Fasting in Ramadan

The month of fasting, Ramadan, is often greeted by the Sufis as a good friend, and as a welcome and honoured guest. They love to see this guest come, but also to see him go. The implication of the first is clear, but perhaps not of the second. The end of the month of fasting is followed by a feast. In ordinary terms it means that you can eat and drink. In Sufi terms the feast implies the meeting with the Beloved. The Beloved is then the cupbearer Who pours out the wine of gnosis and love. Jami writes (ghazal # 1-178 p. 201):

Helal-e ‘id jostan kaar-e ‘aam ast
Helal-e ‘id-e khaasaan daur-e jaam ast

The search of the crescent of the feast
Is the work of the common people.

The crescent of the feast
Is for the elite the circling movement of the goblet.

That is why a Chishti pir often said: ‘May every day be a day of festival to you!’ Imami writes a pretty poem about the day of festival being in the presence of he Beloved, which start thus:

Yak ruz bud ‘id be-yak saal be-yak baar
Hamvaare maraa ‘id ze didaar-e to hamvaar.

We celebrate the day of festival but once a year,
A constant feast day is the seeing of You, dear!

This is one way of defining the goal of the month of fasting. Kalimi makes it clear that lust is subdued in Ramadan:

Thanks to fasting,
The children lust and sensual passion were in school.

Now the feast has come,
And the children are free from school!

Hazrat Nizamuddin Awliya told the following story (p. 226 of ‘Morals for the Heart’): ‘Once a dervish arrived at the hospice of Shaykh Junayd Baghdadi – may God sanctify his lofty secret – just as the new moon was due to appear that signalled the beginning of the blessed month of Ramadan. That dervish requested the Shaykh to permit him to lead the ‘tarawih’ prayer. The Shaykh granted his request. Every evening thereafter he recited the entire Qur’an. ‘Each night,’ said the Shaykh, ‘take one loaf of bread and one jug of water to the cell of that dervish’.

As the Shaykh had commanded, they took a loaf of bread and a jug of water to his cell every night. After he had recited the tarawih prayer for thirty evenings, the time of celebration (‘id) arrived, and the day after ‘id the Shaykh bid that dervish farewell. He left. After his departure they searched his cell, and found all thirty loaves of bread untouched. Each night he had consumed one jug of water and nothing more’.

Little eating is, next to silence, solitude and vigils, of great importance on the Sufi path. Little eating is connected to little sleeping, just like little meeting with people is connected to little talking.

Hunger can be self-chosen: it is the hunger of the travellers on the Sufi path. It can also be given and then it is, according to shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi the hunger of the verifiers, i.e. those with self-realization. In this case they don’t impose on themselves a regime of hunger, but their nutrition diminishes in a natural way.

Hunger has a spiritual state (haal) and a spiritual station (maqaam).

According to shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi in his ‘Hilyat-al-Abdaal’ ‘haal’ (the spiritual state) belonging to hunger of the travellers on the Sufi path is characterized by:

• Humility
• Submission
• Modesty
• Softness
• The spirit of poverty
• The absence of vanity
• Calm behaviour
• Absence of ignoble thoughts

The spiritual state belonging to hunger of the verifiers on the Sufi path is characterized by:

• Carefulness
• Purity
• Affability
• Taking a distance from the world
• Transcendence in regard to the ordinary human qualities by means of the Divine and Lordly power.

The spiritual station belonging to hunger is the ‘maqaam as-samadaani. The ordinary meaning of Samad is next to ‘Lord’ and ‘Eternal’ also ‘the one who offers support in regard to hunger and thirst’. Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi defines it as ‘God seen as the One Who keeps with Him the treasures of everything’. It is a very elevated spiritual station, which is characterized by secrets, Divine manifestations and spiritual states.

This is the use of hunger in regard to the obtaining of spiritual energy. It has nothing to do with ordinary hunger. The practice dealing with ordinary hunger has the reestablishment of the organic balance in view as well as physical well-being and nothing else.

According to shaykh Ibn al-Arabi, hunger produces knowledge of Satan. May God protect us against him!

Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi wrote these lines in his book about the abdaal, the changed ones:

O, you who aspire to the degrees of the abdaal,
But who doesn’t care to perform the required practices,
Don’t envy them,
Don’t be vain
You will only be worthy of them,
If you compete with them by ascetic states.

Let your heart be silent and live in retirement,
Stay away from all, which keeps you at a distance
From the Beloved Lord.
Stay awake in the night, endure hunger,
Thus you’ll attain your dignity.
And you’ll be like them,
At times staying at home,
At times leaving for far away lands.

The house of the friendship with God,
Has well-established corners.

Our masters who stay in it are the abdaal
Between silence, solitude, hunger and vigil
Can be seen the summit of the pure transcendent.

Shaykh Sharafuddin Maneri is known as ‘Makhdum al-Mulk’ (Spiritual Master of the Realm). When you read his teachings you immediately notice that he writes with authority, based on his personal experience. This Sufi from India has written a letter to his disciple Qazi Shamsuddin about fasting (see his ‘The Hundred Letters’ pp. 127-130):

In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate!

Brother Shamsuddin, masters of Truth and Sincerity have said: “Bodily strength depends on food and drink, whereas spiritual strength depends on going hungry and thirsty. In God’s domain, hunger is a divine food”. It has been said that one of the qualities of the Almighty is this:

“He feeds others but is not himself fed” (Q 6:14 ).

If a servant becomes distinguished in this practice, then according to the consensus of the wise, he progresses on the carpet of proximity to God. He becomes far removed from the human condition. When somebody fasts in accordance with the order “Make your actions like those of God,” then he or she, too is able to feed others. In this manner, he or she will approximate the qualities of the Beloved. He or she will dissociate himself or herself from human qualities and become honoured and greatly enriched in Him, just as the Lord of the worlds has said: “The one who fasts experiences a twofold joy: the breaking of the fast and the seeing of God”.

What is the delight of breaking the fast? This body of ours is composed of many dispositions. The seeker is like a mounted gentleman who is travelling along the road that leads to the Friend. “In order to see Him, fast!” is the command that gives the seeker his cue as to how to reach his Lord. So he fasts from food and drink, while traversing the distance of

“And that to your Lord is your return” (Q 53:42).

At the end of the day’s journey, when the time for the evening prayer arrives, the horse is brought to a standstill. When it receives some alfalfa and water with which to break its fast, then it becomes for the rider the source of his strength. Such delight is suffused throughout his being that, in comparison to it, all other joys become grief and trouble.

The second delight will never be grasped through explanations. It is something that has to be experienced: “Whoever does not taste something understands nothing about it!” “There are 70,000 curtains that veil God. If even one of them is lifted, the rays of His face would consume the intruder. No eye can see Him!” In the stage of the veil of light, everything is consumed. Who can describe it all? This is the meaning of “It is frivolous to talk about what is obvious!”

A certain Sufi shaykh saw Khwaja Ma’ruf Karkhi engrossed in contemplation. He was standing beneath the divine throne, singing God’s praise in the abundance of his gratitude.

A query came from the Lord of the angels: “Who is this?” though He knew him very well.

One of the angels said: O God, this is Your distinguished servant!”

God said: “My servant Ma’ruf Karkhi is intoxicated with the wine of My love. No one can recuperate from love of Me except by seeing Me!”

This was also the meaning of what the Lord of the Law said: “Make your bellies hungry, your livers thirsty and your bodies hungry, that perhaps you might see God in this world”.

It is said, “He who has seen, has arrived”. And whosoever has arrived at God Himself has passed beyond the stage of transience of things and even beyond that of permanence. He has been consumed in adoration of the divine face.

“Truth has arrived; falsehood has vanished” (Q 17:81).

Every person who has attained this stage and attempts to describe it says: I am simply one of those who have lost their way!” Whoever in this state casts his glance towards Him will simply be called ‘one of the blind’. A respected poet has said:

A lover disclosed the secret of the Absolute…
And quivered as he proclaimed: “I am the Truth”.

It has been written in the ‘Kashf al-Mahjub’ (The Unveiling of the Veiled) that hunger afflicts the body, purifies the heart, inflames the soul with love, and leads the mind to meet God. Since

the heart finds purity
the soul love
and the mind meeting,

what harm is there if the body must suffer? The Prophet also hints at this when he says: “Every work of man will receive a reward that gradually increases, till it is seventy fold. But a fast that is undertaken for the sake of God will be rewarded by Him”. It has been said that the people of Arabia describe virtues and desire to be possessed of them. Imagine that someone was told that a dog could not approach the door of this Wealth, let alone be with the King of the world! The one who fasts, is promised: “You are Mine!” and “I am your reward! And again: “Your reward is to see My face!” Those slain by love are promised: “Whoever My love kills, is ransomed by a vision of Me!”

O brother, know the value of what happens when the heart is purified from its murky state and transported from brutish darkness to the seven heavens where the secret meeting is effected by means of fasting!

The practice of fasting is highly esteemed by the Sufis. Whenever they wish to hear the word of God in their hearts, they go hungry for forty days. After thirty days have passed, they clean their teeth. It is necessary for them to go hungry for ten more days. Assuredly, the Lord will speak to them in their hearts, because whatever may be revealed openly to the prophets can only be hinted at secretly to the friends of God.

A shaykh has said: “A disciple should have three qualities:

• Unless you are overcome by drowsiness, you should not sleep.
• Unless urged by necessity, you should refrain from speaking.
• Unless you are starving, you should not eat”.

For some, two days and nights are enough; for still others, a week; and some may need a full forty days.

O brother, when you are filled with His bounty and a table is laid out with His grace, then abstention from eating is not to prolong the pleasure of His grace, but to find Him in His treasury, as the Beloved. The cycle of eating requires preoccupation with the self and anyone who is preoccupied with himself or herself becomes hidden from the Beloved. Refraining from eating while sitting on the carpet of the Lord is better than eating in a palace with Him absent or hidden. In short, a human being should do as much as he or she can.

One Sufi has observed: “This world is but a day in duration, and what is difficult about fasting for one day?” Someone else has said: “Make a fast from this world and break it with death!”

A human being is the purest of all creatures. His works are full of secrets. They cannot be considered trivial. Heaven and earth, throne and footstool, paradise and hell, are simply like uninvited guests accompanying him or her to a feast. This is their very purpose! Yet in accordance with the divine command, a person should proceed beyond these stages. When His glance falls upon these occurrences then one will encounter at each stage a gift from His bounty so that, when the friends arrive, they can take possession of their own good fortune and the share allotted to them. They say: “Stretch out your hand towards the favour We enjoyed from eternity and towards the bliss We knew before the time of dust and clay”.

“O dust and clay! O casket of profound secrets! O unclean dust! O friend and servant, do not imagine that My saying concerning you is simply for the present moment. Before the world existed, before even Adam appeared, My saying concerning you existed; it existed even when you did not! My link with man is through an ancient favour I bestowed upon him”.

One day a man came to the caliph, but the caliph did not recognize him. He said: “Who are you?” The man replied: “I am the man you honoured in such and such a year”. The caliph replied: “I welcome you, for you have made my favour a link between you and me”. He commanded that a robe of honour be brought out and presented to that man.

If You water, it is Your own plant that is nourished!
If You crush, it is the work of Your own hands that suffers!
I am a servant of the type that You know well:
Do not throw me away, for it is You Who have sustained me!


Now that the letter of shaykh Sharafuddin Maneri has been finished, let us continue with what shaykh Najmuddin Kubra has said about fasting. He has written a booklet, which is called “Treatise of the Bewildered Ecstatic Traveller”. It is a short Sufi text on spiritual practice of which the part dealing with fasting will be shown. The shaykh makes it clear that fasting has 22 benefits:

  • Resemblance to spiritual beings, because they eat nothing of what we eat.
  • The restraining of the ego, which incites towards evil, being thus the enemy of God, the Elevated.
  • The obtaining of a distinction as: “The fasting is for My sake and I reward it”.
  • The receipt of a recompense without end as: “Only the patient will obtain their recompense without reckoning” (Q 39:10).
  • The purification of the sins of the ego.
  • The washing away of the dust of the ego from the tablet of the spirit, so that the inscriptions of the inner sciences may appear, as “Successful is that one who purifies it. The one who adulterates it fails” (Q 91-9-10).
  • The no longer seeing by means of the eyes of the heart of roads which imply a detour, because when you get hungry the arrogance, which can be found in the eye of your heart may take a leave.
  • When you are fasting, you close off the roads to Satan. These roads are the veins in your body and the demon moves about in the veins and skin.
  • It provides a shield against the demon and against hell as “fasting is a shield”.
  • Your name gets inscribed in the list of the sincere ones, as fasting is an act of devotion in which hypocrisy and showing off have no place.
  • It gives you an understanding of the suffering of the hungry and thus being able to treat them with compassion and mercy.
  • 12 and 13. It gives you two joys, as “the one who is fasting has two joys: one when breaking the fast and the other when meeting with one’s Lord”. This means there is one joy when he or she breaks the fast, not because of the prospect of eating bread, but because of having fasted for a day for the sake of the satisfaction of God, the Elevated, so that on the Day of Resurrection He will offer provision. The other joy is the vision of God, the Elevated on the Day of Resurrection.
  • 14. It gives you a healthy body.
  • It empties the worst of containers, because “there is no worse container than your belly”.
  • It has to do with deserving of trust, because fasting is the trust of God, the Elevated, as no one is aware of the faster except God.
  • It has to do with keeping your promise, because when you express your intention to fast, then this is a promise you make to God, the Elevated.
  • It will give you the rank of trust, because if “you do a voluntary fast, then you are in command of your soul”.
  • It will give you something good in your account: if you complete the fast then 100 percent good is written in your account and if it is not completed you still can add 10 percent. It has been promised by the messenger of God (s.a.w.) that “the intention of the believer is more perfect than his acts”. If the action is so excellent that when you complete it with sincerity, then you can write 100 percent, nevertheless there is still the danger that when hypocrisy and showing off enter, your fasting will just be a in vain. But with a pure intention this is not the case, because your intention is an act of your heart. Angels are unaware hereof. Other human beings are also unable to perceive your intention. Thus there is no room for hypocrisy and showing off.
  • It helps you to avoid silly and foolish speech.
  • “A futility is not counted against a faster after his next prayer” is a promise of the messenger of God (s.a.w.).
  • No matter what, if you are fasting you receive the help of God, because “Ask for help by patience and prayer” (Q 2:45 , 153) that is by the fast and by the prayer.

Fasting is at times quite difficult, but a Chishti pir has made it clear that it is supposed to be difficult. This poem may however offer some consolation:

I asked the true God to guide me,
Because of His knowledge of me and of Himself,
So once again He gave me life.
When I am hungry, God feeds me
And when I am thirsty, He pours for me
And when I am weak, He helps me
And when I am ill, He cures me.

Abu al-Layth as-Samarqandi told a story about Jesus and his voluntary type of fasts: “if you want to fast like Jesus, then know that he’d fast all the time and lived on nothing but barley… If, however you want to fast as his mother Mary did, then know that she used to fast for two days at a time and then eat for two days”.

The fast of David consisted of fasting one day (24 hours) and breaking it the next day by a day in which he took food and drank.

There is a special night in Ramadan, a night which is blessed as it is the night of the descending of the Qur’an. It is called the Night of Power. There are different opinions about the exact date of the Night of Power. Some people point to the 27th of Ramadan. Abu Hanifa also refers to a tradition that the Night moves through the year.

The Prophet wanted to tell the community about the exact day of the Night of Power, but as he was disturbed this knowledge was taken away. According to the collector of traditions Bokhari, the Messenger of Allah has said: “Seek it on the odd nights of the last ten days of Ramadan”.

So it is hidden, like the friend of God is hidden in order that you respect all people. So it is up to the aspirant to be alert and awake to its coming. According to Suleyman ‘Ata, a murid of shaykh Ahmad al-Yasavi, you should “treat everyone you meet as Khidr and every night as the Night of Power”.

Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi has written a curious booklet about the Night of Power. He states (if you allow me to be to the point) about this Night that:

“If the first of Ramadan falls on a Monday, then it may be expected on either the 23rd night or the 19th”. Likewise he says:

Ramadan 1 = Tuesday: 29th or 25th.
Ramadan 1 = Wednesday: 21st or 17th.
Ramadan 1 = Thursday: 27th or 23rd.

Ramadan 1 = Friday: if the first day of any month other than Ramadan falls on a Friday, then the blessed night will be either the 15th night or the 19th of that month.

Ramadan 1 = Saturday: 25th or 21st.

Ramadan 1 = Sunday: if the first day of any month other than Ramadan falls on a Sunday, then the blessed night will be either the 17th night or the 13th of that month.

The father of shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi informed him about special signs by means of which one could recognize the blessed night. One of these signs is mentioned in the “Fotuhaat al-Makkiyya”: “The dawn at the end of the Night of Power is not from the light of the sun. It is the light of the Night of Power itself, which manifests in the body of the sun, just as with the light of the moon… Thus, as the Night of Power effaces the rays of the sun, the sun remains like the moon, shining on things and giving light without rays”.

The shaykh wrote this poem:

Each moment I behold You is my Night of Power,
While that which for mankind in the month of Ramadan
Is better than a thousand months.
Verily I, I am better than that without any time!

Its graciousness depends on me, while my own grace
Belongs to Him Who made me in His image.

Shaykh al-ishraq writes: “The visionary will understand the implication completely, learning much from a few hints. He will have patience to be resolute in all matters, the secret of this patience being entrusted to the one who holds the authority to teach the book.

He will be characterized by nearness to God most high, a spare diet and little sleep, supplication to God to ease the path for him and a heart made refined by refined thoughts”.

The real fast, according to the Chishtis, is the renunciation of all religious and worldly desires. The desire of paradise, and of worldly wealth and position should be avoided. The love of anyone else except God and the desire for paradise are the things, which break the fast.

The people who keep the fast abstain from eating and drinking. But this is not the real fast. It is an unreal fast. Such a fast does not imply the renunciation of things other than God. The idea of ‘self’ continues to dominate. Such a fast has this much of utility, that an individual comes to realise the pangs of hunger and thirst of other people, thus enabling him to extend his sympathy to the sufferers.

Shah Wali Allah of Delhi discusses the inner dimensions of the fast. He tells: “When a person tries to subjugate the lower soul and eliminate its bad qualities, his act will take on a sanctified form in the World of Images. Among the purest of the gnostics is the one who concentrates on this form, for he is furnished with knowledge from the unseen world and achieves union with the Divine Essence because of transcendence and sanctification. This is the meaning of… “Fasting is done for My sake and I reward it”.”

To end this article about fasting, let us relate what happened to Nasreddin. Nasreddin and his friend Mohammed get lost in the Sahara and get very hungry. Then they see a monastery and decide to go there.

Nasreddin says: “When we get there, I tell them my name is John”. Mohammed says: “When we get there, I tell them my name is Mohammed”. When the gate is opened Nasreddin says: “This is my friend Mohammed and my name is John”. The monk says: “Give Mohammed some food, and John, as you know today we are fasting”.