Ramadan: From Physical Fasting to Spiritual Fasting

Shahru ramaḍāna alladhī unzila fīhi’l-qur’ānu hudan lilnasi wabayyinātin mina’l-hudā wa’l-furqāni fa-man shahida minkumu’l-shahra falyaṣumhu

“The Month of Ramaḍān in which was sent down the Qur’ān a guidance for mankind, and manifest proofs of the guidance and the criterion (between truth and falsehood).  So whomever among you witnesses the Month, let him fast it.”

Holy Qur’ān 2:185

Fasting (ṣawm) is among the seven pillars (arkān) of classical Shī‘ī Ismā‘īlī Islām and the five pillars of classical Sunnī Islām.  For Ismā‘īlī gnosis as taught by the Ismā‘īlī Muslim theosophers , each pillar (rukn) of Islām has an exoteric form (ẓāhir), an esoteric meaning (bāṭin), and a spiritual reality which is the esoteric beyond the esoteric (bāṭin al-bāṭin).

The level of exoteric form is sharī‘ah (religious law), the level of esoteric meaning is ṭarīqah (spiritual path), and the level of spiritual reality is ḥaqīqah (spiritual truth).  Other Muslim theologians recognize these three levels as submission (islām), faith (imān), and beauty (iḥsan).  Corresponding to these three levels in the human being are the physical body (jism) or sensual/animal soul, the rational soul (nafs al-nātiqah), and the heart (qalb) or spiritual intellect (‘aql).

The word ṣawm literally means ‘to abstain’ from something.  Accordingly, in Ismā‘īlī gnosis, there are three levels of fasting (ṣawm):

1) Exoteric Fasting (ẓāhirī ṣawm)

2) Esoteric Fasting (bāṭinī ṣawm)
3) Real Fasting (ḥaqīqī ṣawm)

1. Exoteric Fasting (ẓāhirī sawm)

The practice of Exoteric Fasting from food and drink from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan was first established when the early Muslim community lived in Medinah among Jewish and Christian tribes. Before the Qur’anic instruction to fast for the month of Ramadan was revealed, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his family) had instructed his followers to fast on the tenth day of the month of Muharram as the Jews did, as well as on some other occasions. These former practices of fasting were replaced by the Ramaḍān fast, whose exact rules also underwent further modification by the Prophet: for example, sexual relations were initially forbidden by the Prophet during the nights of Ramaḍān, but the Prophet later changed this rule and allowed sexual relations (see Qur’an 2:187) during the nights (see Francis E. Peters, Muhammad and the Origins of Islam, 215-216). According to the Holy Qur’an, fasting was prescribed for the believers so that they may learn taqwah – a word which can mean piety, mindfulness, or God-consciousness.

Yā ayyuhā alladhīna āmanū kutiba ‘alaykumu’l-siyāmu kamā ‘alā alladhīna min qabilikum la‘allakum tattaqūna

“O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may do taqwā. 

Holy Qur’ān 2:183

Naṣir al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī explains the purpose of Exoteric Fasting to ‘imprint’ a noble ‘form’ upon the human soul:

“Fasting (rūza), which similarly restrains the soul from its [base] inclinations, was introduced so that for thirty days a year, and every day [from dawn] until night [fall], one closes one’s mouth to food and drink, and avoids and denies oneself appetizing things which one’s taste is accustomed and which are agreeable to one’s nature.  One should be steadfast in this self-control and self-denial in this so that gradually and by degrees, a form will become imprinted in the soul, unto such a point that all one’s limbs and faculties, whether internal or external, become restrained from [pursuit of] improper things.”

– Naṣir al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī, (The Paradise of Submission, 149, Click Here to Read

The direct agent of Exoteric Fasting is the sensual soul (i.e. the animal soul and the vegetative soul).  As Exoteric Fasting purifies the body and restrains the sensual soul, it also influences and imprints a spiritual form upon the human soul.

Exoteric Fasting (ẓāhiri ṣawm) is performed during the month of Ramaḍān as one of the practices of the sharī‘ah.  The mandatory nature of the sharī‘ah continues through the Cycles of Prophethood until the Cycle of Resurrection (qiyāmah) – when the sharī‘ah is spiritualized and its outer forms are no longer obligatory upon the believers. (See Nāsir-i Khusraw, Khwan al-Ikhwan, Wajh-i Dīn; Faquir Muhammad Hunzai, The Ethical Philosophy of Nasir-i Khusraw, Click Here to Read).

In many places today it must become commonplace for people to sleep during most of the day – the time of fasting – and then feast through the entire night when fasting is not required. In many such places more food is consumed by people during the month of Ramaḍān than any other month. In such cases the spirit of fasting becomes lost and obscured. However, the Exoteric Fasting is merely the outermost layer of this practice.

2. Esoteric Fasting (bāṭini sawm)

All the exoteric practices of the sharī‘ah (religious law) have an inner meaning or ta’wīl.  The ta’wīl of Exoteric Fasting (ẓāhirī ṣawm) is Esoteric Fasting (bāṭinī ṣawm).

Whereas Exoteric Fasting is to keep one’s mouth closed by abstaining from food and drink, Esoteric Fasting is to keep one’s mouth closed by abstaining from speaking of the the esoteric knowledge of revelation (tanzīl) and interpretation (ta’wīl) to those who lack the capacity to receive it:

The meaning of the fast (rūza) is to observe the taqīyya, i.e. precautionary dissimulation, and to keep secret from the enemies the tenets of the religion which is to be preached (dīn-i da’wat). The day of ‘Id is (the symbol of) the day of the Resurrection of Resurrections (qiyāmat-i qiyāmat), when, by the omnipotence of the command of the Qā’im, all people will be over powered by argument and proof.”

– Sayyidnā Khaykhwah-i Harātī, (Kalām-i Pīr, transl. Ivanow, Chapter 7

This practice of concealing sacred or esoteric knowledge is called taqīyyah. The Qur’ān (2:183) states that the purpose of fasting is to develop taqwā.  The words taqwā and taqīyyah come from the same Arabic root (w-q-y) which means ‘piety, devotion, godliness, mindfulness’ and therefore, taqwā and taqīyyah are ultimately one in meaning.

In Shī‘ī Islam, the act of taqīyyah – ‘keeping secret’ the esoteric teachings of the Imāms – is a fundamental principle of faith:

“Nine tenths of the Religion consists of taqīyyah; whoever does not practice this has no Religion; Taqīyyah is part of my Religion and that of my ancestors; whoever does not keep taqīyyah is devoid of Faith.”

– Imam Ja‘far al-Ṣādiq, (Muhammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, The Divine Guide in Early Shi‘ism, 129, Click Here to Read

The sacred knowledge of the Imāms is a difficult, subtle, and sometimes unbearable gnosis. One must practice precaution and discretion in both receiving and sharing esoteric knowledge:

“Our teaching is difficult, particularly arduous, exasperating, distressing.  Offer it to people in small quantities.  To those who acknowledge it, tell more, but avoid telling more to him who denies it.”

– Imam ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib, (Muhammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, The Spirituality of Shi‘i Islam, 294, Click Here to Read

For this reason this knowledge must be secret and safeguarded from those who lack the capacity to hear it.  This is the meaning of Esoteric Fasting: “The fast keeper signifies the one who maintains silence” (Nāsir-i Khusraw).

“With regard to the ritual fast, we have already seen that it consists in observing the discipline of the arcane, ‘in keeping the secret of your Imām‘, is not surrendering anything imprudently to enemies and to the profane.”

– Henry Corbin, (Temple and Contemplation, 172, Click Here to Read

The relationship between Exoteric Fasting and Esoteric Fasting is based on symbolism and correspondence. In Exoteric Fasting, it is forbidden to eat and drink during the day, but it is permissible to eat and drink during the night.  The ‘day’ symbolizes the realm of the exoteric and the ‘night’ symbolizes the realm of the esoteric.  Similarly, the rational soul has its ‘food’ and ‘drink’ just as the body does.  The ‘food’ of the rational soul is the knowledge of revelation (tanzīl) and the ‘drink’ of the rational soul is the knowledge of its interpretation (ta’wīl).  In Esoteric Fasting, this means that one must abstain from teaching and seeking the esoteric knowledge (bāṭini ‘ilm) of the tanzīl (symbolzed by ‘food’) and ta’wīl (symbolized by ‘drink’) in the exoteric domain (symbolized by the ‘day’), but one is permitted to teach and seek the esoteric knowledge (bāṭini ‘ilm) in the esoteric domain (symbolized by the ‘night’).  The connection between eating/drinking and the esoteric (baṭin) is shown by the relationship between the words bātin (‘esoteric’) and baṭn (‘belly’) – which share the same Arabic root (b-ṭ-n) meaning ‘interior, hidden, secret’ and are thus related in meaning.  This shows that only the esoteric knowledge (bātini ‘ilm) should be ‘eaten’ (i.e. internalized) into one’s innermost nature (baṭn).

A diagram of the correspondence between Exoteric Fasting (ẓāhirī ṣawm) and Esoteric Fasting (bāṭinī ṣawm) is shown below:

Click to Enlarge Chart

The first Esoteric Fast was enjoined upon the Prophet Adam.  According to the Qur’ān, Adam was prohibited from eating from the sacred Tree in Paradise:

Wayā ādamu uskun anta wazawjuka’l-janata fakulā mina ḥaythu shi’tumā walā taqrabā hadhihi’l-shajarata fatakūnā mina al-ẓalimīna

“O Adam, dwell you and your wife in the garden and eat of from where you wish but do not approach this Tree lest you both be among the wrongdoers.”

Holy Qur’ān 7:19

The Tree symbolizes the supreme esoteric knowledge – known as the sacred science of Resurrection (‘ilm al-qiyāmah).  Adam was not permitted to divulge this supreme esoteric knowledge in his time – this was his ‘fast’.  However, Iblis tempted Adam and he was unable to keep his promise as he ‘tasted’ from the Tree – that is, he attempted to access and communicate the esoteric gnosis which was not meant for him:

Fawaswasa lahumā’l-shaytan liyubdiyā lahumā mā wūriya ‘anhumā min sawātihimā waqāla mā nahākumā rabbukumā ‘an hadhihi’l-shajarati illā an takūnā malakayn aw takūnā mina’l-khālidīna wa qāsamahumā innī lakumā lamina’l-naṣiḥīna
Fadallāhumā bighurūrin falammā dhāqā’l-shajarata badat lahumā sawātuhumā waṭafiqā yakhṣifāni ‘alayhimā min waraqi’l-janati

“And the Satan whispered to them to make apparent to both of them what was concealed from both of them of their shame.  And he said ‘Did not your Lord forbid you both from this Tree except that you become angels or that you become of the immortals’.  And he swore to them both: ‘I am to both of you among the sincere advisors’.
So he made both of them fall by deception.  Then when they both tasted the Tree their shame became apparent to them and they began to cover themselves from the leaves of the Garden.” 

Holy Qur’ān 7:21-22

Henry Corbin comments on the above verses and remarks that Adam broke the rule of the Esoteric Fasting:

So Adam ‘breaks the fast’, the vow of silence which is the ritual prescription par excellence of the Esoteric Order.  ‘To break the fast’ is to taste of the Tree of Knowledge that is the preserve of the actualized Angel.  At the same time, it is to strip oneself of the protective veil of symbol.”

– Henry Corbin, (Temple and Contemplation, 108, Click Here to Read

The Virgin Mary was also instructed to observe this Esoteric Fasting.  The Holy Qur’ān narrates that God instructed Mary:

Fakulī wa-ishrabī waqarrī ‘aynan fa-immā tarayinna mina’l-bashari aḥadan faqūlī innī nadhartu lilrraḥmāni ṣawman falan ukallima’l-yawma insiyyan

“So eat and drink and refresh the eye. Then if you see any mortal, say: Surely I have vowed a fast to the Beneficent God, so I shall not speak to any man today.”

Holy Qur’ān 19:26

A close analysis of the verse shows that the Virgin Mary’s fast is not merely to refrain from speaking in general – as she still ‘speaks’ to declare that she is fasting – but rather, her fast is from a particularly kind of speaking which involves the communication of sacred knowledge to those who are not prepared for it.

The ultimate agent and object of Esoteric Fasting is the rational soul of the human being.  Just as Exoteric Fasting disciplines the physical body and the animal soul, Esoteric Fasting disciplines the rational soul.  As Esoteric Fasting restrains and purifies the rational soul, it also helps to awaken the faculty of the spiritual intellect (‘aql) which resides in the heart (qalb).

Just as the Exoteric Fasting lasts until the end of the month of Ramaḍān and ends on the day of ‘Id, Esoteric Fasting is practiced by the initiates (murīds) of the esoteric ṭarīqahs during the Cycle of the Religious Law (dawr al-sharī‘ah) until the advent of the Cycle of Resurrection (dawr al-qiyāmah) when gnosis and esoteric knowledge can be revealed and shared openly.

3. The Real Fasting (haqīqī ṣawm)

The Exoteric Fasting and the Esoteric Fasting together form a pair:  form and meaning, symbol and symbolized.  But a pair is always resolved in a third term which is the spiritual reality (ḥaqīqah) of both components. The spiritual reality of fasting is called ‘Real Fasting’ (ḥaqīqī ṣawm).   Naṣir al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī explains the reality (ḥaqīqah) of fasting:

“The fourth [pillar] is fasting, meaning that one has to surrender his seven exoteric and esoteric faculties to the command of God.

– Naṣir al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī, (Shī‘ī Interpretations of Islam, 41)

“…to refrain from every thought, word and deed which does not conform to reason and is not permitted by the intellect, that is to say, not bound to the Command of the Truthful Master.”

– Naṣir al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī, (The Paradise of Submission, 149, Click Here to Read

In Exoteric Fasting (ẓāhirī ṣawm), the faculties of the body and the animal soul are restrained and made to abstain from food, drink and sensual pleasure.
In Esoteric Fasting (bāṭinī ṣawm), the rational soul (nafs al-nāṭiqah) restrains its internal faculties such as speech and abstains from communicating the esoteric knowledge of revelation (tanzīl) and interpretation (ta’wīl) to those who are not ready to receive it.
In Real Fasting (ḥaqīqī ṣawm), the intellect (‘aql) restrains both the physical faculties of the body and the internal faculties of the soul and abstains from anything (in thought, word, or deed) which is contrary to the Command of God.

The spiritual discipline of Real Fasting is best explained in the teachings of the Nizārī Ismā‘īlī Imāms.  The twenty-sixth Imām, Mawlānā ‘Alā’ al-Dīn Muḥammad of Alamūt – replying to questions asked of him about fasting – defines Real Fasting as follows:

“This Jamā‘at has never set aside the Real Prayer and Fasting that God has ordered, and will never do so. In the past they have always summoned mankind to Real Prayer and Fasting, and with the passage of time they have done this, and will continue this summons. As for the Fasting of this Jamā‘at, whereas in the realm of the sharī‘ah, out of twelve months which make up the year, for one month, from dawn to dusk, one closes his mouth against eating and drinking, the rule of this Jamā‘at requires that during the whole of one’s life one is not permitted to abandon the Real Fast even for the twinkling of an eye.  They keep not just one organ of the body closed, but rather all seven external and internal organs against that which God has prohibited, so that they may always preserve a state of Fasting. ”

– Imām ‘Alā al-Dīn Muḥammad, (Naṣir al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī, Rawḍā-yi Taslīm, transl. Badakhchani, Representation No. 28, 242

The thirty-fourth Nizārī Imām Mawlānā Shāh Gharīb Mīrzā (Imām al-Mustānsir-bi’llāh III) of Anjudān instructs his murīds to maintain the Real Fasting for the entire year:

“The whole year you must fast, just as the Exoterists (ẓāhiriyān) fast one month. The meaning of this fast is austerity. Control yourselves; keep yourselves away from bad qualities, evil and indecent actions and devilish acts, so that the mirror of your hearts may be gradually polished. Also know that those thirty days during which the Exoterists (ẓāhiriyān) fast, the (real) fast lasts only one single day. They fast thirty days only in order not to miss that single day, and this is also a symbol (ramz). And just as they keep on fasting for thirty days in order to fast on that particular day, so you must through the whole of your lives experience difficulties and suffering for the sake of the attainment of the vision (liqā) of the Creator, you must be patient, persevering in austerities, and keeping your inner self fasting for as long as you live.”

– Imām Shāh Gharīb Mīrzā, (Pandiyāt-i Jawanmardī, transl. Ivanow, 37

The Imām also specifies the spiritual reality (ḥaqīqah) of the fasting of the different organs of the body – the ears, the eye, the head, the tongue, the heart, the hands, and the feet:

“The fast of the head means to treat one’s own head with the same humility as the feet of other people, casting out from one’s head the lust for superiority, greatness and pride, because greatness and superiority are only suitable to the all-great substance of the Truth (Ḥaqq), who is eternal, and the King of the Authority. The fasting of the eye means that one must keep away coveting looks from the women who are not lawful to one. The fasting of the ear means that one should abstain from listening to slander. The fasting of the tongue means that one should keep one’s tongue from uttering abuse or slander. The fasting of the heart means to keep the heart free from doubt. The fasting of the foot is to hold one’s foot back from a wrong step. The fasting of the hand is to keep all one’s limbs away from treachery so that they may not do evil. This especially applies to one’s tongue which must be kept from uttering lies. And there is no greater lie than the denial of (the existence of) the Imam, saying that he has disappeared. God has cursed liars, who talk about such a disappearance (of the Imam), and make the ignorant people follow them in order to enjoy their short lived respect.”

– Imām Shāh Gharīb Mīrza, (Pandiyāt-i Jawānmardī, transl. Ivanow, 37

The ultimate agent and the object of Real Fasting is the spirit (ruh) or intellect (‘aql) present in the heart (qalb) of the human soul.  Just as Exoteric Fasting disciplines the physical body and Esoteric Fasting disciplines the rational soul, the Real Fasting polishes the heart (qalb) which is where the intellect shines forth. In the Gospels, Jesus alludes to this distinction between Exoteric Fasting and Real Fasting when he states:

“Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.” 

Gospel of Mathew, 15:17-19

Real Fasting actualizes the human intellect (‘aql) through its control over the rational soul and the physical body.  The person of actualized intellect is divinely inspired (al-mu’ayyad) and attains the spiritual vision (liqā, dīdar) of tawḥīd – both with respect to the oneness (waḥdah) of God and the integration (waḥdah) of the human soul.

All of the pillars of Islām contain an exoteric form and an esoteric meaning and together, the exoteric (ẓāhir) and the esoteric (bāṭin) lead to the esoteric of the esoteric (bāṭin al-bāṭin) which is the spiritual reality (ḥaqīqah).   The following table summarizes the exoteric form, the esoteric meaning and spiritual reality of fasting:

Click Image to Enlarge

Keeping the Fast

It is much more difficult to practice the pillars of Islam at the level of tarīqah and haqiqah as compared to the level of sharī‘ah.  Accordingly, the discipline of Real Fasting (ḥaqīqī ṣawm) is much more demanding and holistic then that of Exoteric Fasting (ẓāhirī ṣawm).  However, if one is unable to abide by the practices of the ḥaqīqah, then he can remain in the practices of the sharī‘ah:

One should be certain that the commandments and prohibitions of the sharī‘at are far easier to perform then the real (takālif-i ḥaqīqī) duties, because all of that which is prescribed for a day and night for the man of the sharī’at can be performed in two hours.  The commandments and prohibitions of the truth (ḥaqīqat) are more difficult, in the sense that if the man of truth, even for a twinkling of an eye, forgets the real prayer, fasting and obedience and becomes negligent, in that period of time, whatever he does or sees will not be for God’s sake.  Rather, if one drinks a sip of water or eats a morsel of bread aiming to quench thirst and hunger, that sip and morsel, in accordance with the law of truth (ḥukm-i ḥaqīqat), will be unlawful to him and he will not be considered a man of truth (mard-i ḥaqīqī) and of the people of the esoteric (ahl-i bāṭin).  Rather, the act of obedience that he performs will be futile and he will not be worshipping God, nor will he be granted salvation.   Any member of the Jamā‘at who does not find in himself such a strength, that is, to fulfill the commandments and prohibitions of the truth (ḥaqīqat), it is advisable for him not to abandon obedience to the sharī‘at, or else he would be a loser, both in this world and in the Hereafter.”

– Naṣir al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī, (Shi’i Interpretations of Islam, 43-44

Fasting (ṣawm), according to the gnosis of Shī‘ī Ismā‘īlī Islam, has multiple levels, forms and dimensions.  While the Exoteric Fasting (ẓāhirī ṣawm) is practiced in the month of Ramaḍān, and the Esoteric Fasting  (bāṭinī ṣawm) is performed during the Cycle of Religious Law (dawr al-sharī‘ah which continues until the end of the Cycle of Prophet Muḥammad and the beginning of the Resurrection), the Real Fasting (ḥaqīqī ṣawm) must be observed for all 365 days of the year.

With respect to the present day practices of prayer and fasting amongst the Ismā ‘īlīs, the late Dr. Hasan Nathoo had the opportunity to discuss the issue with Imām Sulṭān Muḥammad Shāh in 1946.  Dr. Nathoo relates as follows:

In the matter of the Ismā‘īlis praying only three times daily instead of five times and not keeping [exoteric] fasts generally in the month of Ramaḍān, he [the Imām] told me two things: that in the Qur’ān there was no specific mention of the number of daily namāz. It was only a tradition (sunnah); the other was that there was a ḥadīth where the Holy Prophet had said that if during his lifetime the people of Arabia observed 90% of his injunctions, 10% would be forgiven. But after his death, if the followers observed even 10%, 90% would be forgiven. These hadiths are confirmed in a book on the life of the Prophet by Martin Lings which I read only recently. This hadith makes Islam the most liberal religion.

– Dr. Hasan E. Nathoo, (My Glorious Fortnight with Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, London, 1988

The ḥadīth cited by the Imām is quoted below:

“Ye are in an age in which, if ye abandon one-tenth of what is ordered, ye will be ruined. After this a time will come when he who shall observe one-tenth of what is now ordered will be redeemed.”

– Prophet Muḥammad, (Seyyed Ameer Ali, The Spirit of Islam, 183

The current cycle of humankind is the Cycle of Resurrection (read more here on this subject) and therefore, the exoteric and esoteric forms of fasting are no longer enjoined. It must be remembered that the Imāms hold the authority to prescribe the forms of fasting and Imām Sulṭan Muḥammad Shāh has only made the Real Fasting (ḥaqīqī ṣawm) an obligation (farḍ) upon all the believers of spiritual reality (ḥaqīqatī mu’minīn). Just as the Prophet Muhammad prescribed and interpreted the exact forms of prayer and fasting during his own lifetime, the Imām of the Time, as the bearer of the knowledge and authority of the Prophet, continues this role of ritual interpretation in every age.

If, rightly, the Muslims have kept till now to the forms of prayer and fasting at the time of the Prophet, it should not be forgotten that it is not the forms of prayer and fasting that have been commanded, but the facts, and we are entitled to adjust the forms to the facts of life as circumstances changed.  It is the same Prophet who advises his followers ever to remain Ibnu’l-Waqt (i.e. children of the time and period in which they were on earth), and it must be the natural ambition of every Muslim to practice and represent his Faith according to the standard of the Waqt or space-time.”

 – Imām Sulṭān Muḥammad Shāh Āgā Khān III,(Foreword to Muhammad: A Mercy To all the Nations by Al-Hajji Qassim Jairazbhoy, Click Here to Read

4 thoughts on “Ramadan: From Physical Fasting to Spiritual Fasting

  1. Few and truly very few among the whole humanity on the surface of the Earth would be aware of this kind of Pure knowledge being conveyed here. We are fortunate to learn from your site and in return wish you all success.

  2. This is excellent! I did a research paper on fasting, it’s possible origin, various hadiths I could site, etc. And concluded with Ismaili practises and interpretations. Your articles have sited a lot more examples! It would be useful to know the writer/s if the articles

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