The dualism between the body and the soul is very clearly evident in the physical world. The body is subservient and the soul is in charge; however, both are indispensable. It is just that the soul is the master while the body is the obedient servant.
People have a habit of letting themselves become fully absorbed in fulfilling their physical needs to the utter disregard of their spiritual ones, which are rarely so much as contemplated.
We need only look at the vast number of institutions that exist to deal with the material aspects of our lives compared to the paucity of those that focus on the needs of the soul — the mosque being one of those.
The body has its rights and its demands upon us. However, what worth does the body have without the soul? It is a mere corpse, no matter how powerfully or beautifully it is constructed. If the soul departs from it, it becomes a wasted husk. Its beauty can only be realized in partnership with the soul.
If we look to apply this concept within an Islamic context, we immediately notice that our four primary acts of worship — prayer, fasting, zakah, and Hajj — and indeed all forms of worship, require the participation of both the body and the soul.
However, the regrettable thing that beset the People of the Scripture — the followers of Moses and Jesus (peace be upon them both) — as well as many of the followers of Muhammad (peace be upon him) is that of being overly concerned with outward appearances at the expense of substance. There is more concern about bodily actions than there is about the soul. Concern for the outward aspects of worship is something good (though at times it can get out of hand), but such concern should not result in the inner meaning of our worship being forgotten.
The physical aspects of our prayers are our standing, bowing, sitting, and prostrating. These are bodily motions. These are the aspects of prayer that most Muslims learn and commit to memory. These are the matters that they generally ask about, sometimes in great detail.
The spiritual aspects of prayer are our devotion, humility, and submission to Allah in full sincerity and devotion. They entail our recognition of Allah’s greatness and divinity that inspire us with a sense of reverence and awe.
Is there any relationship between our concern for the physical aspects of prayer and our concern for the spiritual? Indeed, there is. When we carry out the outward aspects of prayer, we are, without doubt, obeying our Lord and fulfilling His command by upholding one of the pillars of our faith.
At the same time, should we not know why our Lord, in His infinite wisdom, commands us to offer prayers at fixed times in a prescribed manner? Should we not wonder about the effects that these prayers should have on our persons and our lives? The same can be said for fasting. Why do we fast? Surely Allah does not need our fast.
Effects of Fasting
Allah says [O humanity! You are in need of Allah and He is free of all wants, worthy of praise] (Fatir 35:15).
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “Whoever does not leave off false speech and evil deeds, then Allah has no need of his leaving off his food and drink” (Al-Bukhari 1903).
We know that Allah has no need for us to leave off eating and drinking in any case, even when we abstain from false words and false deeds.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, conveying to us the words of his Lord, “O My servants! If the first of you and the last of you, the human of you and the jinn of you came together as the heart of the most pious man among you, it would not increase My dominion in the least. O My servants! If the first of you and the last of you, the human of you and the jinn of you came together as the heart of the most sinful man among you, it would not diminish My dominion in the least” (Muslim 2577).
Surely fasting was not prescribed to punish us and make us suffer from hunger and thirst.
Indeed not, for Allah says [What can Allah gain by your punishment if you are thankful and you believe, and Allah is Grateful and All-Knowing] (An-Nisaa’ 4:147).
The Prophet (peace be upon him), during the pilgrimage, saw an old man being supported on both sides by his two sons. The Prophet (peace be upon him) asked, “What is the matter with him?” They said, “He took an oath to walk.” The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “Allah is in no need of this man’s punishing of himself.” Then he ordered the man to ride (Al-Bukhari 1865; Muslim 1646).
Was fasting, then, prescribed for us to attain blessings and rewards?
Without doubt, Allah bestows immense rewards upon His servants for their fasts. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “Whoever fasts in faith seeking reward, all of his previous sins will be forgiven” (Al-Bukhari 38; Muslim 716).
However, the rewards and blessings that we receive for our fasts, our prayers, and our charity are Allah’s reward to us to encourage us to do these good deeds.
The question remains: Why do we fast? Why do we get such a great reward for doing so? Why do we pray and embark upon the pilgrimage?
As I see it, we do so for two purposes:
The first is to develop our faith and build our moral character on a basis of piety and certainty. Allah says about fasting [O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that perhaps you may guard against evil] (Al-Baqarah 2:183).
About prayer, Allah says [Indeed prayer restrains from shameful and unjust deeds] (Al-Ankabut 29:45).
About the Hajj, He says [And let there be no obscenity, wickedness, or wrangling in the Hajj] (Al-Baqarah 2:197).
Allah says about paying zakah [Take alms of their wealth, wherewith you may cleanse them and purify them] (Al-Tawbah 9:103).
This meaning can be seen in all acts of worship. They all seek to build people’s characters and perfect their moral conduct, their beliefs, and their faith. Our worship aims to cleanse and renew our hearts, making them free from base qualities like deception, avarice, rancor, and unbridled lust.
The second purpose of our worship is to reform the relationship between the person and others. By developing people’s character and cultivating within them certain values, the people’s worship results in their safeguarding the rights of others on every possible level of interaction.
This includes the relationship between husband and wife, parent and child, and likewise between neighbors, and between the governed and the one who governs them. Even the rights of animals and the environment are safeguarded in this way. Islam brings with it values governing Muslims’ conduct toward everything that surrounds them.
All the acts of worship that were prescribed to humanity in the previous manifestations of the religion and in Islam are part of a single program designed to fulfill these two purposes: to build the individual and to develop his or her relationship with others.
What meaning does fasting have for people who merely eschew food and drink and other pleasures that are lawful under normal circumstances, only to engage in forbidden acts like speaking falsehood and mistreating others? How much worse is it to engage in unlawful things in the month of Ramadan, and possibly even during the day while fasting? How is it for such people who live a dual life, their worship completely divorced from their everyday life, having no effect on their dealings with others?
We have a right to ask ourselves in earnest: When will our worship change from being merely an outward act into a reality that is rich in meaning and that carries with it a deep and noble purpose? When will our worship start to affect our personalities, building us into people of integrity who fulfill their duties, recognize their own shortcomings, and work to improve themselves before rushing to judge others?
Only then will our worship take on its full meaning.
By Sheikh Salman al-Oadah
Excerpted with some slight modifications from “The Partnership Between Body and Soul” on Islam Today.