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Fasting: The Best Medicine

Allah said through His Prophet (s.a.s.): "Every good deed will be rewarded from ten-to-seven hundred fold except fasting, which is endured for My sake and which I shall reward as much as I like." (Bukhari)

Fasting is the oldest known form of natural healing. The methods employed range from discontinuance of a single food for a short period of time, up through total abstinence from all foods and liquids for extended periods.

For many people who have never fasted, the idea seems strange, and some even consider it quite dangerous. These conceptions are not utterly unfounded, because incorrectly applied fasting can result in severe disorders of the body, and even death.

Correctly observed fasts are adjusted according to the cycles of the moon and other planets, as well as many other phenomena. Fasting is actually the epitome of a natural way of life, and its benefits do not end at the correction of the body and restoration of health.

Before taking up any kind of fast, it is important to understand the rationale for fasting. Most Westerners who fast do so to cleanse the body and improve health. However, these are incorrect intentions with which to begin a fast.

The Sufis probably have more experience than any other group of humans in performing fasts. The accounts are legion of Sufi shaykhs and disciples who endured fasts of varying duration, frequently with miraculous results. As has been noted, the Sufi does not take up any physical procedure relating to health for any reason except to earn the pleasure of the Most High God. Allah has informed us in the Holy Qur'an: "O ye who believe! Prescribed unto you is fasting even as it was prescribed unto those before you, that perhaps you may become God-conscious" (2:183).

All of the creation, except man, follows the dictates of Allah derived from natural laws. Animals do not have to be restrained from overeating and dietary abuses. But for humans, the love of material life and the temptations of the physical desires are responsible for the vast majority of illnesses. Therefore, Allah the Most Kind has provided guidance to control and annul these appetites by the mechanism of the fast.

The Qur'an states that a human cannot attain salvation unless the low desires are restrained: "And as for him who fears to stand before his Lord and restrains himself from low desires, the paradise is surely the abode" (79:40-41).

The exercise of abstaining from things that are ordinarily lawful and permitted in life, solely for the sake of Allah, strengthens morality and self-control and deepens awareness of Allah. This is what distinguishes fasting in Islam and Sufism from ordinary fasting for health.

The primary fast to be taken up is that generally called Ramadan in Islam. Ramadan is one of the months of the Islamic calendar (see Appendix I for Islamic months)--the month during which the Qur'an, as well as the Torah, the Psalms of David, and the New Testament, all were first sent down from Allah.

The excellence of fasting is known from these two statements of the Prophet (s.a.w.s.).

"By the one in whose hand is my life, the fragrance of the mouth of a fasting man is dearer to Allah than the fragrance of musk."

"Paradise has a gate named Rayyan. None except a fasting person will enter Paradise by that gate."

Allah has promised a vision of Him as reward for fasting.

The Fast of Ramadan

Muslims perform a month long fast annually, called Ramadan, which has special rules to raise the spiritual benefits of the fast to a high pitch. The word ramadan does not actually mean "fast." The technical term for fasting is siyam, whose root word means "to be at rest." By abstaining from food, drink, and sexual intercourse, these functions of the body are granted rest, and an opportunity to become revivified.

The general fast during the month of Ramadan is enjoined upon the whole humanity; those who actually do it are Muslims. Many persons who have close contact with Muslims also engage in this form of fast and derive some of the benefits from it. But there are several regulations which must be followed for any fast to be valid.

First, one must clearly state the intention to fast. Since Allah has said that we will be judged according to our intentions, one cannot get the benefits of good actions which occur entirely by accident. For example, if one was deprived of food by being lost in the wilderness, this would not constitute a formal fast, because one would have eaten if the opportunity were present. This formal declaration to perform an action is termed niyyat. It is preferably stated in Arabic, but is just as valid in any language. One may simply state: "I intend to offer fast this day, for the sake of Allah and only for the sake of Allah."

Having entered into this formal pledge with Allah, having made this promise, if one intentionally breaks the fast during the avowed period, one is liable to compensate for the fast by making up one or more days.

Generally, to perform a fast day the following conditions must all be met:

1. The niyyat, or intention to fast, must be made, aloud or silently.

2. The period of the fast must extend from the time just before sunrise (fair) until just after sunset (maghrib).*

3. During the period of the fast, total abstinence from the following is required: food, drink (including water), smoking or consumption of tobacco, sexual intercourse, and any form of negativity, backbiting, fighting, cursing, arguing, and similar behaviors.

4. Semen may not be deliberately emitted, nor may one deliberately vomit.

5. Pregnant or lactating women, the seriously ill, the aged, and the insane are exempted from fasting, but in some cases may be liable to make up missed days. A woman does not fast on days when she is menstruating, but must make up the missed days. When her period ends, she must resume fasting. Children under the age of twelve generally are excluded from the fast, but may fast part of the day or for some of the days.

6. The fast is broken after sunset with a date or a glass of water, followed by a modest meal.

There are several dozens of special cases which apply to the fasting man or woman, and the advice of a practicing Muslim shaykh should be sought to resolve any question.

The special nature of fasting is that it engenders forbearance and sacrifice. Fasting occurs in the mind primarily, and so it is hidden from all human eyes, visible only to the Eye of God: it is a secret action.

During the time from midnight to the beginning of the fast, it was the practice of the Prophet (s.a.w.s.) to eat a meal, called sahur. This may consist of any lawful foods. The fast is usually broken by eating one or a few dates, followed by some water, which must be done prior to offering the sunset (maghrib) prayer. Even though cleaning the teeth is permitted, it is more meritorious if one does not do so after midday.

In addition to these injunctions, one should be engaged as much as possible in reading and reciting the Holy Qur'an, and should distribute as much charity as one is capable of.

Such are the minimum regulations for fasting. It is the fast of the general people, and entered into for the purpose of restraining oneself from eating and drinking and sexual passions. A higher form of the fast consists of (in addition to the above) refraining from wrong actions of hands, feet, sight, and other limbs or organs of the body.

The saints perform the very greatest kind of fast, a fast of the mind. In other words, these people do not think of anything except Allah. They consider their existence in this world only as a seed for growth into the next world. This fast also includes restraining the eyes from any evil sight, and shunning useless talk, falsity, slander, obscenity, and hypocrisy. In short, the fasters keep silent, and when they do speak, it is only to remember God. This fast is so strict that one cannot even listen to forbidden speech coming from others. One must leave the presence of the person who violates these prohibitions.

Moreover, the Sufis, when they do break the fast, eat only the minimum amount required to stem hunger. The correct meal following this fast is the one being eaten by the poorest people in one's community.

In addition to the obligatory fast of the sacred month, the Sufis engage in various optional fasts, which are called nafil fasts. Some of these occur every year, some every month, and some every week. The accompanying list summarizes the entire spectrum of fasts engaged in by the Sufis.

Although the main intention and desired effects of fasting occur in the realm of the soul and its evolution, it nonetheless remains a fact that most people achieve physical results of the fast as well.

Disease frequently is attributed to incomplete digestion of the nutrients at one or more stages of digestion. During a fast, the ordinary work performed in the digestion of foods is reduced, thereby allowing the body to eliminate superfluous matters and to repair damage done by long-term dietary abuses.

When this occurs, the body responds in special ways. The first action the body takes, when given the opportunity, is to generate the strange heat of fever. This special kind of heat causes a very rapid processing ("cooking" down) of the excess matters, regardless of what they may be. The substances are thus refined into a form which can be eliminated by the body. The elimination occurs in one (and sometimes more) of five ways, which are called the five forms of healing crisis: nosebleed, vomiting, diarrhea, perspiration, and urination.

By saying that this elimination occurs in a healing crisis, I mean that the body is putting out the excess, frequently harmful and toxic by-products of abnormal, incomplete digestion. A healing crisis by urination is not the same thing as normal urination. The volume and frequency may be as high as five or more times an hour for several hours. A healing crisis by diarrhea could consist of fifteen or more motions in several hours.

Fast Days Of The Sufis

Ramadan: The thirty-day fast obligatory upon all Muslims.

Other Annual Fasts: The days of Arafat (during the month of Dhul-Hijjah); the days of Arshurah; the first ten days of Dhul-Hijjah; the first ten days of the month of Moharram; and as much of the month of Shaban as possible. (Note: It is not permitted to fast the three days prior to the beginning of Ramadan, nor the feast days of Id al-Fitr and Id al-Adha).

Monthly Fasts: The best days to keep fast during any month are the first day, the middle day, and the last day of every month. In addition, there is fasting on the ayyam bayed--the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth days of the moon's cycle.

Weekly Fasts: While fasting any week, one should endeavor to fast Thursday, Friday, and Monday, which are the days of excellence.

Daily Fasts: The Prophet (s.a.w.s.) forbade fasting every day. The best way to maintain maximum fasting is to fast every other day. The Prophet (s.a.w.s.) said, "The treasures of the world were presented to me. I rejected them and said: I shall remain hungry for one day and take food on the next. When I take food I shall praise Thee, and when I remain hungry I shall seek humility from Thee." And then he said: "There is no better fast than this."

Oddly enough, these healing crises are precisely the events that Western medicine labels as illness and disease. Consequently, the efforts to arbitrarily block or end these normal eliminative functions cut short the most effective inherent health-building mechanisms the body possesses!

The forms of healing crisis are mentioned because during fasting--especially for one who has never taken it up before--one or more of these are likely to transpire after the third or fourth days (sometimes even within a few hours). A pounding headache, perhaps a slightly elevated temperature or fever, sweating, and similar signs show that the body is moving into a corrective mode. When the diarrhea or vomiting begins, one who is un-acquainted with the benefits and effects of fasting may conclude that he has contracted the flu or a respiratory problem, having become "weakened" by fasting!

Many people are unwilling to endure any discomfort or unpleasantness whatsoever, and thus resort to various chemical drugs, which will unfortunately put an immediate end to any healing actions of the body. This may suffice to get a person back to work, or prop him or her up to attend an important function; but over years and years of suppressing these eliminations, the toxic matters back up within the system, until organ damage occurs and there is no hope for a cure, except by the most drastic means. Even then it is difficult and gruesome.

Effort and discipline are required to make it through these recommended fasts. I suggest persons with no experience begin with just one day, or part of a day, and gradually extend it to the desired level of: performance. Muslims have a special advantage, for they are strengthened and helped by Allah to complete a full thirty days each year. One of the great Sufis was said to have fasted on alternate days during the last forty years of his life. And, at that, when he did eat, if he discovered he was deriving any pleasure from the food, he would immediately spit it out half-chewed. He lived to be ninety-six years old.

Allah the Almighty has promised uncountable rewards for those who fast. One such reward for the fortunate ones occurs during the last ten days of Ramadan. This is known as Laylat al-Qadr (Night of Power). For one who has performed the fast perfectly and according to the strictest criteria, Allah sends an angel to personally meet this person, and any wish whatsoever the person may make is granted. Ya Hayyu! Ya Qayyum!

Fasting is prescribed by the Most High Allah as a great blessing upon His humanity. As the Maker of human bodies, He knows the best techniques and practices for maintaining its health. And not only is fasting the best and safest means of protecting the physical health, but it also carries immense spiritual rewards.

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