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Archive for May, 2017

People long ago, their bodies now disintegrated, fasted for the sake of God. They did not have the same variety and access to foodstuffs that we do today, yet still they restrained from eating and drinking in order to cultivate their spirits. Why?

It states in a book by Fayd Kashani: “It has been said that were there no benefit to fasting except ascension from the low point of the animalistic soul to the spiritual summit like the angels, this would have been enough of a virtue and merit for fasting.” (Spiritual Mysteries and Ethical Secrets, p. 535) God created us with bodily needs and desires, and fulfilling them is what makes the world go around. All of human civilization is built upon having a surplus of calories and successful reproduction. In short, without food and sex, the traces of humanity would long ago have disappeared from the Earth.

It is the same for animals. It is part of the warp and woof of biological life. But lions do not voluntarily choose to set aside sacred time in order to refrain from these urges. That is a unique characteristic of homo sapiens. Fasting helps us connect with a facet of our humanity that remains dormant if we only mimic nature.

As part of our theology, angels represent the opposite of the animal realm. Unconcerned with fulfilling their own desires, they are perfectly obedient (despite centuries of incorrect beliefs about “fallen” angels). They represent the texture of an unseen world more real than the one we currently inhabit, a reality indispensable to our theistic cosmology.

And so we exist currently between the two: matter and spirit, desire (nafs) and intellect (‘aql), animal and angel, Earth and Heaven. Thus it is perfectly understandable that fasting has always served as part of the path taken by those longing for that which is beyond.

002-184

O you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you, just as it was prescribed for those who came before you, so that perhaps remembering God will alter your behavior

(Surah al-Baqarah, verse 183, my translation)

Fasting helps us to let go of that which is lower for that which is higher. By the simple choice to abstain from desires fundamental to our constitution, we can enter into a state where simply existing becomes a spiritual act. It is narrated that Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq عليه السلام stated: “The sleep of a fasting individual is worship, his silence is glorification of Allah, his deeds are accepted, and his supplication is answered.” (Spiritual Mysteries, p. 535) There is no need to perform elaborate rituals – just being has meaning enough.

Fasting helps us to connect our embodied selves to the universe around us. As we (ideally) diminish concern for consuming the myriad blessings on the ground, we orient our souls to the skies. The moon, pure in its obedience to the Creator of gravity, tells us when the sacred rite begins. The setting sun announces the permissibility of tasting the water sent down from laden clouds encircling our globe, water that also nourishes the date palms whose fruit we cherish. The month of Ramadan helps us grasp reality – not the one we construct in adulthood, but the reality into which we emerged in the wombs of our mothers. It is to submit to things as they are, voluntarily, even though we have the choice to pursue a million other things that suit our fancy. It is a temporary respite from the desire-propelled drama of life, and a herald of things yet to come.

As a human being who was born into the Christian tradition, the rites of the month of Ramadan at first felt foreign and exotic. It was difficult, both to adhere to the rules and to fit it into my cultural framework (especially since my first experiences coincided with family Christmas vacations). But over the years, the month-long fast has become an existential blessing, where the intervention of God in 7th century Arabia has meaning specifically for me in New York City circa 2017. I have come to feel very deeply that it is part of the human heritage, and do not consider it an accident that every year the world witnesses app. 1 billion people and app. 50 nation states transform their daily schedules.

No other religious tradition on Earth can command that sort of public loyalty, where whole societies alter their behavior for an entire month because of God. Of course, those changes are not always noble, such as the nighttime overeating that afflicts many. But the fact that we still adhere to the basic tenets of fasting communally is a manifestation of being witnesses over humanity. Witnesses that God has appointed this month as a source of guidance for all, and that a large percentage of the population still avails themselves of this spiritual gift from our Creator. It is neither a Sunni nor a Shi’i thing, neither Sufi nor Salafi. It is a Muslim thing, and the whole world knows it.

All who currently inhabit the Earth will one day become like the people of the past, memories or not even that. Our earthly presence will fade, and dust we will become. But faith teaches us that what we do in the month of Ramadan will remain for all eternity.

May al-Rafi’ bless us to ascend, ameen.

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