The spiritual aspects of fasting in the month of Ramadan according to the Ihyâ' of Ghazâlî

The spiritual aspects of fasting in the month of Ramadan according to the Ihyâ' of Ghazâlî

Due to the apparent simplicity of fasting, its spiritual aspects risk taking a back seat, or even being completely obscured. This is the reason why Abû Hâmid al-Ghazâlî (d. 1111) decided to devote the majority of his presentation on fasting to the spiritual aspects of this practice, which is, as we know, one of the five pillars of fasting. Islam.

This presentation constitutes the fifth of forty chapters of Ghazâlî's immense masterpiece: Ihyâ' 'ulûm al-Dîn, The Revivification of the Sciences of Religion. As is often the case inIhyâ', Ghazâlî borrows many elements – which he develops and enriches considerably – from Abû Tâlib al-Makkî (d. 996) in his Qut al-Qulûb(1) (The Food of the Hearts).

Ghazâlî chose to title this chapter Kitâb asrâr al-çawm : The Book of Spiritual Aspects of Fasting(2). It is composed of an introduction and three sections:

  • The obligations (wajibât) and recommended external actions (sunan zâhira) during fasting. The circumstances that invalidate it.
  • The spiritual aspects of fasting and its conditionsns
  • Supererogatory fasts (tatawwu' fî l-çiyâm).

One of the foundations that we find in all of Ghazâlî's analyzes is the existence of numerous degrees of depth in faith and in any act of worship. These different degrees can be grouped into three fundamental categories, and regarding fasting, Ghazâlî outlines the following distinctions:

“Know that there are three types of fasting: The fasting of the common (çawm al-'umûm), the fast of the elite (çawm al-khuçûç) and the fast of the elite of the elite (çawm khuçûç al-khuçûç). The fast of the common is characterized by abstention from indulging in the desires of the belly and sex. (In addition to this), the fast of the elite consists of preserving from sin the hearing, the sight, the tongue, the hands, the feet and all the organs of action (jawarih). (Besides all this), the fast of the elite of the elite consists of the heart abstaining from worldly concerns and all vain thoughts, so as to be entirely turned towards God the Most High…

Thus, for masters versed in the science of the hearts (arbâb al-qulûb), worrying, during the fast, about the food with which one will break the fast is a serious fault because this attitude indicates a lack of confidence in God's favor, and a weakness in certainty regarding sustenance (rizq) which He grants. Such is the excellence of the prophets, of the truthful ones (çiddîqîn) and close ones (muqarrabin). It would be superfluous to talk about it at length because, in reality, what matters here is the effort to achieve it through practice. This effort consists of turning one's inner aspiration towards God and taking a step back from everything that is not Him. It is therefore a question of realizing the meaning of the verse: “Say: Allah, then leave them to their vain speeches(3). »(4)

The title of this chapter, by its use of the word asrâr (a term whose primary meaning means “secrets”), immediately emphasizes what inevitably escapes a superficial practice of fasting. On this subject, one of the hadiths whose significance is fundamental for Ghazâlî is the following: “How many fasters receive only hunger and thirst from their fast! »(5)

This hadith clearly shows that observing the external conditions of fasting, although necessary, is far from being sufficient to make it an act of true spiritual significance. From the introduction, the first element that Ghazâlî underlines is the place that fasting occupies in the faith: comparing two hadiths, he comes to the conclusion that fasting constitutes a quarter of the faith. These two hadiths are as follows:

“Fasting is half of patience. »(6) and “Patience is half of faith. »(7)

From then on, Ghazâlî sets out to explain how fasting can “nourish” faith and be an essential element of it. There are, according to him, two reasons for this: Firstly, fasting is on the one hand abandonment and abstention and on the other hand it is purely interior and does not manifest itself by an external action, as is the case of movements of prayer or ritual acts of pilgrimage for example.

In this sense, fasting is an act of worship which, in principle, does not let anything show of itself: it thus encourages the absence of ostentation and sincerity. The second reason is linked to the fact that fasting closes Satan's access to the human heart. Ghazâlî emphasizes that these attacks are concupiscent desires (chahawat) which are strengthened by food and drink. He cites this hadith in this regard: “Verily, Satan circulates in the body of the son of Adam as blood circulates: therefore diminish its flow by hunger. »(8)

For Ghazâlî, it is because man gives primacy to the body to the detriment of the spirit that he becomes prey to diabolical forces. The right balance will then consist of ''taming'' the bodily energies through fasting so that the mind finds its primary place. However, this is only achievable if the fast is accomplished with the appropriate behavior and inner attitudes. What are this behavior and attitudes?

Since, as we have seen, little can be said about the fasting of the elite of the elite, and that it only concerns those closest to God, Ghazâlî will develop his presentation on the elite fasting, and the attitudes that concern it.

This fast, which is that of the virtuous (çâlihîn), includes six essential attitudes:

– Preserve the gaze of everything that is blameworthy and reprobate, and of everything that preoccupies the heart and distracts it from the memory of God (dhikr Allah). In fact, the look is a privileged door leading to the heart and this is valid for good as for evil. On this subject, Ghazâlî cites this hadith: “The lustful gaze is one of the devil’s poisoned arrows. To him who preserves his gaze because he fears Him, God grants a faith whose sweetness he will taste in his heart. »(9)

– Restrain your tongue from chatter, lies, slander, indecent remarks, insults, disputes and polemics. The harms of language to which Ghazâlî devotes an entire chapter of theIhyâ'(10)are particularly unwelcome from a fasting person. This is why he cites this hadith: “In truth, fasting is a protection. When one of you fasts, let him not speak indecent words or shout. And if anyone attacks him or insults him, let him answer: I fast, I fast! »(11)

– Do not listen to what is reprobate because what is forbidden to say, it is also forbidden to listen. Ghazâlî then supports his point with this verse: “Those who listen attentively to lies are unrepentant eaters of illegitimate goods. »(12)

– Preserve all other organs from all sin, and eat only lawful foods

– Control yourself when breaking the fast in the evening and eat without excess. Ghazâlî considers that moderation (taqlîl) is an important aspect of fasting.

– So, you should not eat until you are full. Ghazâlî cites wisdom (which itself derives from a hadith cited by Tirmidhî): “There is no vessel more hated by God than a full belly. » He even adds: “Whoever puts a 'bag' full of food between his heart and his chest will remain veiled from spiritual realities. »

– One must feel, after breaking the fast, fear and hope in the heart faced with the uncertainty of knowing whether God will approve this fast or not. As is often the case, Ghazâlî cites statements from salaf(13)(first generations of Islam) to emphasize that the spirituality he wishes to transmit has its roots in their practices: “A man said to al-Ahnaf ibn Qays: ''You are very old and fasting weakens you!'' He replied: ''I am preparing to accomplish it with a view to a long journey! And being patient in obedience to God is easier for me than having to bear His punishment. »

Ghazâlî ends his chapter with a reflection on the value of a fast which would only be an abstention from food, drink and sexual relations, neglecting all the attitudes that he mentioned:

“Know that the doctors of the external Law (fuqahâ' al-zâhir) establish the legal external conditions. They then base themselves on less profound arguments than those we have just presented to establish the interior modalities of fasting, in particular when we have exposed the evils of slander and sins of this kind. Thus, the doctors of the external Law only deal with what is within the reach of the immense majority of people among whom are a good number of negligent people addicted to this lower world and subjugated by it. For their part, spiritual scientists ('ulama' al-akhira) understand by “validity of fasting” its meaning by God (al-qabûl), this acceptance being the spiritual objective of the faster.

These scholars understand that the spiritual goal (al-maqçûd) of fasting is to be characterized by certain Attributes of God, such as that of çamadiyya or universal and independent Support, and to get closer to the nature of the angel by breaking with bodily desires wherever possible. (…) In fact, when man becomes a slave to bodily desires, his behavior becomes animal and he joins the mass of beasts. But by taming his desires, he can rise to the highest level of exalted beings and thus achieve the excellence of the angels. »(14)

The conclusion with which Ghazâlî ends this presentation is an opening towards the deep meaning of acts of worship. As he emphasizes on several occasions, Ghazâlî is fully aware that among his potential readers, a good number are not ready to accept the idea that the depth of Islam escapes them, and that to remedy this, it is necessary follow and achieve a spiritual journey.

However, he wishes to confront the reader with his responsibilities, and therefore concludes with a reminder of one of the most important foundations of any spiritual approach:

“It clearly appears that every work of worship ('ibâda) has an exterior appearance and an interior meaning, a bark (qichr) and a nucleus (lubb). The bark has envelopes (more or less close to the core). Each of its envelopes is made up of different degrees (tabaqat). You therefore have the choice now to stick to the bark while neglecting the core or to rush towards the Assembly of masters gifted with penetrating intelligence (arbâb al-albâb). »(15)

(1)Ed. Dâr Çâdir, Beirut, 1306 h., vol. II, p. 113-114.

(2) There is an excellent translation of this text produced by Maurice Gloton and published under the title: The Secrets of Fasting in Islam, ed. Albouraq, 2001.

(3)Koran : 7, 91.

(4) Ihyâ', I,p. 235. trans. Fr. :p. 129-130.

(5) Reported by Abû Hurayra, cited by Ibn Mâjah.

(6) Reported by Abû Hurayra, cited by Tirmidhî.

(7) Reported by Ibn Mas'ûd, cited by Abû Nu'aym.

(8) Reported by Safiyya, cited by Bukhari and Muslim.

(9) Reported by Hudhayfa, quoted by Hâkim.

(10) Ch. 24. There is a French translation: The damage of words, ed. Iqra.

(11) Reported by Abû Hurayra, cited by Bukhârî and Muslim.

(12) Koran : 542.

(13) He makes, of course, a very different use of it from current Salafis who also claim to have the salaf.

(14) Ihyâ', I, p. 237. trans. Fr. : 137-138.

(15) Ihyâ', I, p.237. transl. Fr. :p. 142.