Friday, April 08, 2022

Fasting as Anger and Pride Management

 This is a draft of my sermon for today.

يٰأَيُّهَا ٱلَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ كُتِبَ عَلَيْكُمُ ٱلصِّيَامُ كَمَا كُتِبَ عَلَى ٱلَّذِينَ مِن قَبْلِكُمْ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُونَ (البقرة ١٨٣)
[O Community of faith, fasting has been made obligatory for you as it was made obligatory for those who preceded you, so that you may attain God consciousness. (Al-Baqara: 183)]

This is the first of five verses on fasting in the second chapter of the Qur'an. The second and third verses discuss the specific days to fast (the month of Ramadan), exemptions and deferrals for the sick and traveling, etc. Then the fifth verse discusses what is permissible during the nights of Ramadan, and when the night ends.

Surprisingly, the fourth of those five verses seems to discuss something else altogether:

وَإِذَا سَأَلَكَ عِبَادِي عَنِّي فَإِنِّي قَرِيبٌ أُجِيبُ دَعْوَةَ ٱلدَّاعِ إِذَا دَعَانِ فَلْيَسْتَجِيبُواْ لِي وَلْيُؤْمِنُواْ بِي لَعَلَّهُمْ يَرْشُدُونَ (البقرة ١٨٦)

[And if my servants were to ask you about me, then I am near, answering the call of the one who calls to me; so let them answer My call and have faith in Me, so that they may attain discernment. (Al-Baqara: 186)]


Most exegetes did not question the location of this verse amidst the other four verses of fasting, even though it seems to me that the verse breaks the temporal day and night sequence to make an important point. Most exegetes merely pointed to the occasion of revelation of this verse: A bedouin asked the Prophet (p) whether our Lord is far, so that we may call to him loudly, or near so that we may whisper to him tenderly, and the verse came to answer that the Lord is near to whoever asks the question. (Of course, the Lord is both transcendent and imminent, far and near in different attributes of His divinity.)


The exegesis of Al-Fakhr Al-Razi was the only one that I could find that inquired about the location of this verse, and even he gave an unconvincing explanation that it follows the announcement that the believers should fast the full month and then glorify the Lord and be thankful to Him.


A more convincing explanation for the location of this verse -- between the detailed rules of fasting the day and what is permissible at night -- is that this "call" is integral to fasting, that the person who is truly fasting is constantly calling to her or his Lord. The word for "call" (دعا يدعو دعوة) implies both supplication and invitation. The verse implies that the Lord had already invited us to invite him in our lives, in our hearts and our minds, to transform us for the better.


Let me prove my point with a Prophetic Tradition that is agreed upon by Al-Bukhari and Muslim:


عن  أَبَي هُرَيْرَةَ  ( قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ  صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ  قَالَ اللَّهُ  كُلُّ عَمَلِ ابْنِ  آدَمَ  لَهُ إِلَّا الصِّيَامَ فَإِنَّهُ لِي وَأَنَا أَجْزِي بِهِ وَالصِّيَامُ  جُنَّةٌ  وَإِذَا كَانَ يَوْمُ صَوْمِ أَحَدِكُمْ فَلَا  يَرْفُثْ  وَلَا  يَصْخَبْ  فَإِنْ سَابَّهُ أَحَدٌ أَوْ قَاتَلَهُ فَلْيَقُلْ إِنِّي امْرُؤٌ صَائِمٌ وَالَّذِي نَفْسُ  مُحَمَّدٍ  بِيَدِهِ  لَخُلُوفُ  فَمِ الصَّائِمِ أَطْيَبُ عِنْدَ اللَّهِ مِنْ رِيحِ الْمِسْكِ لِلصَّائِمِ فَرْحَتَانِ يَفْرَحُهُمَا إِذَا أَفْطَرَ فَرِحَ وَإِذَا لَقِيَ رَبَّهُ فَرِحَ بِصَوْمِهِ  ).
[On the authority of Abu Hurrah: The Prophet (p) said: "Allah said: All of the son of Adam's work is his, except for fasting, which is mine and I reward with it. And fasting is a shield. So, when it is your day of fasting, then refrain from sexual relations and from being a loud person; and if someone were to insult you or pick a fight, then say 'I am a fasting person'. By the one who holds Muhammad's soul in his hand, the bad odor of the fasting person's mouth is more beautiful to Allah than the smell of musk. The fasting person is happy twice: once when he breaks his fast and another when he meets his Lord.]

The first part of this Tradition is a Hadith Qudsi (a statement attributed to Allah Himself), and it is very puzzling. Ibn Hajar Al-Asqalani, the great commentator on Al-Bukhari, wondered: Aren't all acts of worship for Allah, and doesn't He reward for all of them? Why is fasting thus separated from the rest? He gave ten lengthy explanations why this may be the case, only the first two of which appear often in exegesis and other commentaries: namely, that hypocrisy is more difficult in fasting than in other acts of worship.

But hidden in the middle of Ibn Hajar's list of ten explanations, we get a hint in the fifth and sixth explanations, which are, respectively, that fasting is the only act of worship in which the worshiper seeks to get closer to Allah by emulating His or the angels' attributes. A more direct explanation along the same lines is that the fasting person refrains from many natural and common behaviors, going against his lower instincts and desires and leaves room for Allah to work on his heart and mind, invites Allah to transform his heart and mind. This would fit perfectly with the literal meaning of the Hadith Qudsi: "All other work is his, except fasting, which is Mine."

This also fits perfectly with the ordering of the verses as well as the next two parts of the cited Prophetic Tradition. The second part instructs us to go against our anger -- even when provoked by someone who insults or picks a fight with us. All exegetes agree that the verse "And if you are provoked by Satan, then seek refuge in Allah, for He is All-hearing All-knowing" [Al-'A`raf 200] refers to anger as satanic provocation. The third part of the Tradition goes against our pride in keeping good hygiene and pleasant smell (which the Prophet was also very keen on, always brushing his teeth, wearing perfume, etc.). Pride, we must remember, is the satanic essence: "He (Satan) said I am better than him (Adam); you created me from fire and created him from clay." [Al-'A`raf 12]. Pride is the satanic essence and anger is the portal through our limbic brain that Satan controls our actions, by shutting down our advanced cortical brain. Interestingly, this is also the analysis that Aristotle gave in his ethics and porto-psychology for anger as a destructive but perversely pleasurable emotion that emanates from pride.

So, while in the act of fasting, we suppress our lower nature of pride and anger, which emanate from our limbic system, our lower nature that is inviting to Satanic provocation. Instead, we invite Allah (s) to empower our higher nature, to make our angelic and rational natures prevail, to make us better people who can transcend pride and anger. With practice, day after day in Ramadan, and year after year, we hope to make that change permanent.