Islamic Perspectives

Fasting For Renewal of a Spiritual Life in Islam and Judaism

The Tsom/Sawm of the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur is the oldest monotheistic fast; and the Tsom/Sawm of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan is the most wide spread; as the Qur'an states, "Oh you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may (learn) self-restraint” (2:183). Yet the world is in a terrible shape.

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Tariq Ramadan states that, “The month of Ramadan is the world's most widespread fast; and yet its teachings are minimized, neglected and even betrayed” (by a literal application of rules that overlooks their ultimate objective) because, “The philosophy of fasting calls upon us to know ourselves, to master ourselves, and to discipline ourselves; the better to free ourselves. To fast is to identify our dependencies, and free ourselves from them.” 

In this goal, Tariq Ramadan simply echoes Prophet Muhammad who said, "Whoever does not give up deceitful speech and evil actions, Allah is not in need of his leaving eating his food and drink"  (Bukhari, Vol.3, 31, #127).

God, speaking to Prophet Isaiah, said the same thing: "The truth is that at the same time you fast, you pursue your own interests and oppress your workers. Your fasting makes you violent, and you quarrel and fight. The kind of fasting I (God) want is this: remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor" (58:3-7).

This passage is read every year during the religious services of the Yom Kippur fast; to remind us that fasting must lead us to giving up deceitful speech and evil actions. Still the world remains in terrible shape.

Fortunately, there are large numbers of ordinary Jews and Muslims who do turn to Allah in repentance every day who we never hear about because they are not famous or boastful. They embody, as Elsa Febiola Aryanti wrote in the July 28, 2013 issue of Aquila style magazine,

Silatur-rahim, an Arabic word meaning caring for blood-relationships, brotherhood or the bond of friendship.

Examples of silatur-rahim are building communities, family reunion and demonstrating kindness towards neighbors. Especially during Ramadan, silatur-rahim is highly rewarded by Allah. It is regarded as one of the highest good deeds in Islam, placed within the same level as performing salat and paying zakat.

With silatur-rahim, Muslims are encouraged to reconnect or strengthen ties that have been severed, lost, or overlooked. Not only with those that we have wronged or that have wronged us, but also by reconnecting with our families, our society and ourselves. Here are two stories: one an ancient Islamic one, and the other a modern Jewish one, that can offer us inspiration for our own turning to God during our fasting and our living:

A righteous Muslim man was once asked to tell the story of the pivotal moment of his life, the moment when he first began to apply the teachings of Islam to his life and this answer was:

As a young man, I would not hesitate to perpetrate any sin I could. One day, I saw the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Much tempted by her, I indicated to her to approach me. She seemed nervous, but I thought that she would agree to satisfy my sexual desires for money. She approached me with a great deal of trepidation, and when she actually stood before me, she looked terrified.

Feeling sorry for her, I said, ‘Do not fear, for I will not harm you.’ But my words did not lessen her fright in the least; in fact, she began to tremble like a palm tree leaf trembles with the wind. I said, ‘Tell me your story.’

She said, ‘By Allah, never before this day have I offered my body in this way. Dire need is what has driven me to this, for I have three daughters who have not eaten a single morsel of food for three days now. It was pity for them that brought me to this low point in my life.’

For the first time in my life, I felt pity; her story moved me, and I no longer entertained the intention of taking advantage of her. After she told me where she lived, I took a great deal of money, clothing and food to her house. 

When I returned to my house, I told my mother what had happened. My mother knew that I had a book in which I would record all of my evil deeds, so she said to me, ‘My son, you are a man who has never performed a good deed except for the good deed that you performed today. I know that you have a book in which you record your evil exploits, go now and write in it your good deed.’

I stood up, went to my book, opened it, and found that all of its pages were blank except for the first page on which was written a single line. “Indeed, good deeds do away with misdeeds. That is a reminder for those who remember.” (Qur’an 11: 114)

At that very moment, I raised my hands to the sky and said, ‘By your Might and Majesty, never again will I disobey You.’ “

And in today’s busy world a Jewish man writes:

One night while driving home from work after a very long day, around eleven p.m., I saw a mother standing on the curb with two little boys and a baby in her arms. She hailed me in Spanish, but I looked away and continued on.

Suddenly, I remembered my own mother telling me that the best Mitsvot (Jewish duties) were the ones you don’t want to do, but you know you must do. The feeling of responsibility for others, and to God, was what turned a simple good deed into a Mitsvah (a Jewish duty). 

I was just starting a new career at that time and very self-involved and self-centered. Yet I realized that the woman and her small children might be in danger. So I drove around the block and stopped. The mother had a business card in her hand for a car wash that was quite far away. She spoke only Spanish, but I gathered her husband was working there and she was trying to bring him his dinner.

She had gotten off the bus at the wrong place and was now walking in the wrong direction. To be honest, I regretted stopping since she wasn’t in any danger; my mind was telling me I was a softy. All I could think was, "I'm so tired, now I’ll have a long drive over there and back, and I have to get up very early."

Nonetheless, despite my irritated and regretful attitude, I loaded the little boys in the back seat and the mother and baby in the front. When we arrived at the car wash, her husband, the night watchman, was waiting and worrying. When he saw his family, his face lit up. His wife quickly told him the story. 

His gratitude was so effusive, that I felt  ashamed I had passed her by at first. And I was doubly ashamed by my attitude. It cost me only 45 minutes of my time and I was rewarded by a deep, guiltless sleep that night.

The memory of that Mitsvah (a Jewish duty) changed me forever. I see the world and the people around me with new eyes and pay attention to them religiously. I am still grateful to her, because through our encounter I learned a huge lesson about my own self-centeredness. 

I learned that if you do a Mitsvah, even with the wrong attitude, you've still done the right thing; and by some divine law you will become a better person.

Now, whenever I become too absorbed into how important I am in this world, where personal freedom and personal choice is considered the ultimate, I look outward and upward to see where my next lesson will come from. I know I will get a spiritual jolt from an opportunity to help someone. The greatest chapter in the Bible is Leviticus 19. It starts out by telling us “You should be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.” 

Study the whole chapter and you will see that holiness is more important than successes, happiness, or even self-fulfillment. I do not do a Mitsvah (a Jewish duty) because it is what I want to do; and frequently, doing a Mitsvah isn’t fun. But Mitsvot lead us to holiness, and holiness connects us to God, a much higher plane than happiness. 

These are only two of millions of stories that show the transforming power of empathy and religious consciousness in individual lives that follow the teachings of God’s Prophets.  

As Prophet Isaiah states: “Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the Lord, who will have mercy on them, and to our God, who will freely pardon (them)”. (55:7

And as the Qur’an states: “Say, "O My servants who have transgressed against themselves (by sinning), do not despair of the mercy of Allah. Indeed, Allah forgives all sins. Indeed, it is He who is the Forgiving, the Merciful.” Return (in repentance) to your Lord and submit to Him before the punishment comes upon you. Then you will not be helped.” (39:53-54)

Rabbi Maller’s website is: www.rabbimaller.com

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