fasting is to develop righteousness, that is to cultivate spiritual and moral values, it has other benefits and advantages as well.
Fasting helps tremendously in the biological functions of the human body. Abstinence from food and drink gives rest to the digestive organs which in turn gives them additional strength.
Fasting enables humans to empathize with pangs of hunger and thus appreciate the blessings of food that we ordinarily take for granted.
Even though fasting falls once a year during Ramadan, a true believer must fast everyday of her/his life for the sake of gaining salvation and attaining blessings of the Creator. This is the fast of one’s inner self, the fast of the ear, eye, foot, hand, head, tongue, etc.
The word used in Qur’an al-Karim for fasting is ‘saum’; it occurs 13 times in the Qur’an, and it literally means ‘to abstain’. In one of his poems, Rumi explains the purpose of this abstinence as follows:
Man is like a lute, neither more nor less.
When the lute’s stomach is full,
It can’t lament, whether high or low.
If your brain and stomach burn from fasting,
Their fire will draw constant lamentation from your breast.
Through that fire you will burn a thousand veils at every instant,
You will ascend a thousand degrees on the Way and in your aspiration.
Here, Rumi suggests that abstinence is a way of becoming spiritually conscious, which brings ‘awareness’ of the divine. In a famous hadith, the Holy Prophet is believed to have referred to this idea of God-consciousness as ihsan, meaning excellence/perfection. The Prophet explained that ihsan means to worship God as though you see Him, and even if you can’t see Him, then to remember that He sees you. This attitude can cultivate and reinforce the moral character of a believer, who lives a life of piety and balance, without forsaking the good things of this world bestowed by God’s grace.
The Ismaili Muslim community, based on the teaching of our Imams and da’is, emphasizes both the zahiri and batini aspects of fasting. This is consistent with the approach of many other esoteric traditions amongst Muslims, both Shi’a and Sunni. The 11th Century Ismaili philosopher and da’i, Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani described Ismailis as alh al-‘ibadatayn, the community that gives importance to both dimensions of ibadat, zahiri and batini. Thus, fasting in the Ismaili Muslim community is not limited only to abstaining from food and drink, but also includes the fast of all our senses and limbs.
The spirit of a person gains strength when s/he tries to obey God’s commands and restrains her/himself from those acts that are prohibited by Him. Unless s/he does so, physical abstentions alone can’t be counted as complete fasting.
Our beloved Mawlana Hazar Imam (Aga Khan lV) has always recommended that our pursuit of happiness should be inclusive of both our spiritual, as well as our worldly responsibilities.
Let us take advantage of the noble month of Ramadan to reflect on His guidance and, through our prayers and piety, strengthen our relationship with Allah (May He be praised and exalted), and with all those around us.