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Fasting: A Gift of Sabr

The phrase ‘be patient’ often sounds rather dry and grim. We don’t really hear these words and feel a gush of inspiration or even think, ‘that’s exactly what I needed to hear.’ In a world fuelled by instant gratification, upholding the quality of patience in wait of a later reward can feel impossible, and to some, pointless. Why wait until later when you can feel, taste, and experience it now?

Think of a young child who goes to the supermarket with his parents, picks out his favourite chocolate, then wants to eat it as soon as he gets into the car. When his mother reminds him that he has to be patient and wait until after dinner, it would not be surprising if he erupted in protests and cries, ‘It’s not fair!’ Strikingly, and in many ways, our nafs is much like the restless child. If we are not in the habit of practicing restraint with our nafs and actively seeking to elevate its status, we wander about wayward and untamed. When we fast, we quell the desires of our inner selves through the great act of ṣabr. Through practicing ṣabr for an entire month, we are trained by Ramaḍān to gently turn the gaze of our hearts towards Allāh and away from all else.

What does ṣabr mean?

The word ṣabr comes from the root word ṣabara, which means ‘to tie up’. In other words, this means restraining our nafs so that we do not lose our hold over it. The word ‘patience’, often used to translate ṣabr, may evoke a notion of passive compliance or total inaction. Ṣabr, however, encompasses states of perseverance, endurance, and great fortitude. It is an active and dynamic state in which we are proactively and deliberately striving to purify our nafs.

Fasting is half of ṣabr

Ṣabr can be difficult to practice. With many of the core acts of worship that we have been commanded to uphold, we are actively doing something, such as praying five times a day, giving zakāh, or performing Hajj. With ṣabr, its virtue is in what outwardly appears to be inaction –restraining our tongue in a moment of anger; withholding our reactions in an upsetting situation; turning our inner selves away from the things it vehemently desires; holding our nafs back and tranquilising it with the remembrance of Allāh.

Interestingly, all of the qualities of ṣabr can be found in the believer who fasts mindfully. The Prophet (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said, ‘Fasting is half of ṣabr.’[1] When we fast, we abstain from things that are typically lawful for us. We bear the pangs of our unfulfilled appetites knowing that after a short day of ṣabr, we will break our fast. In the Qur’ān, Allāh says, Seek help through patience (ṣabr) and prayer (ṣalāh).[2] Some of the major commentators of the Qur’ān such as Mujāhid, al-Qurṭubī, Ibn Kathīr, al-Ṭabarī, and al-Baghawī state that the word ṣabr in this āyah refers to fasting, due to the ṣabr that is required of the one who is fasting.

When we fast every year, we restrain our physical selves whilst our spiritual selves feast on the fruits of taqwā that we build through obedience and closeness to Allāh. More significantly, we have certainty that after a lifetime of consistent fasting, we will meet the greater and more enduring rewards that Allāh has in store for us in the ākhirah. The Prophet (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said: ‘There are two joys for the fasting person: the joy when he breaks his fast, and the joy of when he meets his Lord.[3]

The three types of ṣabr

Scholars mention that there are three types of ṣabr:

  1. Ṣabr in our obedience to Allāh
  2. Ṣabr in restraining ourselves from disobeying Allāh
  3. Ṣabr in the face of painful calamities.

While fasting, we embody each of these types of ṣabr: we patiently obey Allāh, we stay away from the things He has made unlawful for us during this time, and we endure the hunger, thirst, and exhaustion that we feel as a result of fasting.[4] Ibn al-Uthaymeen said: “Fasting is one of the most sublime forms of patience, because it combines the three types of patience, and Allāh, may He be exalted, says: ‘Only those who endure patiently will be given their reward without limit (39:10).’”[5]

Limitless reward

Ibn Qudāmah writes that ṣabr has been mentioned around 90 times in the Qur’ān, and that whenever it is mentioned, it is linked to the attainment of high ranks and great rewards.[6] Every act of worship we perform is generally rewarded between 10-700 times, except for ṣabr, which far exceeds this. Allāh says:

‘Only those who endure patiently will be given their reward without limit.’[7]

This āyah teaches us that the reward for ṣabr is left open-ended and subject to the intense Mercy and Generosity of our Lord. The reward is limitless. As we approach the mid-point of Ramaḍān this year, it is useful for us to reflect on the incredible fact that fasting, due to its link to ṣabr, is also rewarded without measure. In a ḥadīth qudsī, Allāh says:

‘Every action of the son of Adam is for him, except for fasting, for it is for Me and I shall grant reward for it.[8]

If we feel as though we have reached a slight dip in our motivation after the first couple of weeks of Ramaḍān have elapsed, this ḥadīth is one that we must imprint onto our hearts and remind ourselves of constantly. Whether we are fasting our obligatory fasts during Ramaḍān, or voluntarily outside of Ramaḍān, we must remember that this act is one that is between us and Allāh. No one can tell if we are fasting, so this hidden deed is loved by Allāh, and its reward is exclusive.[9] The fatigue and weakness that we feel due to fasting is a symbol of our consistent ṣabr in fulfilling what is pleasing to Allāh, and thus lends the promise of limitless reward.

‘Whatever you have will end, but what Allāh has is lasting. We will surely give those who were patient their reward according to the best of what they used to do.’[10]

Inner and outer ṣabr

As humans, we are spiritual beings trapped in a physical experience. For this reason, everything we do has a dichotomous split between the inner (spiritual) and outer (physical) dimension. We have the ability to outwardly perform a virtuous deed, but inwardly desire something ignoble, such as praise, recognition, or even perceived piety. Similarly, we may display outward patience through ensuring that we stand to pray every day, but inwardly, we may be swarmed by the unruly whispers of an unrestrained nafs.

Expressing ṣabr outwardly involves training our bodies to endure acts of worship that we are required to perform, such as standing up to pray. By contrast, the inner expression of ṣabr emerges when we strive to restrain our hidden burgeoning desires, and as a consequence become adorned with qualities such as chastity, forbearance, compassion, contentment, and the ability to withhold our anger.[11] When we fast mindfully, we are practicing both inner and outer ṣabr. Outwardly, we stay away from food, drink, and marital relations, and this is the bare minimum (though still an expression of ṣabr). If we seek to ascend further, we restrain our five senses and each of our limbs from doing anything that is sinful. We uphold greater consciousness of Allāh in each of our deeds. If we aim to reach the apex of servitude in our fasting, it is useful to reflect on what al-Ghazālī deems as ‘extra-special fasting’.

Al-Ghazālī writes that the extra-special fast is one where not only our bodies, senses, and limbs fast, but our hearts too. The extra-special fast involves the heart disregarding all thoughts and concerns related to this world, because its sight is purely fixed on Allāh. This is a state of complete devotion to Allāh. The one who has reached this level in their fasting will not look at anything that will distract their heart from Allāh’s remembrance – they will prefer silence over frivolous or unkind words; they will not listen to anything unlawful; they will not over-indulge when they eat; at night, they hope sincerely that their fast is accepted, fearing that their shortfalls may affect their reward.[12]

This is the fast of one who has restrained their nafs through a determined practice of inner ṣabr. Now that our bodies have adjusted to the physical element of fasting, let us make a sincere effort to use the remaining half of Ramaḍān to train our hearts to also fast. This is so that, at its core, the heart becomes one full of humble submission to Allāh. The Prophet (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said: Verily, in the body is a piece of flesh which, if sound, the entire body is sound, and if corrupt, the entire body is corrupt. Truly, it is the heart.[13]

The greatest gift

Every year, Ramaḍān revisits us and gently nurses us through the spiritual illnesses, pain, and debris that we have accumulated over the past year. Over this month, we realise that we do actually have the capacity to restrain ourselves from things that no one will dispute are essential. It is an inspiring reminder that we definitely have the ability to restrain ourselves from things that our lives do not depend upon, such as our worldly wants, anxieties about the future, and gnawing desires. The month is a message of hope for the believer. The ṣabr and serenity that we develop over this month is a great blessing and gift from Allāh that will serve as an indispensable tool as we prepare for the year ahead. The Prophet (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said, ‘There is no gift that is better and vaster than patience.’[14]

The month of Ramaḍān is a microcosm that reminds us that our entire existence in the dunyā is essentially one of ṣabr. The sooner we realise this, the sooner we will be able to see life for what it is: a journey towards our final meeting with our Creator. And so, as we all traverse the winding and sometimes unexpected roads that make up this journey, I leave you with the words of Ibn al-Qayyim: ‘O you who are patient! Bear a little more – just a little more remains.’

Source: www.islam21c.com


[1] Tirmidhī (ṣaḥīḥ according to al-Ṣuyūṭī)

[2] Al-Qur’ān 2:45

[3] Tirmidhī

[4] Laṭā’if Al-Ma’ārif

[5] Al-Sharḥ Al-Mumti’

[6] Mukhtasar Minhāj Al-Qāsidīn

[7] Al-Qur’ān 39:10

[8] Al-Bukhārī and Muslim

[9] Laṭā’if Al-Ma’ārif

[10] Al-Qur’ān 16:96

[11] Mukhtasar Minhāj Al-Qāsidīn

[12] Iḥyā’ ‘Ulūm Al-Dīn

[13] Bukhārī

[14] Bukhārī and Muslim

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