21 June 2017
FAREWELL TO THE FAST
University of Notre Dame
As the month of Ramadan ends, I always have mixed feelings: there is both joy and melancholy at its passing. Joy, for soon the rigorous ordeal of seventeen hour fasts for some us in the northern hemisphere will be over. Melancholy, at the disappearance of the strange and unusual feeling in body and soul that one experienced all day, but that will soon fade into mundane daily routines. No collective events of sharing a meal with friends and family; no more additional night prayers or pre-dawn breakfasts.
Within a few days, thirst and hunger will no longer shadow me. Actually, fasting generates heightened awareness of one’s bodily rhythms. Despite the freedom to enjoy the gifts of life without voluntary discipline, there is indeed a sense of losing something precious: the capacity to take control of yourself.
Come to think of it, the act of fasting still astounds me. Even more astonishing is the fact that so many millions around the world keep the fast. Extraordinary is the fact that, in an age when we prize individual freedom and choice, some people are prepared set choice aside and silently and ritually say: God, we hear your command and obey.
Fasting is an act which is breathtakingly simple in expression, but immensely demanding in execution. Yes, there might be some disciplinary and health benefits – but for 29 or 30 days back to back? That takes some doing.
Tradition frames fasting as a very special sacrifice. It is almost as if it was a personal request from God for believers to fast. This wisdom is drawn from the tradition in which God declares: “Fasting is for me.” God continues, “I reward it personally.” Or, “I am the reward,” states another version. No ritual can be more private when the Creator says I will personally hand out the prize – or rather, I am your prize. Can anything top that in the eyes of the faithful?
Cultivating this strange bodily feeling and adhering to that arduous daily routine by the one who keeps the fast is nothing but a demonstration of obedience to God. Obedience is no longer a fashionable term in our liberal culture, but it is still happening in traditional societies and is entrenched in our theological lexicon.
A fasting person, the Persian scholar steeped in mysticism, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111) wrote, is like someone who imitates the angels who continuously sing hymns to the glory of God. In Islam, acts of obedience like fasting produce something very special: proximity and closeness to God (taqarrub ila ‘l-allah). So when a fasting person simulates proximity to God, said Ghazali, he or she will indeed experience that closeness to the Creator.
Irrespective of whether we experienced that intimacy or not, with the fading of Ramadan there is a small sadness in the heart and mind that the ritual to do so collectively will have to wait another year.
It is well known that the lesson of fasting is one of restraint, self-control and discipline. One expression of the sensations of fasting is not to harm others, physically and emotionally. The other core lesson is for one to be a role model in promoting the common good, acts of charity and care for others. If one can attain these qualities, then according to a respectable group of ancient scholars, says Ghazali, one is actually fasting while enjoying the freedom to eat and drink at any time. The moral of the story is: doing the right thing in life – if I can put it this way – is to fast without actually fasting.