Friday, September 7

City Circle: Ramadan Reflections: The Ins and Outs of the Fast Click for more info

It's been a while since I've attended a CC talk. It's always been there but between having other things to do and not having any interest in the topics being covered when I was free, I've just not been. Tonight's talk was about Ramadan and although I kinda knew what to expect I was hoping to be surprised anyway.

The guest speaker for this session, Sidi Talal Al-Azem, was new to me. I was impressed though; the fact that Sidi Talal had been born in the West but Islamically educated in Damascus was demonstrated in his accessibility - he appeared just as real as the audience attending without trying too hard. That he was funny and articulate helped too, and personally I found his emphasis on spirit quite refreshing (for a non-hippy).

Content wise, the talk was split in two. Before Maghrib, he spoke about the basic fiqh regarding fasting in Ramadan; the "outs" as we were told. Briefly, we learned that:

  • As always, intention is important. That is, deciding half way through a day on which you happened to not have eaten anything yet that you were going to fast, didn't make it so. This is different from forgetting to wake up for sehri; the intent we're talking about here was of an implicit rather than explicit type.
  • The fast starts at the "true dawn" (something which confused many of us, but just means what we already call dawn), and ends at Maghrib.
  • Eating, drinking and sexual intercourse were forbidden during this period.
  • Although eating due to forgetfulness of the fast will not break it , unintentional consumption of food will. The difference is subtle, but there: if you accidentally drink a bit of water during whudu or are forced to eat something, then your fast has been broken and you'll need to make it up (albeit without expiation).
  • Touching and kissing your partner in marriage is okay.
  • Vomiting is okay unless it's more than a mouthful.
  • Tasting food while preparing it is okay but disliked (assuming it's for an honest enough reason).
  • It's okay to break a fast or miss one if you're fearfully ill, pregnant, breast feeding or old (although in the latter case you have to feed a poor person instead).
  • The expiation for breaking a fast due to sex (and, contrary to what I learned, nothing else) is to fast for two months consecutively.
  • That you can't break a fast you haven't got; if you had no intention of fasting then, although possibly sinful, you don't have to suffer expiation in the cases you would otherwise.
  • Itikaf is especially recommended during this month, that as well as the normal rules you are not allowed to touch a partner and that you're not allowed to trade materially during your retreat.
So more or less textbook stuff that any of you who had done their time in a madarassa should know already. Still, it was good to get a refresher I guess.

The second half was much more interesting, for we were to hear about the more esoteric side of Ramadan; the spiritual or "in" side. Most of the material was lifted from Imam Ghazali's Ihya'ul ulum al-din ("Revival of Religious Sciences"), but the Sidi Talal's accompanying commentary was much appreciated.

We listed three types of fasts: the ordinary, the special and the extra-special. The ordinary level is something we should all be able to understand - that of refraining from eating, drinking and sex and nothing more.

The special is slightly more conceptual, and basically requires us to keep our ears, eyes, tongue, hands and feet free from sin. Although straightforward on the surface, it turns out that this requires a level of self awareness and control that can only be borne from self-analysis and introspection. The idea would be to free ourselves of attachment to anything other than God.
Pretty heavy stuff then.

The extra-special state is basically an evolution of the above. At this stage our hearts would be free from unworthy causes where nothing concerns or moves us but God.

We then discussed self control specifically (a large part of the advanced states of fasting). We recognised the empowering feeling you get when you successfully overcome your nafs (desires, self, ego), including skipping those quick looks (ahem), refraining from lying and backbiting, and even overeating.

A few final points were covered too which are worth noting here: so, how a continuous level of subtle Islamic consciousness or awareness may be preferable to an intense yet irregular overt practice and how to determine your status in the eyes of God (by asking what His status is in yours).

All in all a pretty good and fulfilling City Circle, and I've definitely become a fan of Sidi Talal (even though he would probably baulk at such an idea). Quite aptly, it was just the thing to see in the holy month of Ramadan with.