Sawm or fasting is another important instrument of tazkiya. It holds a unique status among all other forms of ibada. In a hadith qudsi we are told:
“Every good deed of a man is granted manifold increase, ten to seven hundred times. But Allah says: Fasting is an exception; it is exclusively for Me, and I will give reward for it as much as I wish.” (Reported by Bukhari, Muslim.)
The fruit of fasting ought to be that rich inner quality which the Qur’an calls taqwa:
“O Believers! Fasting is ordained for you, even as it was ordained for those before you, that you might attain taqwa.” [Surah al-Baqara, 2:183]
Taqwa is the most basic prerequisite for being guided by Allah. It entails God-consciousness, a sense of responsibility, accountability, dedication and awe. It is that which prompts and inspires us to fulfill our responsibilities towards the Creator. Taqwa is the main criterion by which Allah values the deeds of a Muslim. The Qur’an states:
“Surely the noblest among you in the sight of God is the most God-fearing of you. Verily God is all-Knowing and all-Wise.” [Surah al-Hujurat, 49: 13.]
We must strive to the utmost to inculcate taqwa in our lives as Allah has ordained: “Take provisions with you, but the best of provisions is taqwa. So remain conscious of Me, O you who are endowed with insight.” [Surah al-Baqara, 2:197]
Fasting teaches us to remember Allah. It helps to instill in us certain attributes and qualities which develop our taqwa. We discuss some of these below.
i. Fulfilling Allah's Wishes
While fasting, the most basic physical needs - Food, water and sleep -are readily and joyfully sacrificed. Hunger and thirst are no longer harmful; Allah's displeasure is harmful. Physical pleasures no longer hold any lure; Allah's rewards do. The scale of values is turned upside down. The measures of comfort and pain, success and failure are radically changed. However, whatever the physical discomfort, the mortification of the flesh is certainly not the desired object. The gifts of Allah are there to be enjoyed but limits by Him must also be strictly observed. Once the sun has set, the fast must be broken and the sooner the better. All that was forbidden during the fasting hours, at His command, becomes permissible again, at His command. Similarly, eating before dawn is strongly encouraged even though the hour is early for it provides the necessary strength for the rigours of the day ahead. Fasting and praying are obvious acts of worship but eating also constitutes a form of worship.
Fasting strengthens our willpower. The Prophet has said: “Sawm is a shield [or a screen or a shelter from the Hell-fire].” (Reported by Bukhari.) The regime of dawn-to-sunset abstinence from food, drink and sex, for the sake of Allah alone, internalises the lesson that we must never enter, acquire or even touch that which does not belong to us under the law of Allah. A man can no longer remain a slave to his own self-indulgence as he prepares for the arduous journey on the road to His Lord.
For many, it is difficult to see the value of long hours of hunger, thirst and sleeplessness. Productivity losses are difficult to accept in an age that has tried to promote economic growth at all costs.
According to Islam, however, we are created to live a life of total submission to the One and Only Allah, and this purpose must be paramount in all scales of values. Fasting is crucial to this understanding. It shows that its purpose, like Allah's guidance through His Prophets and Books and all the rituals of worship, is to train us how we must live totally and unreservedly in submission to Allah.
iii. Protection From Shaytan
Fasting enables us to protect ourselves from the evil influences of Shaytan. While fasting: `Eyes should refrain from seeing evil, ears from hearing evil, tongues from speaking evil and hearts from reflecting evil.' (Reported by Bukhari.) The Prophet also said: “Five things break a man's fast: lying, backbiting, scandal-mongering, perjury and a lustful gaze.” (Azdi.) [Cited by al-Ghazali in Ihya Ulum al-Din. See Inner Dimension of Islamic Worship, Islamic Foundation, Leicester.]
C. Tilawa of the Qur’an
The most important nourishment for the qalb or heart is the Qur’an. Those who lived in the time of the Prophet received their training and inspiration from the Qur’an. It was their guide, their light and their leader. Likewise, it must be your constant companion.
The Qur’an contains a treasure house of soul-stirring inspiration and wisdom. We can and should spend hours in understanding the Qur’an. There are thousands of pages of tafsir or Qur’anic exegesis to read. But we must know that the real test of benefiting from the Qur’an lies somewhere else. The Qur’an says that when people really listen to it, their faith must increase:
“Believers are those who, when God is mentioned, feel a tremor in their heart, and whenever His Messages are conveyed to them their faith is strengthened.” [Surah al-Anfal, 8: 2.]
Where there is a fire, there is smoke. If the `fire' of Iman has been lit inside the heart, there must be smoke, and you will see that those who truly listen to the Qur’an, their eyes begin to well up with tears which trickle down their cheeks.
Nowadays, when we listen to the Qur’an or read it, our hearts are not moved, nor do our lives change. It is as if water is felling on a rock and flowing away. Our task is to replace this hard rock with soft absorbent soil so that the Qur’an may nourish the seed that has been planted. We should always study the Qur’an as if it is being revealed to us today. One of the greatest injustices we do to the Qur’an is that we read it as if it were something of the past and of no relevance to the present.
Remember that the whole purpose of the man is to guide you and to change you by bringing you into submission to Allah. As you read it, also try to live by what it invites you to. If it does not have any impact upon your actions and if you do not observe what it enjoins and avoid what it prohibits, then you are not getting anywhere nearer the Qur’an. In fact, one who reads the Qur’an and does not try to act upon it may be more likely to be cursed and punished by Allah. The Prophet said:
“Many of the hypocrites in my Umma will be from among the reciters.” (Reported by Ahmad.)
“He is not a Believer in the Qur’an who makes halal or lawful what has been made haram or prohibited.” (Reported by Tirmidhi.)
It is also narrated that many Companions, like Uthman and Abdullah ibn Masud, once they learnt ten verses from the Prophet did not move further unless they had `learnt' it fully both in understanding and in action; that is how they sometimes spent years in learning only one surah or chapter.
If you sincerely start changing your life according to the Qur’an, Allah will certainly help you and make the path easy for you. Allah reassures us in the Qur’an:
“Those who say, `Our Lord is Allah,' and continue upon the straight way, the angels descend upon them: Do not fear, nor be grieved, and receive glad tidings of the Garden which you were promised. We are your supporters in this world and in the Hereafter. And for you therein is whatever your souls desire, and for you therein is whatever you ask for.'” [Surah al-Fussilat, 41:30-31.]
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