Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111), the famed Muslim polymath delineates, like many Muslim sages before and after him, various degrees of sawm (fasting). At the most basic level, there is the commonly known abstinence from food, drink and sexual intercourse that is described in Islamic law. Beyond this physical fasting, however, al-Ghazali describes a higher stage of fasting whereby one also engages in an intellectual abstinence of sorts from all evil, including forbidden and lowly thoughts and desires. Lastly, the highest stage of fasting, according to al-Ghazali and the Muslim sages is what is known as sawm al-aghyar (fasting/abstinence from the other). We may describe this as the third and final dimension of fasting; the spiritual abstinence of the heart from everything save the divine.
In a sense, this spiritual fasting of the heart is this Islamic ritual’s own stage of fana' (annihilation); the absolute disintegration of the human will, volition and identity in awe of the presence of the Will, Volition and Identity of the Real. Nevertheless, Muslim sages since the time of al-Junayd (d. 910) have recognized the importance of a higher stage after fana'; a certain baqa' (subsistence) whereby the traveler returns in a new garb of humanity that has been overwhelmed by the divine volition in order for one to become an 'alama (sign post) for the new seekers and travelers.
It is precisely this baqa' of fasting that intrigues us in this reflection. What exactly subsists and perseveres in a new garb of divine volition after one abstains spiritually through the heart from all other than God? We may follow here an Akbarian strategy, from Shaykh al-Akbar (The Greatest Master), Muhyi al-Din Ibn al-ʿArabi (d. 1240), by returning to God’s Word, the Qur’an for some guidance. The word sawm (fasting) is mentioned in the Qur’an only once, in the story of Mary the mother of Jesus where she is instructed to inform her people, if questioned by them about Jesus, that she is fasting for the sake of God. Meanwhile, the word siyam (fasting, verbal noun) is mentioned six times. Only one of these instances refers to the actual obligatory fasting in the month of Ramadan while the other five instances discuss fasting as an atonement or expiation for some type of sin.
On the other hand, the verb kul (imperative ‘eat’ pl.) is mentioned fifteen times. All of these instances appear in the imperative form wherein God orders mankind to sustain and nourish their bodies. Five of these also include the command to drink. Unlike the verses pertaining to fasting, the verses that ordain eating and drinking have no stipulations save the condition that we eat from “the good of what We have given you”. It becomes clear after a short reflection on these verses that fasting is, in a sense, like fana' (annihilation), a temporary hal (state) while eating and drinking is the permanent maqam (station), like baqa' (subsistence).
However, just as the fana' of fasting is a spiritual abstinence so is the baqa' of eating and drinking more than just indulgence in physical sustenance. On the contrary, the fana' and baqa' of this ritual are like the end and beginning of a cycle; they are joined together and the former gives birth to the latter. Upon obtaining the objective of fasting from everything save the divine, the return journey entails viewing everything through the divine, no longer seeing sign posts without the signified and no longer witnessing the waves and tides without the ocean before and after them.
With this new divinely dressed human volition, the returning body from the peak of fasting no longer sees physical food, but rather “the good of what We have given you”. However, the state of fasting also continues and subsists as the traveler is now able to sustain himself/herself upon the feast of the entire cosmos as new forms of knowledge and divine manifestations that feed that fasting and feasting heart. How wondrous is the perplexity of Reality, at the climax of the journey the highest form of fasting is naught but the highest form of eating and drinking...
Reality is perplexity, perplexity is anxiety and movement and movement is life!
- Ibn al-'Arabi