The link between the intellect and fasting


  • Opinion
  • Tuesday, 06 Jun 2017

Ramadan is not just about physical self-control but also about spiritual, intellectual self-regulation. 

FOR more than a week, Muslims around the world have been observing obligatory fasting in the month of Ramadan in the Hijrah year of 1438.

Regrettably, often heard in recent years is the issue of waste and mounting food leftovers during Ramadan. This is believed to spill over to Syawal, more so than in other months.

Such waste indeed violates the spirit of fasting which characterises Ramadan.

Fasting in Arabic is termed sawm or siyam. Its fundamental intent is kaff or imsak, which means refraining from anything which is prohibited.

It is generally understood that the three fundamental things forbidden during daytime fasting are basic activities that ensure the continuity of the outward, physical dimension of man as individuals as well as a species, namely: eating, drinking and copulating.

In the disciplines of psychology and ethics as promulgated in the Islamic intellectual tradition, these three activities are taken to characterise the most basic stage of the self of man, referred to terminologically as “the vegetative self”, or al-nafs al-nabatiyyah, precisely because all living creations, including humans, share such characteristics with plants.

Yet, many also realise that the self-regulation during fasting is hardly confined to self-control in the three above-mentioned activities, but also includes higher levels of self-regulation, involving moral conduct and the focus of the mind itself.

On that higher stage, the self-regulation at hand is no longer physical in nature but rather takes spiritual and intellectual forms.

In fact, not many Muslims are aware that in terms of their fundamental meaning, fasting and the intellect (al-‘aql) signify the same purpose, namely: complete self-control.

As described by the 11th-century scholar al-Raghib al-Isfahani in his renowned work, Mu‘jam Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur’an, the term ‘aql basically means al-imsak and al-istimsak, connoting “hold back”, “abstain” or “restrain”.

Such connotations actually derive from the apparent purpose of iqal al-bair, the cord used for hobbling the feet of a camel, an animal deemed invaluable by the Arabs for its adeptness in the tough desert life.

The cord works by binding a camel to prevent it from running away or going missing.

By extension of its aforesaid sense, the term ‘aql is then used to refer to a spiritual reality that restrains or prevents a person from going astray and eventually abandoning the balanced, straight path.

Indeed, in many major works that explain the creeds of the Sunnites such as Sharh al-Aqa’id al-Nasafiyyah by Sa’d al-Din al-Taftazani, a leading Muslim polymath during the era of Tamerlane, man’s true self is held to be the spiritual entity that is also referred to as his intellect.

The intellect, in this regard, is considered to be the manifestation of the human spirit, which is essentially different from his body.

As a matter of fact, fasting at its most basic level is man’s self-control which prevents him from engaging in the three activities related to the fulfilling of the sine qua nons of the human body, as aforementioned.

Indeed, without such activities, man can neither grow in size nor breed on earth.

Yet, man is not a mere biological creature.

Neither is this worldly life his only life, let alone his ultimate end.

Fasting thus serves to act as a reminder to man of his spiritual reality through occasional severance of materialistic ties, represented primarily by the aforementioned three mundane pursuits.

In fact, should one desire to live the worldly life well and in good health, one needs to consume food and drink and copulate with full control of one’s mind such that they are carried out in order, with balance and without excesses.

Indeed, only with true knowledge can one be controlled by one’s mind against committing any violations of restrictions and plunging into error throughout one’s life in this world.

True knowledge is rooted in Allah’s guidance conveyed through the teachings of His last Prophet Muhammad.

This comprises one’s inner conviction pertaining to the true consequences of human acts, especially on the Day of Judgement, so much so that one prevents oneself from overindulging in transient enjoyment and pleasures in order to gain the real rewards in eternal life in the Hereafter.

Thus, at the highest level, the word ‘aql, according to Persian theologian Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali, denotes a person who is governed by his intellect as described above.

At such a stage, a person is constantly in a state of fasting.

Hence, the fasting performed during Ramadan year in and year out, as well as fasting done on other days religiously permitted in a year, should prepare Muslims to realise self-control at the aforementioned more advanced stage.

If such control bears results, it will significantly reduce waste and futility, which has of late been worsening!

Dr Mohd Zaidi Ismail is Ikim’s Deputy Director-General. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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