A Race Towards Enduring Values

HASAN al-Basri (d. 110/728), who was the scholar of eighth-century Islamic community,  once passed by some people who were rollicking, laughing and amusing themselves. He expressed his surprise and astonishment at those who waste time in indolence and laughter whereas the time of our lives is a racecourse where men compete with one another in their worship of God and outdo one another in moral goodness.

As Allah says in the Qur’an, for this kind of true and lasting values–this is the kind of Bliss to aspire for (83:26). In this athletic field of the time of our lives, as it were, some have triumphed and were crowned in glory, while others lagged behind, lost, and doomed.

To this end, there are four pillars of spiritual struggle espoused by Islam: being moderate in eating and drinking, and in social interactions, observing reasonable limits of sleep, and maintaining sobriety in talks.

These four pillars must be realised throughout the year, but they are emphasised in the month of Ramadan more than any other month. Sincerity in fasting thus comes with controlling all bodily limbs from impropriety like committing lustful glances, lie-mongering, backbiting, tale-bearing, slander, perjury, obscenity, abusive speech, eating unlawful food, or overeating when breaking fast.

The Prophet Muhammad had said that “Many a man gets nothing out of his fast except hunger and thirst.” Meaning, they may have fast throughout, yet their portion from fasting is nothing other than hunger and thirst that are shorn of self-control in social interactions and talks. The same principle is applicable to all religious rites and rituals.

Fasting transforms man’s consciousness, to always be aware of his individual “limits” for food and drink, as he may more often than not expose himself to appetitive imbalance in the direction of two harmful extremes, being either gluttonous or starved.

While a glutton (from glūtīre, to gulp down or to swallow) eats and drinks excessively, a starved person suffers from the pangs of hunger and the flames of thirst. The moderate, in contrast, feeds himself only with food and drink necessary for good life and growth. In other words, only that which is truly beneficial and useful to support well-being.

Gluttony then is the tendency and attitude to eat more with greater frequency than what is really necessary for one’s benefit.  This condition gives rise thus to dietetic imbalance and nutritional disorder.

It is to overcome this specific, bestial desire for food and drink, that Allah has prescribed for us to savour the taste of hunger by day-fasting throughout the month of Ramadan and during the other months throughout the year.

As a means of worship, thus, the intended purpose of fasting is for man to eat less.  By “less”, is not in terms of complete abstention, which is impossible; rather in the sense moderation must always be practised.  However, the limit or “being full” is admittedly relative to the individual, his capacity, age, and physical responsibility.

To quote Muhyiddin Ibn al-‘Arabi (d. 638/1240), from Chapter 560 of his Futuhat al-Makkiyyah, “one should eat to live, and live to serve Allah; and not live to eat, and eat to fatten the body (and broaden the sleeves).”

What he meant was that, man is created with a desire not merely for food but rather more precisely for nutrition and nourishment. Such a natural desire has objective, which is to ensure bodily health, so that the body may be a means to happiness.

Only the moderate satisfaction of this desire is useful to this end. Excess and deficiency in satisfying appetitive desire are both harmful and destructive to individual and social order.

Satiety makes the limbs too heavy for productive religious and civilizational pursuits, while hunger is counter-productive in the sense that it occupies the mind with the thought of food and not much else.

The man who takes only a moderate quantity of food will feel free from both hunger as well as heaviness of stomach. Moderation in eating makes him able to be content with that amount of food which causes him to feel neither the heaviness of stomach nor pain of hunger, neither the hardening of heart and mind nor malnutrition. He ‘forgets’ his stomach, and by having true worldview is enabled to pay attention to beneficial sciences and good actions for the progress of humanity.

As al-Ghazzali observed, controlling the belly with the middle course (wasat) in desire for food is called the source of all wellness in ethics, religion and culture. Giving free rein to the stomach is the source of all greedy sins and evil desires that devastate civilization. To achieve the mean in desire is not easy, but that is human struggle.

Thus, on the one hand, eating for the purpose of getting the energy to accomplish the Divine Will and gaining the strength to implement Allah’s command as well as to obtain His pleasure, are acts of devotion and religious observance (‘ibadah), just as day-fasting is.  Moreover, eating permissible, wholesome meals when the sun has set complements fasting.

As such, the act of eating per se is never blameworthy. Allah merely reminds mankind that they should not be distracted by matters of secondary importance such as the ones led to by an over indulgence in food and drink, excessive sleep, frivolous talk, and needless interaction.

On the other hand, reducing our required food intake and nourishment, and deliberately weakening the body both physically and intellectually to the extent of being unable to perform one’s individual and social obligations is a sin and a wicked act.

A Muslim is one who renders his self its due right and strikes a balance between overeating and undernourishment. He should neither burden the limits of his stomach with gluttony, nor should he deprive his organs of sustenance and nourishment which would cause the body to atrophy and the mind to decay.

All religious commands and prohibitions are means of being close to Allah in both good health and sound mind. Indeed, inasmuch as poor nourishment may result in mental disorders and feeble-mindedness, the Prophet sought His protection particularly against hunger. The Prophet went so far as to say that hunger is an “evil bedfellow” to lie or sleep with (bi’su ‘l-daji‘), as recorded in a tradition narrated by al-Bazzar in his Musnad.

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