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Saum (Fasting): A Pillar of Islam

by Syed Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi


      Life is another name for the struggle between the urges of the self and the dictates of the mind. But in this struggle it is not the carnal desires that always triumph as some people imagine. Such a notion does little credit to those who expound it for it betrays a melancholic mistrust of human nature and a cynical denial of truth.

      What lends dynamism to life and keeps the world humming with activity is the incentive of profit. It is this inducement which awakens the farmer in the biting cold of a wintry morning and sends him off to the field before the day has dawned, or persuades the businessman to give up the comforts of home for the sake of trade, or inspires the soldier to lay down his life for the glory of the motherland. The whole mechanism of life and active effort revolves around it. The assurance of gain, or the expectation of it in the future, is the rallying point in the struggle for existence.

      There is, however, another assurance or expectation the impelling force of which is much greater. It is of the virtues and benefits the glad tidings of which were brought by the Divine Apostles and are contained in the sacred Scriptures. We can describe it as the incentive of Divine good pleasure and requital of one’s deeds in both the worlds.

      Everyone knows that fasting is beneficial for health and from the medical point of view it is advisable that we fast occasionally. But if a survey was undertaken of those who fasted solely for reasons of physical well-being, even during the cold weather when it is easier to abstain from food, wholly or partly, their number would not be much although such a fast is far less difficult than what is prescribed in Islâm.

      On the contrary, if a count is made of the people who observe fasting as a religious obligation and in fulfillment of the covenant of the Lord it will run into millions in spite of the ascendancy of materialism and the decline of moral and religious values in the modern world. These are the people who brave the intense heat of the summer and the sharp pangs of hunger and thirst and observe fasting and also devote their nights to prayer simply in response to the spiritual urge and in the hope of the reward of the Hereafter. This is so because in the sight of men of faith spiritual benefits and advantages (the knowledge of which has come down to us through the sacred Apostles) are far more valuable than the medical or economic gains the physicians or economists advocate.

      It is related that the Prophet once said, “There is a fixed principle for rewarding all the good deeds of men, and every good deed will be rewarded according to it. But the fast is an exception. The standing command of the Lord is that since a man forgoes food and drink and subdues his passions solely for His sake, He will recompense him directly for it.” [Sihah-i-Sittah]

      One more tradition of the Prophet  reads: “There are two moments of special joy for a person who fasts: one is when he breaks the fast, and this he experiences in his earthly existence, and the other will come in the Hereafter when he will be presented before the Lord.” [Ibid]

      To take two other traditions: “The bad odor emanating from the mouth of a person who is fasting (which is generally produced due to an empty stomach) is more pleasant in the judgment of Allâh than the sweet smell of musk.” [Shaikhain: Bukhâri and Muslim] And: “There is a gate of Paradise which is known as Rayyân. Only those who fast will be permitted to enter through it. One who will enter through it shall never be thirsty.” [Shaikhain]


Safeguarding the Spirit of Fasting

      Owing to the institutional nature of fasting and its widespread popularity it was quite possible that it would degenerate into a lifeless ritual with people taking to fasting out of habit or for fear of social censure. It was not inconceivable that the Muslims lost sight of its intrinsic significance and began to fast only because of material benefits or medical advantages. The Holy Prophet  had foreseen this possibility and to safeguard against it he had made it known, at the very first step, that only that fast was acceptable to Allâh which was observed in the spirit of faith and trust in Divine Recompense. Thus, a Tradition of his says, “He who fasted with Îmân (faith) and Ihtisâb (trust in Divine Recompense) all his previous sins will be forgiven.” [Ibid]

      For those who are not cognizant of the weaknesses of human nature it may be hard to appreciate the relevance of this stipulation. They may argue that since it was only the Muslims who observed fasting and they did it wholly for propitiating Allâh and earning His reward the requirement of faith and trust was unnecessary. But if one cared to enquire into the peculiar makeup of human personality and the working of social and moral incentives one is bound to submit to the wisdom of the far reaching provision and to bow down before the depth and profundity of knowledge which has its roots not in human perception but Divine revelation. Nor doth he speak of his own desire. It is naught save an inspiration that is inspired. [53:3-4]

      In a Prophet’s  tradition the state of Îmân and Ihtisâb has been defined as one in which a person performs good and virtuous deeds in the hope of Divine Recompense and with faith in the promise of Divine good pleasure and forgiveness. It is related by ‘Abdullâh bin ‘Amr bin-al-‘Aas  that the Prophet  once said, “There are forty deeds among which the best is the gift of a goat. If any of these is performed in the hope of Divine Recompense and with faith in the reward promised on it, Allâh will allow such a person to enter Paradise.” [Bukhâri]

      The Islâmic Sharî’ah does not rest content at prescribing the outward form and ceremony of fasting but also lays stress on its inner content and significance. It prohibits not only food and drink and sexual gratification during a fast but everything that is detrimental to its basic purpose and objective. It has encompassed fasting, on all sides, with piety, reverence and cleanliness. The Prophet  has said, “When any of you keeps a fast he should not utter a filthy or indecent word, or engage in a noisy scene; and were anyone to quarrel with him and call him names he should simply say, I am keeping fast.” [Ibid] On another occasion he said, “Allâh has no need for him to go without food and drink who cannot shun evil and falsehood even during a fast.” [Ibid]

      A fast which is devoid of the spirit of piety and purity is like a body without a soul. The Prophet , again, is reported to have said, “Many are there among you who fast and yet gain nothing from it except hunger and thirst, and many are there who pray (throughout the night) and yet gain nothing from it except wakefulness.” [Ibid]

      It is related by Hazrat Abu Huraira  that the Holy Prophet  once said, “Fasting is a shield until it is ripped.” [In Nisâ’i it is added the Prophet  was thereupon asked, “Until it is ripped with what?” “With falsehood and backbiting,” he replied.]

      Fasting in Islâm does not merely denote certain negative acts like the shunning of food and drink and abstaining from falsehood and backbiting and from wrangling and uttering a foul or profane word but it also includes a number of positive deeds, such as prayer, dhikr, compassion, and charity. The Prophet  has said, “If in it (i.e. the month of Ramadhân) a person will seek the propitiation of Allâh by doing anything it will be treated as equal (in recompense) to the fulfillment of an obligatory duty in the other days of the year and if he will fulfill an obligatory duty in it, it will be treated as equal (in recompense) to the fulfillment of, seventy obligatory duties in the other days of the year. It is the month of patient perseverance and the reward on patient perseverance is Paradise, and it is the month of Compassion.” [Baihaqi]

      It is related by Zaid bin Khalid Aljohni  that the Prophet  once remarked, “He who will invite a person who is fasting to break the fast with him will get the same reward as the one who was fasting and there will be no reduction in the reward of the latter either.” [Tirmidhi]

      Allâh has also blessed the Muslim Millat with the prudence and anxiety to preserve the tradition of Tarâweeh. The celebration of the prayer-service of Tarâweeh dates back from the time of the Holy Prophet  but he had abandoned it (in congregation) after offering it up for three days lest it was made compulsory for Muslims and became a burden to them. It is related by Ibn-i-Shahab that he had heard it from ‘Urwah who, in his turn, had heard it from Hazrat Ayesha , that “once the Prophet  went out in the night (after the ‘Ishâ prayers) and offered salâh in the mosque and some other persons also joined him in it. When the morning came people began to talk about it and a crowd collected. On the next day when he offered the prayer they all offered it up with him and it was again talked about on the following morning. On the third night the number of the devotees was even greater. The Prophet  came out and offered up the prayer with them. When the fourth night came the rush was so great that the whole of the mosque was filled until the Prophet  came for the Fajr prayers. After he had completed it he turned towards the people and said, ‘I was not unaware of your presence (in the mosque last night) but I feared that the service (Tarâweeh) might be made obligatory and then you got tired of it.’ Then the death occurred of the Prophet  and the position remained the same.” [Bukhâri]

      After the passing away of the Prophet  the holy Companions conducted themselves similarly and so enthusiastically did the Muslims everywhere keep up the tradition of Tarâweeh that it came to be regarded as a sign and symbol of Ahl-i-Sunnah [followers of the traditional as well as the written law of Islâm] and a mark of devoutness. In addition, the institution of Tarâweeh has proved extremely helpful in the learning of the whole of the Qur’ân by heart. More and more people were drawn to it, and the Qur’ân came to be preserved in many a breast. [In this respect there is a special favor of the Lord on some countries though they are far removed from the cradle of Islâm. In India and Pakistan, for instance, there is witnessed a unique enthusiasm for Tarâweeh and the completion of one recitation of the Qur’ân, from the beginning to the end, in Ramadhân. Here the arrangement for Tarâweeh is made even in smaller mosques of various localities where at least one recitation of the whole of the Qur’ân is completed, while in the bigger ones two or three (or even more) recitations are done. The preservation of this tradition has definitely led to a marked increase in the number of Huffâz (plural of Hâfiz, meaning one who has the whole of the Qur’ân by heart) – with many people it has become a regular practice to keep up the recitation of the Qur’ân from memory throughout the year so that they can lead the Tarâweeh prayer-service correctly in Ramadhân and huffâz of such a high standard have been produced that they are the marvel of the world.]

      Another priceless advantage is that a large section of the community is thus enabled to devote itself to nightly worship in the blessed month of Ramadhân. Ramadhân is a festival of worship, a season of Tilâwat [recitation of the Qur’ân] and a springtime for the devout. The religious fervor of the Muslim Millat, its genuine, solid, and unshakeable attachment to faith and enthusiasm for worship acquires a new warmth and sublimity in it. During this hallowed month the urge for excelling others in prayerfulness, piety, warm-heartedness, charity, good doing, and repentance is at the peak among the Muslims.


Shortcomings of Muslims

      With all this, the Muslims have often failed to do justice to the true aims and objects of fasting. Hence, its assured or expected benefits have not fully come their way. Overindulgence in food and drink at Iftâr [breaking the fast], for example, was carried to such a length that the very purpose of fasting and its purificatory influence were impaired. Imam Ghazali, while lamenting over it, writes: [Ihyâ-ul-Uloom, p. 211]

      “At the time of Iftâr even lawful food should be partaken of with moderation and over-eating strictly avoided because among the things that are to be filled nothing is more repugnant to Allâh than an over-filled stomach. If a fasting person were to try to make amends for the day-long starvation at Iftâr and to eat at one meal time what he would have eaten throughout the day how can the fast be efficacious in overcoming the enemy of Allâh and subduing the desires that lead to evil? If the stomach is denied all food and drink from sunrise to sunset, and after putting hunger and other cravings of the flesh to the severest of trials, a sumptuous meal is taken in the evening the sensual appetites will become sharper instead of losing their intensity. What is more, the evil propensities that were hitherto dormant might become active. The fundamental purpose of fasting is to subdue the desires and passions that are played upon by the Devil and used by him as his tools, and this can be achieved only by cutting down on food, i.e. by eating only as much in the evening as is done on normal days. If a person ate at one mealtime what he used to eat throughout the day he will gain nothing from fasting.

      “Furthermore, not to sleep in excess during the day is also a part of the discipline of fasting so that one may experience the pangs of hunger and thirst and feel the effects of physical debility and enervation and the purification of the heart, thus, took place.

      “It is, in the same way, desirable to eat lightly at night so that one can get up easily for Tahajjud and other supererogatory prayers and the Devil is kept at an arm’s length, and through purification of the heart one is enabled to obtain a glimpse of the Celestial World.”


Protection Against Extremism

      The institution of fasting could easily be carried to the extreme. A popular misconception about it was that its real purpose was to annihilate the desires of the flesh altogether and provide an opportunity for self-mortification in the last degree. It was supposed that the more one practiced abstinence, abjured the comforts of the world and did hunger and thirst, and gave the proof of fortitude and endurance, the more would one become the favorite of the Lord and join the ranks of the pious and the persevering.

      This fallacious belief had given rise to such an exaggerated notion of worship, especially fasting, among the religiously and ascetically inclined sections of the ancient faiths that they prolonged the period of abstention from food and drink by delaying inordinately the time of Iftâr and eating the Sehri [the light meal which Muslims make a little before dawn] very early, or not at all. They regarded things like Iftâri [the meal taken for fast breaking at sunset] and Sehri as weaknesses to succumb to which was disgraceful for those who aspired for greater heights in religion and spirituality. Sometimes these people fasted continuously for days and did not eat or drink anything in the night as well. Many over-enthusiastic Muslims and those among them that were given to making innovations in faith also took guidance from their example. But such extremism is patently un-Islâmic. It amounts to distortion of religion, to making alterations in it out of one’s own impulse or choice, and pursuing the path of penance and flagellation. It paves the way for mischief and constitutes an open challenge to the Divine proclamation which says:

      Allâh desireth ease for you; He desireth not hardship for you. [2: 185]

      And He hath not laid upon you any hardship. [12: 78]

      The Holy Prophet  has said: “This faith is easy and whosoever shows arrogance in it (i.e. takes it to extremes to show off his strength and power of endurance) will, ultimately, have to accept defeat. So, follow the path of rectitude and moderation.” [Bukhâri]

      The Islâmic Sharî’ah comes down heavily on extremism in fasting. It advocates positively the practice of Sehri before the commencement of the fast. The Prophet  himself has declared it to be a Sunnah for Muslims. It is related by Anas bin Mâlik  that he once said, ‘Eat Sehri for there is propitiousness in it.” [Tirmidhi]

      Again, it is related by ‘Amr bin-al-‘Aas  that the Prophet  once said, “What distinguishes our fasting from the fasting of the other people of the Book is Sehri.” [Muslim]

      The Prophet  has also forbidden the delaying of Iftâr and condemned it as the way of extremists among the people of the Book and a sign of mischief and perversion. It is related by Suhail bin Sa’d  that he  said, “So long as people are prompt in Iftâr they will remain on the side of virtue.” [Tirmidhi] A similar tradition related by Hazrat Abu Huraira  says, “As long as people observe promptitude in Iftâr the faith will be in the ascendance because the Jews and the Christians make delay in it.” [Abű Dâwűd]

      Likewise, it is preferable to make a late Sehri and such also was the conduct of the holy Companions. It is related by Zaid bin Thâbit  that, “We took the Sehri with the Prophet and then stood up for salâh.” On being enquired about the time intervening between the two acts he replied that it was equal to what was needed for the recitation of fifty verses of the Qur’ân. [Ibid] We further learn from Ibn-i-‘Umar  that there were two muezzins [public criers to salâh] of the sacred Prophet : Bilâl  and Ibn-i-Ummi-Muktoom . The Prophet  once said: “The Azân of Bilâl is the sign of night. Eat in it till Ibn-i-Muktoom gives the Azân.” The gap between the two Azâns, according to him, was only this much that as the former came down from the platform the latter climbed to it.” [Shaikhain]

      In the words of Hazrat Shah Waliullah [Hujjat, vol II, p. 39]: “One of the main objects of fasting is to discourage unnecessary speculation and hairsplitting and to block the path of extremism. This mode of worship was known to and practiced by the Jews and Christians as well as the devout Arabs, and, thinking that the institution of fasting was rooted in severe self-denial and asceticism, they indulged in excessive abstinence and invented many devices of mortification on their own. This is where distortion of faith sets in which is sometimes of a quantitative and sometimes of a qualitative nature. In the sphere of quantity, the discouragement of extremism can be imagined from the fact that the Prophet  forbade the Muslims against fasting on one or two days immediately preceding the month of Ramadhân. Similarly, the disallowing of the fast of ‘Eid or ‘doubt’ [some of the Muslims used to fast on the day of ‘Eid when the moon of Ramadhân was sighted on the 30th of Sha’bân, thinking that there might have been a mistake in the sighting of the moon and the month of Ramadhân might have started a day earlier: this is known as the fast of ‘doubt’] “because there is no interval between it and Ramadhân” is based on the consideration that if the extremists will make it into a laudatory observance others also will follow their example and it will lead to perversion of faith. Extremism, in fact, is born, out of over-cautiousness and the fast of ‘doubt’ belongs to the same category.

      “In the sphere of quality, instances of the discouragement of excess are furnished by the prohibition of continuous fasting (i.e. on each day of the year), the exhortation regarding Sehri and the command to make it late because all this exaggeration and extremism is the product of Ignorance.”

      Fasting denotes the fulfillment of a Divine command. Just as it is disallowed to eat and drink and seek the satisfaction of other sensual appetites after the break of day, however powerful the urge is for them, abstention from food and drink is prohibited after sunset, however strong the impulse may be for self-denial and asceticism. The deciding factor is not one’s own inclination but the Word of Allâh, and the disregard of His will and the audacious display of one’s courage and spiritual stamina against His Judgment is identical to defiance of faith. The more a fasting person is free from the hold of desire and resigned to the Divine Will the more will he be true in his submission and removed from the taint of vanity and self-conceit.

      As Hazrat Mujaddid Alf-Thâni writes: “The humility of a person who fasts is established by the delay in Sehri and promptness in Iftâr. It is in keeping with his servitude and fulfils its objects.” [Maktoobât, letter no. 45]



I’tikâf [seclusion in the mosque during the last ten days of Ramadhân] is for the completion of the benefits of fasting. If a person has remained denied of inner peace and tranquility and has been able to concentrate on prayer and supplication during the earlier part of Ramadhân he can make amends for it through I’tikâf.

      Says Allama Ibn-i-Qaiyyim [Zâd-al-Ma’âd, p. 176]: “The basic purpose of I’tikâf is that the heart gets attached to Allâh, and, with it, one attains inner composure and equanimity, and preoccupation with the mundane things of life ceases, and absorption in the Eternal Reality takes its place, and the state is reached in which all fears, hopes and apprehensions are superseded by the love and remembrance of Allâh, every anxiety is transformed into the anxiety for Him and every thought and feeling is blended with the eagerness to gain His nearness and to earn His good favor, and devotion to the Almighty is generated instead of devotion to the world and it becomes the provision for the grave where there will be neither a friend nor a helper. This is the high aim and purpose of I’tikâf which is the specialty of the most sublime part of Ramadhân, i.e. the last ten days.”

      Similarly, Hazrat Shah Waliullah remarks [Hujjat, vol. II, p.43]: “Since I’tikâf in the mosque is a means to the attainment of peace of the mind and purification of the heart, and it affords an excellent opportunity for forging an identity with the angels and having a share in the blissfulness of the Night of Power, and for devoting oneself to prayer and meditation Allâh has set apart the last ten days of the month of Ramadhân for it and made it a Sunnah for His pious and virtuous slaves.”

      The Prophet always observed I’tikâf and the Muslims have, on the whole, adhered to it. [All the schools of jurisprudence are agreed that I’tikâf is not obligatory but a Sunnah. According to the Hanafi school it is Sunnat-i-mu’akkadah (a religious practice which, though not obligatory, was observed regularly by the Holy Prophet  and one is liable to be questioned for neglecting it without a valid reason) and Sunnat-i-Kifâyah (meaning such religious practices which, if they are observed by a few persons, are considered to have been observed by all).] It has become a regular feature of the month of Ramadhân and a confirmed practice with the devout and the faithful. Hazrat Ayesha  relates that “the Prophet  regularly observed I’tikâf during the last ten days of Ramadhân till the end of his life. After him, his wives maintained the traditions.” [Shaikhain]

      It is related by Hazrat Abu Huraira  that “the Prophet  observed I’tikâf for ten days every year in the month of Ramadhân. In the year of his death he did it for twenty days.” [Bukhâri]


Night of Power

      The pre-eminence of Lailatul Qadr (the Night of Power) has been repeatedly stressed in the Qur’ân and the Traditions.

      The Qur’ân says:

Lo! We revealed in on the Night of Power.
Ah, What will convey unto thee what the Night of Power is!
The Night of Power is better than a thousand months.
The angels and the Holy Spirit (Gabriel) descend therein by the permission of their Lord, with all decrees.
The Night is Peace until the rising of the dawn.
[Sűrah 97]

      The Holy Prophet  has said, “Whoever will offer prayers with faith and trust in Divine recompense during the Night of Power, all his previous sins will be forgiven.” [Shaikhain]

      Allâh has concealed the Night of Power in the last ten days of Ramadhân so that the Muslims may seek it, their keenness (for faith and worship) may grow and all their nights during the concluding part of the month be spent in prayer as was the case with the sacred Prophet . It is related by Hazrat Ayesha  that “when the last ten days of Ramadhân began the Prophet  used to prepare himself for prayer; he stayed awake throughout the night and also wakened the members of his family.” [Bukhâri]

      That the Night of Power occurs during the last ten days of the month of Ramadhân or, rather, during the last seven days, and in the odd nights in them, is borne out by numerous traditions. It is related by Ibn-i-‘Umar  that “to some of the holy Companions the Night of Power was revealed in a dream to fall during the last seven days (of Ramadhân) upon which the Prophet  remarked that since their dreams coincided as regards the last seven days those who wanted to seek it should do so during the last seven days.” [Ibid]

      It is further related by Hazrat Ayseha  that “the Prophet  observed I’tikâf and went into seclusion during the last ten days of Ramadhân and he advised the people to look for the Night of Power during the seven days.” [Shaikhain]

      It is also related by her that “the Prophet  used to say that one should seek the Night of Power in the odd nights of the last ten days of Ramadhân).” [Bukhâri]

      Writes Hazrat Shah Waliullah [Hujjat, vol.II, pp.41-42], “Know that the Night of Power is of two kinds: one is in which decisions are made in the heavens. It is the Night in which the Qur’ân, the whole of it, was sent down (to the firmament of the world) and, thereafter, was revealed little by little (to mankind). This Night comes only once in a year and it is also not necessary that it should be in the month of Ramadhân. But most probably, it is so. On the occasion of the revelation of the Qur’ân the Night was in Ranzadhan.

      “The other Night of Power is that in which a kind of spirituality is felt and the angels descend upon earth. The Muslims devote themselves to prayer during this Night and they are benefited by each other’s spiritual exaltation and blissfulness. The angels come close to them, the devils run away, and their devotions are accepted. The Night occurs every year in the odd nights of the last ten days of Ramadhân. It can occur a little sooner or later, but it is always in the month of Ramadhân. Thus, when a person speaks of the former Night of Power he says that it rotates in the year and when he speaks of the later he says that it is found in the last ten days of Ramadhân. The Prophet  has said, ‘I see that your dreams coincide as regards the last seven days of Ramadhân, so whosoever wants to find it should look for it during the last seven days.’ On another occasion he said, ‘The Night was shown to me. I saw that I was bowing low in water and clay and it was the twenty-first night (of Ramadhân).’ The difference of opinion among the holy Companions in respect of it is, in fact, the difference of intuition.”


Reformative Role of Islâm

      In fasting, too, Islâm has played a reformative role of great significance. It has made it an easy and pleasant observance, full of social and spiritual benefits and operative in the whole of the community.

      The conception of fasting had undergone a complete transformation in the pre-Islâmic times. We have seen how among the Jews it had become symbolic of suffering, defeat, and misery. Instead of this gloomy way of looking at it, Islâm gave it a new and positive character, animated with faith, hope, and earnestness. It made it into a popular institution, evoking a ready response among its adherents. The assurances and happy tidings of Divine Recompense and Good Pleasure are a source of joy and inspiration to Muslims and they observe fasting cheerfully. The relevant Qur’ânic verses and Traditions, with their irresistible appeal to the basic instincts of man, are immensely helpful in imparting to Muslims a sense of faith and hopefulness. A celestial tradition, for example, says, “Fasting is the only thing for which I (Allâh) will recompense directly.” [Sihah-i-Sittah] Another Tradition of the Prophet  has it that there are two moments of special joy for a person who fasts: one is when he breaks the fast and other will come in the Hereafter when he will be presented before the Lord. [Ibid]

      Islâm has surrounded the devotee who fasts with a unique atmosphere of virtue, dignity, and sublimity. It is related that the Prophet  once said, “The bad odor emanating from the mouth of a person who is fasting is more pleasant in the judgment of Allâh than the sweet smell of musk.” [Ibid] This is radically different from the mood of oppression and pessimism prevalent among the Jews.

      As we have pointed out earlier fasting in Judaism is synonymous with penance and mortification and this is how it has been interpreted generally in its holy Texts:

      “And this will be a statute for ever unto you; that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the mouth, you shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all, whether it be one of your own country, or a stranger who sojourneth among you: for on that day shall the persist make, an atonement for you, to cleanse you from all your sins before the Lord.” [Lev. 16:26-28]

      “And the Lord spoke unto Moses saying, also on the tenth day of this seventh month there shall be day of atonement: it shall, be a holy convocation unto you; and ye shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire unto the Lord. And ye shall do not work in that same day; for it is a day of atonement, to make an atonement for you before the Lord your God.” [Lev. 23:26-28]

      “And ye shall have on the tenth day of this seventh month a holy convocation; and ye shall afflict your souls; ye shall not do any work therein.” [Num. 29-7]

      On the other hand, the Islâmic Sharî’ah holds fasting neither to be a means of self-torture nor a punishment. There is nothing in the Qur’ân and the Traditions to suggest it. Fasting has been instituted in Islâm as a form of worship the sole aim of which is the propitiation of Allâh. The regulations laid down for it do not inevitably lead to the mortification of flesh. They do not place fasting beyond the endurance of man. On, the contrary, the Islâmic Sharî’ah insists on the making of the pre-dawn meal of Sehri as a Sunnah and advises its followers to make it late. It also wants them to be prompt in Iftâr and allows for rest and sleep both during the day and the night. It leaves the Muslims free to engage in business and other gainful pursuits as against the Jewish faith in which it is prohibited to attend to worldly affairs while keeping a fast and the Jews are required to spend their time wholly in prayer and seclusion.

      In many ancient faiths (and evidence of it is available even now) fasting was confined to a particular class. Among the Hindus, for instance, it was reserved for the Brahmins, and among the fire worshippers, for the priests. In ancient Greece only the women were required to keep fast. Islâm did away with these classifications and made fasting a universal religious duty.

      And whosoever of you is present (i.e. alive in the month of Ramadhân), let him fast the month. [2:185]

      In spite of the discriminatory nature of their injunctions the ancient religions made no concession to those who were really incapable of fasting due to illness or some other reason. Islâm exempted them and gave them full protection.

      And for him who is sick among you, or on a journey the same number of other days. [2:184]

      The Qur’ân, further, says:

      And for those who can do it with hardship there is a ransom; the feeding of a man in need. [2: 184]

      In some of the earlier faiths there was such an exaggeration of emphasis on severity that abstention from food was enjoined for forty days in continuation, whereas, in others, leniency was carried to the extent of forbidding only the eating of meat while all other articles of food were allowed. But the law of Islâm is equally opposed to excessive sternness and excessive leniency. Fasting in Islâm is based on fairness and moderation. In it neither mortification is permitted nor slackness.

      The Jews ate only once in twenty-four hours, i.e. at Iftâr. Aside of it, they allowed themselves neither any food nor relaxation. In the night, too, they refrained from eating and drinking and indulging in other legitimate pleasures. These self-imposed restrictions were rejected by Islâm:

      And eat and drink until the white thread becometh distinct to you from the black thread of the dawn. [2: 187]

      Islâm also condoned the lapses made inadvertently while fasting. In it, a fast is not made void by an involuntary act or circumstances beyond one’s control, like vomiting, nose bleeding, and pollution in sleep. [It is related by Hazrat Abu Huraira that the Prophet  once said. “Anyone who ate or drank due to forgetfulness, let him not abandon the fast. It is a feast conferred upon him by Allâh.” Imam Bukhâri and Imam Muslim have also reproduced this tradition in the following words: “Whoever forgot, and was fasting, and ate or drank anything, he should complete his fast for it was from Allâh that he was fed or offered the drink.” It is related by Hazrat Abu Saeed Khudri  that the Prophet  once said, “A fast is not made void by three things: bleeding by means of a horn, vomiting and pollution in sleep.]

      Besides, in some of the ancient faiths fasting was observed according to the solar months for which knowledge of mathematics and astronomy was needed. Then, again, fasting days fell permanently in the same months. But, in Islâm, fasting is related to lunar months and the sighting of the new moon. [It should be noted that in the Sharî’ah the reliance is on the sighting of the new moon and not on its presence. Thus, for the sighting of the moon it is not at all necessary to take recourse to mathematical calculation or other devices as is being done in some Muslim countries. The words of the tradition, in respect of it, are clear. It says, “Begin your fasts on seeing it (the new moon) and end them on seeing it.”]

      They ask thee, (O Muhammad), of new moons. Say: They are fixed seasons for mankind and for the Hajj (Pilgrimage). [2: 189]

      The Prophet  said, “Begin your fasting on seeing it (the new moon) and end your fasting on seeing it. If there be a cloud and the moon cannot be sighted complete thirty days of fasting.” [Tirmidhi]

      Another tradition says: “Do not keep fast unless you have sighted the (new) moon and do not end the month of fasting until you have sighted the (new) moon. If the horizon is not clear recline up and calculate.” [Sihah-i-Sittah with the exception of Bukhâri]

      The main advantage of it is that Muslims, wherever they may be living, in towns, villages, forests, or mountains, can begin and end the period of fasting without any difficulty or astronomical skill. Moreover, due to this arrangement the month of Ramadhân keeps on rotating in the year and it falls in different seasons, sometimes in the cold weather and sometimes in the hot weather. The Muslims, in this way, do not always have to fast in the scorching heat of the summer or the biting cold of the winter, and they are also benefited physically by the change of climate and season. They become accustomed to the variations of the weather and remain patient, preserving, and hopeful of the Divine reward in all circumstances.

      When a person blessed with the Divine wealth of faith and Islâm, and also familiar with the history, philosophy, and design of fasting in the earlier religions, observes the condition of their adherents who carry it out and compares it with the Islâmic conception and structure of fasting his heart is filled with gratitude and the stirring words of praise and thanksgiving come spontaneously to his lips.

      All praise to Allâh, Who hath guided us to this. We could not truly have been led aright if Allâh had not guided us. Verily, the Messengers of our Lord did bring the truth. [7: 43]


Taken from “The Four Pillars of Islâm” by Syed Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi, translated into English by Muhammad Asif Kidwai [Da’wah Academy, International Islâmic University, Islamabad, Pakistan].


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Last modified 08/12/05 09:25 AM - Iqra - ISSN #1062-2756