Excerpt from Imam al-Ghazali’s (d. 1111 CE / 505 AH) Book of Forty Principles from the Foundations of Religion:
Translated by: Khalil Abu Asmaa (Christopher Moore)
[ After discussing the Prayer and Zakah, Imam al-Ghazali goes on to say: ]
The Third Principle: Fasting
The Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) said that God said:
Every good deed is ten times its likeness, up to seven hundred times, except for fasting, for verily it is for Me, and I will reward it. [al-Bukhari and Muslim]
He (peace and blessings be upon him) also said:
For everything there is a door, and the door of worship is fasting. [Ibn al-Mubarak]
Fasting has been singled out with these amazing qualities for two main reasons:
1. Its essence is that it is a personal abstinence, and such is a hidden action that no one but God can see, unlike the prayer, the zakah, or other (acts of worship).
2. It is a grief for, and subdual of, the enemy of God. Shaytan is the enemy, and the enemy cannot gain strength except through the medium of the passions. Hunger breaks all the passions that are the tool of Shaytan. For this reason, the Prophet (peace be upon him) said:
Verily Shaytan runs in the Son of Adam like blood. Therefore, constrain the passageways of Shaytan with hunger. [al-Bukhari and Muslim, except after “Therefore”]
Such is the secret of his statement (peace be upon him):
When Ramadan comes the doors of Paradise are opened, the doors of the Fire are shut, the shaytans are restrained, and a caller calls: ‘Oh seeker of good, come forward! Oh seeker of evil, back off!’ [al-Tirmidhi, and al-Hakim said it was sound]
Know that fasting, in addition to its rank, has three levels, and in addition to its secrets, has three levels as well.
As for the levels of its rank:
The least of them is to only fast the month of Ramadan. The highest of them is the fast of David (peace be upon him), which entails fasting every other day. It is mentioned in an authentic narration (in both al-Bukhari and Muslim) that such is “the fast of all time” and that it is the best of all fasts. The wisdom behind this type of fast lies in the fact that whoever fasts daily, fasting will become completely habitual and he will not feel brokenness in his soul, purity in his heart, or weakness in his desires. For indeed, the soul is only impacted by what comes to it (occasionally), not by what it has become used to. This shouldn’t be hard to imagine, for medical doctors also discourage their patients from developing a dependence for medicine, and they say, “Whoever becomes accustomed to that he will not benefit from it when he is sick, for his temperament will becomes used to it and it will henceforth not affect him.”
Know that the doctoring of the hearts is akin to that of the doctoring of the bodies. This is the wisdom of the statement of the Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) to ‘Abdullah b. ‘Amr b. al-‘Aas (may be pleased with them both) when he asked him about fasting: “Fast one day, break your fast the next.” He replied, “I want something better than that.” The Prophet (peace be upon him) responded, “There is nothing better than that.”
It is for this reason that when it was said to the Messenger of God (peace be upon him), “So-and-so fasts all the time,” he said, “He neither fasted, nor broke his fast.” This is just like when Aisha (may God be pleased with her) said to a man that was reciting the Quran in a rapid fashion: “This one here has neither recited the Quran nor kept silent.”
As for the middle level, it is to fast one third of the time. Whenever you fast every Monday and Thursday, adding to it Ramadan, then you have fasted four months and four days out of the year, which is slightly over a third. With that said, it is necessary that one day will be broken during the days of tashriq (during Hajj), so the total left is now three days. It is also imagined that the days of Eid will be lost as well, so this makes three days missed altogether, leaving us with one day. So think about the arithmetic and you will figure it out.
Therefore, it is inappropriate for your fast to be less than this, for it is light on the nafs (self) and its reward is immense.
As for the levels of its secrets, they are three:
1. The least of them is that one abstains from those things that break the fast, all the while not preventing his limbs from that which is disliked. This is the fast of the masses and it is indicative of their being pleased with the name (of “fasting”).
2. The second level is when you add to it prevention of the limbs. Hence, you guard the tongue from backbiting and the eye from looking at doubtful things, as well as guarding the rest of the body parts.
3. The third level is when you add to it the maintenance of the heart from (bad) thoughts and whisperings, and when you restrict it to the remembrance of God (Mighty and Majestic). This is the fast of the elect of the elite and it is the perfection of the fast.
Finally, fasting has a last matter by which it is completed: to break the fast with that which is permissible, not that which is doubtful. In addition, not to be excessive in the eating of the permissible, in an attempt to make up for what was lost in the morning. In this case one would be merging two meals into one thereby weighing down the stomach and increasing the desires. This will invalidate the wisdom of the fast and its benefit, and will lead one to be too lazy to get up for tahajjud (night vigil prayer) and possibly cause one to not even get up before Fajr (to have suhur and prepare for prayer). All of this is a complete loss and it may be that such a one will not even benefit from the fast at all.