“If, rightly, the Muslims have kept till now to the forms of prayer and fasting at the time of the Prophet, it should not be forgotten that it is not the forms of prayer and fasting that have been commanded, but the facts, and we are entitled to adjust the forms to the facts of life as circumstances changed. It is the same Prophet who advises his followers ever to remain Ibnu’l-Waqt (i.e. children of the time and period in which they were on earth), and it must be the natural ambition of every Muslim to practice and represent his Faith according to the standard of the Waqt or space-time.”
– Imām Sulṭān Muḥammad Shāh Āgā Khān II
Fasting (ṣawm) is among the seven pillars (arkān) of classical Shī‘ī Ismā‘īlī Islām and the five pillars of classical Sunnī Islām. As taught by the Ismā‘īlī Muslim theosophers, each pillar (rukn) of Islām has an exoteric form (ẓāhir), an esoteric meaning (bāṭin), and a spiritual reality which is the esoteric beyond the esoteric (bāṭin al-bāṭin).
The level of exoteric form is sharī‘ah (religious law), the level of esoteric meaning isṭarīqah (spiritual path), and the level of spiritual reality is ḥaqīqah (spiritual truth). Other Muslim theologians recognize these three levels as submission (islām), faith (imān), and beauty (iḥsan). Corresponding to these three levels in the human being are the physical body (jism) or sensual/animal soul, the rational soul (nafs al-nātiqah), and the heart (qalb) or spiritual intellect (‘aql).
The word ṣawm literally means ‘to abstain’ from something. Accordingly, in Ismā‘īlī gnosis, there are three levels of fasting (ṣawm):
1) Exoteric Fasting (ẓāhirī ṣawm)
2) Esoteric Fasting (bāṭinī ṣawm)
3) Real Fasting (ḥaqīqī ṣawm)