Fasting in Islam

by Nizam-ud-Dean (Fiji)

Bashshaar, September to December 2005 Issue (pp. 1–2)

By definition, fasting, or ‘Saum’ in Islamic terminology, signifies ‘abstaining from food and drink and conjugal relationships from dawn till sunset.’

To those not familiar with the practices and the background of Islamic Laws, the institution of fasting may appear a strenuous exercise of daunting rigour, but one which is eagerly indulged in by young and old alike with a remarkable enthusiasm.

In actual fact, the institution of fasting in Islam came after the institution of prayer, and it was in the second year of the Islamic era in Medina, that fasting was sanctioned and made obligatory on all Muslims, and the month of Ramadan was set aside for this purpose.

It is topical to delve briefly into the history of fasting, both for Muslims as well as the more universal adherents in all other religions. Though the forms and motives vary from one group to another, the practice of fasting has been recognised in practically all higher revealed religions. The Jews, for instance, fasted on the tenth day of Muharram in commemoration of the delivery of the Israelites from Pharaoh’s Egypt. In actual fact, the Holy Prophet [Muhammad (pbuh)] too used to fast on this day, as an optional devotion, before the institution of the Ramadan. According to Hazrat Aishah [rta], this day was the fasting day for the Quraish as well. However, it was after the Holy Prophet’s flight to Medina that he saw the Jewish observation of fast on the tenth of Muharram, and on being told of the commemorative significance behind it, remarked that the Muslims were nearer to Moses than the Jews and ordered that the day be observed as a day of fasting. However, the Quranic injunction

یٰۤاَیُّہَا الَّذِیۡنَ اٰمَنُوۡا کُتِبَ عَلَیۡکُمُ الصِّیَامُ کَمَا کُتِبَ عَلَی الَّذِیۡنَ مِنۡ قَبۡلِکُمۡ لَعَلَّکُمۡ تَتَّقُوۡنَ ﴿۱۸۳﴾ۙ

“O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may guard against evil” (The Holy Quran, 2:183)

made the institution of fasting a universal one for all believers.

The statement that fasting

کُتِبَ عَلَی الَّذِیۡنَ مِنۡ قَبۡلِکُمۡ

“was prescribed for those before you”

in itself testifies the universality of the practice, though the reasons for the Islamic fasts are different from those of other disciplines, where the underlying idea was of appeasing an angry Deity in times of sorrow, and by self-affliction, seeking to excite compassion in Him. In Islam, in place of voluntary fasting, a regular and continuous fasting was prescribed, irrespective of the condition of the individual or the nation, and its purpose being, as a means, like prayer, to develop the inner faculties of man. Though the Quran speaks of certain compensatory fasts as expiations in compensation for violations of the Divine law, these are quite distinct and in addition to the obligatory fasting in the month of Ramadan.

Fasting is recognised to have spiritual, moral, social and physical values. However, Islam specifically mentions the spiritual value and the remaining three, being corollaries of this, must naturally follow. The aim of fasting, according to the Holy Quran, is that

فَلۡیَسۡتَجِیۡبُوۡا لِیۡ وَ لۡیُؤۡمِنُوۡا بِیۡ لَعَلَّہُمۡ یَرۡشُدُوۡنَ ﴿۱۸۶﴾

“So they should hear My call (by fasting) and believe in Me, that they may walk in the right way” (The Holy Quran, 2:186).

And the Holy Prophet is reported in Bukhari as having said,

“Fasting is a shield, so the faster should not indulge in foul speech … and surely the breath of a fasting man is pleasanter to Allah than the odour of musk.”

In all, the theme is to seek Divine pleasure and the development of the sense of the nearness of God, as a restraint against covert evil doing. For a man who has gnawing hunger clawing inside him and a parching thirst tormenting him and who still exercises a restraint to allay it all with a glass of cool drink or a few mouthfuls of food when there is none to see him, must heed the inner voice that warn

“God sees you!”

Fasting reawakens and firms this belief, so essential in the spiritual nourishment of the soul. Thus, side by side with this grows the strength of his will, not only to resist evil, but as a general improvement of his character.

This leads us to the moral aspect of fasting — the man who is able to use his will to control his desires rather than the other way around has truly attained a moral victory. Rather than be a slave of his appetites and lower desires, and rather than be guided by physical joys of this transient earthly life, his aim rises to the objective that all evil must be shunned, that the ever-present and ever-seeing Maker will call him to account for his hypocrisy otherwise.

The development of the spiritual and moral fibre yields to a natural realisation of the social benefit that must accrue from the possession of this inner purity combined with the actual act of fasting. Rich and poor alike go through the same act of refraining from attending to their clamouring stomachs and are thus brought to the same level of daily experience. In the case of many of the poor, this is all they have ever known. The rich are made to appreciate this suffering of their brethren and to sympathise with them. For once, the hardships endured by the poor are brought home to the rich. Thus, in addition to the daily gatherings for prayer that bring the rich and the poor together to a shoulder-to-shoulder basis, the daily lives are also brought to a common experience. The awakening of sympathy for the sufferings of the poor is thus cultivated in the hearts of the opulent — a foremost step in any social reform.

And what of physical value? How, it may be argued, does refraining from food help the physical well-being of a person. It is a well-established medical practice to advise ‘patients’, either ill or otherwise, to ‘go on diet’ or to minimise the intake of calories or to adhere to a strictly controlled menu. It is equally well-established that those who fast, in general, remark on feeling better, trimmer and livelier towards the completion of the fasting season. The customary habit of loading one’s stomach at all hours cannot have a beneficial effect on the system that must work incessantly to cope with the intake. However, Islam recognises that there must be some — the sick, the very aged, the traveller and the nursing mothers — who cannot fast without physical harm. In such instances, fasting is not compulsory, but those exempted are asked to effect redemption by feeding the poor. In addition, one more class is exempted — those who live where the division into twelve months does not exist. Evidently the phenomenally long, ‘days’ and ‘nights’ in such places will render the meaning of ‘dawn to sunset’ quite impractical. Once again, the redemption of fasting is sought in the feeding of the poor.

In addition to the obligatory fasting (farz), a voluntary fasting (nafl) may be observed. However, some restrictions are imposed on the limits of voluntary fasting to preserve the constitution which could otherwise weaken. According to tradition, the Holy Prophet recommended three days in the month as the satisfactory limit. The best of traditions do not record the Holy Prophet as specifying any particular days for voluntary fasting. However, voluntary fasting is forbidden on the two Eid days and on Fridays. Other restrictions are that it should not be resorted to a day or two before Ramadan or if it is likely to interfere with other duties. Bukhari reports the Holy Prophet ruling that a husband or a wife must not resort to voluntary fasting without each other’s permission.

The above gives a brief account of the main point as noted on Islamic fasting. However, we may effectively summarise the whole as being an act which carries with it the correct intention or ‘niyah’, and, as noted by Bukhari, this is

“He who fasts during Ramadan having faith (in God) (iman) and seeking His pleasure (ihtisab-an) and having an aim or purpose (niyyat-an)”

That the Quran, that quintessence of perfection and the embodiment of all the highest aspirations that a man may seek, the directory of the best intentions and the noblest of purpose — that this Quran should have been revealed in the month of Ramadan is only fitting and as natural as Creation itself.