Imam al-Ghazali’s Secrets to Fasting

We all know that fasting is more than just staying away from food, drink, etc. However, even though we are all aware of the actions we have to abstain from, the vast majority of people end up missing their afternoon lunch very dearly. Most people, especially in the western countries, usually save the spiritual recharge of Ramadan for the night time hours. Taraweeh, Qiyam al-Layl, or spending time with family for iftar are all activities that we do in the night. Many will argue that it’s simply easier to take part in spiritual activities on a full stomach rather than on an empty stomach. While this is true for most people, Imam al-Ghazali had a number of secret hacks to remedy this issue of spiritual lazyness in the daytime.

In his Ihya ulum al-Deen (Revival of the Religious Sciences), al-Ghazali explicitly details his “secrets” of fasting and how a person can attain maximum taqwa while fulfilling the objectives of fasting. He starts his secrets by first explaining the various ways Shaytaan influences the hearts of people. Shaytaan is notorious for taking human desires (shahawat) and making them priorities in our mind, when in reality these are trivial desires. Food, drink, intimacy, etc are all desires that we are taught to control through fasting. It is through fasting that one is able to find refuge from Shaytaan. Al-Ghazali in his secrets mentions a famous hadith in which the Prophet (saw) says that Allah (swt) said,

“All of the actions of the son of Adam are for him, except for fasting. Fasting is for me and and I reward for it what I please.

Sahih al-Bukhari

Okay, so why is Allah (swt) specifically pointing out fasting? What about all the other forms of ibadah (worship) we do? Are they not for Allah (swt)? Al-Ghazali says that Allah (swt) has specifically bestowed an extra honor upon fasting. There are two primary reasons why fasting has a lofty position. Firstly, fasting is a hidden act of worship. No one is able to see you fast. This one fact makes rue that the one who is fasting keeps his/her intention pure. Compared to salat, sadaqah, Hajj, and Umrah, fasting is completely hidden. Secondly, fasting is an act of worship which does away with all desires. If a person falls victim to his/her desires and lets that takeover his/her life without any control, then Shaytaan is firmly in control of the heart at that point. Again, the point of fasting is to develop God consciousness by controlling desires. If a Muslim fasts properly and controls his/her desires this will weaken Shaytaan’s hold and influence on that individual.

The levels of fasting are more technical so I’d rather not delve into that right now, however there are 6 things which are key in fasting.

1. Fasting with One’s Sight

The firm believer will abstain and not look at things which are disliked and haram. This includes anything that distract’s the heart from the remembrance of Allah (swt).

2. Fasting with One’s Tongue

Fasting is meant to control desires. Unfortunately, many people have desires to gossip and use foul language. However, fasting again serves as a means to free the heart from the shackles of a corrupted tongue. Backbiting, slandering, cursing, unnecessary quarreling, lying, and useless talk all fall into this category. The firm believer will try to spend more time being silent while remembering the Creator (swt).

3. Fasting with One’s Ears

Abstaining from listening to things that are disliked or forbidden.

4. Keeping the Remainder of One’s Body Parts (e.g. hands, feet) from Engaging in Blameworthy Acts

In sha Allah, this is not an issue for any of us. However, Allah knows best. Imam al-Ghazali warns people to not use their limbs for things that are unlawful. This can include walking somewhere forbidden, or using one’s hand to do something which is forbidden such as stealing or harming someone.

5. Do not Overeat

This goes without saying. Unfortunately, we’re all guilty of this. So what’s wrong with overeating? Imam al-Ghazali advises against it when iftar comes for a number of reasons. The main premise of fasting is to control one’s desires, so to stuff yourself with endless amounts of food at iftar will defeat the purpose. Imam al-Ghazali incorporates a nice analogy when describing the spread of dishes for iftar. He says its as if we are trying to eat the food pyramids of Giza. Overeating also causes lazyness in the worship of Allah (swt). We all feel lethargic and slow after a large meal so it’s wise to hold off on the excessive feasting.

6. After Breaking One’s Fast, One Should Balance a Feeling of Hope and Fear

What guarantee do we have that our fasting is being accepted? We need to remind ourselves that while Allah (swt) is all Merciful and Gracious, we must also fear his wrath if we do not put forth our best effort. Yes, Allah (swt) judges on effort so that’s why it’s more important that we make sincere efforts to please Him to the best of our abilities. In short, we cannot be complacent and overly confident in our worship. Humility is key.

The beauty of Ramadan is not only to be found in the post-iftar hours. The struggles of fasting have their own share of beauty and spirituality. Lastly, Imam al-Ghazali leaves us with a question we all need to ask ourselves. Fasting and every act of worship included, have outward and inward realizations. So the question arises, will we be satisfied fulfilling the outward, or will we strive towards realizing the inward beauty?


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