By Dr. Yamina Bouguenaya
When we talk about fasting in Islam, the month of Ramadan comes to our mind. At the end of this month of fasting comes the Feast of the Breaking of the Fast. This is the first of the two main feasts of Islam. The second is the Feast of Sacrifice, and it is celebrated about two months after the end of Ramadan.
Why does the month of fasting culminate in feasting?
First let us remember that fasting is one of the pillars of Islam (“islam” literally means surrendering to the will of God and making peace, or silm); fasting brings about spiritual fulfillment and baraka, i.e. goods are multiplied many fold. For the surrenderer, the muslim, it is a month of blessings.
What happens when we fast? What is so special about fasting?
Often people say that when you fast, you remember the hungry and share with them. But I think if we don’t understand the meaning of fasting, we may think about food all day, and we may become more self-centered and forget about the poor and needy.
When muslims (I mean people who strive to surrender to the will of God) fast, they realize best how fragile the human body is, how weak and needy they are and how they are dependent on so many things that they don’t even think of usually. It is a situation that makes us wonder who we really are: created, needy beings. Our needs are countless but usually we are not aware of them because we take them for granted. And if we are created, if we are needy, then everyone and everything else is also needy; they are all created with all of their qualities. Everything belongs to the Maker of all alone. This is the beginning of the process of tawhid (i.e. unifying God).
Tawhid is not only to believe in one god, as opposed to two or three. It is to realize that all lovable attributes of perfection belong not to things themselves, but to their Maker. The Quran teaches tawhid in this way: “There is no deity (no one worth being loved and worshipped) saved He, to him alone belong the attributes of perfection.”
So with fasting, we experience tawhid. When we fast, we are hungry and the food tastes good; we appreciate the value of food; we realize how precious a gift it is and we are filled with gratitude. This makes us reflect on the countless gifts of mercy that we have been given, like health, sight, hearing, and so on—and everything becomes valuable; everything is a precious gift…. we realize then how great blessings air and water (that we may take for granted) are.
Everything becomes a sign speaking of God’s mercy, love, care and generosity and many other attributes of perfection. Food becomes a token of love, a sign of divine favor, a sign that turns our attention from the food itself to the bestower of the favor (food). We also understand that hunger has not been given to us just to fill our stomachs and derive temporary pleasure from it, but to make that pleasure a sign, a means to recognize the giver of the pleasure and turn to Him in love and gratitude.
And when the food is perceived as a divine favor, the pleasure it gives is far greater than the pleasure obtained from perishable matter. It gives a lasting delight: the pleasure of feeling in the presence of God’s everlasting mercy and love. This pleasure is the essence of worship; it is the seed of the pleasures of paradise.
That is why every time we break the fast, we experience the good news of ever-lasting pleasure, and we rejoice. In the month of fasting, every evening is a feast. And at the end of the month, the whole community celebrates the feast of the breaking of the fast. Feasting is centered on worship rather than food. The feast is celebrated with communal prayers and glorification of God that last three days. People visit each other and offer presents to each other to express their gratitude to God and reflect His attributes of bestowing, generosity and compassion in their own lives. Feasting is basically rejoicing at being the honored guests of the Merciful & Compassionate Sustainer, a state that we realize best when we fast with the intention of worshiping God and realizing tawhid.
Indeed, the more we realize how needy we are, the more we feel drowned in mercy, and our whole being is filled with gratitude for the Compassionate Sustainer, and those who surrender to this reality say: “Praise be to God, Sustainer of the worlds” (Qur’an : 2), i.e., Bestower of all gifts, the Maker of everything. And praising the Merciful Sustainer is the gist of worship.
Fasting reminds us of our needs. And our needs are the means to taste all things; our needs are the means to feel empathy for the needy, and everything is needy; through our needs we communicate with the rest of the world in the name of God. We realize that we are not alien to other people or to other beings. We all belong to the same Merciful and Compassionate Sustainer (Rabb Raheem). Even if the stomach yells, the spirit rejoices to this good news. Then we can share everything with everybody because we are not anxious about providing for our needs. The Merciful & Generous Sustainer has already taken care of them. We are liberated from the illusion of scarcity & rejoice in the baraka & abundance of the divine gifts in this world & in the next.
For them there are the glad tidings of happiness in the life of this world and in the life to come (10:64)
لَهُمُ الْبُشْرَى فِي الْحَياةِ الدُّنْيَا وَفِي الآخِرَةِ
Giving and sharing with others is not a sacrifice anymore because nothing is ours anyway. Everything is continuously given to us, and as we share with others we remember and confirm this reality of givenness & abundance. Then sharing becomes a source of joy, a source of realizing our position of honored guests of the
Sustainer of all worlds (Rabbu al-‘alameen).
When we fast with this awareness, we remember the true Owner of bounties and lovable things. Food is not mere stuff, but a gift from God that is to be eaten and used in the name of God. We then love food in the name of its maker who made it lovable and offered it to us as a token of love and friendship.
When we love things for themselves, we imagine that the qualities that make them lovable are inherent to them, which amounts to making them into idols. For love is worship. And the worship of idols is just the opposite of tawhid. And the Qur’an teaches that to ascribe partners to God is to ascribe the qualities manifested on things and beings, and in ourselves to the things themselves rather than to their Maker. “And God’s alone are the attributes of perfection; invoke Him then by these and stand aloof from all who dis- tort the meaning of His attributes” (i.e., by applying them to other beings or objects; Qur’an 7:80). That is, things are not beautiful. They are made beautifully!
When we are aware that the beauty in all created things belongs to the Maker alone, then we love the Maker alone and we love things in the name of their Maker. (That is why Muslims utter the phrase “In the name of God or bismillah” at the beginning of various daily tasks.) In other words, in order to submit to the cosmic reality of tawhid, we need to break our idols and “slaughter” our illusion that things are inherently good, that they are lovable in and of themselves as though they were independent of their maker.
This is what is symbolized by the sacrifice of a sheep at the feast of sacrifice. The feast of Sacrifice is the most important feast of the Muslim calendar. It is celebrated about two months after the feast of the breaking of the fast.
It concludes the Pilgrimage to Mecca. It lasts for four days and commemorates Abraham’s surrendering to the will
The feast reenacts Abraham’s faithfulness by sacrificing an animal. The family eats about a third of the meal and donates the rest to the poor and the neighbors. In Islam, Abraham is known as the father of tawhid. Abraham destroyed all the idols that his people worshipped; i.e., he destroyed idols in the outer world. He knew that none besides God was worth being worshipped. Ultimately, he had to destroy all idols in the inner heart so that his love would be for the sake of God alone. But how?
Not by renouncing the world physically, as he first taught. The Qur’an says that God accepted his intention, but he taught him that the renunciation was metaphorical. The solution was not to kill his son Ishmael but to love him in the name of his Maker. Abraham surrendered to God’s will because he knew that it was God Who had made him love his son, and he trusted in God’s infinite mercy and wisdom. So God taught him that, in order to confirm the reality of tawhid in his life, he didn’t need to leave the world and renounce his son, but rather Abraham had to love his son in the name of God. He didn’t have to renounce the world physically.
For what would be the point in the creation of the world then? And how would it have been possible to know God with all His beautiful attributes if His creation were to be forsaken? By imagining them? Surely, it is -as the Qur’an teaches- by witnessing God’s gifts/ signs/ ayaat of mercy that we can know Him and make friends with him. That is, in Islam, asceticism is only metaphorical; the world is not an obstacle to our relationship with God. On the contrary, everything in the world is a sign (aya) as the Qur’an says; it is speech telling about God’s beautiful names and attributes and making Him known to us.
This celebration is also the occasion of a great feast, where prayers and worship are at center. At the eve of this great feast, it is the tradition to recite the 112th sura of the Qur’an, the chapter of ikhlas (or Purity of Faith & the declaration of God’s perfection), a thousand times as a reminder of the reality of the story of Abraham and his son. During this feast, Muslims are asked to repeat the words allahu akbar (God is the greatest) after all their daily prayers.
So in this sense, fasting from idolatry is feasting and rejoicing at God’s friendship and love. This is what tawhid, which is the main purpose in the teachings of the Qur’an, is about. Tawhid is the gist of Islam, and the gist of worship, and the gist of fasting, and the gist of feasting. Conscious fasting is a means to experiencing the reality of tawhid, and for this reason it culminates in feasting and rejoicing in the good news of tawhid: all beloved attributes of perfection belong to God alone and not to mortal beings; therefore they are eternal; they are ours forever. Hence, we can say that truly fasting is feasting.