By Faatimah Knight
It is sometimes noted that fasting is a peculiar kind of worship. This peculiarity comes from fasting being not so much an action as a non-action. In contrast, prayer requires us to make lustrations, find a clean location, be certain of the time, and the act itself mandates physical movement of our bodies. Pilgrimage necessitates for all of us that we leave our homes and most of us our countries, and make geometrical motions in a valley between two hills. Alms giving forces us to take account of our wealth and find suitable persons to distribute a portion of it to. Fasting, on the other hand, beckons us to not drink, not eat and not be intimate with our spouses. I’ll be honest, when I first read the works of scholars talking about fasting as non-action, I thought they were making too much of it. I thought the rhetoric was mostly that, some rhetorical flourishing about not doing this and not doing that. Fasting did not seem to stand out to me much at all.
I recently had a conversation that changed my perspective on fasting as non-action with a friend who had once struggled with alcohol addiction. Our conversation had not touched on fasting at all. He took me through some of his story. The ways in which he had been self-medicating with alcohol since he was 14. How he had tried to stop once, just for a day, in order to be there for a friend, but he suffered from withdrawal syndromes and found himself having uncontrollable seizures in public. Eventually he found himself in rehab for a month in a room with men from every class and social strata who had finally looked their vulnerability in the face. Without going into much more detail, the point was that his relationship with alcohol—when he realized he had to stop drinking—was a relationship of non-action. Non-action was the one thing he could not do without when it came to alcohol; his life depended on it. There was nothing rhetorical about the restraint he had to exercise in order to fulfill this call to not drink.
Just like in fasting where the worship is in the denial of basic urges, if battling alcohol addiction was an act of worship (which it surely is for those who struggle against the urge to drink) then its stamp would be non-action. I could not possibly canvass this experience in a way that would do justice to the turbulent and colorful ways in which people battle their addiction. However, I’m exploring this briefly because it adds value to the fasting experience to contemplate the ways in which non-action can become a permanent fixture in someone’s life as opposed to a yearly event like we have in Ramadan. My friend taught me that the detachment one who struggles with alcohol must practice could result in dissatisfaction with their prior tumultuous, dependency-based relationship with alcohol. That can give those of us who wrestle/endeavor to see the potential of fasting past Ramadan some inspiration. We can perhaps permanently, or for the most part, change our connection with food or whatever other dysfunctional relationship we think are the rule in our lives, as opposed to the exception.
Some sages teach that there is no amount of controlling others that can make us happy. Happiness is the result of self-control and the real heroes are those who master themselves.
“He who is saved from his own covetousness, he is the one who will be successful.” –Al-Hashr, 9.
Faatimah Knight is pursuing an MA in Religious Studies at the Chicago Theological Seminary and holds a BA in Islamic Law and Theology from Zaytuna College.