Let Your Soul Breathe this Ramadan

Let Your Soul Breathe this Ramadan June 6, 2016
Photo courtesy of Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain
Photo courtesy of Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

This is Day One of the #30Days30Writers series for Ramadan 2016.

By Shibli Zaman

In a society that promotes gluttonous consumerism with absolutely no regard for the planet’s inability to support that, the best service you can do to every living species on this earth is to treat food like medicine. You wouldn’t just take any snake oil when you’re sick, and you’re not exactly chugging down cough syrup for its lovely synthetic flavor somehow labeled as “grape.” (I never tasted a grape in my life that tastes like that!)

You’re extremely careful to make sure that what you’re taking will cure you. You only take it when you need it, and you only take as much as you need. You must treat food the same way!

I’ve got a slogan for you to live by, and I must say it’s rather catchy:

“Eat it only when you need it!”

There’s no better time to practice that than Ramadan, a month where your most essential desire — the desire for nourishment — is put to the greatest test.

The Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) said:

(مَا مَلأَ آدَمِيٌّ وِعَاءً شَرًّا مِنْ بَطْنِهِ ، بِحَسْبِ ابْنِ آدَمَ أُكُلاتٍ يُقِمْنِ صُلْبَهُ ، فَإِنْ كَانَ لاْ مَحَالَةَ فَثُلُثٌ لِطَعامِهِ ، وَثُلُثٌ لِشَرَابِهِ ، وَثُلُثٌ لِنَفَسِهِ)

“A human fills no vessel more wicked than their belly. Just a mouthful enough to support his vitality would suffice the son of Adam. But if that is not enough, then let him divide his meal into a third for food, a third for drink and a third for breath.”1

Many who are familiar with this narration in English might not notice something interesting towards the end. The word used for “breath” at the end is nafas (نَفَس), which shares its triliteral root with the word for the “soul,” nafs (نَفْس). Though these are two independent words – and one should be extremely cautious when linking words simply based on their triliteral roots as it can often be fallacious – these two words for breath and soul have a connection which cannot be denied.

The Arabic lexica generally cover these two definitions, but in Lisan al-`Arab, Ibn al-Mandhur relates the explanation of Abu Bakr al-Anbari in regards to the “nafs of life” (نَفْس الحيات) and the “nafs of consciousness and sense” ( نَفْس العقل), wherein the nafs of life is connected to the nafas, which is the breath of life.2

These two words have not only shared their root and a wide breadth of meanings in Arabic but have had this linguistic relationship from their most ancient Semitic etymons. An interesting dimension to this root, which is attested to in the Arabic lexica as well, is “spaciousness” and “to expand.” We find an interesting reference in regards to this in the Aramaic text of the Babylonian Talmud, which uses the phrase:

(ליפוש ברחמי)
“So that he might increase in offering prayers.”3

Scholars have postulated a connection between the word yapush (יפוש) used here and napesh (נפש), which is the Aramaic cognate for the Arabic nafas (نَفَس). As an aside, it will also be interesting for Muslims to note that the term used here for prayers is rahmi (רחמי) from the same root that the Arabic rahma (رحمة), used for love and mercy, is derived.

This depth in meaning was not only attested to in etymons found in ancestral languages such as Aramaic and Hebrew, but even as far back as the 23rd century BC in Akkadian. A cuneiform language, Akkadian is the earliest attested Semitic language and the closest candidate we have to Proto-Semitic, the hypothesized forebear of all Semitic languages. In Akkadian, the word napšutu is used to refer to the throat, life, the soul and a person or individual4. Note that the word refers to the throat from whence breath is expelled.

So, since times before recorded history, the root from which the words nafs and nafas are derived have had a deep meaning invoking the concepts of life, breath, the soul and the very expanses they fill and recede from.

From all of this, one could deduce from the hallowed instruction of our beloved Prophet (ﷺ) that a third of your stomach should remain empty so that you can breathe with fullness, stand in prayer with passion and vigor and focus on strengthening the resolve of your soul. In the times before and after you fast, do not engorge yourselves with food lest you lose the entire purpose and meaning of fasting.

It is the essence of Islam’s spiritual asceticism to break from the desires of the flesh and to find strength in being liberated from them. Muslim men and women are not servile to their bodily desires nor to the urgings of their bellies.

We are servants only for God, and Ramadan is when we will prove it to Him.

Shibli Zaman is a speaker and writer from Texas whose street cred includes everything from a Gold Medal in Bible memory and a scholarship from Oral Roberts University to formally studying Islamic sciences in Saudi Arabia and working for Shaykh Salman al-Oadah.  Find him on Facebook here — https://www.facebook.com/shibli.zaman.page or on Twitter here — @shiblizaman

[i]     Sunan al-Tirmidhi

[i]     Lisan al-`Arab, Ibn al-Mandhur

[i]     Babylonian Talmud, 71001: BT Ber, MSS 1, p. 55

[i]     Akkadian Dictionary, Association Assyrophile de France

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