In this blog post, I want to share what I understand as guidance and truth in some verses related to what is called fasting, and which I call abstention because I do not take it to be some kind of legal or ritual duty. I take it to be a truth claim about my reality that revelation makes i.e. the relation between abstention and iman (or finding security) that I need to witness and affirm if i am to be guided by it. I cite the verses, my interpretive translations of them and then a short “response” that summarizes my response to the verse as I engage with its claims/message. The conclusions I reach are, to my mind, consistent with what is widely understood to be the purpose of “fasting” but along the way, I make interpretive choices that are consistent with my view that if I am going to affirm these verses as revelation, I need to be able to witness their truth. I take the verses to be signs that guide me here and now and not as laying down some legal or ritual injunction. I take the speaker to be the One who is the maker of the universe, revealing the meaning and truth of what he has made to me, the one looking to understand the meaning of my existence and anxious about what is going on and what will happen next. so..bismillah..
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ كُتِبَ عَلَيْكُمُ الصِّيَامُ كَمَا كُتِبَ عَلَى الَّذِينَ مِن قَبْلِكُمْ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُونََ
O you who are secure [or who would be secure], the abstention from things is ordained/written for you like it was written for those before you, so that you might be conscious/aware of God.
I realize that this is quite the opposite of how I interact with things actually. Does my feeling insecure about my life etc. related to this seemingly harmless, default attitude? I tend to take what I need when I can and satisfy the need. What abstention are you talking about, my maker? Is there a connection between feeling secure (iman – something I do want) and abstention? And is this connection a universal/timeless feature of reality so that its not particular to me or a time or place but a feature of reality that I can observe? Is abstention ordained for me by you, the maker of the universe? Is it ordained (a must) for those who would attain security? I need to be able to witness and confirm this news.
أَيَّامًا مَّعْدُودَاتٍ فَمَن كَانَ مِنكُم مَّرِيضًا أَوْ عَلَى سَفَرٍ فَعِدَّةٌ مِّنْ أَيَّامٍ أُخَرَ وَعَلَى الَّذِينَ يُطِيقُونَهُ فِدْيَةٌ طَعَامُ مِسْكِينٍ فَمَن تَطَوَّعَ خَيْرًا فَهُوَ خَيْرٌ لَّهُ وَأَن تَصُومُواْ خَيْرٌ لَّكُمْ إِن كُنتُمْ تَعْلَمُونَ
Numbered days [so a kind of training for a few days might suffice you suggest?]. But whoever of you is ill, or on a journey, some other duration of days; and it is on those who have the capacity for it to offer food to the needy as a ransom. And whoever does more good, does good unto himself thereby; to abstain is to do good unto yourselves – if you but knew it.
When I am travelling and when I am sick, I often can’t “take” things because I am sick and because I am travelling! Yes! I will feel hungry when I am sick and I feel thirsty when I travel and when I eat and drink, these states of being (being sick and being in travel) add an extra layer of “causes” or “reasons” for fulfilling my need (as if I would feel driven by sickness and by being in travel to consume anything). Sickness and traveling are also reasons why I may abstain from things simply because of being sick and traveling. So the days [of abstention] that you say you “ordain” for me need to be other than these, for the training to work? And you say, those who can should feed the poor as “fidya”? What is it a ransom for? What is being effaced in the feeding of the poor? It’s a question for me. I don’t assume “sin” is going to be effaced. But some wrong is going to be made right I suppose. And the good one does is for oneself? OK yes! So I am not being good to myself without abstention? And a person with the capacity to feed someone should feed as a ransom/cleansing and this is a sign for me to reflect? Is there a potential “impurity” or “injustice” that a person with a capacity to do good (give food to the poor) can do against himself that can be made right by giving it as “ransom”? And you say abstention is for my own good? And you are saying I can know this? And you want me to know this?
شَهْرُ رَمَضَانَ الَّذِيَ أُنزِلَ فِيهِ الْقُرْآنُ هُدًى لِّلنَّاسِ وَبَيِّنَاتٍ مِّنَ الْهُدَى وَالْفُرْقَانِ فَمَن شَهِدَ مِنكُمُ الشَّهْرَ فَلْيَصُمْهُ وَمَن كَانَ مَرِيضًا أَوْ عَلَى سَفَرٍ فَعِدَّةٌ مِّنْ أَيَّامٍ أُخَرَ يُرِيدُ اللّهُ بِكُمُ الْيُسْرَ وَلاَ يُرِيدُ بِكُمُ الْعُسْرَ وَلِتُكْمِلُواْ الْعِدَّةَ وَلِتُكَبِّرُواْ اللّهَ عَلَى مَا هَدَاكُمْ وَلَعَلَّكُمْ تَشْكُرُونَ
It is the month of Ramadan (a period of time that represents scarcity, discomfort, harshness, unbearable heat etc.) in which came down the Quran, a guidance for people, clear evidences of guidance, the distinguisher. Hence, whoever of you witnesses the month (such a period in your life), abstain in it; and the one that is ill, or on a journey, a number of other days. God wants for you ease, and does not want for you hardship; but that you complete the period of abstention and so that you extol God for what He has guided you to, and perhaps you are grateful.
The Quran is going to help me distinguish something – I will be guided by it when I practice abstention (but not the kind brought on by circumstances such as travel or illness). A voluntary restraint on the meeting of my needs? Why? And you say this is because you want ease for me? Sounds paradoxical and counterintuitive to me. I should refrain from my meeting my daily needs? You say you want me to complete a period of abstention so that I can come to extol you on account of guidance you will give me. So you are saying that in my abstention is a guidance, a message that is coming down to me? And this message would lead me to be grateful? Yes, I want to be guided and grateful. So tell me then: what is it about abstention, abstention that is not on account of intervening causes such as illness and travel, that I need to understand to free myself of harm to myself and to instead do good to myself? What is freed/ransomed in me or about me when I feed the needy or, generally, exercise my agency to meet my own or someone else’s need?
وَإِذَا سَأَلَكَ عِبَادِي عَنِّي فَإِنِّي قَرِيبٌ أُجِيبُ دَعْوَةَ الدَّاعِ إِذَا دَعَانِ فَلْيَسْتَجِيبُواْ لِي وَلْيُؤْمِنُواْ بِي لَعَلَّهُمْ يَرْشُدُونَ
And if my servants ask you about me – behold, I am near; I respond to the call of him who calls, whenever he calls unto Me: let them, then, respond unto Me, and find security in Me, so that they might follow the right way.
Oh! So here is my question reframed and answered. My question, you say, is actually about where you are! Is there a One who meets my needs? Is there one who will meet my needs! Is someone meeting my needs? So someone is aware of me and my needs and is meeting them and I am not aware of this, imagining that I am on my own? So abstention is about finding YOU near AND answering my needs! It is about realizing that my relation with the things in this world is that I am calling/asking/supplicating to you [when I try to fill a need, mine or someone else’s) and it is You who is responding to my call by answering and fulfilling the need? You are here with me as the one who is answering the needs you have given me and others, and I am not aware of this! I think I am satisfying my needs and the needs of others! I take on the burden of fulfilling my own needs and the needs of others and I need to be ransomed! Indeed I will find security if I am aware of YOU as the One who sees and answers all who call to you and depend on you to meet their needs. How will this look like in my life? Can you make these signs even clearer?
أُحِلَّ لَكُمْ لَيْلَةَ الصِّيَامِ الرَّفَثُ إِلَى نِسَآئِكُمْ هُنَّ لِبَاسٌ لَّكُمْ وَأَنتُمْ لِبَاسٌ لَّهُنَّ عَلِمَ اللّهُ أَنَّكُمْ كُنتُمْ تَخْتانُونَ أَنفُسَكُمْ فَتَابَ عَلَيْكُمْ وَعَفَا عَنكُمْ فَالآنَ بَاشِرُوهُنَّ وَابْتَغُواْ مَا كَتَبَ اللّهُ لَكُمْ وَكُلُواْ وَاشْرَبُواْ حَتَّى يَتَبَيَّنَ لَكُمُ الْخَيْطُ الأَبْيَضُ مِنَ الْخَيْطِ الأَسْوَدِ مِنَ الْفَجْرِ ثُمَّ أَتِمُّواْ الصِّيَامَ إِلَى الَّليْلِ وَلاَ تُبَاشِرُوهُنَّ وَأَنتُمْ عَاكِفُونَ فِي الْمَسَاجِدِ تِلْكَ حُدُودُ اللّهِ فَلاَ تَقْرَبُوهَا كَذَلِكَ يُبَيِّنُ اللّهُ آيَاتِهِ لِلنَّاسِ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَتَّقُونَ
Agreeable to you is the night/end/occlusion of abstention, [agreeable is ] coitus with your women – [but remember they are not just something that satisfies your desire]: they are a garment for you [provided by the One as a sign] and you are a garment for them [provided by the One as a sign]. God knows you have wronged/deceived yourselves [in how you approach them and think about them i.e. as sexual objects]. And so God turns to you and forgives [or erases this deception/injustices from] you. And so now [as opposed to what you have been doing]: lie with them and [instead of seeing just a temporary gratification of desire] take what God has ordained/willed for you [ as a sign, so see Him as the One answering you and demonstrating his care for you…and so do not see it as just something that happens to be pleasurable/agreeable to you]. [also, in the same way] Eat and drink [i.e. in this way i.e. as things ordained for you by God, not just things that happen to be there and that happen to be pleasing and useful for you] so that the difference between the white/guidance line and the dark/misguidance of the breaking of the dawn of guidance [for it does gradually appear like the breaking of dawn] becomes clear for you. Then, complete [or make whole] the abstention [i.e.see what you take as coming from your God and do not take it as something there only to fulfill a desire or need..see it as a sign] till it is night [i.e. till, again, you find yourself falling back into the night of forgetfulness and forgetting God and just focused on the immediate need]. [So remember then], Don’t [just] lie with them [i.e. the women] when [actually what is happening is that] you are dwelling in places of prostration [where you are receiving bounties from God and abstaining from simply taking what you need and trying to enjoy it heedlessly i.e. without becoming aware of the One who is meeting your needs]. These are the limits of God so do not approach/break them [i.e. abstain from taking except as bounty from God for otherwise you will harm only yourself when those “bounties” disappear or when you find needs you cannot fulfill in this world, such as immortality and perfect contentment etc]. This is how God makes clear His signs [messages about how bounteous and generous He is] so that perhaps you will be aware/conscious of Him.
I have already added a lot of commentary in the translation of this last verse. In short, abstention is the refraining from fulfilling a need by way of taking an attitude of self-sufficiency, immediate gratification WITHOUT any awareness of the One who provides what one needs as signs of His presence, awareness of my needs, and compassion for me. Abstention is to prostrate before the One and receive from Him so that everything that I take (food, water, intimacy and all else and whatever goes to others from me) are signs for me, signs of His sustainership and merciful care and knowledge of my needs. In these needs, if I don’t just gratify them as “animal desires” and notice the comfort and care and compassion they point to, it is good for me as a human being. I would have found my eternally caring sustainer and lord in the meeting of my smallest needs.
Only if I abstain from meeting my needs heedlessly that I can become concious of the One from whom I actually receive what I need. I can be conscious of the One who gives all I need to me, employing many things as the means by which He provides and cares for me. It is excellent to receive all I need from the One who owns all, instead of just taking a thing and gratifying the need temporarily and remaining unaware of the One who wills and ordains the merciful fulfillment of my needs and has the power to fulfill them perfectly and eternally. Abstention is the mount by which I reach security.
Whether Ramadan is a specific month of some calendar or not is irrelevant. What is important as far as the Quran is concerned, is whether I the Quran’s message, God’s answering of my needs and God as the source to which I and all things prostrate for all we need, here and now and forever, reaches me or not. And whether or not I receive this guidance and having recognized its truth and all the good it does for me, do I then glorify him and thank him. Why would I not!