Open Discussions/ Gulf Cultural Club
Aspiring for spiritual perfection through fasting
Sheikh Isa Jahangir*
Mustafa Almansur ***
God’s religions aim at directing the life of people to achieve perfection. Acts of worship, morality, worship of God and achieving balance between the inner and the outer sides of man are what wise people aspire to achieve. Perfection is God’s attribute; He wants mankind to be perfect. The Ramadan experience offers an opportunity to cleanse the soul, clear the mind and remove evil from the self. It is a time when the relative seeks to link up with the absolute. Wisdom dictates that one must not miss the opportunity. Other faiths also prescribe fasting as a way of self-control and discipline. Join us in unforgettable moments of God’s invocation, self-purification and inner cleansing.
Chairman: I would like to welcome you to the inter-faith Ramadhan when Muslims and Christians get together to celebrate the spiritual journey that Muslims go through in this particular month. Other faiths also join us during these unforgettable moments of God’s invocation, self purification and cleansing. Our speakers will highlight these aspects Ramadhan and the journey which one undertakes.
Symon Hill: Thank you , good evening, Salam alekium. Thank you very much for inviting me here this evening. It is a great honour to be invited to speak as part of this event. I was asked to speak at this event and to give a Christian perspective. I certainly can’t claim to represent all Christians. I can only give a person perspective but I want to talk a bit about Christian history and the way in which Christians approach issues of fasting and the way that fasting has been controversial within Christianity. I also want to say a bit about how Christians such as me can learn from Muslims on the issue of fasting.
I was slightly intimidated when I saw the title for today: achieving spiritual perfection. I thought I am not qualified to speak about spiritual perfection but as we have heard perfection is through God. God whom we worship is perfect.
I will talk about some Christian attitudes. Within Christianity there are very varied views of fasting. I think it is safe to say that the Catholic tradition and the Orthodox tradition within Christianity, especially the Orthodox tradition, have tended to emphasise fasting more whereas the Protestant tradition, of which I am part, has not done so much or not so systematically.
I would like to talk a bit about what Jesus said about fasting or what he is recorded to have said in the New Testament in the gospels. We are told that early on in his work Jesus was driven into the dessert or wilderness and he spent 40 days and 40 nights fasting.
Here is where you get confusion in the English translations of the bible because sometimes translators tend to down play the wording. In says in Matthew’s gospel: he fasted for 40 days and 40 nights and he was hungry. I think he was more than hungry. He is tempted by the devil. The devil tempted him to turn stones into bread which was tempting when he was so hungry.
In Jesus teachings ( I would be interested to know if there is something similar in the Quran) in the sermon on the mount he talked about fasting. He said: “When you are fasting do not put on a grim look like the hypocrites do. They let people know they are fasting. In truth I tell you they have had their reward. But when you fast, put scent on your head and wash your face so no one will know you are fasting except your father who sees all that is done in secret. And your father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.”
So early on in the Christian tradition we have a place given to fasting but there is an emphasis that the inner and the outer must go together. It is not just fasting for the sake of fasting or fasting to impress people but there is an emphasis on the effect it is having on us inwardly. Early Christianity has very few fixed rules about what you have to do and when. So different Christians and different Christian groups would behave quite differently.
But after the 4th century Christianity became what you might call domesticated by the Roman Empire. It became the official religion of the empire and many Christian teachings were effected. The early Christian emphasis on peace became diluted once you had a empire seeking to proclaim itself as Christian but also functioning as an empire with armies and so forth. That had quite an effect on spiritual disciplines such as prayer, fasting, forms of pilgrimages and so on. Certain practices became expected of everybody because you were assumed to be part of the church and to do things because it was the rule to do so.
The Catholic church is Western Europe and the Orthodox church in parts of Eastern Europe split from each other in the 11th century. What is still very relevant for Christians in Western Europe is the reformation which happened in the 16th century when the Protestant and Catholic churches split. It is very interesting how this split still effects Christian approaches to fasting, prayer, pilgrimage, spiritual disciplines, attempts to be focused on self discipline and so on.
At the time of the reformation many of the Protestants tended to reject practices such as fasting and pilgrimage and certain types of prayer. When I talk about the reformation I am a bit biased because I coming from a Protestant background. Many Protestants felt that certain practices such as fasting had become more about rules, more about following the law rather than about what was going on inwardly or a spiritual struggle.
There was an incident in Zurich, Switzerland in the early days of the reformation where Protestants protested against the church’s teachings by deliberately eating meat in the public square which was illegal and that was one of the things that then triggered the reformation in Zurich.
Likewise there was criticism of practices like pilgrimage because some Protestants said that in fasting, pilgrimage, praying a certain number of times it is all about just trying to achieve certain rules, trying to earn God’s love. A lot of Catholics who are engaged in such practices would say that is not what we are doing, it is a spiritual discipline, it is an inward thing. I am sure that for many of them it was. The Protestant response was perhaps an over reaction.
It was also a challenge as the Catholic church at the time taught that certain practices basically reduced your tally of sins. So if God is counting up your sins then if you went on a particular pilgrimage on a particular day you might get a third of your sins knocked off the total.
Protestants argued that we can’t earn God’s love. God’s love is so overflowing, so extreme that only by putting our faith in God through Christ can God love us and forgive us not because we have done a particular action. Many Catholics would agree with that in principle.
The problem was that there may have been an over reaction so over the last 500 years a lot of protestants have been rather nervous about fasting and pilgrimage and structured forms of prayer. We have tended to associate that with what might be wrongly caricatured a rule based approach to God’s love.
I think that is a shame because as we can see from many Muslims and Catholics who are clearly deeply spiritual such practices are not necessarily negative in that way. Indeed they are often very positive and very spiritual and can be used by God to guide us towards a greater focus on God and God’s perfection.
The situation has developed now, I am pleased to say, that in recent years there has been a revival among the various Protestant traditions in matters such as fasting and it is partly because of this sort of legacy of the reformation, this memory of the people in Zurich eating meat in lent and the thought of early Protestants who were martyred because they did not go along with certain things.
It is important that we seek God’s guidance to see what God wants of us. There has been a flourishing in the past 50 years of an interest in pilgrimage and fasting. I found pilgrimage extremely humbling and uplifting. It was a context in which God has spoken to me in surprising ways. I think it is the case in all spiritual disciplines if you go into them thinking God will do this with me, then God won’t. God will do something different because it is God who is in charge and not us and God surprises us.
In terms of fasting I have been exploring this for several years and have often been nervous about it. Because of the way in which certain spiritual practices were downplayed by much of the Protestant church and were then revived they were revived in a rather haphazard way with a strong emphasis on Jesus teaching about fasting not just being for the sake of appearance but about it being a genuine thing with a spiritual focus and an inward focus. Sometimes it might not be fasting during Lent. There is a Catholic and sometimes Protestant tradition of fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Some Christians will fast on particular days for particular reasons.
I would like to share with you the experiences of Keith Hepdon who some of you may have heard of. He is a Church of England minister in Nottinghamshire and over the last few years he has found an increase in poverty in his parish due to cuts to the welfare state, cuts to the public services and other developments that have been taking place in the last five years.
In response to the hunger around him and the rising food bank use Keith fasted for the duration of Lent as he saw it to seek God’s guidance about what he should do about the situation and to show his support for those who had no choice but not to eat. Lent lasts about four and half weeks. For this time he ate nothing, drank only water and had just once glass of vegetable juice a day.
As far as Keith was concerned he was combining the inner and the outer. He was doing something about the problem in the world as he saw it and at the same time focusing inwardly through his fasting. But he did get heavily criticised for his end hunger fast as it was called by certain parts of the media. There was a Daily Mail article devoted to attacking him. He was accused of doing it as a stunt to make a political point. The term stunt implies something that is quite easy to do. Not eating something for five and half weeks is not easy.
But he was also struggling with that balance between being a witness in the world and at the same time Jesus teaching when you are fasting don’t go telling people that you are fasting. Keith was deliberately doing that. It is something that he wrestled with and it is something that we always have to wrestle with.
That is somewhere where Christians can learn a lot from Islam. They can learn a lot from traditions that place more emphasis on spiritual development and spiritual focus through fasting as we see a revival of interest in it in Christianity As we combine the inner and the outer we can perhaps be a witness in the world through things like this, but only if it is linked to an internal and integral spiritual discipline as Jesus emphasised.
Mustafa Almansur: In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful, the kind I would like to thank you all and welcome you all for giving up your time to be present in this particular event. I am somebody who lives and works in London. I am the father of a boy who is 12 and I am Muslim and I fast and I am fasting today.
I just want us to be really present to the context of us fasting and being here. To be present is a struggle, it is a challenge for many of us. Right at this very moment as I utter these words
you may notice that there is an internal voice going on asking what is this guy going to say? He looks very young, where did he study and so forth.
That is perfectly fine. We all have this internal voice that runs in the back of our heads and I ask you all to be present to that. We will all have it. We need to be present to the fact that we have an internal voice running in our mind, doing a commentary on what I am sharing, and that will be there. So just be present to that.
Secondly be present to the context of fasting. Why is it that we fast? We have breakfast in English. We wake up in the morning and we have breakfast. That is breaking the fast. What is the difference between that and fasting during the day when you are awake? It is just to be present to the context of fasting in the religious tradition.
God says in the Quran that fasting is proscribed on you as it was proscribed on those before you so that you may become righteous. So to begin with it is not a new practice. It is practice that was prescribed before Mohammed at the time of Jesus and at the beginning of mankind as a way though which we become God conscious, pious and righteous.
We ask what is piety? What is righteousness? What is it that God wants us to be? First of all that we are present in the context that fasting is there so that you may gain something else. It is not a goal in itself. Some people may fast because they want to experience hunger. Others may fast because they want to lose a few kilograms in weight and the Prophet (pbuh) said some people fast and they get nothing from their fast but thirst and hunger. Until such times as we are present to the concept of fasting we will not get what we need out of fasting. The context here is to be God conscious.
Spirituality is not something that is dark and gloomy that we do not know about. Spirituality for me is very practical. It is alive with you and I today and it is through living that we connect with God. There is a tradition in Islam in which the Prophet narrates on behalf of Allah. Allah said I was hungry and you did not feed me. Oh my servant I was unwell and you did not visit me. And the servant of God says: O God you are the Almighty, the transcendent, the sublime. How can it be possible that I visit you. God says were it not that such and such a person was unwell. Were you not there to visit that unwell person? Were you to feed that poor hungry or thirsty person you could have visited me and you could have fed me. You would have felt me.
So for me finding God and connecting with God happens in this world by being and doing and connecting with people. This is what I read in the Quran where God says piety is not that you turn your faces to the east and to the west, but piety is to acknowledge God on the last day – the angels and the prophets and to give out of that which you love to the relatives and the orphans and the needy and the traveller and those who ask you and to free those who are enslaved and those who observe prayer and contribute towards betterment and those who keep their pledges. And those who are patient in the face of good and bad and endure persecution. Those are the ones who have been truthful and they are the pious, the righteous.
Here we find a mixture of a couple of things. There is the acknowledgement and understanding of God in our hearts and there is living and connecting in this world righteously. Today I would like to if I may engage you in a small exercise. Those who are fasting are already observing the commandment of fasting and there is giving up of food and drink during the day. In doing so we liberate ourselves and our nafs (souls) which are enslaved to our desires and our needs.
We go miles, we work to earn bread to fed ourselves and to keep our stomachs full and to quench our thirst. If you over come that you are training your will power to be stronger than your physical needs. That is the beginning of it. And then there is something else. One of the companions of the Prophet was asked how do you prepare for the month of Ramadhan? He said none of you can see the crescent of the month of Ramadhan without having completely cleared our hearts of anything that we may hold against one another.
This is the practise that I would like to invite all of you to participate in with me today. Who here wants to take part in this exercise of clearing your hearts. So we are just going to do a small exercise where we are just going to take this on for ourselves. It may be a little challenging for us to do but we will do it.
The Prophet says that those who clear their hearts are those people of paradise. And their was a companion of the messenger of God and once he came into the gathering where the Prophet said this man is from the people of paradise. And everyone was wondering why is the Prophet saying that this normal looking guy is from the people of paradise. What is the Prophet saying? What does he do that is so special?
So someone followed this man to see what it was that this man did that we all need to know. He is from the people of paradise and we want to be from the people of paradise. He asked this person what is that you do? I have not seen you do anything special and I have been following you for three days. He said I don’t do anything special apart from what you have seen. But there may be one thing. I do not go to bed on any single night except that I have cleared my mind of any upset or hatred, angry, forgiveness or the lack of towards any one of my fellow human beings.
That is what God says in the Quran. He who has cleansed himself of shruk in clearing out is the one who is successful. I invite you all to look into your lives and see where you are not clear with somebody. What does it mean not to be clear with somebody? I will define it very briefly. Is there anybody in your life that if you were to lose them today, if they were to pass today that you would feel some regret or remorse. I wish that I had spoken to that person. I wish I had asked him for forgiveness or I wish that I had forgiven him. I wish that I have communicated to him or to her how much I love them? If there anyone in your lives you can think of that you would not be complete with if they passed away today? That you had not said something you wish you had said.
I would ask you all to look into this and to actually make a list of people. So take our your smart phones or pen and paper and make a list. You are not going to get it all fixed today but it would be great to get started. For me Ramadhan is about cleansing our hearts. So take out your pens and start making a list of the people in your life that you are not complete with. I will give you two minutes. Anyone if you were to lose them today you wish that you had said something forgiven them or told them you loved them or how much they mean to you. You can keep adding to the list and it can be a work in progress afterwards.
Look into your list for all the people that you have listed. Pick one person who is dearest to you and it matters that you have a great relationship with them and that you have completion with them and that you sleep tonight with your hearts clear towards that person. That is a preparation for us who are fasting in Ramadhan. So who on your list are you going to call? In my list I have put my eldest brother who I love. I don’t think I have ever told him that I love him. In my culture it is kind of awkward to tell your older brother that you love him. Would I regret it. I might. I also put my sister-in-law. I have been doing this for a while so my list is slowly getting shorter and shorter. I have completion with those people. I invite you to share your list or just one person on your list. Anyone from the top of your head that you would like to have completion with.
Symon Hall: It is interesting that when you asked us to do this I thought it is very similar to a prayerful exercise that I do. Every so often I make a similar list in my head and pray for people I fear I may have hurt or who may have hurt me. It was not till I was someway down the list that I realised that a close friend of mine who I was very close to and still am very close but have not been in touch with for a long time. If that friend were to die tonight I would be very sad that I have not been in touch. That is not necessarily about forgiveness. It is just about reminding me what we mean to each other – like you and your brother.
Mustafa Almansur: I invite all of you after this Iftar, after this evenings session, to have this completion now. Do not let yourself of the hook. You will have your transformation through your commitment to your greatness. Your commitment to having a great life is what brought you here to this room today. It is not an intellectual exercise. It is not that you lack information in your lives. Make that call this evening. Take responsibility for what you have done.
In a verse in the Quran it says: You who have faith take yourselves on. Worry not about those who have gone astray. If you are truly guided all of you will be returned to Allah and he will inform you of what you used to do. It is about ourselves. It is not about other people. It is not about who has wrong you and who has righted you. It is not about who has upset you. It is not about who is right and who is wrong. It is about me and my soul. When you don’t forgive the only person who hurts the most is yourself. It is about letting go. So I invite all of you to get in touch with one person and be clear with that person. Just tell them how much you love them: Your parents, your children, your grandchildren. I leave you with this verse from the Quran: When my servant asks of me, say that I am near and I respond to the call of those who call upon me. So let them call upon me and have faith in me so that they may be guided.
Sheikh Isa Jahangir: I am thankful to Saeed Shehabi for organising these fruitful events. This is the third or fourth time I have been to Abrar to share some thoughts I understand from my Islamic education and background. You have had two great lectures before me and what I am going to share is very similar.
The first point that comes to my mind which I can share with you is that with spirituality sometimes we think we can come close to God and we can get close to perfection by taking some initiatives, culturally and socially and individually. We feel that we have to take some initiatives. But according to religious statements, including some teachings, sometimes not to do something and stopping and refraining from not doing something is more important than taking some initiatives.
Let me give you an example. In Islamic spirituality we have a concept which is called sukut. Another similar concept is sung. Both are translated into English as silence but they are different. Sukut is intentional and unintentional silence. Sometimes the environment is silent or the rukh (mind) maybe silent but in sung there is thoughtfulness and wisdom. We have to practise to train the faculty of our spiritual power by which you can observe your words and you can observe your speech. That is a spiritual power, a faculty that is established in your soul by which you can control your speech, what to say and when to say it. How much to say exactly and when to stop speaking. This is sung.
In the Prophet was a person who used to observe silence, that thoughtful kind of wisdom for a long time. It is not talking or not talking it is having control over the tongue and over speech as well. So sung or sukut require not to do something or to refrain from doing something and this is very important in some spirituality.
One of the examples from the Islamic traditions is a saying from the prophet: if there was no talking you would see what I see and you would hear what I hear. If you could only control your speech and gain the power of not doing something then you could see what I see and hear what I hear.
Fasting looks at this type of issue. It is in a way stopping and refraining from doing something. Stopping from eating, stopping from drinking, stopping singing. So that stopping and controlling yourself, watching and observing constantly and closely, that is very important in Islamic spirituality. What we can acquire by not doing things is sometimes higher than what we can achieve by doing.
We can give a lot of examples. When you are angry you can resolve not to do something. When we have some positions in our job not to do something. Not to be judgemental in some positions. Not to have some stances. I can think of hundreds of examples of not doing things which could bring you a lot of spiritual fruits. Fasting seems to be like this. Stopping from eating, stopping from drinking and stopping from singing.
I would like to refer to some other verses from the Quran to highlight this issue. The ayat which was recited verse 2 chapter 103 in which God almighty says fasting has been prescribed to you as it was to the people before you. At the end of the ayat Allah says: So you may piety, righteousness.
Righteousness is that power which is established within our souls by which we can move when it is required to move, by which we can stop when it is recommended to stop, by which you can slow down. It is the control in your hand. The taqwa with piety is one of type of worship (obedience). Doing your prayer or coming on pilgrimage. After a long spiritual journey you have that control. Once you have that control then automatically it tells you how to live your life. When to speed up and when to slow down. So that is taqwa. It is self control. That’s why in many of the Islamic traditions we have that. Fasting is one of the best tools for self control. This is the second point.
The third point is that according to the Quran and the Islamic teachings I am sure that has to be the case with other religions – everything in this world has got two aspects. One aspect is the inner aspect, the inner reality and the outer aspect, or the external reality of things.
The Quran is very clear on this. Some people only know some apparent features of this world. With respect to the hereafter they are forgetful. One may conclude that the day after is nothing but the inner reality. Those who eat the property and wealth of the orphans eat fire in their stomach. Eating fire is the reality – or back biting. The Quran says don’t back bite. Would you like to eat the flesh of the dead body of your brother? You hate it. So it shows that back biting has got a reality. The outward face is what we see but the inner reality is eating the dead body of the brother. According to some Islamic accounts the inner reality has been shown.
Some people went to the Prophet and said O messenger of God we are fasting. He said you are not fasting. And then the Prophet ordered them to vomit. What they vomited was some meat. And then the messenger said this is the flesh of the dead body of your brother. The messenger said you were back biting and this is the result. I just wanted to show that back biting has a reality.
Fasting has two faces. One face is the outward face, the outward appearance and then there is an inner reality. The outward face is to stop eating and drinking. You should stop eating and drinking for a specific period of time. But it has an inward aspect. The inward is according to the Quran is that you have to acquire piety and control.
Let me read to you some verses from a collection of Shia hadiths. It has a section on the etiquette of fasting. All of our organs and limbs should be fasting. Probably stopping from eating and drinking is just a reminder, it is just a tool by which we could be reminded of the inner reality of fasting. The fasting of all of our organs, intentions and words, fasting of the intentions.
We can fast by doing something and by not doing something. There are areas in which we are not recommended to see or to listen. In the same way we get some spiritual inspiration by doing something or by not doing. The fasting of the eyes, intentions and words. We can do this by doing something or by not doing something.
It seems to me that fasting and the month of fasting, which is the month of Ramadhan, is only a station for refreshment. It is a long way for spirituality. But imagine that it is a long way that you need to walk or sometimes to run a marathon. But sometimes you need to stop and get some refreshments and then continue.
The month of Ramadhan, the apparent face of it is stopping from eating and stopping from drinking for some of the hours. But in the spiritual life it is like stopping to eat to get some spiritual provisions. Spiritually we are eating, we are drinking to be able to continue our life long spiritual journey. This is a gift from Allah the almighty. The whole month and the whole period is a gift. It is a point at which we can get more strength and more provisions by which we can continue the rest of our spiritual journey.
The inner reality of fasting is sometimes doing something and sometimes not doing something. Again we think that doing or not doing something is an individual thing. That is not the case. One of the great mystics in Iran used to recommend to his disciplines and students that during the month of Ramadhan they spend more time with their family and asked them to help their wives more. Spend more time with your children. If you are between doing salat al jumma and spending time with your family, if you are not able to spend time with your family, pray with your family at home so your children can have good memories.
What happens if the whole community is fasting not only individuals? What are the features of a fasting community? What kinds of things should the community be doing for the members of its local community and for the global community. I had some points to mention about this community but my time is over.
*Sheikh Isa Jahangir is the Principal of the Islamic College for Advanced Studies in London. After completing extensive Hawza (Islamic Seminary) studies in Qom, Iran he took interest in social studies. He studied Sociology at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. He has taught different subjects related to Islamic law and Islamic studies such as: Islamic Ethics, Theology and Jurisprudence, in different universities and seminarian schools in Iran (in Persian and English). In addition he taught Sociology and Cultural Anthropology. In his current position at the Islamic College he teaches Islamic thought, Muslim social and political thought, and jurisprudential maxims. For three years 2009-2012 he was the Head of the Department of Islamic Studies at al-Mustafa International University. He authored many articles and several books. He is an eloquent lecturer
** Mustafa Almansur is a father, entrepreneur and khateeb. He is the managing director at Vocabridge, a global language services company in the city. With a degree in Engineering, masters in Islamic Banking and finance and numerous ijaazas in the sacred sciences, Mustafa is able to articulate a practical narrative of Islam that people can relate to and be inspired by. He has travelled extensively and studied with scholars and imams from all denominational backgrounds. Mustafa has been on a journey of personal development and purification since a young age, never settling for one thing…he now is involved in the personal transformation programme with Landmark education.
Symon Hill is an associate of the Ekklesia thinktank and a tutor for the Workers’ Educational Association. His books include The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion and Digital Revolutions: Activism in the internet Age.