The Meaning and Rules of Fasting
What is Fasting?
Fasting is called sawm in the Qur'an. The word sawm literally means "to
abstain". In Surat Maryam, Allah tells that Mary the mother of Jesus said (''I
have vowed a fast (sawm) for the sake of the Merciful, so today I shall not
speak to anyone.'') (Maryam 19:26) The meaning is ''I have vowed to abstain
from speaking to anyone today.'' According to Shari 'ah, the word sawm means
to abstain from all those things that are forbidden during fasting from the
break of dawn to the sunset, and to do this with the intention of fasting.
Purpose of Fasting
The Qur'an says what means, (O you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you
as it was prescribed for those who were before you, in order that you may
learn taqwa (piety)) (Al-Baqarah 2:183).
Taqwa is a very important spiritual and ethical term of the Qur'an. It is the
sum total of all Islamic spirituality and ethics. It is a quality in a
believer's life that keeps him/her aware of Allah all the time. A person who
has taqwa loves to do good and to avoid evil for the sake of Allah. Taqwa is
piety, righteousness and consciousness of Allah. Taqwa requires patience and
perseverance. Fasting teaches patience, and with patience one can rise to the
high position of taqwa.
The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said that fasting is a shield.
It protects a person from sin and lustful desires. When the disciples of Jesus
asked him how to cast the evil spirits away, he is reported to have said,
''But this kind never comes out except by prayer and fasting.'' (Matthew
According to Imam Al-Ghazali (d. 1111 C.E.), fasting produces a semblance of
divine quality of samadiyyah (freedom from want) in a human being. Imam Ibn
Al-Qayyim (d. 1350 C.E.), viewed fasting as a means of releasing the human
spirit from the clutches of desire, thus allowing moderation to prevail in the
carnal self. Imam Shah Waliullah Dahlawi (d. 1762 C.E.) viewed fasting as a
means of weakening the bestial and reinforcing the angelic elements in human
beings. Maulana Mawdudi (d. 1979 C.E.) emphasized that fasting for a full
month every year trains a person individually, and the Muslim community as a
whole, in piety and self restraint.
Fasting Is Obligatory
In the second year of Hijrah, Muslims were commanded to fast in the month of
Ramadan every year. The Qur'an says what means (O you who believe, fasting is
prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those who were before you, in
order that you may learn taqwa (piety)) (Al-Baqarah 2:183) and (The month of
Ramadan is that in which was revealed the Qur'an, wherein is guidance for
mankind and the clear signs of guidance and distinction. Thus whosoever among
you witness the month must fast...) (Al-Baqarah 2:184).
The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) explained this further
in a number of his statements reported in the books of Hadith. It is reported
by Imam Al-Bukhari and Imam Muslim on the authority of Ibn 'Umar that the
Messenger of Allah said, ''Islam is built upon five pillars: testifying that
there is no god except Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah,
performing Prayer, paying the zakah, making the pilgrimage to the Sacred House
(Hajj), and fasting the month of Ramadan.''
The Muslim Ummah is unanimous that fasting in the month of Ramadan is
obligatory upon every person who is capable (mukallaf).
Rules of Fasting
A) Who must fast?
Fasting in the month of Ramadan is obligatory upon every Muslim, male or
female, who is adult (i.e., has reached puberty) and sane and who is not sick
or on a journey.
Sickness could be a temporary sickness from which a person expects to be cured
soon. Such a person is allowed not to fast during the days of his/her
sickness, but he/she must fast later after Ramadan to complete the missed
days. Those who are sick with incurable illness and expect no better health
are also allowed not to fast but they must pay the fidyah, which is giving a
day's meals for each fast missed to a needy person. One can also give instead
the money for meals to a needy person. Women in their menses and post-natal
bleeding are not allowed to fast, but they must make up later after Ramadan.
If pregnant women and mothers who are nursing babies find it difficult to
fast, they can also postpone their fasting to a later time when they are in a
A journey according to the Shari'ah is any journey that takes you away from
your city of residence, a minimum of 48 miles or 80 kilometers. The journey
must be for a good cause. It is a sin to travel in Ramadan in order to avoid
fasting. A Muslim should try to change his/her plans during Ramadan to be able
to fast and should not travel unless it is necessary. The traveler who misses
the fasts of Ramadan must make up those missed days later as soon as possible
B) Fasting According to the Sunnah
1) Take sahur (pre-dawn meal). It is Sunnah and there is a
great reward and blessing in taking sahur. The best time for sahur is the last
half hour before dawn or the time for Fajr prayer.
Take iftar (break-fast) immediately after sunset. Shari'ah considers sunset
when the disk of the sun goes below the horizon and disappears completely.
3) During the fast, abstain from all false talks and deeds. Do
not quarrel, have disputes, indulge in arguments, use bad words, or do
anything that is forbidden. You should try to discipline yourself morally and
ethically, besides gaining physical training and discipline. You should also
not make a show of your fasting by talking too much about it, or by showing
dry lips and a hungry stomach, or by showing a bad temper. The fasting person
must be a pleasant person with good spirits and good cheer.
4) During the fast, do acts of charity and goodness to others
and increase your worship and reading of the Qur'an. Every Muslim should try
to read the whole Qur'an at least once during the month of Ramadan.
C) Things That Invalidate the Fast
You must avoid doing anything that may render your fast invalid. Things that
invalidate the fast and require qadaa' (making up for these days) are the
1) Eating, drinking or smoking deliberately, including taking any
non-nourishing items by mouth, nose or anus.
Deliberately causing yourself to vomit.
beginning of menstrual or post-childbirth bleeding even in the last moment
4) Sexual intercourse or other sexual
contact (or masturbation) that results in ejaculation (in men) or vaginal
secretions (orgasm) in women.
5) Eating, drinking,
smoking or having sexual intercourse after Fajr (dawn) on the mistaken
assumption that it is not Fajr time yet. Similarly, engaging in these acts
before Maghrib (sunset) on the mistaken assumption that it is already Maghrib
Sexual intercourse during fasting is forbidden and is a great sin. Those who
engage in it must make both qadaa' (make up the fasts) and kaffarah (expiation
by fasting for 60 days after Ramadan or by feeding 60 poor people for each day
of fast broken in this way). According to Imam Abu Hanifah, eating and/or
drinking deliberately during fast also entail the same qadaa' and kaffarah.
D) Things That Do Not Invalidate Fasting
During fast, the following things are permissible:
1) Taking a bath or shower. If water is swallowed involuntarily
it will not invalidate the fast. According to most of the jurists, swimming is
also allowed in fasting, but one should avoid diving, because that will cause
the water to go from the mouth or nose into the stomach.
2) Using perfumes, wearing contact lenses or using eye drops.
3) Taking injections or having a blood test.
4) Using miswak (tooth-stick) or toothbrush (even with tooth
paste) and rinsing the mouth or nostrils with water, provided it is not
overdone (so as to avoid swallowing water).
drinking or smoking unintentionally, i.e., forgetting that one was fasting.
But one must stop as soon as one remembers and should continue one's fast.
6) Sleeping during the daytime and having a wet-dream does not
break one's fast. Also, if one has intercourse during the night and was not
able to make ghusl (bathe) before dawn, he/she can begin fast and make ghusl
later. Women whose menstruation stops during the night may begin fasting even
if they have not made ghusl yet. In all these cases, bathing (ghusl) is
necessary but fast is valid even without bathing.
Kissing between husband and wife is allowed in fasting, but one should try to
avoid it so that one may not do anything further that is forbidden during the
E) Requirements for Fasting to Be Valid
There are basically two main components of fasting:
1) The intention (niyyah) for fasting. One should make a
sincere intention to fast for the sake of Allah every day before dawn. The
intention need not be in words, but must be with the sincerity of the heart
and mind. Some jurists are of the opinion that the intention can be made once
only for the whole month and does not have to be repeated every day. It is,
however, better to make intention every day to take full benefit of fasting.
2) Abstaining from dawn to dusk from everything that
invalidates fasting. This point has been explained in detail in the preceding
The author is the imam and director of
the Islamic Society of Orange County, California, USA and former president of
the Islamic Society of North America. This article originally appeared in the
Fatwa Corner of IslamOnline