The Virtues of Hunger in Classical Islamic Thought and Its Relevance for a Culture of Satiety

[1] Rigorous self-discipline is somewhat alien to contemporary American religiosity. Perhaps on account of cultural affinities, or an unspoken assumption that the soul is not affected by the body and its experiences, the very obvious benefits of diligent practice do not seem so obvious to us. I have often witnessed this aversion to rigor as a Muslim, who often not only is asked to explain our traditional month of fasting, but even to justify its seeming stringency. To many, the length or the restrictions of the fast of the month of Ramadan seem difficult, strange, and perhaps astonishing. I suspect that such surprise – rather than indicating the self-discipline of Muslims – indicates that a large number of us have lost touch with the ascetic impulse in our own various religious affiliations. It is hoped, then, that this very brief discussion of hunger and fasting in the Islamic tradition will shed light on that which lies dormant in other American religious traditions.

[2] Perhaps one secret behind the continued success of the Muslim fast is the clear injunction behind it, making observation obligatory, coupled with an understanding that the religion could be more demanding than it already is. The Islamic tradition provides the observing community with two levels of praxis – one that is obligatory and basic, and another that is recommended and ideal. In this paradigm lies the assumption that everyone deserves the spiritual benefits of rigor, even those disinclined to it. Many if not most will strive only to do the minimum, such that the minimum (in this case, avoiding food, drink and sex during the daylight hours for one month) places defined and relatively easy limits of demand on the practitioner. Some, however, will strive unendingly for the most challenging ethical standards. For those, there is no feasible end to that which can be practiced. In the case of disciplining the stomach, spiritual savants can observe supererogatory fasts, nearly year-round. Pointing to an even more ideal standard, traditional sources offer another recommendation: constant hunger, even when one is not fasting. By setting the bar so high, and yet still keeping the low bar firmly in place, the classical Islamic tradition manages to make that which is difficult (fasting for a month) seem relatively easy.

[3] It is not that fasting is easy for anyone. Indeed, the Quran itself recognizes human limits in the matter of fasting, as seen in 2:183-185, the verse announcing that a month of fasting will become incumbent upon the Muslim community. According to the exegete ‘Allāmah Muhammad Husayn Tabātabā’i (d. 1402 AH / 1981 CE), the very language of this verse recognizes the burden of endurance faced by Muslim believers.[1]

[4] The announcement begins with direct address: O you who believe! Fasting has been prescribed for you just as it was prescribed for those before you, so that perhaps you will attain pious God-consciousness – this for a number of days. But whosoever among you is sick or on a journey [should observe] other days instead. ….

[5] The speaker of this verse observes a certain amount of care and sensitivity when introducing the command to fast. This is a fascinating phenomenon, particularly because the speaker – in Muslim belief – is none other than God, the Absolute Legislator who is to be obeyed without question. While one cannot describe the tone of this verse as “reluctant” or “apologetic,” certainly it seems to acknowledge the reluctance of its audience. First, the listeners in question are encouraged by being addressed as “those who believe.” Second, it is made clear that fasting has been prescribed for other communities. Muslims, therefore, should not feel that this is a burden unique to them. Third, a reason or objective is given for fasting: the attainment of taqwā, a difficult term to translate, but one that might correspond to “piety,” “fear of God,” “God-wariness,” or – as translated here – “pious God-consciousness.” Then it is made clear that this fast will be limited to a “number of days,” although the announcement of that number (a month) will be delayed for a verse. At this point, however, the verse merely emphasizes that fasting will not extend for too long a period of time. Lastly, situations where one might not be able to fast are raised and simultaneously excused, alleviating any potential anxieties.

[6] The hortatory tone of this verse seems to address the reality that human nature is orientated toward consumption and survival, both of which are challenged directly by fasting. Hence, the verse acknowledges that its human audience will be, if not displeased, at least greatly discomforted and hesitant about curtailing its natural drive to consume. As reluctant as the early Muslim community may have been to hear this announcement, fasting soon became an intrinsic part of Muslim religiosity. As reluctant as we as Americans might be to limit ourselves, the walls of overconsumption are wobbling, appearing as if they might come down on us any day now. We have over-extended and overspent ourselves – and either our religious leaders in America’s various faiths neglected to warn us, or, perhaps, we were not listening to those who did. Self-restraint is the message we need to hear, and now is the time we need to hear it.

[7] The thought that we might need to limit ourselves, that our lifestyles need serious adjustment, often brings with it a cloud of gloom, a sigh that happy days are gone and that nothing fortunate awaits us. I would argue, however, that we need to reconsider the essential spiritual necessity of limits, the joy of self-discipline, and the beauty of moderate and self-imposed hunger. After all, as the verse above states, fasting has been a spiritual practice observed by religions worldwide since a time unremembered.

[8] Here, of course, is meant not the hunger that faces a growing number of the world’s undernourished, not the malnourishment that often results from injustice, but rather a choice to avoid constant and complete satiety. Fasting is one instance of this. A more difficult and perhaps even more effective alternative to fasting during a restricted period is observing a state of constant hunger, or at least avoiding complete satiety. In either case, classical Islamic texts are particularly rich in explaining the benefits that hunger has for the human soul. Volitional hunger in Islamic thought, far from being an undesirable physical state of weakness, has often been praised as one of the most important factors in orientating a heart toward vigilance of God.

[9] The virtues of hunger can be seen in an intimate conversation that Islamic traditions tell us the Prophet Muhammad had with God. It is reported that, during Muhammad’s celestial night journey, God asked him: “O Ahmad![2] Do you know in which time My servant draws near to Me?”

“No I do not, my Lord,” replies the Prophet.

God says, “When he is hungry or in prostration.”[3]

[10] Since all perfections are within God, since the divine is – according to the Qur’an – needless and self-sufficient in all respects, God wants only poverty and need from His creatures.[4] The prostration, placing one’s head on the ground in a mark of utter humility, is the embodiment of needy servitude. Hunger, too, can become a constant awareness of one’s needs vis-à-vis God. Particularly when one fasts, hunger serves as a reminder that we are God’s obedient servants. Empty from food and drink, one constantly puts one’s desires aside, favoring instead God’s pleasure. Selfishness should have no place in the fasting person’s outlook, because he or she willingly renounces that to which humans feel entitled, including food and water. In that sense, fasting is an act that gives a person insight into what it means to be human. We are not simply eaters and drinkers. We have a spirit strong enough to call us to refrain from that which the human animal deems necessary and basic.

[11] From an Islamic perspective, it is especially unfortunate and surprising that so many in a predominately Christian nation would forget the religious and spiritual benefits of hunger. This is because Jesus, according to Islam’s earliest sources, epitomizes self-restraint and even asceticism among all the prophets. It is not uncommon to see Jesus in collections of Islamic prophetic traditions admonishing others to observe rigorous and self-disciplined piety:

Jesus the son of Mary stood to give a sermon amidst the Children of Isrā’īl. He said, “O Children of Isrā’īl! Only eat when you are hungry! When you hunger, eat, but do not eat to the point that you are satiated. Indeed, when you become satiated, your necks grow thick, your sides fatten, and you forget your Lord.”[5]

[12] Just as the heart becomes heedless through satiety, it awakens through hunger. Just as satiety makes the body heavy and the soul dull, hunger bestows upon the soul luminescence. One of Islam’s greatest mystically-inclined theologians, Abū Hāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 505 AH / 1111 CE), provides us with no less than ten benefits for hunger in his masterpiece on Islamic ethics “The Revival of the Religious Sciences” (Ihyā’ ‘Ulūm al-Dīn). The fifth benefit, which might be the most important of all, is that hunger shatters all lustful propensities toward wrongdoing, giving us “possession over the lower soul that commands to evil.”[6] The unbridled lower soul resembles a beast that has broken away and has become unmanageable. When the animal suffers from the weakness of hunger, the possibility of gaining mastery over it increases. When satiated, however, it becomes more powerful and less able to be tamed. “All felicity,” al-Ghazālī writes, “lies in a man taking possession of his lower soul, and misery lies in his lower soul’s possession of him.”[7] In other words, contrary to the idea that gratifying one’s urges brings happiness, al-Ghazālī presents true felicity as a matter of spiritual prerogative. When the body imposes its will on the spirit, such is misery; when the spirit imposes its will freely on the body, such is happiness.

[13] If lower desires overpower a person, the devastation is not merely personal. There is, after all, a social element to al-Ghazālī’s presentation of hunger that we cannot afford to ignore. The author tells us that, according to the Prophet Muhammad’s wife ‘Ā’ishah, the first corrupting innovation that occurred after the passing of the Prophet was satiety. Perhaps the author here indicates that the Muslim community’s spiritual decline from the apex seen in the Prophet’s life was due to a general straying from the rigorous self-restraint practiced by the Prophet and those around him. It is here that al-Ghazālī makes an observation most relevant to a community of people: “When the bellies of the people become full, their lower souls take them recklessly toward the transient world.”[8] The use of a collective noun here (“the people”) tells us that al-Ghazālī might be contemplating the larger effects of unchecked satiety. Indeed, instances of individual spiritual laxity and corruption can spill over into the collective spirit of a population, becoming a tidal wave of insatiability.

[14] By setting the standard so high, by emphasizing constant hunger and disparaging satiety, these texts actually motivate us to be moderate in our actions. The human tendency is to consume, so while we do not need a reminder to nourish ourselves, we certainly need many reminders not to be excessive. Thus one sees in the Qur’an a command to the Children of Adam (7:31): Eat and drink, but waste not; indeed He does not love those who waste. Of course, while most of us strive merely to be moderate, there will always exist those rare individuals blessed with unusual inner fortitude, who will be able to observe the strict ethical injunctions we have encountered. For those who do, the result is profound enlightenment, intimate knowledge of one’s own soul, such that the person becomes a completely obedient friend of God. This can be seen, for example, in the tradition mentioned above, the conversation between God and the Prophet Muhammad that is narrated to have occurred during his Night Journey. Here God again addresses His messenger:

O Ahmad! When the servant keeps his stomach hungry and restrains his tongue, I teach him wisdom. If he is a disbeliever, then his wisdom serves as a proof against him and will have a dire consequence. If, however, he is a believer, then his wisdom becomes a light for him, and an evidence, a cure, and a mercy. Then he knows that which he used not to know. And he sees that which he used not to see.[9]

The narration continues to describe a person who becomes so aware of his or her own faults, so able to behold the minutiae of esoteric knowledge, that he or she becomes impenetrable with regard to all temptation. By describing the pinnacle of self-restraint and its results, this tradition encourages the more mediocre among us to strive to our utmost in disciplining ourselves. The standard is set so high that, even if we fall short of it, we do not succumb to surfeit. Moreover, we remain aware of the infinite road for improvement ahead of us.

[15] This essay has not aimed to prepare its readers for a contented life of poverty. Rather, it has sought only to make what might be an apparent point: There is nothing melancholy about living within one’s means or even voluntarily limiting oneself. Quite to the contrary, and I say this from experience, overindulgence in anything leaves one with a weighty sense of spiritual hollowness and malaise. Our manifold struggles with overconsumption and moral recklessness have shown us that religion without limitations and self-discipline can contribute very little to the ethical advancement of a human being – and even less to the ethical advancement of human societies. Hopefully, by adopting practices that have come to be considered pre-modern, namely, occasional self-denial, religious obedience and moderate asceticism, we will be able to reawaken within ourselves that which pre-modern figures originally brought to us: ardor for God. It might be then that we can finally render ourselves immune to the call of materialism that has caused us so much embarrassment and even pain. With some practice, we might be able to hear instead the eternal call to felicity.

[1] Muhammad Husayn Tabātabā’ī, al-Mīzān fī Tafsīr al-Qur’ān (Mu’assasat al-A‘lamī li-l-Matbū‘āt, Beirut, 1418/1997), vol. 2, pp. 7-12.

[2] A laudatory name of Muhammad often associated with his presence in the higher spheres. According to sacred Islamic sources, around one year before migrating from his home city, the Prophet Muhammad was taken on a celestial night journey, during which he witnessed the “greatest signs of his Lord” and was drawn the distance of “two bows or even closer” to God (see Qur’an, 53:18 and 53:9). Among the events of this night journey was Muhammad’s encountering the various prophets and, perhaps most important, conversing intimately with God.

[3] This tradition has been related by the Prophet’s cousin ‘Alī ibn Abī Tālib, according to Abū Muhammad al-Husayn ibn Abī al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Daylamī (fl. 8th/14th century) in his Irshād al-Qulūb, as cited by Muhammad Bāqir al-Majlisī (d. 1111/1698) in his Bihār al-Anwār and Mullā Muhsin Fayd al-Kashānī (d. 1090/1679) in his al-Wāfī. See ‘Alī Sa‘ādat-parwar Pahlawānī Tihrānī (d. 1425/2004), Sirr al-Asrār: Sharh Hadīth Mi‘rāj (Shirkat-i Intishārāt Ihyā’-i Kitāb, Tehran, 1385 hijrī-shamsī), vol. 1, pp. 16-18. The full text cited by Sa‘ādat-parwar has been taken from al-Kashānī’s al-Wāfī. For this segment see Sirr al-Asrār, vol. 1, section #7, p. 30. All translations in this article are my own.

[4] “O human beings! You are needy with respect to God, while God is the Needless, the Praised.” (35:15)

[5] Muhammad Baqir al-Majlisī, Bihār al-Anwār (Mu’assasat al-Wafā’, Beirut, 1403/1983), vol. 63, p. 337. See also Mahdi Muntazir Qa’im and Muhammad Legenhausen, “Words of the Word of God: Jesus Christ (‘a) Speaks through Shi’i Narrations,” al-Tawhid: a quarterly journal of Islamic thought and culture (Foundation of Islamic Thought, Qum, Iran), vol. 13, no. 3-4, where this narration is also mentioned.

[6] Ihyā’ ‘Ulūm al-Dīn (Dār al-Kutub al-‘Ilmīyah, Beirut, 2004), vol. 3, p. 78.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] See Sirr al-Asrār, vol. 1, section #34, p. 52.