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The Levels of Fasting (1/2)

The Levels of Fasting (1/2)

 

Dr. Bilal Philips

Source: Why Do Muslims Fast?

Published On: 28/7/2013 A.D. – 20/9/1434 H.

 

 
The Ritual Level

This level of fasting requires that the basic rules for fasting be fulfilled, which are avoiding food, drink and sexual intercourse between dawn and sunset for 29 or 30 days each year. On this level, one is basically following the letter of the laws regarding fasting without particular consideration for the spirit of fasting. It is the entrance level which must be fulfilled for the fast to be Islamicly correct, but the other levels must be added for the fast to have any real impact on the fasting person. Fasting on this level alone will not benefit one spiritually, except from the perspective of submission to divine instructions, if one chooses to follow the ritual consciously and not merely according to tradition. Thus, by itself, the ritual level will not purify one of sin or atone for sin.

The Physical Level Fasting on the “physical” level causes the fasting person to experience the pangs of hunger and thirst when the prophetic (Sunnah) way of fasting is observed. Prophet Muhammad used to consume a very light meal before the dawn (suhoor) and moderate meal (iftaar) to break the fast at sunset, while scrupulously avoiding filling his stomach.

He is reported to have said:

“The worst container a human being can fill is his stomach. A few morsels of food to keep a person’s back straight are sufficient. However, if his desire overcomes him, then let him eat a third, drink a third and leave a third for breathing.” (Reported by Ibn Majah)

This level allows the fasting person to experience the pangs of hunger and thirst and thereby develops sympathy in him or her for those starving and dying of thirst in other parts of the world.

 

Medical Benefits       

On the physical level, some chemicals in the brain that transmit messages and create feelings, called neurotransmitters, are affected by fasting. Fasting encourages the endorphin neurotransmitter system, related to the feeling of wellbeing and euphoria, to produce more endorphins and, in fact, makes us “feel” better. This is similar to the effect of exercise (but without the physical work).It has also been noted by medical experts that fasting improves the physical health in numerous ways. For example, during the fast the body uses up stored cholesterol (fat) that is often deposited in the blood system, as well as in other fatty areas of the body. Thus, it helps to keep the body firm and minimizes the danger of heart attacks. The difference between the ritual level 1 and the physical level 2 is that a person dong only ritual fasting may eat large meals prior to beginning the fast and immediately upon ending the fast, and thus not feel any hunger or thirst throughout the whole month. However, like level one, if the fasting person does not incorporate the other levels of fasting, the fast will only be physically exhausting. The Prophet said:

“Perhaps a fasting person will gain nothing but hunger and thirst from fasting.”(Reported by Ibn Majah)

 

The Libidinal Level

The sexual instinct and drives (libido) are harnessed on this level of fasting. In these times where the media continually plays on sexual desires to promote and sell products, the ability to control these powerful desires is a plus. Fasting physically reduces sexual desires and the fact that the fasting person has to avoid anything which could stimulate him psychologically helps to further lower the libido. Prophet Muhammad, may the mercy and blessings of God be upon him, said:

“O youths, whoever among you is able to marry let him do so, for it restrains the eyes and protects the private parts. He who is unable to marry should fast, because it is a shield.” (Reported by Saheeh Al-Bukhari)

By restraining oneself from sexual acts which are permissible, the fasting person makes it easier for himself to restrain himself from forbidden sexual acts when he is not fasting.

 

The Emotional Level

Fasting on this level involves controlling the many negative emotions which simmer in the human mind and soul. For example, among the most destructive emotions is anger. Fasting helps to bring this emotion under control. Prophet Muhammad, said:

“When one of you is fasting, he should abstain from indecent acts and unnecessary talk, and if someone begins an obscene conversation or tries to pick an argument, he should simply tell him, ‘I am fasting.'” (Reported by Saheeh Al-Bukhari)

Thus, on this level, whatever negative emotions challenge the fasting person must be avoided. One must abstain from lewd conversation and heated arguments. Even when one is in the right, it is better to let that right go and keep one’s emotional fast intact. Likewise, the negative emotion of jealousy is reduced, as every fasting person is reduced to the common denominator of abstinence; no one is externally superior to another in this regard.

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