An important prophetic tradition maintains that “Islam was built upon five ‘foundations.’” The Five Pillars, (the profession of faith [shahadah], daily prayers [salat], almsgiving [zakat], the fast of Ramadan [sawm], and the pilgrimage to Mecca [Hajj]) blend the theological with the legal and represent the fundamental principles of personal and collective faith, worship, and social responsibility that unite all Muslims and distinguish Islam from other religions. Every year, Muslims across the world take part in the fast of Ramadan, taking place from mid-May to mid-June. In the following excerpt from Shariah: What Everyone Needs to Know®, John L. Esposito and Natana J. DeLong-Bas discuss why Islamic law oblige Muslims to fast.
Fasting is common in many religions, often used as a spiritual discipline designed to free people from a self- centered focus on their physical needs and appetites, or as penance. The Fast of Ramadan, the Fourth Pillar of Islam, occurs once each year during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Ramadan, the only month specifically mentioned in the Quran, is the month in which the first revelation of the Quran came to Muhammad.
Islamic law requires that in Ramadan, every Muslim whose health allows abstain from food, drink, and sexual activity from dawn to sunset. During the entire month, Muslims must emphasize religious reflection and prayer, performing good works and distributing alms to help the less fortunate. Fasting is gradually introduced to young children to help them prepare for the full fast when they reach puberty.
Before sunrise, Muslims awake to eat their first meal of the day, which must sustain them until sunset. The intent to fast must be present until the end of the day. Failure to maintain intent represents cause for an invalid fast. However, if a person forgets and eats while they should be fasting, a hadith (saying of Muhammad) declares that the fast is still valid if the eating was a mistake. If fasting was intentionally interrupted, the believer must make up for fasting days in their entirety.
At dusk, family and friends break the fast in the traditional manner established by Muhammad—with a glass of water and a few dates—followed by prayer. After prayer, they share in a bigger meal that often includes special foods only served during this time of year. Since Ramadan is a month devoted to achieving a deeper sense of interaction with God’s revelation, many go to the mosque for evening prayer, followed by special prayers recited only during Ramadan. Some will recite the entire Quran (one-thirtieth each night of the month) as a special act of piety. In addition, public recitations of the Quran or Sufi chanting are heard during the evening. The fast ends on the twenty-seventh day of Ramadan when Muslims commemorate the “Night of Power,” the time Muhammad first received God’s revelation. The end of the fast is marked by celebration of the major Islamic holiday called Eid al-Fitr, literally, the Breaking of the Fast.
In Islamic law, the discipline of the month-long Ramadan fast is intended to stimulate Muslims’ reflections on human frailty and dependence on God and thus to increase gratitude toward the Creator. Fasting also serves to increase self-control and self-discipline as well as compassion for those who often experience hunger so that one can identify more strongly with and help the less fortunate. Abstinence should also be accompanied by a conscious effort to avoid negative thinking and to embrace positive, proactive, ethical efforts to improve society and the members who live within it.
Exceptions are made for those unable to fast for either temporary or permanent reasons. Temporary reasons include issues such as illness, pregnancy, breastfeeding, or travel on a long and difficult journey. Permanent reasons include age and health conditions such as diabetes for which fasting would be detrimental. In modern times, exceptions to fasting may also apply to professional athletes in the middle of the sports season if their ability to perform, or even overall health might be negatively affected by lack of water, in particular. In each case, it is up to individuals to follow their conscience. Those with temporary conditions can make up the fast at a later time once the condition has been resolved. Those exempted due to permanent conditions are to feed two hungry people each day in keeping with the spirit of caring for the less fortunate.
Featured image credit: “Book, Quran, Islam” by Pexels. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.