What is the connection between closeness to Allah, excellence and fasting?

What is the connection between closeness to Allah, excellence and fasting?

They ask you…

My reflection today is on a very beautiful ayah among the 5 verses on fasting in the Quran which are found in Surat al-Baqarah (183-187). Allah Almighty says:

وَإِذَا سَأَلَكَ عِبَادِى عَنِّى فَإِنِّى قَرِيبٌ ۖ أُجِيبُ دَعْوَةَ ٱلدَّاعِ إِذَا دَعَانِ ۖ فَلْيَسْتَجِيبُوا۟ لِى وَلْيُؤْمِنُوا۟ بِى لَعَلَّهُمْ يَرْشُدُونَ

If my servants ask you about Me, I am near. I answer the call of the caller when he calls on me, so let them answer me and have faith in me that they may be rightly guided. [2:186]

This ayah is so beautiful, one could write volumes on it, but I will focus on one particular part of it and reflect on that.

Ibn Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him) mentioned that the Companions asked the Prophet (peace be upon him) 13 questions which Allah Almighty mentioned in the Qur’an. For instance about mountains, orphans and spending.

In Surat Taha, it says:

وَيَسْـَٔلُونَكَ عَنِ ٱلْجِبَالِ فَقُلْ يَنسِفُهَا رَبِّى نَسْفًا

And ˹if˺ they ask you ˹O Prophet˺ about the mountains, ˹then˺ say, “My Lord will wipe them out completely [20:105]

وَيَسْأَلُونَكَ عَنِ الْيَتَامَىٰ ۖ قُلْ إِصْلَاحٌ لَّهُمْ خَيْرٌ ۖ وَإِن تُخَالِطُوهُمْ فَإِخْوَانُكُمْ ۚ وَاللَّهُ يَعْلَمُ الْمُفْسِدَ مِنَ الْمُصْلِحِ ۚ وَلَوْ شَاءَ اللَّهُ لَأَعْنَتَكُمْ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَزِيزٌ حَكِيمٌ

And they ask you ˹O Prophet˺ concerning orphans. Say, “Improving their condition is best. And if you partner with them, they are bonded with you ˹in faith˺. And Allah knows who intends harm and who intends good. Had Allah willed, He could have made it difficult for you. Surely Allah is Almighty, All-Wise.” [2:220]

يَسْـَٔلُونَكَ مَاذَا يُنفِقُونَ ۖ قُلْ مَآ أَنفَقْتُم مِّنْ خَيْرٍ فَلِلْوَٰلِدَيْنِ وَٱلْأَقْرَبِينَ وَٱلْيَتَـٰمَىٰ وَٱلْمَسَـٰكِينِ وَٱبْنِ ٱلسَّبِيلِ ۗ وَمَا تَفْعَلُوا۟ مِنْ خَيْرٍ فَإِنَّ ٱللَّهَ بِهِۦ عَلِيمٌ

They ask you ˹O Prophet in˺ what ˹way˺ they should donate. Say, “Whatever donations you give are for parents, relatives, orphans, the poor, and ˹needy˺ travellers. Whatever good you do is certainly well known to Allah.” [2:215]

Usually any question reflects the concern of the questioner. Someone concerned about his money will ask about money; someone concerned about halal and haram will ask about halal and haram; someone concerned about the akhirah and the grave will ask about this; someone concerned about fitnah and the waswasa (whispers) of the Shaytan will ask about that. However, the question in the ayah on fasting begins with, ‘If my servants ask you about Me’ is not related to dunya, or akhirah, but what is most important – Allah Almighty.

وَإِذَا سَأَلَكَ عِبَادِى عَنِّى فَإِنِّى قَرِيبٌ

‘If my servants ask you regarding Me, indeed I am near’. [2:186]

This is one of the fascinating questions in the Qur’an. When you read the reasons behind the revelation (the ‘asbab al nuzul’) you will find:

A man from the Ansar said:

A man came to the Messenger of God (peace be upon him) and said:

O Messenger of God, is our Lord near, so we call on Him in secret, or is He far away, so we call on Him in a loud voice? The Prophet, may God’s prayers and peace be upon him, remained silent, so God revealed: And if My servants ask you about Me, I am near, answering the supplication of the supplicant. [Ibn Jarir, Al-Baghawi in his “Mu’jam”, Ibn Abi Hatim, Abu Al-Sheikh, and Ibn Marduyah included it through Al-Salb Bin Hakim]

Indeed, I am near

Unlike the thirteen questions mentioned in the Quran, which begin with yasalunaka – ‘they ask you’, this question begins with wa idh sa ‘alaka ibadi ‘Anni. Moreover the other questions are followed by Allah Almighty instructing the Prophet (peace be upon him) how to reply, commanding him to tell them His answer: Qul – ‘Tell them…’ Here, Allah Almighty doesn’t say Qul. Rather than giving the answer to the Prophet (peace be upon him) to relay back to the Companions, Allah Almighty responds directly to the question. He does not say, “Tell them, O Muhammad, I am near”, He replies, ‘I am near’.

Closeness to Allah comes with self-control

This is a subtle and significant point. It shows us that there is no mediator between us and Allah. Our relationship with Allah is one-to-one, our connection is one-to-one connection. Allah Almighty is saying, “I’m near”.

Allah Almighty mentions this closeness on another occasion, when He says, “wasjud waqtarib”:

Prostrate and draw close [to Allah]. [96:19]

This shows us how can we become close to Allah Almighty. Both during fasting and in sujud Allah Almighty is telling us that He is near.

Why do we feel closer to Allah Almighty in Ramadan than outside Ramadan? Nearness comes when you disconnect yourself from your whims and desires. And this is exactly what we do in siyam.

What about salah? Here we can make a further connection. During salah you are not allowed to eat and drink, you are also not allowed to have intimacy.” What makes you close to Allah Almighty is therefore being in control over your whims and desires. The more you feed your soul, the more you are connected to Allah Almighty. The more you feed your body and your desires in an unbalanced and uncontrolled way, the further you are from Allah Almighty. This is why Allah Almighty is saying here, in the midst of the verses of fasting, that “ فإني قَرِيب”.

Therefore closeness comes with control. After the training of a month of Ramadan, you gain greater control over your desires, whims, actions, intention, anger and faculties. This what makes us close to Allah Almighty – purity of the heart.

Excellence is attained through fasting

Fasting not only brings closeness but its twin, excellence – Ihsan. In the famous Hadith Jibril, when Jibril walked into the mosque in Madinah as a mysterious stranger and posed four questions. He said “O Muhammad, tell me about Islam…tell me about imaan…tell me about Ihsan.” In this very long and famous hadith, Jibril came in a shape of a man, and asked the Prophet (peace be upon him) these questions from which we derive the pillars of Islam, the articles of faith and what constitutes excellence.

The core of the hadith teaches us our religion, as the Prophet (peace be upon him) said when he realised that the stranger whom none of them had recognised “was Jibril. He came just to teach you your religion”.

In the third question “O Muhammad, tell me about Ihsan,” the Prophet (peace be upon him) answered by saying Ihsan is to worship Allah as though you can see Him. But if you can’t achieve this level of sincerity, you should know that Allah Almighty is watchful over you, He sees you.

“Excellence is to worship Allah as if you see Him, for if you do not see Him, He surely sees you.”

What is the connection between this hadith and the closeness to Allah during Ramadan and whilst fasting. The connection is Ihsan. When you do things with ihsan, you are aiming for perfection and excellence. Perfection and excellence can be mastered more in Ramadan.

The reason for this that the sanctity of the month helps you achieve this. The atmosphere of Ramadan with the entire Muslim world fasting in unison and Muslims around you fasting simultaneously, helps you to achieve this ihsan.

Being aware that you are being observed impacts how we behave. Knowing you are being watched by a CCTV camera at work increases the efficiency of the employees, who are conscious that they will be caught wasting time and so focus more on their work. Ihsan is similar. When you feel that Allah Almighty is watchful over you, as indicated by His name, Ar-Raqib, the One who is watchful over you, gives you heightened awareness of what you are doing. It prevents laziness and apathy and heedlessness.

This is where Ihsan comes into play. You worship Allah Almighty as though you can see Him. You fear that Allah Almighty is watching you. You feel this level of closeness between you and Allah Almighty. This is what happens when we are fasting.

The state of fasting is between you and Allah Almighty. No one can tell if you are fasting or not. One can claim to be fasting, but have eaten a big meal. No one knows whether you are truly fasting except Allah Almighty. Unlike salah and zakah which can be witnessed and observed by others. It is entirely between you and Allah Almighty.

Ramadan therefore increases the feeling of ihsan and the application of ihsan and the training for ihsan. The Prophet (peace be upon him) encouraged us to have excellence in everything we do.

عَنْ شَدَّادِ بْنِ أَوْسٍ عَنْ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ قَالَ إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَتَبَ الْإِحْسَانَ عَلَى كُلِّ شَيْءٍ

Shaddad ibn Aws (may Allah be pleased with him) narrated that the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said:

“Verily, Allah has prescribed excellence in everything.” [Muslim]

Therefore, whatever we do, whether we are praying or fasting or working or just being with our family, it should be with ihsan.

عَنْ سُلَيْمَانَ بْنِ مُوسَى قَالَ قَالَ جَابِرٌ رضي الله عنه إذَا صُمْتَ فَلْيَصُمْ سَمْعُكَ وَبَصَرُكَ وَلِسَانُكَ عَنِ الْكَذِبِ وَالْمَآثِمِ وَدَعْ أَذَى الْخَادِمِ وَلْيَكُنْ عَلَيْكَ وَقَارٌ وَسَكِينَةٌ يَوْمَ صِيَامِكَ وَلَا تَجْعَلْ يَوْمَ فِطْرِكَ وَيَوْمَ صِيَامِكَ سَوَاءً. مصنف ابن أبي شيبة.

Attaining higher levels

Sulayman ibn Musa reported: Jabir, may Allah be pleased with him, said,

“When you fast, then let your hearing, seeing, and tongue fast as well from falsehood and sins, and avoid harming your servants. Rather, you must have dignity and calmness on the day of your fasting. Do not make days you do not fast and days you fast as if they were the same.” [Musannaf Ibn Abi Shaybah]

Fasting is not just abstention from eating and drinking and intimacy from dawn till dusk with intention. It’s beyond this. It’s about feeding the soul. For 11 months throughout the year we feed the body with earthly food. For one month we feed our soul with heavenly food.

When the Prophet (peace be upon him) says: “My Lord offers me something to eat and something to drink” he was referring to heavenly food – not biryani or chapatis and dunya food!

‘Aishah (may Allah be pleased with her) reported:

The Prophet (peace be upon him) said;

I spend the night while my Lord provides me with food and drink”. [Bukhari and Muslim]

Of course the Prophet (peace be upon him) didn’t know biryani or chapatis, but heavenly food and we can access this more in Ramadan. This is  not exclusive to Ramadan, as we can access heavenly food the more we observe ihsan in our worship. This heavenly food nurtures the soul.

The Prophet (peace be upon him) is encouraging us to have ihsan, not just while we are fasting, or praying Salah, but in every aspect of our life. We can aim for excellence in everything we do, starting from the most important things in our life: our salah, our connection with Allah, our fasting, our zakah, and then our job, our relationships, our communication. Ihsan can be extended from our salah and fasting to everything we do in life. This is what I wanted to share with you.

As Allah stated “I am near” it means He is watchful. If you want to increase your closeness to Allah Almighty, you have to cut out the distractions in your life. Anything that distracts you from being connected to Allah Almighty, anything that obstructs you from Allah Almighty. The more you do this, the closer you become to Allah Almighty. Maryam (may Allah be pleased with her) was devoted to Allah, and became close to Him, and He sent her many gifts. Every time her guardian, Prophet Zakariya (peace be upon him) entered into her mihrab, he would find some food in her room. When he asked her where it had come from, she said “It is from Allah.” (3:37). Thus Allah Almighty provided gifts to Maryam, the young girl, because she secluded herself from dunya and she connected her heart to Allah Almighty.

If we want Allah Almighty to shower us with gifts, gifts of mercy and barakah and forgiveness and acceptance, then we need to connect ourselves to Allah Almighty more. We need to feel that He is watchful over us.

Let’s improve our ihsan and get closer to Allah Almighty. I ask Allah Almighty to accept from us our good deeds and enlighten our hearts to follow the footsteps of the Prophet (peace be upon him), to increase our ihsan and our closeness to Allah. Ameen.

Delivered by Shaykh Haytham Tamim for the Ramadan Reflections by the British Board of Scholars and Imams (BBSI)

Transcribed by Zayna Sheikh

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Shaykh Haytham Tamim is the founder and main teacher of the Utrujj Foundation. He has provided a leading vision for Islamic learning in the UK, which has influenced the way Islamic knowledge is disseminated. He has orchestrated the design and delivery of over 200 unique courses since Utrujj started in 2001. His extensive expertise spans over 30 years across the main Islamic jurisprudence schools of thought. He has studied with some of the foremost scholars in their expertise; he holds some of the highest Ijazahs (certificates) in Quran, Hadith (the Prophetic traditions) and Fiqh (Islamic rulings). His own gift for teaching was evident when he gave his first sermon to a large audience at the age of 17 and went on to serve as a senior lecturer of Islamic transactions and comparative jurisprudence at the Islamic University of Beirut (Shariah College). He has continued to teach; travelling around the UK, Europe and wider afield, and won the 2015 BISCA award (British Imams & Scholars Contributions & Achievements Awards) for Outstanding Contribution to Education and Teaching.