Exploring Spirituality within Ramadan

A condensed version of this article was originally published here and has been republished with the author’s permission.

With the devils chained away, their assault on the kingdom of the soul is put on hold. The transcendental effects of fasting on our metaphysical anatomy allows our spirituality to come forth; the soul is restored as the rightful sovereign – order is reinstated across the kingdom.

Through the favor of Allah, we find ourselves in the month of Ramadan once again. This month is a special time of year, where the devils are chained away and the doors of Heaven are kept open. We feel spiritually invigorated and enthused, finding it much easier to do good deeds, engage in worship, and avoid sin. However, if we rewind a few months back or jump forward in time, we all have experienced and come to understand that there is a special enablement during Ramadan that is unique to it. 

Let us turn to the question of why — why is it that during the month of Ramadan we experience spiritual heights that we do not experience at any other point in the year? How is fasting connected to this and why is Ramadan singled out in its relation with the Quran?

The Metaphysical Anatomy of Man

In order to understand the relationship between Ramadan, fasting and spirituality we must first come to learn of man’s place within creation and recognize that we are more than just a product of biology.

Imam Ghazali (d. 1111) in his Ninety-nine Beautiful Names of Allah (al-Maqsad al-Asna fi Sharh Asma’Allah al-Husna) explains that:

We can divide existent things into the living and the dead. By living we mean an agent capable of perception and action. The living are on three levels – the angels, man and animals:‌‌‌‌

a) As for animals, the rank of animals is the lowest since their perception is limited to the physical senses and their actions are dictated by the needs of their desires and anger. They do not possess an intellect to guide them to actions that are against the callings of desire and anger.‌‌

b) As for angels, they have the highest rank since their perception is not limited by the constraints of the physical. They are free from desires and anger and do not act for self-interest. Their actions are not dictated by desire and anger, but rather they are motivated by seeking proximity to Allah.‌‌

c) As for man, he is between these two ranks as though he is composed of angelic traits and animalistic traits. The animalistic traits are dominant in the first instance since his first recall is to the physical senses until he is awakened to the hereafter by the light of his intellect‌‌‌‌…

Whenever he follows the angels in these qualities [of perception and action] he will have distanced himself from animalism and grown closer to angelism. The angels are close to Allah and those close to the close are close.

Imam Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 1210) writes in his Book on the Self and the Soul and Their Faculties (Kitaab al-Nafs wa al-Ruh wa Quwwahuma) that in order to understand the true nature of man, we must determine the place of man with respect to all of creation. He writes:

The created things (makhluqaat) are of four types:‌‌

a) Those things which possess intellect (‘aql) and wisdom (hikmah) but do not possess a nature or desires. These are the angels, and their quality is to obey the Almighty “They do not disobey Allah in that which He has commanded them” [Q 66:6], “They fear their Lord above them and they do what they are commanded” [Q 16:50]‌‌

b) Those things which do not possess an intellect or wisdom but possess nature and desires. These are all of the animals except man. ‌‌

c) Those which do not possess intellect, wisdom, nature or desires. These are the inanimate bodies and plants‌‌‌‌. When these [three] types were entered into existence, only the fourth type remained from the different types: ‌‌

d) Those which possess intellect and wisdom, and also possess nature and desires. This is man.

‌‌‌‌When it has been established in the wisdoms of recognition that the Necessarily Existent is generous in His bestowal to all contingencies, the generosity of His bestowal dictates that this type [man] also be entered into existence. It is for this reason The Almighty said: “I am going to place on the Earth a representative” [Q 2:30] so that there does not remain anything from the types of contingencies bereft of the effect of His instantiation and the favour of His creation.

We must realize that the physical body of man is not the essence of what makes us human. A purely material understanding of man as nothing more than flesh and bones renders us no different than animals. In fact, it is the unique combination of the soul vested in our physical body — the intellect which allows us to reason coupled with the primal desires necessary for survival — that makes us who and what we are.

Allah tells us in the Quran, “Indeed, We created humans in the best form,” [Q 95:4] that is with a soul, an intellect and desires. The soul is a mystery to us: “And they ask you about the soul. Say, ‘The soul is something from the command of my Lord, and you are not given but a little from the knowledge.‘” [Q 17:85]. The intellect allows us to distinguish between right and wrong, reason, and increase in knowledge and understanding. The desires are animalistic, primal, and instinctive – they ultimately serve to bring some benefit or remove some harm.

Through the wisdom of Allah, the soul, intellect, and desires have been arranged in such a way that there is constant struggle between the primal desires which pull us toward immediate gratification and pleasure, and the soul which yearns for a higher cause and purpose, calling us to Allah. The desires and the soul are in perpetual conflict and the intellect reigns over them — giving and taking from each.

As humans, we can succumb to our desires such that we fall in rank and become lower than animals: “Indeed, We have destined many jinn and humans for Hell. They have hearts they do not understand with, eyes they do not see with, and ears they do not hear with. They are like cattle. In fact, they are even more astray! They are entirely heedless.” [Q 7:179]. On the other hand, if we are able to tame and restrain the desires through our intellect, we can exceed the angels in rank such that even the angels revere and prostrate to us “And remember when We said to the angels, ‘Prostrate before Adam,’ so they all did—but not Iblis who refused and acted arrogantly, becoming unfaithful.” [Q 2:34]

Alongside this complex internal dynamic, there are also external factors to account for. On a normal day outside of Ramadan, we not only have to deal with the internal pressures of our desires but also with the external pressures from the whispers of the Devil and the influences of our environment. Left to our own devices, we will naturally drift towards fleeting pleasures such that we become heedless of the true reality of this life. It is as though there is a gravity pulling us down into the crater of desires throughout the year. The deeper we fall, the stronger the force grows in its pull.

The Messenger, peace and blessings be upon him, said: “When the month of Ramadan starts, the gates of Heaven are opened, the gates of Hell are closed and the devils are chained.” [Bukhari 1899]

In Ramadan, the devils are locked away and this gravity is temporarily weakened. We are gifted with an opportunity to build enough momentum to reach escape velocity and ascend towards the heavens.

Transcendental Causation – Across the Physical and the Spiritual

The principle of causation states that every cause or action produces a specific and predictable effect. This is a basic principle that underpins our experience of the physical observable world. If cotton comes into contact with fire, it will burn. If you release an object, it will fall towards the Earth. This notion of causality is ubiquitous and embedded in our experience and is implied in all of our actions and behaviors.

Causality in the physical domain is something we all are familiar with. However, this principle is not just limited to the physical domain, it can also be extended to the spiritual domain as well. There are physical causes that can produce spiritual effects just as there are spiritual causes that can manifest physical effects; causes and their effects can transcend across the physical and spiritual domains. 

We learn from the wisdom of the Prophet that our spiritual practice can affect our physical state and vice versa:

Fatima came to the Prophet asking for a servant. He said, “Shall I inform you of something better than that? When you go to bed, recite SubhaanAllah thirty-three times, Alhamdulillah thirty-three times, and AllahuAkbar thirty four times”. Ali added: “I have never failed to recite it ever since.” Somebody asked: “Even on the night of the battle of Siffin?” He said: “Even on the night of the battle of Siffin.” [Bukhari 5362]

In the above Hadith when Fatima came to the Prophet complaining of fatigue and requesting a servant to aid her, rather than addressing their needs with a physical solution of a servant, the Prophet instead gave them tasbeeh to perform at night. The spiritual cause of tasbeeh has a physical effect which served them so much so that Ali, the husband of Fatima, continued this spiritual practice without fail, even as he prepared for battle.

We also learn from the Prophet that a physical cause can have a spiritual effect:

Aisha’ (the wife of the Prophet) Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) said, “No calamity befalls a Muslim except that Allah expiates some of his sins because of it, even it were the prick he receives from a thorn.” [Bukhari 5640]

Here we are told that our experiences in the physical domain that may immediately be perceived as negative or bad, can actually have a positive effect in the spiritual domain. It is our narrow-mindedness in ignoring the spiritual domain that leads us to draw hasty conclusions and become discontent with our situation.

This transcendental causation is something we also experience through the practice of fasting. In the month of Ramadan, fasting during the daylight hours has a spiritual effect that we can all attest to. We feel so much more spiritually engaged and aware during Ramadan. By staying away from food and drink we effectively suppress our desires so that in the ensuing conflict between the soul and the desires, the spirit and the soul can come forth into the consciousness of man. Hence, the transcendental effect of fasting on our metaphysical anatomy leads to spiritual enlightenment. 

The Qur’an as Spiritual Nourishment

In the Hadith of Fatima, the Messenger of Allah teaches us that just as our physical state has needs and requires nourishment, our spiritual state is no different. If we are spiritually aligned and connected, our physical state will be all the better. We know all too well about nourishing the physical body, but do we really know how to nourish the soul?

To understand how to better nourish the soul, let us explore an ontology for all that exists provided by Imam Razi in his Book on the Self and the Soul and Its Faculties:

The existent (mawjud) either: ‌‌

a) exists without a beginning and without an end – This is Allah Almighty‌‌
b) exists with a beginning and with an end – this is this world (dunya)‌‌
c) exists with a beginning but without an end – this is the souls of man and the hereafter‌‌‌‌

As for the fourth type of existent for which there is no beginning and there is an end, it is impossible for this type to exist because of the principle which states that what has been established as without a beginning (qadim) cannot cease to exist.‌‌‌‌

Once this has been established, it becomes clear that there is a greater similarity between the souls of man and the hereafter than there is between the souls of man and this world. It also becomes clear that man is compatible for the next life and not for this life. Compatibility is considered in the souls, so it is necessary that the goal of man be the spiritual delights of the next life more than the temporary and immediate satisfaction of this world.

The soul is something otherworldly and spiritual. Just like our physical body, it yearns for and requires nourishment. The soul cannot be properly nourished with anything from this temporary world because there is a mismatch on the level of existential categories. How can something otherworldly and everlasting be nourished through temporary means? Allah tells us in the Qur’an:

Those who believe and whose hearts find comfort in the remembrance of Allah. Surely in the Remembrance of Allah (Dhikr) do hearts find comfort. [Q 13:28]

Commenting on this verse, Imam Razi writes:

Whenever the heart reaches to something, it desires to move from its current state to one higher in rank and virtue. There is no success in the physical domain, except that above it there exists a rank of greater pleasure and envy. As for when the heart and the intellect reaches to the success of Divine recognition and the everlasting lights, it remains and becomes settled. It is not able to move away from it for there is no success greater or more complete than this rank.

It is only through the Remembrance (Dhikr) of Allah that the soul is able to be properly nourished because the only thing existentially superior to the soul is Allah. In another verse in the Qur’an Allah says:

We, Ourselves, have sent down the Dhikr (the Qur’an), and We are there to protect it. [Q 15:9]

Allah describes the Qur’an as a Remembrance (Dhikr). As Muslims, we believe that the Qur’an is the uncreated Speech of Allah. The Qur’an is a Divine expression that is not from this material realm, rather it is something from Allah himself. Allah tells us himself, it is pure Remembrance (Dhikr) in its entirety. The Qur’an is the only thing that we have access to in this physical domain that is existentially superior to the soul. As such, it is the only way the soul can be properly nourished, and it is for this reason that it is only through the remembrance of Allah that hearts find contentment.

Both the spiritual and physical parts of our metaphysical anatomy serve as sources of vitality. Every source of vitality requires constant nourishment to maintain that vitality. Throughout the entire year, our primary nourishment is for our physical selves and our spiritual selves are secondary. In Ramadan, that is flipped. We suppress nourishing our physical selves in favor of nourishing our spiritual selves. As a result, our spiritual selves require greater attention and nourishment. This nourishment can only be achieved through the Remembrance of Allah – through the Qur’an. Once we realize these basic realities of our own metaphysical anatomy and needs, we recognize why the Qur’an has a special connection with Ramadan.

The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “The example of the one who remembers his Lord in comparison to the one who does not, is like that of the living and the dead.” [Bukhari 6407]

Ramadan as Renewal

Imam Razi mentions the lexical origins of the word Ramadan. He mentions that it is derived from the word Ramdhaa’ (الرَّمْضاءِ) which is a rain that comes before autumn to cleanse the dust from the surface of the Earth. Similarly, Ramadan comes as a spiritual rain to wash away our sins, cleanse our hearts and rejuvenate our resolve.

The light of knowledge has not been hidden from hearts due to stinginess or a prevention from the One who grants favors. Rather, they have been hidden due to the dirt, rust and preoccupation in the heart. Hearts are like vessels, as long as they are full with water air cannot enter it. The recognition of the Magnificence of Allah cannot enter into hearts preoccupied with other than Allah. – Imam Ghazali

Ramadan truly is a special time of year. With the devils chained away, their assault on the kingdom of the soul is put on hold. The transcendental effects of fasting on our metaphysical anatomy allows our spirituality to come forth; the soul is restored as the rightful sovereign – order is restored across the kingdom. The Remembrance of Allah (Dhikr) through the Qur’an is the only proper way to ensure we are spiritually nourished. Through this Remembrance, Divine enablement spreads throughout the kingdom as the defenses are strengthened and reinforced.

With this newfound understanding, let us try and make the most of this incredible opportunity to renew our spiritual selves and renew our relationship with Allah.

Photo Credits: Photo by Niklas Weiss on Unsplash

About the Author: Uwais Iqbal holds a BSc and MSc in Theoretical Physics from Imperial College London, an MA in Islamic Studies from SOAS and an ‘Aalimiyyah degree from Jamia Siraj Ul Uloom. You can read his blog here or find him on Twitter here.

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

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