As we saw in our previous post, “Ramadan Rules,” the fiqh of fasting is pretty straightforward. It’s really just a matter of two things:
- Refraining from engaging in (sexual) intercourse from a bit before sunrise to sunset.
- Refraining from entering anything into the body cavity for the same time frame.
If you follow these two guidelines, then congrats! You’ve completed your fast.
But . . . that’s just the bare minimum.
Because fasting is a deeply spiritual act, it doesn’t just ask us to limit ourselves physically. In other words, fasting isn’t just physical clockwork—it’s mental work, heart work, and soul work.
Ramadan is a physical, mental, and spiritual training ground for us. It’s time to see how much we are capable of, so we can be energized and motivated for the rest of the year.
THE THREE DEGREES OF FASTING
Imam Ghazali (may Allah have mercy on him) was a Sunni Muslim polymath (a scholar who had mastered many disciplines from philosophy to theology to Sufism) born 1058 CE in the Seljuk Empire (current day Iran). For his efforts and impact in the region, he is considered the 11th Century’s mujaddid (Reviver). This is a special title given to one person who appears at the turn of every century “of the Islamic calendar to revive Islam, cleansing it of extraneous elements and restoring it to its pristine purity.”
Perhaps Imam Ghazali’s most poignant literary contribution was his multivolume book, Ihya Ulum al-Din (Revival of the Religious Sciences), in which he incorporated both Islamic Theology and Sufism in a way that is pertinent to every Muslim. It’s said that the Ihya became the most quoted text after the Qur’an and the Hadith.
In this book, Imam Ghazali broadens the conception of fasting by dividing it into three degrees.
- The Ordinary Fast—this is the type of fasting that most Muslims engage in
- The Extraordinary Fast—this is the type of fast that the elect of the Muslims fast
- Perfect Fasting—this is the type of fast that the super elect of the Muslims fast (a small segment of the Muslims who have mastered the first two types of fasting)
THE ORDINARY FAST:
To accomplish this fast one must abstain from eating, drinking, and sexual satisfaction. In effect, this is the most basic form of fasting—it’s the bare minimum. In Ramadan, most Muslims are only able to perform this kind of fast.
This is the type of fasting in which one protects one’s ears, eyes, tongue, hands and feet – and all other organs – free from sin.
This means that in addition to refraining from eating, drinking, and sexual satisfaction, one is also refraining from sins such as backbiting, lying, slandering, looking at things that one is not supposed to be looking at (i.e., one is lowering one’s gaze), eavesdropping, overeating, etc.
In effect, one is ridding the body of vices and instead, creating a vacuum that can be filled with virtue.
This type of fasting is considered fasting of the heart, in which one “fasts” from unworthy concerns and worldly thoughts. In effect, one is unconcerned and totally disregards everything except thoughts of Allah, the Great and Glorious. This kind of fast is broken by thinking or worrying about any worldly matter, except “those conducive to religious ends, since these constitute provision for the Hereafter and are not of this lower world.”
Those of the highest spiritual level have said that even thinking about what one will eat to break one’s fast at sunset will break this type of fasting. That’s how high this level of fasting is. For this reason, those who usually are able to perform this fast are prophets and true saints.
For more details on these different types of fasting, see THIS post by Seekersguidance.
While we might not be able to perform all three degrees of fasting, it’s worth trying. Allah ﷻ is the One who grant people tawfiq (success) and openings in being able to perform even good deeds. Perhaps with a lot of sincerity and dua’ (and practice), He will allow us to even reach the third degree of fasting. It is a lot more possible than one might imagine!
That being said, it’s important to at least aim for the second type of fasting in Ramadan. This is something we are all capable of doing at the current moment. Once you’ve mastered not breaking your fast physically (i.e., the first degree of fasting), aim for the second. Don’t try to eliminate every type of vice immediately. Rather, start with one vice that you will try to eliminate or maybe two. For example, use a habit tracker to keep a record of each day and whether or not you’ll backbite or eavesdrop. Try, each day of Ramadan, to eliminate these bad habits and then keep going! Who ever said people can only be righteous in Ramadan?
Continue to live your life in the spirit of Ramadan and eliminate bad habits and vices. Don’t stop until you’ve completely removed this habit or vice from your life.