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Introduction

Excerpts from Shaykh Fadhlalla's book Transformative Worship in Islam: Experiencing Perfection.

Book Description

Transformative Worship in Islam – Experiencing Perfection uniquely bridges the traditional practices and beliefs, culture and language of Islam with the transformative spiritual states described by the Sufis and Gnostics. In this collection of teachings on how the worship of Islam can transform insight and perception of Reality, Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri presents profound guidance for those who journey through the path of Islamic belief and practice. He draws from the Noble Qur’an, the Prophet’s traditions, narrations from the Ahl al-Bayt and seminal works from Sufi masters and scholars.

Transformative Worship in Islam – Experiencing Perfection will inspire the serious seeker of spiritual knowledge to make the connections between intention, attention and direction. Describing in detail the stages of spiritual evolvement, the author highlights the need for grooming the self, refining its lower tendencies, practicing self-accountability, and guiding it towards the higher virtues of the soul, through the regular discipline of a worship which brings one into Divine Presence. The seeker will be taken to the stages of self-realization where all dualities meet and unify within the human soul. The purified heart is a precondition for this awakening, while enlightenment is the natural outcome after dispelling all causes of egotistic confusion and concern for personal survival. This book reveals how the soul is forever embedded in sustainable joy and contentment and awakening to this condition is not only our birth-right but the very purpose of our existence.

Fasting (sawm)

Human interest in fasting is deeply rooted in our consciousness. Fasting has long been resorted to for maintaining physical and mental health as much as for cultural or political reasons. More specifically, fasting has been a devotional practice in most religious and spiritual movements throughout the ages. Islam has prescribed the practice of abstinence and fasting as a means of self-purification and worship. The act of restraining the self from fulfilling its desires purifies and enhances awareness at physical, mental and spiritual levels and sensitizes human consciousness. The seeker realizes the weakness of the self and is gratified by the discipline, restriction and prohibitions, for these limitations are windows to Allah’s limitlessness.

Fasting in History

In many cultures, such as the Indians of North America, tribes of Brazil, the people of the Pacific Islands and numerous Asian, African and European peoples, fasting has been used as a rite of initiation, marking puberty, prior to hunting and as part of the rites of marriage. In some cultures, such as those in the Andaman Islands, Fiji, Samoa, China, Korea and others fasting is observed as a rite of mourning. In general, we find whenever human beings are in need, suppressed, or in fear, they seek God or higher powers through abstinence or penance. When our limited state of knowledge and consciousness is insufficient fasting guides us out of difficulties to find other means of inspiration and solutions.

Ancient Egyptians, Greek, Roman, and Chinese cultures practiced fasting to cure various illnesses. The Egyptians believed that fasting three days a month helped to preserve good mental and physical health. The Greeks learned the virtues of fasting from the Egyptians and fasted before battle and the Romans followed suit. Socrates and Plato are known to have regularly performed fasts of ten days duration. Today in the West, fasting is used by alternative and naturopathic systems of medicine and healing for curing a host of acute and chronic diseases and as a useful catalyst in helping the body mobilize its own natural immune system.

The Old Testament often refers to fasting: David chastened his soul with fasting, while Moses fasted for forty days when he ascended the mount to receive the tablets of the covenant. Daniel fasted for three weeks, supplicating and praying all the while. Jews observe six obligatory fasts during the year, one such being Yom Kippur.

The institution of fasting and abstinence from certain foods in Christianity has its origin in the New Testament as it relates to the fasting of Jesus’ disciples for several days during Lent, the forty-day period before Easter. The duration of the fast during Lent varied throughout the ages, until forty days accompanied by strict rules became the norm. Additional fasts were introduced later in different parts of the Church, such as the fast of Rogation Days, the Ember Weeks, the Whitsun Week, and fasts were also ordained by the Roman Catholic Church. Considerable variations in the practice of fasting are noticed between the Orthodox Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Reformed Churches of Europe.

Over time there has been a gradual mitigation in the frequency and rigor of the fasts and abstinences prescribed by Church laws due to extenuating circumstances such as age, health, poverty, hard or continued labor and changing social conditions. Today few are obliged to fast strictly, while some are excused even from abstinence. Roman Catholic legislation further provides for dispensations to be granted by the Church authorities. The overall result is that the practice of fasting has declined and is almost forgotten as a religious exercise.

During the twentieth century fasting has sometimes been used as a tool of political and social protest by individuals as well as groups. During the national struggles for independence from colonial rule, several leaders of the third world in Asia and Africa resorted to fasting to highlight their plight and struggle, often with some success.

The Islamic Fast

For Muslims fasting, or sawm in Arabic, was commanded in the Qur’an as a major obligatory spiritual discipline for the duration of the month of Ramadan. The Arabic word for fasting is derived from the root, sama, meaning to abstain from food, drink, smoking, sensual gratifications, wrong actions, harmful intentions, thoughts, words and deeds.

Islamic fasting is obligatory for one month in every lunar year, that is, Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic calendar. All healthy adults are expected to adhere to the proper rules of fasting. In addition to this obligatory fast, there are many optional fasts, some of which occur regularly every week or month, and some that are scattered throughout the year. These fasts are Sunnah, or the practice of the Prophet. Fasting is also used as a penance for breaking an oath and as a compensation for some other religious obligation.

The fast of Ramadan begins with the physical sighting of the new moon. Throughout the month a Muslim may not eat or drink from daybreak (when a fine strip of light may be seen on the horizon) until the sun has set. Before dawn a small meal (suhur) is usually recommended to be taken, although not obligatory, and the fast is broken just before the sunset (maghrib) prayer traditionally with dates and water, to be immediately followed by the prayer. Later on a larger meal is partaken by the entire family, often shared with relatives, friends and guests.

The daily fast is begun by formulating the intention to perform the fast as a rite by making a clear intention (niyyah) to observe the fast. No one should fast if their health cannot sustain it or if a fast should threaten one’s health. Pregnant and nursing women whose health may be harmed are exempted, as are those who are travelling away from home. When health is restored or other conditions for not fasting are removed (such as menstruation) then the person is expected to make up the fast later during the course of the year.

Ramadan offers the believer an opportunity to mark an end to daily indulgences, or at least to impose clear limits on a daily basis for the duration of a month. This daily restraint breaks the habitual patterns of the self and constitutes a purification both of body and spirit, which brings about renewal of strength and greater spiritual awareness. Each and every ritualistic practice of Islam disciplines the individual and strengthens Muslim society if applied thoroughly.

Every year the month of Ramadan falls at different times because the lunar calendar is shorter than the solar by approximately ten days. This means that as the period of the fast is brought forward annually, Ramadan will fall during all seasons of the year in a gradual progression. Despite the strict rules and restraint induced by the fast, Ramadan is usually a joyful time for Muslims everywhere. The last ten nights of the month, particularly the odd nights, are the spiritual highlights of Ramadan, for one of these nights is Laylat al-Qadr, the Night of Determination, in which the Qur’an was first revealed to the Prophet. During these nights Muslims spend their nights in supplication and prayer, hoping to favorably influence the course of events that will unfold subsequently.

Ramadan comes to a close with the celebrations and prayers of Eid al-Fitr. On this day a Muslim will give appropriate alms to the poor, and families gather for a light morning repast after the congregational prayer. The Eid prayer, usually performed outdoors is accompanied by a discourse delivered by the prayer leader after which people exchange good wishes and celebrate their success in performing a most important act of worship and attaining a heightened awareness and purposefulness in life.

The Prophet of Allah said:

The root of Islam is prayer, its branches are the obligatory tax, its height is the fast, and its expanse is striving in the way of Allah.

He also said:

The tax of the body is fasting.

A Jew who was one of the most learned of his people asked the Messenger of Allah: ‘Why did Allah make it obligatory upon your people to fast throughout the day for thirty days?’ The Prophet replied:

When Adam ate from the tree it remained within his stomach for thirty days, so Allah made it obligatory upon his offspring to experience thirty days of hunger and thirst. Whatever they eat at night is a grace from Allah. Thus, it was with Adam, so Allah made the same obligatory for my people.

Then he recited the verse:

The fast is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you. 2:183

Imam al-Rida wrote the following concerning the obligation to fast:

"It is so that one may know the feeling of hunger and thirst, so that he will be humble and helpless, in order to be an indication of the difficulties of the Hereafter. Within it is contained the breaking of desires so that one will experience the deprivations caused by withholding from the poor and the needy."

Imam al-Sadiq relates that the Prophet said:

"The fast is a shield, that is, a veil protecting one from the afflictions of the world and from the punishment of the Hereafter. Thus, when you fast, make the intention to restrain your self from its desires and cut off the thoughts inspired by Shaytan. Bring yourself to the place where you are content without the desire for food or drink."