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Fasting: Worship by Abstention

Adil Salahi

Arab News, 10/26/04

Fasting is an important duty incumbent on all Muslims who have attained the age of puberty. It is indeed the fourth of the five main duties of Islam which are commonly called “the pillars of Islam.” The Arabic term, sawm, which refers to this duty linguistically means “to refrain”. It has come to denote, in the Islamic context, to refrain from doing anything which invalidates the fast, from the break of dawn till sunset, accompanied with one’s intention to fast that day.

Numerous are the traditions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) which explain the great value of fasting as a form of worship. Abu Hurayrah quotes the Prophet as saying: “God says: ‘Every action a human being does belongs to him except fasting, which is done for My sake, and I reward it accordingly.’ Fasting is a protective shield (against sin). When any of you fasts, he should refrain from obscenity, shouting loud and every unbecoming behavior. If anyone insults him or quarrels with him, let him answer by saying: I am fasting (twice). By Him who holds Muhammad’s soul in His hand, the mouth-smell of a fasting person is, according to God, of better fragrance on the Day of Judgment than musk. A fasting person has two occasions to feel happy: He feels happy when he ends his fast, and he feels happy when he meets his Lord for having fasted.” (Related by Muslim, Ahmad and Al-Nassaie). The same tradition is also reported by Al-Bukhari and Abu Dawood with minor wording variations.

Abdullah ibn Amr quotes the Prophet as saying: “Fasting and the Qur’an intercede with God on the Day of Judgment on behalf of their man or woman. Fasting says: ‘My Lord! I have deprived them of their food and pleasures during the day, so please accept my intercession on their behalf. The Qur’an says: ‘I have deprived them of their sleep at night, so please accept my intercession on their behalf. God accepts their intercession.” (Related by Ahmad).

A report by Abu Umamah mentions that he asked the Prophet as he went out with him: “Prescribe for me something which helps me, if I fulfil it, to be admitted into heaven.” The Prophet said: “I recommend you to fast, for fasting is superior to all actions.” I asked him a second time later and he said: “I recommend you to fast.” (Related by Ahmad, Al-Nassaie and others).

Fasting is divided into obligatory and voluntary. The obligatory is further sub-divided into: Fasting in Ramadan, fasting in atonement for sins, and fasting in fulfilment of vows. We will limit our discussion today and over the next couple of weeks to fasting in Ramadan and voluntary fasting.

To fast during the days of the month of Ramadan is obligatory as evidenced by the Qur’an, the Sunnah and the unanimity of the Muslim community. In the Qur’an we read: “Believers, fasting is decreed for you as it was decreed for those before you, so that you may be God-fearing.” (2: 183) God also says in the Qur’an: “It was in the month of Ramadan that the Qur’an was revealed: A guidance for mankind and a self-evident proof of that guidance and a standard to distinguish right from wrong. Therefore, whoever of you is present in that month shall fast throughout the month.” (2: 185)

In the Sunnah we have the Prophet’s pronouncement: “Islam is built on five essential duties: The declaration that there is no deity other than God and that Muhammad is God’s Messenger, regular attendance to prayers, payment of zakah (i.e. the obligatory charity), fasting in Ramadan and pilgrimage to the Sacred House.”

Talhah ibn Ubaydellah, a companion of the Prophet, reports that “a man came to the Prophet and said: ‘Messenger of God! Tell me what God has imposed on me of fasting?’ The Prophet answered: ‘The month of Ramadan.’ The man asked: ‘Anything more than that?’ The Prophet said: ‘No, unless you wish to volunteer.’”

The Muslim community is unanimous that fasting in Ramadan is a duty which is essentially known to all Muslims as being a part of Islam. He who denies it is an unbeliever. Fasting was imposed as a duty on all Muslims on Monday, the second day of the month of Shaaban in the second year after the Prophet’s immigration to Madinah.

Abu Hurayrah mentions that once when Ramadan approached, the Prophet said: “You are about to receive a blessed month during which you are required to fast. During this month, the gates of heaven are open and the gates of hell are closed. Satans are chained. It includes a night which is far better than a thousand months and he who is deprived of the benefit of that night is certainly deprived.” (Related by Ahmad, Al-Nassaie and Al-Bayhaqi). Abu Hurayrah also quotes the Prophet as saying: “He who fasts in the month of Ramadan out of faith and seeking God’s pleasure, is forgiven all his past sins.” (Related by Ahmad and others).

Abu Hurayrah reports that the Prophet said: “He who refrains from fasting in Ramadan, even for one day, without having a legitimate exemption granted by God, cannot atone for it by fasting for the rest of time, even if he were to do that.” (Related by Abu Dawood, Ibn Majah and others). Al-Dhahabi states that believers in Islam are unanimous that he who does not fast in Ramadan when he is healthy commits a much graver offense than adultery and drunkenness. Indeed, he is believed to be a non-Muslim.

There are two essential things that must be met for fasting to be valid:

1. To refrain from anything that invalidates fasting, from the break of dawn till sunset. God says in the Qur’an: “Eat and drink until you can see the white streak of dawn against the blackness of the night. Then resume the fast till nightfall.” (2: 187)

2. Clear intention to fast. God says in the Qur’an: “They have been ordered only to worship God making their submission pure to Him alone.” (98: 5) The Prophet says: “Actions are but by intention, and every person shall have but that which he intends.” It is necessary to have the intention to fast before dawn on each night of the month of Ramadan. Hafsah, a wife of the Prophet, quotes him as saying: “He who has not made up his mind to fast before dawn invalidates his fasting.” (Related by Ahmad and others). It is proper to have the intention to fast at any time during the night. There is no need to utter that intention verbally, because intention is a mental decision.

It means only making up one’s mind to do what is necessary in obedience to God and to earn His pleasure. Thus, if a person eats his suhoor, i.e. the pre-fast meal, at night and prepares himself for fasting, his action constitutes an intention to fast. If a person has made up his mind to abstain throughout the day from anything which invalidates fasting, his resolve represents an intention, even though he may not wish to eat before fasting.

Many scholars agree that for voluntary fasting, intention may be made after sunrise, provided that the person concerned has not eaten or drunk anything after the break of dawn.

Aishah, the Prophet’s wife, reports that the Prophet entered her room one day and asked whether she had anything for him to eat. When she answered in the negative, he said: “I will fast today, then.” (Related by Muslim and Abu Dawood).

The Hanafi and Shafie schools of Fiqh are of the opinion that intention for voluntary fasting should be made before noon. Ahmad, however, is of the opinion that it is also valid if made in the afternoon.


Earth, a planet hungry for peace

 Apartheid Wall

The Israeli Land-Grab Apartheid Wall built inside the Palestinian territories, here separating Abu Dis from occupied East Jerusalem. (IPC, 7/4/04).


The Israeli apartheid (security) wall around Palestinian population centers in the West Bank, like a Python. (Alquds,10/25/03).

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