Are Ismailis Required to Fast From Food and Drink During Ramadan?
The short answer is that fasting from food and drink in Ramadan is an optional practice for Ismaili Muslims, but it is not obligatory.
According to the Holy Qur’an, fasting was prescribed for the believers so that they may learn taqwah (2:183) – a word which can mean piety, mindfulness, or God-consciousness. The great Islamic philosopher and scientist of Alamut, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, writes that fasting from food and drink “restrains the soul from its base inclinations.” He explains that this form of fasting is practiced for thirty days in a year so that a form or behavioural pattern will become imprinted on the human soul – to the point that all of one’s faculties and desires “become restrained from the pursuit of improper things” (Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, The Paradise of Submission, tr. Badakhchani, 149).
Accordingly, the concept of fasting has a deeper meaning and significance than not eating or drinking. The Holy Qur’an in 19:26 uses the same Arabic word for fasting, sawm, to refer to the vow of silence taken by Mary, the mother of Jesus. In this spirit, the Ismaili Muslims, under the guidance of the Imams, have also emphasised the inner or batini form of fasting. All Ismaili Muslim hujjats, da‘is, and thinkers, under the guidance of the Imams, maintained that the Seven Pillars of Islam have esoteric and spiritual meanings and that sometime in the future, the exoteric or zahiri forms of the Seven Pillars would no longer be mandatory whereas their batini or esoteric meanings would instead be practiced openly. This came to fruition in certain periods of Ismaili history: In 1164, the 23rd Ismaili Imam, Hasan ‘ala-dhikrihi al-salam, declared the period of qiyamah. As maintained by several Fatimid Ismaili hujjats like Sijistani (d. after 971), Ja‘far b. Mansur al-Yaman (d. ca. 960), Nasir-i Khusraw (d. 1088), al-Mu’ayyad al-Shirazi (d. 1078), in the period of qiyamah, the exoteric or zahiri practices of the shari‘ah including namaz, Hajj, and fasting are abolished and no longer mandatory while their batini and spiritual dimensions are practiced. For example, during the qiyamah period, the Ismaili Imam’s guidance on fasting was as follows:
As for fasting of this jama‘at, whereas in the realm of the shari’ah, out of twelve months which make up the year, for one month, from dawn to dusk, one closes his mouth against eating and drinking, the rule of this jama‘at requires that during the whole of one’s life one is not permitted to abandon the true fast even for the twinkling of an eye. They keep not just one organ of the body closed, but rather all seven external and internal organs against that which God has prohibited, so that they may always preserve a state of fasting.”
– Imam ‘Ala al-Din Muhammad of Alamut,
(Nasir al-Din Tusi, The Paradise of Submission, Representation No. 28)
Subsequently, in later periods, Ismailis went back to observing the exoteric shari‘ah as a form of taqiyyah to avoid harsh persecution. This period of taqiyyah – which lasted for the next several hundred years after the fall of Alamut – included the observance of shari‘ah rituals, although there may have been minor intervals of qiyamah occasionally during this period. In either case, those believers who reached the spiritual rank of hujjat were permitted to dispense with observing the shari‘ah (see The Epistle on the Recognition of the Imam, ca. 16th century, tr. Ivanow; Haft Bab Abu Ishaq). However, the Khoja Ismailis of the Satpanth tradition never performed exoteric fasting for the month of Ramadan; they fasted on Beej and on the 21st and 23rd days of Ramadan. During this period, the Ismaili Imams continued to dispense guidance to their murids concerning the esoteric dimensions and practices of faith. Just as zahiri fasting consists in refraining from food and drink during the month of Ramadan, the spiritual haqiqi fasting consists in abstaining from all impure thoughts, words, and deeds for every single day of one’s life. The thirty-fourth Ismaili Imam, Hazrat Mawlana Shah Gharib Mirza, as recorded in his “Counsels of Chivalry” (Pandiyat-i Jawanmardi), has said:
The whole year you must fast, just as the Exoterists ( ẓāhiriyān) fast one month. The meaning of this fast is austerity. Control yourselves; keep yourselves away from bad qualities, evil and indecent actions and devilish acts, so that the mirror of your hearts may be gradually polished.”
– Imam al-Mustansir bi-llah III (Shah Gharib Mirza),
( Pandiyat-i Jawanmardi, tr. Ivanow, 37)
In the modern period of Ismaili history, the 48th Ismaili Imam, Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah, has likewise emphasized the spiritual or haqiqi fasting as a spiritual discipline, which consists of always being mindful and keeping away from sins such as lying, cheating, slander, jealousy and other negative deeds. Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah formally ended the practice of taqiyyah where some Jamats had been observing exoteric shari‘ah rituals like namaz and fasting in Ramadan. In guidance given to the Ismailis of Syria, Iran, and Indo-Pak, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah explained that the exoteric or shari‘ah rituals like Hajj to Makkah, physical ablutions before prayer, and exoteric fasting in the month of Ramadan are not paramount; instead, what is essential are the inner or esoteric meanings of these rituals as embodied in a set of spiritual disciplines and tariqah practices. Mawlana Hazar Imam’s own biographer, Malise Ruthven, summarized Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah’s guidance as follows:
Changes were introduced in the areas of ritual. In Syria a new mukhi appointed by Aga Khan III in 1895 was instructed in Khoja doctrines and rituals and told to introduce them into Syria. Similar changes were introduced in Iran. Hajj and fasting were abandoned along with ritual ablutions before prayers: God, rather than his house, was to be worshipped; the true fast was year-round abstention from evil; true ablution was cleansing of the heart. Duties (‘ibadat) regarded as essential by other Muslims, such as Hajj and fasting, were defined as furu’-i-din, auxiliaries of the faith. The usul-i din, the essentials of the faith were unchanged – belief in the oneness of God, in the Prophet, in the Resurrection, in the Imamate and in the justice of God.
– Malise Ruthven, “Aga Khan III and Ismaili Renaissance”,
(Peter B. Clarke, ed., New Trends and Developments in the World of Islam. London: Luzac Oriental, 1998, 371–95: 382)
This general trend, in modern times, toward the de-emphasis of the exoteric and shari‘ah form of ritual practice and the movement towards a more spiritual and esoteric practice was foretold by Prophet Muhammad as recorded in Sunni hadiths:
Ye are in an age in which, if ye abandon one-tenth of what is ordered, ye will be ruined. After this a time will come when he who shall observe one-tenth of what is now ordered will be redeemed.”
– Prophet Muhammad,
(Sahih Tirmidhi, in Seyyed Ameer Ali, The Spirit of Islam, 183)
As Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah has explained in a published farman, the fasting of the haqiqati mu’min does not only take place in Ramadan but is performed on every day of the year (Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah, Kalam-i Imam-i Mubin Vol. 1, Section No. 65). Imam Sultan Muhammad further explained that the exoteric fasting of Ramadan may be necessary for Ismaili Muslims living in certain contexts where taqiyyah is necessary so as not to antagonize others, but the spiritual or haqiqi fasting was obligatory upon all Ismailis wherever they are:
The Prophet has ordered the fast. The fast is there to exercise the body. It is necessary to keep taqiya so that others may not indulge in backbiting (i.e. it may be necessary to observe the fast outwardly in order to protect the community from slander by other Muslims). But you who are haqiqatis (truth-seekers) are under an obligation to fast 360 days (sic). These fasts are:
1. Not to speak a lie
2. Not to deceive, swindle anyone, or abuse trust
3 Not to speak ill behind someone’s back.
In this manner 360 day haqiqi fasts (haqiqi rojaa) are mandatory (faraj) upon the Ismā‘īlīs.
– Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III,
(quoted in Malise Ruthven, “Aga Khan III and the Isma‘ili Renaissance,” 392)
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