This is the second part in our Living a better life series. You can read the first article here.
In part 2 we're discussing fasting and charity. Although some forms of fasting and giving charity must be fulfilled as part of our obligations as Muslims, it's easy to overlook the true benefits of each. In this article we're asking why we should fast more frequently and more thoughtfully than what it is obligatory. We're looking at how we can be mindful of our relationship with food and the ten benefits of hunger as written by Imam Ghazali. We'll also explore the benefits of giving charity and why we should consider and take advantage of the rewards in doing them voluntarily, outside of fasting Ramadan and paying zakat.
In sha Allah this article benefits you, please share and pass on the reminders to others.
This is the second article in our 8 part series. Part 1 discussed the following tips about prayer:
1. Be more present in your salah
2. Pray more
Did you start the challenge in Part 1? Don't miss new challenges at the bottom of this article!
3. Make fasting a habit
Fasting, like salah is an obligation prescribed to us. While fasting only 29 or 30 days of Ramadan each year is obligatory, it's also a clearly established sunnah to fast throughout the year and the benefits of it are outlined in the Qur'an, hadith, and by modern science. Fasting is made particularly significant by Allah Himself. Found in Sahih Muslim, the Messenger of Allah, sallallahu alayhi wa sallam said:
Allah the Exalted and Glorious said: 'All acts of worship a man does, belong to him, except fasting which is for Me, and I will reward you for it.'
Why should we fast outside of Ramadan? The Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him used to fast throughout the year. It is narrated in Sahih Muslim that Aisha, may Allah be pleased with her, when asked whether the Messenger, sallallahu alayhi wa sallam fasted a full month besides Ramadan, said:
I never knew that he fasted a full month other than Ramadan nor did he neglect to observe fast in any month until he died.
This means the Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, kept fasts in every month throughout the year, and when asked about fasting on Mondays, said (found in Sahih Muslim):
It is the day I was born and the day the Revelation was sent down to me.
What if we have missed fasts to make up? First we should strive to make up any fasts that are owed and then try to include more voluntary fasts throughout the year. During part of the year there will be much shorter fasting periods with fajr starting in the early morning and sunset being earlier in the day which makes it easier to fast. Don't miss the opportunities for rewards!
What is the purpose of fasting? Allah tells us in the Qur'an, in surah Al-Baqarah ayah 183 that the purpose of fasting is to become more mindful of Allah, to gain more God-consciousness. This will be discussed further below.
You who believe, fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may be mindful of God
Which kind of fasting should I do? Imam Ghazali, in Inner Dimensions of Islamic Worship (affiliate link) describes fasting in three grades:
Ordinary Fasting means abstaining from food, drink and sexual satisfaction.
Special Fasting means keeping one's ears, eyes, tongue, hands and feet - and all other organs - free from sin.
Extra-special Fasting means fasting of the heart from unworthy concerns and worldly thoughts, in total disregard of everything but God, Great and Glorious is He.
For a fast to be valid under Islamic jurisprudence, ordinary fasting will suffice. But to gain even more benefits from it we could strive to complete special and extra-special fasting too. You can read more about fasting here.
4. Eat less
Understanding the virtues of fasting cannot happen without acknowledging the harms of overeating. Fasting causes us to be more mindful of Allah and have a stronger connection to and awareness of our purpose (to worship Allah). As mentioned in part 1, food, like all matters of this world, is something we can become unnecessarily attached to, which gets in the way of us fulfilling our purpose.
This might be the most difficult tip on the list to establish, because it's not something we automatically associate with our faith or something we can designate a set time or day to complete. Yet, just like fasting itself, eating less is a behaviour mentioned in the sunnah. Found as hasan by at-Tirmidhi, the Messenger of Allah, sallallahu alayhi wa sallam said:
A human being has never filled any vessel which is worse than his own belly.
Imam Ghazali describes ten benefits of hunger, the full text of which can be found here, that explain the reasons why we should strive to eat less so we can gain more in increased worship, good health, continuing gratitude and to avoid sin.
A brief list of Imam Ghazali's ten benefits of hunger are below, taken from the full text linked above.
1. Purification of the heart and awakening of intuition as well as giving vent to perception.
Satiation causes dullness and blinds the heart. It increases fuzziness in the brain, in the same manner as does drunkenness, until it overpowers the elements of thought, burdens the heart, and slows down both the thinking process and quickness of perception.
2. Tenderness and purity of heart, which prepare it to attain the delight of contemplation and the impact of dhikr.
Occasionally the heart might soften under certain circumstances permit dhikr a greater impact there on; indeed, it might even delight in contemplation. A precondition for this experience however is an empty stomach.
3. Submission, humiliation, the elimination of ungodliness, rejoicefulness, and what is more evil, namely oppressiveness and obliviousness of God Almighty.
If man does not recognise the abject nature of his self and its limitations, he cannot see the glory of the Lord, nor His power.
4. Not forgetting the affliction of God and His torment, nor for those afflicted to forget; for, he who is satiated is oblivious of the one who hungers, and of hunger itself.
The mindful servant does not see the affliction in others without remembering the affliction of the Hereafter.
5. Curbing the lusts of all defiances. To take charge of the self is to overcome evil.
The source of all defiances is lust and power, and the ingredients thereof. Without doubt, lust is (a form of) nourishment; curbing it weakens every desire and urge.
6. Warding off sleep and (in maintaining) continuous wakefulness.
He who satisfies his appetite drinks a lot, and he who drinks a lot sleeps a lot.
7. Facilitating continuous worship.
Food prevents many acts of worship because it requires time, thus preoccupying one with eating.
8. The soundness of body.
It is achieved by eating less and warding off sickness caused by excessive food intake and by much mixing in stomach and veins.
9. Lessening the intake.
He who eats less requires little money; but he who is accustomed to satiation becomes a constant debtor to his stomach, which has him by the throat every day asking him: "what will you eat today?"
10. Being responsive and generous.
...by giving food to orphans and to the poor so that on the Day of Resurrection one would dwell in the shade of His generosity in accordance with a tradition that states: "what one eats is stored in a public lavatory; and what one contributes is stored in the grace of God Almighty ."
5. Give frequently and unconditionally
We know from what Allah has told us in the Qur'an that: giving charity atones for bad deeds (2:271), doing so secretly holds rich rewards (4:114), and giving for the sake of Allah means double reward in Ahkirah (57:18). You can read more about the practical and spiritual benefits of charity and different ways to give in this post.
Imam Ghazali describes in his book Inner Dimensions of Islamic Worship (affiliate link) that the purpose and significance of zakat is a) testing the degree of love for God, b) elimination of miserliness, and c) expression of gratitude.
The Messenger of Allah, sallallahu alayhi wa sallam, has also told us that, "charity does not decrease wealth", so why are we sometimes so reluctant to give?
In order to take advantage of the benefits of giving charity we need to understand a few things. The first is that our wealth does not belong to us. All we have is only by Allah and just as easily as He has given it, He can take it away. The second is that if we are in a position to give charity for the sake of Allah in order to gain reward from it, then we must understand this under the context of Allah being the One that has given us the provision and the will to give and seek His pleasure. We cannot credit ourselves for having made enough money to share some in charity, or for being so kind that we want to help others. It all comes from Allah. Thirdly, we should be grateful for the very possibility itself (the means we have to be able to give charity), and then for the opportunity to give in hope of pleasing our Lord and gaining rewards.
What stops us from giving? Something that can stop us from giving freely is that we incorrectly judge the circumstance in which the opportunity to give presents itself. If we understand the points above it is easier to overcome this hurdle. We cannot look at an opportunity to please Allah as something that we can navigate through critical thinking. If we have an opportunity to do something that pleases our Lord, then we should take it because, as mentioned above, it is Allah that has provided the means and the opportunity and the will for us to do something that pleases Him. Who are we to deny it?
Read more about what to avoid when giving charity and different ways we can give sadaqah here.
Now for some accountability! Here are your (and my) challenges to really implement what we've discussed:
Fast on Mondays for a month
Wait until you actually feel hungry before eating, try it for a week
Give unconditionally (and nonjudgmentally) to the next 5 needy (including homeless, etc) people you encounter
Let me know how you get on in the comments or on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and read Part 3 here: Examples of dhikr and the value of kinship in Islam
A final thought from Inner Dimensions of Islamic Worship (affiliate link):
Anyone who puts a bag of food between his heart and his breast becomes blind to this revelation. Nor is keeping the stomach empty sufficient to remove the veil, unless one also empties the mind of everything but God, Great and Glorious is He. That is the entire matter, and the starting point of it all is cutting down on food.