Fasting is another unique moral and spiritual characteristic of Islam. Literally defined, fasting means to abstain “completely” from foods, drinks, intimate intercourse and smoking, before the break of the dawn till sunset, during the entire month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic year. But if we restrict the meaning of the Islamic Fasting to this literal sense, we would be sadly mistaken.
When Islam introduced this matchless institution, it planted an ever-growing tree of infinite virtue and invaluable products. Here is an explanation of the spiritual meaning of the Islamic Fasting:
- It teaches man the principle of sincere Love: because when he observes Fasting he does it out of deep love for God. And the man who loves God truly is a man who really knows what love is.
- It equips man with a creative sense of hope and an optimistic outlook on life; because when he fasts he is hoping to please God and is seeking His Grace.
- It imbues in man the genuine virtue of effective devotion, honest dedication and closeness to God; because when he fasts he does so for God and for His sake alone.
- It cultivates in man a vigilant and sound conscience; because the fasting person keeps his fast in secret as well as in public. In fasting, especially, there is no mundane authority to check man’s behavior or compel him to observe fasting. He keeps it to please God and satisfy his own conscience by being faithful in secret and in public. There is no better way to cultivate a sound conscience in man.
- It indoctrinates man in patience and selflessness, as through fasting, he feels the pains of deprivation but he endures them patiently.
- It is an effective lesson in applied moderation and willpower.
- Fasting also provides man with a transparent soul, a clear mind and a light body.
- It shows man a new way of wise savings and sound budgeting.
- It enables man to master the art of Mature Adaptability. We can easily understand the point once we realize that fasting makes man change the entire course of his daily life.
- It grounds man in discipline and healthy survival.
- It originates in man the real spirit of social belonging, unity and brotherhood, of equality before God as well as before the law.
- It is a Godly prescription for self-reassurance and self-control.
Now, someone may be tempted to raise the objection: If this is the case with the Islamic institution of fasting, and if this is the picture of Islam in this aspect, why are the Muslims not living in a utopia? To such an objection we can only say that Muslims have lived in and enjoyed a utopia in a certain epoch of their history. The realization of that utopia was a phenomenon of a unique achievement in the history of man. We say unique, because no religion or social system other than Islam has ever been able to realize its ideals in reality.
The reason why the Islamic utopia is not being established nowadays is manifold and easily explicable. But to restrict our discussion to the institution of fasting we may say that some Muslims, unfortunately for them, do not observe the fast or, at best, adopt the attitude of indifference. On the other hand, some of those who observe it do not realize its true meaning and, as a result, derive very little benefit out of it or, in fact, no benefit at all. That is why some Muslims today, do not enjoy the real privileges of fasting.
It has already been indicated that the period of obligatory fasting is the month of Ramadan. The daily period of observance starts before the break of the dawn and ends immediately after sunset. Normally there are accurate calendars to toll the exact time, but in the absence of such facilities one should consult one’s watch and the sun’s positions, together with the local newspapers, weather bureau, etc.
Fasting Ramadan is obligatory on every responsible and fit Muslim. But there are other times when it is recommended to make voluntary fasting, after the Traditions of Prophet Muhammad. Among these times are Mondays and Thursdays of every week, a few days of each month in the two months heralding the coming of Ramadan, i.e., Rajab and Sha’ban, six days after Ramadan following the ‘Eid-ul-Fitr Day. Besides, it is always compensating to fast any day of any month of the year, except the ‘Eid Days and Fridays when no Muslim should fast.
However, we may repeat that the only obligatory fasting is that of Ramadan – which may be 29 or 30 days, depending on the moon’s positions. This is a pillar of Islam, and any failure to observe it without reasonable excuses is a grave sin in the sight of God.
Who Must Fast?
Fasting Ramadan is compulsory upon every Muslim, male or female, who has these qualifications:
- To be mentally and physically fit, which means to be sane and able.
- To be of full age, the age of puberty and discretion, which is normally about fourteen. Children under this age should be encouraged to start this good practice on easy levels, so when they reach the age of puberty they will be mentally and physically prepared to observe fasting.
- To be present at one’s permanent settlement, your home town, one’s farm, and one’s business premises, etc. This means not to be on a journey of about fifty miles or more.
- To be fairly certain that fasting is unlikely to cause you any harm, physical or mental, other than the normal reactions to hunger, thirst, etc.
Exemption From Fasting:
These said qualifications exclude the following categories:
- Children under the age of puberty and discretion.
- Insane people who are unaccountable for their deeds. People of these two categories are exempted from the duty of fist, and no compensation or any other substitute is enjoined on them.
- Men and women who are too old and feeble to undertake the obligation of fast and bear its hardships. Such people are exempted from this duty, but they must offer, at least, one needy poor Muslim an average full meal or its value per person per day.
- Sick people whose health is likely to be severely affected by the observance of fast. They may postpone the fast, as long as they are sick, to a later date and make up for it, a day for a day.
- Travelers may break the fast temporarily during their travel only and make up for it in later days, a day for a day
- Pregnant women and women breast-feeding their children may also break the fast, if its observance is likely to endanger their own health or that of their infants. But they must make up for the fast at a delayed time, a day for a day.
- Women in the -period of menstruation (of a maximum of ten days or of confinement (of a maximum of forty days).; They must postpone the fast till recovery and then make up for it, a day for a day.
It should be understood that here, like in all other Islamic undertakings, the intention must be made clear that this action is undertaken in obedience to God, in response to His command and out of love of Him.
The fast of any day of Ramadan becomes void by intentional eating or drinking or smoking or indulgence in any intimate intercourse, and by allowing anything to enter through the mouth into the interior parts of the body. And if this is done deliberately without any lawful reason, this is a major sin which only renewed repentance can expiate.
If anyone, through forgetfulness, does something that would ordinarily break the fast, 0a observance is not nullified, and his fast stands valid, provided he stops doing that thing the moment he realizes what he is doing.
On completion of the fast of Ramadan, the special charity known as Sadagat-ul-Fitr (charity of ‘ Fast-breaking) must be distributed before ‘Eid-ul-Fitr (approximately), seven dollars per head.
It is strongly recommended by Prophet Muhammad to observe these practices especially during Ramadan:
- To have a light meal before the break of the dawn, known as Suhoor.
- To eat a few dates or start breaking the fast by plain water right after sunset, saying this prayer Allah humma laka sumna, wa ‘ala rizqika aftarna. (O God! for Your sake have we fasted and now we break the fast with the food You have given us).
- To make your meals as light as possible because, as the Prophet put it, the worst thing man can fill is his stomach.
- To observe the supererogatory prayer known as Taraweeh.
- To exchange social visits and intensify humanitarian services.
- To increase the study and recitation of the Qur’an.
- To exert the utmost in patience and humbleness.
- To be extraordinarily cautious in using one’s senses, one’s mind and, especially, the tongue; to abstain from careless gossip and avoid all suspicious motions.