Obligatory fasting in Islam

Daily: The Nation
Date: 27.10.04

Shah Waliullah writes on fasting in Hujjatullah-al-Balighah (II), “excess of animality hinders
the emergence of the angelic aspects, so one should try to dominate one’s animality which
sprouts from food, drink, and indulgence in carnal pleasures — a fast in Islam is solution to
all these”.

The statement indicates that Islam intends to make a Muslim a creature finding place
between angel and animal. In other words, Islam wants to harmonize spiritual and temporal
affairs of its followers. Fasting is a way to disseminate that message of middle way.  

In Arabic language, fast (Saum) means to stop or to rest. According to the Shariah, fasting
is abstinence from eating, drinking, and sexual intercourse but with intention of keeping fast
from real dawn to dusk. In Islam, the divine command of obligatory fasting was delivered in
the second Hijra. The relevant divine commandments are embodied in verses number 183,
184, 185 and 187 of chapter (Surah) 2nd, Al-Baqarah of the holy Quran.

The obligatory fasting is for 29 or 30 days of the month of Ramadan, the 9th month of the
Islamic calendar based on Lunar year of 354 or 355 days. It means the month of Ramadan
begins every year about eleven days in advance of the preceding month of Ramadan in
relation to the Solar year, which is of 365 or 366 days. It means that one Solar year can
have two months of Ramadan, as happened in 1998 when the first Ramadan started on
02.01.98 and the second one started on 21.12.98. Interestingly, the month of Ramadan is
according to the revolving movement of Moon around Earth while fast is according to the
rotation of Earth around its axis that brings day and night.

The Quran says that fasting is obligatory on a Muslim who comes across Ramadan in his
lifetime (2:185). Under special circumstances like illness, passengers in journey, feeble
persons, women in pregnancy or parturition, a fast can be deferred (Qada) but would be
kept after end of that Ramadan and before start of the next Ramadan. However, for
intentional deferment (Qada) for other than specially allowed circumstances, repentance
with compensation (Kuffara) is also necessary. Fasting is not mandatory on minor, lunatics,
too old, and too feeble Muslims. For old and feeble Muslims, to pay ransom (Fidya) is
mandatory, according to the Shariah.   

Obligatory fasting is one of the five pillars on which the edifice of Islam rests. It is only next
in importance to obligatory prayer (Salat). The Quran says that fasting was also obligatory
in previous divine religions (2:183). It means that it is a divine emphasis to prescribe
obligatory fasting on the followers of the divine religions. The reason of the emphasis was
also described at the end of the verses 2:183 and 2:187 (the first and last verse about
obligatory fasting) in the holy Quran by saying “…so that you could become pious”.

Relevant here is a saying (Hadith) of the Prophet (PBUH) that ‘whoever (Muslim) does not
give up lying and practicing falsehood (the prohibited deeds in Islam), God is not in need of
his giving up food and water’. Taking both the verses and saying together, to attain piety —
the required virtue — self-constraint is very important. Piety is a state of mind that
manifests practically through one’s views and deeds to seek pleasure of God solely even
where no one is watching. Hence, it encompasses avoidance of all social and moral evils in
context of a self-check in the light of the Quran and Hadith.

The advantage of practice of self-constraint is not only that obligatory fasting becomes
acceptable in the sight of God but also that it provides an opportunity to practice the same
throughout the remaining eleven months of the year. It fulfills the need of Islam: a peaceful
Islamic society where self-discipline of both views and deeds flourish. The same is the
message of the Quran, “if you keep (obligatory) fasting, it is better for you, if you have
understanding (2: 184). It is pertinent to mention here that fasting in Islam is modest in
nature based on self-constraint only and not excessive in nature based on self-effacement
or self-mortification for inner amelioration as is practised by Buddist and Hindu yogis.  

One peculiar aspect of the obligatory fasting has been mentioned in a Hadith where God
says that fasting is for me and I will bestow its reward (as much as I can). Another Hadith
persuades Muslims by saying that ‘the person in unfortunate who finds obligatory fasting of
Ramadan but does not make himself pure of sins to become pious’. Hence, it is also a
desire of God that a Muslim could get closer to Him so that He could bestow more and more
on him.

Obligatory fasting provides a special spiritual experience to the Muslims. Ramadan is called
a month of blessings where the holy Quran is recited daily especially in a nighttime prayer
(Taraweeh). For more spiritual benefits, a Muslim can seclude (Aitkaf) himself from the
world for the last ten days of Ramadan in a separate area of a mosque particularly to find
the blessed night (Lailat-ul-Qadr) from one of the odd dates (21 to 29). Praying in this night
is tantamount to praying for a thousand months, according to a Hadith. Further, according
to another Hadith, in Ramadan, one good act of a Muslim will be rewarded by seventy times
more value in the Hereafter. Hence, the spiritual recompense (swab) of Ibadat is another
source of persuasion.

Obligatory fasting, from the worldly viewpoint, is not only a temptation to goodness but also
a source of pan-Islamism. It is a collective Ibadat of international dimension — a universal
religious institution — as whole Muslim Ummah practises it though in different timings. It
disseminates a universal message that all Muslims are equal in spite of differences of
colour, cadre, and creed. The same calls for unity in their ranks. The message is repeated
every lunar year. The earlier it is understood, the better it is.

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