Nearness to Allah through fasting, and avoiding rigorous fasting

Friday Khutba by Dr Zahid Aziz, for Lahore Ahmadiyya UK, 14 April 2023

“And when My servants ask you (O Prophet) concerning Me (God), surely I am near. I answer the prayer of the supplicant when he calls on Me, so they should hear My call and believe in Me that they may walk in the right way.” —ch. 2, v. 186

وَ اِذَا سَاَلَکَ عِبَادِیۡ عَنِّیۡ فَاِنِّیۡ قَرِیۡبٌ ؕ اُجِیۡبُ دَعۡوَۃَ الدَّاعِ  اِذَا دَعَانِ  ۙ فَلۡیَسۡتَجِیۡبُوۡا لِیۡ وَ لۡیُؤۡمِنُوۡا بِیۡ  لَعَلَّہُمۡ  یَرۡشُدُوۡنَ ﴿۱۸۶

The above verse occurs within the section of chapter 2 of the Holy Quran which deals with fasting during Ramadan. It clearly shows that attaining nearness to God is a major purpose of fasting in Ramadan. God is near us human beings in any case, whether we feel it or not. As the Quran says elsewhere:

“And certainly We created man, and We know what his mind suggests to him — and We are nearer to him than his life-vein.” — ch. 50, v. 16

وَ لَقَدۡ خَلَقۡنَا الۡاِنۡسَانَ وَ نَعۡلَمُ مَا تُوَسۡوِسُ بِہٖ نَفۡسُہٗ ۚۖ وَ نَحۡنُ اَقۡرَبُ اِلَیۡہِ مِنۡ حَبۡلِ الۡوَرِیۡدِ ﴿۱۶

“… And know that Allah comes in between a man and his heart, and that to Him you will be gathered.” —  ch. 8, v. 24

وَ اعۡلَمُوۡۤا اَنَّ اللّٰہَ یَحُوۡلُ بَیۡنَ الۡمَرۡءِ وَ قَلۡبِہٖ وَ اَنَّہٗۤ اِلَیۡہِ تُحۡشَرُوۡنَ ﴿۲۴

These verses obviously indicate an unimaginable nearness of God to every human being. He is nearer to a human being than that human’s own mind and heart. A person can realize this fact through prayer, in particular prayers during the month of Ramadan when the idea of the closeness of God is being conveyed to the person fasting. Accord­­ing to the verse I read at the beginning about fasting, God takes the initiative in answering prayers, and man, in response, should answer the call of God, i.e., believe in and act on His teach­ings. God is holding out His hand for man to grasp. Therefore, closeness to God should not just be a vague feeling entertained by a person. It must be manifested in action by walking in the right way out of belief in God.

How does fasting create a feeling of nearness to God? One way is that we make a pledge with God to refrain from certain actions till a certain time. No one can find out if we broke that promise, but it is only God Who can see us all the time. That feeling, of God seeing us, is intensified in our hearts. People these days are very concerned about the gathering of their personal informa­tion by human agencies, such as govern­ments or technology companies, etc. But how many are concerned about sur­veill­ance by God? Just after the verse which I read above, where God says “and We are nearer to him than his life-vein”, it is said about man: “He does not utter (even) a word but there is by him a watcher at hand” (50:18). These “watchers” are said to be angels making a record of people’s deeds. Elsewhere it says in the Quran:

“Or do they think that We do not hear their secrets and their private discussions? Yes indeed, and Our messengers with them write down.” — ch. 43, v. 80

“No, but you call the Judgment a lie, and surely there are keepers over you, honourable recorders, they know what you do.” — ch. 82, v. 9–12

So Allah has vastly more information on us, which is fully complete and accurate, than any government state or other agency in the world can obtain. Moreover, He says He will hold us to account on the basis of these records. Yet human nature is such that even we who believe this about God are far less concerned about this than we are about some human agencies holding records about our activities, when in fact those agencies do not even have the power or resources to hold every individual to account as God does.

I also wanted to mention here the concept of very rigorous, austere and prolonged fasting as practised by the great founders of religion. The man known as ‘Buddha’ was born as Prince Siddhartha, about 500 years before Jesus. He wanted to discover the truth about the purpose of life, and the moral and spiritual development of man.  He visited various priests who told him that if you deprive the body of its comforts and needs, and test it with hardship and rigours, then your spirit will be strengthened and your mind will become enlightened to truth. So Buddha went to a forest and tried these ‘austerities’ and hardships. This included severe fasting, with very little intake of food and drink. As a result, Buddha became emaciated and extremely weak. Then he realized that in such a state of weakness he was unable to do anything physically or mentally. He learnt from this that you have to follow the path of moderation and not extreme deprivation. He called this the ‘Middle Way’ and said:

“From now on I will take the middle way. I shall neither starve my body nor feed it too richly, but will eat just what is needed and no more.”

Islam also teaches us to follow a middle way. It says about the Muslims: وَ کَذٰلِکَ جَعَلۡنٰکُمۡ اُمَّۃً وَّسَطًا, meaning: “We have made you a middle people” (2:143). The word wasaṭ used here signifies the middle part of anything, and therefore not inclining to either extreme. We should neither fall short in performing our religious or worldly duties, nor indulge in them to an excess. The Holy Prophet Muhammad said: أَحَبُّ الدِّيْنِ إِلَى اللهِ الْحَنِيْفِيَّةُ السَّمْحَةُ , meaning: “The religion most liked by Allah is that which is moderate and easy” (Bukhari, book 2, ch. 29), which of course is also practical to act upon. As regards our worldly affairs, we are familiar with verses of the Quran such as: “eat and drink and do not be extravagant; surely He does not love the extravagant” (7:31), and about spending, whether for our own needs or on charity: “And do not make your hand to be chained to your neck, nor stretch it forth to its fullest extension” (17:29). There is also the general principle: “Allah desires ease for you, and He does not desire hardship for you” (2:185).

Although Buddha realized through extremely hard fasting that it doesn’t lead to any benefit, nonetheless his fasting brought him enlightenment and understanding. In a book entitled Fasting: An Exceptional Human Experience, by psychotherapist Dr Randi Fredricks, there is a section on The Buddha’s fasting experience. It says:

“The Buddha’s fasting experiences played a central role in the formation of Buddhism. … The Buddha spoke highly of fasting and said that during his fasts ‘my soul becomes brighter, my spirit more alive in wisdom and truth’. … some historians believe that the Buddha’s fasting experience was the spiritual vehicle for his enlightenment. … His experience illustrates how the physiological and spiritual changes during a fast affect an individual over time: before, during, and afterward. Once the ascetic act is over, a spiritual awakening can occur.” (pages 241–242)

Buddha undertook severe fasting and eventually had to give it up. The Holy Prophet Muhammad also undertook severe and extensive fasting but he forbade his followers from doing the same as they would not be able to do it, nor would they achieve anything by it, but only harm themselves. He himself sometimes combined fasts together into one continuous fast. This practice is called wiṣāl. This is where a person fasting during the day continues fasting during the night as well, so that his next fast is joined to the previous fast without a break! But the Holy Prophet forbade others from doing it. It is reported in Bukhari that he forbade them from this practice “out of mercy for them, and that their energy may remain, and because severity in religion is disapproved” (book: Fasting, ch. 47, above hadith 1961). In one hadith it is stated that he said twice: “Be cautious of combining fasts.” People asked: “But you combine them.” He said: “While I spend the night, my Lord gives me food and drink. So undertake deeds of only the hardship for which you have the strength” (Bukhari, hadith number 1966)

The Founder of the Ahmadiyya Movement, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, once undertook daily fasting for eight or nine months, eventually reducing his daily intake of food to a few grammes per day. He was under forty years of age at the time. As a result he received much spiritual illumination and had many visions. But he writes that he does not advise other people to undertake similar rigours, as such severities can damage the body and the mind, causing illnesses.

The Holy Prophet strongly advised his followers not to undertake too much voluntary fasting outside Ramadan. A man reported that he used to fast day after day, and when the Holy Prophet heard of this, he spoke to him and told him: “It is sufficient for you to fast three days a month, for each good deed brings you ten times the reward (for the deed), so this would be like fasting all the time” (Bukhari, hadith 1975). But the man says he insisted that he could do more. The Holy Prophet replied: “Fast one day and leave it off for one day. That was the fasting of David, peace be upon him, and it is the best fasting” (hadith 1976). He followed the Holy Prophet’s advice, but afterwards when he became old he used to say: “I wish I had accepted the relief given by the Prophet (i.e., to fast three days a month)” (hadith 1975).

Lastly, there is an instructive event mentioned in a hadith in Sahih Muslim as follows:

“The Messenger of Allah went out towards Makkah in the year of the conquest of Makkah in Ramadan. He fasted till he reached Kurā’-ul-Ghamīm, and the people also fasted. It was said to him: ‘People are finding the fasting unbearable and are waiting to see what you do.’ So he called for a cup of water, and he held it high till people saw it, and then he drank. This was at the time of ‘Aṣr. He was later informed that some people had continued to fast. He said: ‘These are the disobedient ones, these are the disobedient ones’.” (Sahih Muslim, Book of Fasting, ch. 15, hadith 1116).

As this was on a journey, the fast was a matter of choice, even though it was Ramadan. We see here that the Holy Prophet, during a journey in Ramadan, broke the fast at the time of the ‘Aṣr prayer for people’s convenience, and demonstrated it in front of them, and ordered them to do the same. Contrast the Holy Prophet’s open action with the behaviour of today’s religious leaders. They take the comfortable path themselves but deny the same to their followers, and make them suffer hardship.

May Allah enable us to follow the middle path, neither neglecting our spiritual duties, nor over-indulging in them to the detriment of our worldly life, ameen.