Two years ago, on a hot summer’s day, a 10-year-old boy in my wife’s primary school class complained about feeling weak. When she told him to drink some water, he refused to drink any – because it was the month of Ramadan and he was fasting. The child added that if he broke his fast, Allah would punish him.
This was not an isolated incident, but a typical example of what several schools in the UK have had to deal with whenever children of a similar age observe fasts, often due to parental or peer pressure.
Particularly in the last couple of years, fasting at school has become a subject of significant national interest and debate in the UK. In 2015, the Joint Council of Qualifications (JCQ), which constructs the timetables for GCSE and A-level examinations, had taken into account the days in which Ramadan were going to fall the following summer before publishing the examination dates. This was in order to respect the fact that a large number of Muslim pupils sitting these crucial examinations would in all likelihood be fasting. In a statement, the JCQ said:
“Each year the timetable is reviewed to ensure it meets the current needs of students, schools and colleges. This review includes a consultation and considers comments from a wide range of stakeholders including schools, colleges and religious groups.”1
Consequently, a number of large-entry examinations were brought forward by a few days in the summer term and some were held in the morning rather than the afternoon.
Many saw this as a great gesture of tolerance for religious practices, so that fasting students would not be disadvantaged during the examination period. Others felt it was unfair that non-Muslim students were being made to sit examinations earlier, leaving them less time to revise, and that special provisions were unnecessarily being made for a minority faith group.
This new challenge, affecting hundreds of thousands of young people around the country, led to the Association of School and College Leaders, a body of over 18,000 head teachers and senior educators, to produce detailed guidance about Ramadan for schools. This document, titled ‘Information Paper: Ramadan and Exams 2016’, was produced in consultation with various Muslim scholars, imams and leaders.2
The guidance, designed to be “thorough, balanced and practical”, provides useful background and an overview of Ramadan and also the importance of learning in Islam, as well as highlighting the potential impact fasting can have on a young person’s health and the wider implications for safeguarding students in schools.3
Indeed, the document, while not dictating a policy position, provides some arguments for why students should consider not fasting during exams:
“The pursuit of education is a religious and moral duty for all Muslim students of both genders. There are many references in the Qur’an and the hadith [sayings of the Holy Prophetsa] which urge believers to gain knowledge. For example, ‘Seeking knowledge is compulsory for every Muslim, man and woman.’ A favourite supplication of the Prophet[sa] was, ‘O Lord, increase me in knowledge.’”
“Grades attained at GCSE and A level are critical to the further education and career prospects of young people. Due to the importance of these grades, young people sitting exams will need to seriously and thoughtfully take their future and their studies into account… Young people should be made aware that Islam does not require them to put their futures in jeopardy.”
“Observing Ramadan may bring benefits to individuals and communities but also has the potential to cause the individual temporary hardship through hunger and lack of liquids during fasting hours which may impact on physical wellbeing and cognitive performance.”
“Fasting and staying up late for prayers may affect memory, focus, concentration and academic performance. There is a lot of clear research about the effects of hydration, dehydration and nutrition on performance but a paucity of research specific to students observing Ramadan. One Dutch study found that students fasting during Ramadan may be disadvantaged in their exam performance while another study found that students reported reduced activity, study desire and concentration ability when observing Ramadan. Anecdotally, some Muslim pupils say that fasting enhances their performance, particularly if they have been used to it for some years. There is huge enthusiasm for fasting and some young people, who have made a positive decision to fast, say they feel energised during Ramadan. Sleep deprivation should also be taken into account and may be the biggest factor affecting performance for young people who are both fasting and observing prayers at night.”
While the paper has enabled teachers to be better informed about the holy month, head teachers remain responsible for school policy. And that means that some primary schools have decided to ban pupils from fasting a step the ASCL called “legitimate.”4 However, it advised a more “sensitive approach” in secondary schools. In these schools, the experience of many fasting pupils continues to be that teachers are very supportive and accommodating. This includes providing them a space for prayers and organising break or lunchtime activities away from peers tucking into their snacks and sandwiches. For examinations, extra emphasis is given to using cooler rooms or providing fans.
While the sensitivity and support shown to fasting pupils is certainly praiseworthy, with regards to fasting specifically, it also raises questions, most especially as fasting during Ramadan is not obligatory for the young.
Unlike the mandatory Islamic prayers, which children should start saying regularly by age ten, no age is specified in the Holy Qur’an or Ahadith regarding fasting. Those who are exempt – such as the sick, the elderly, women who are pregnant or menstruating and travellers – are instead required to pay towards meals for the destitute, known as fidya. Clearly, neither young children nor secondary students are in any position to do this, and this indicates that they are not required to fast.
Likewise and very pertinently, in the same Qur’anic passage where the commandment about fasting is given, it states, “Allah desires ease for you, and He desires not hardship for you”.5 Again, that would clearly not apply to a young child who naturally needs regular sustenance, and nor would it apply to a growing adolescent who is also going through a period of intense study.
Furthermore, the central aims of fasting – intensified worship, increased charity and inner change – can only be expected of those spiritually and intellectually mature enough to exemplify those virtues.
This is further supported in a Hadith in which the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa mentioned three types of people who are not accountable for their actions:
“The pen has been lifted from three; for the sleeping person until he awakens, for the boy until he becomes a young man and for the mentally insane until he regains sanity.”6
Inevitably there is much enthusiasm and excitement whenever Ramadan arrives; it is a time that unites the whole family, community and indeed the global ummah. So naturally, children want to be a part of it. Few people would deny children who want to try completing a partial fast during the day, as a ‘taster’ before they become full-fledged fasters in adulthood. But whilst encouragement is one thing, enforcement is quite another. There is nothing righteous about compelling children to starve and make themselves ill – indeed, this is absolutely against the spirit of Ramadan.
But the question still remains: while students shouldn’t be compelled to fast, is it preferred that they do so?
The viewpoint of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, which obtains guidance on all Islamic issues from their community’s founder, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas, the Promised Messiah and Mahdi, and his Khulafah (Successors), is quite clear.
In his Friday sermon on 3rd June 2016, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmadaba, the fifth Khalifah and worldwide head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, directly addressed the question about the age at which young Muslims should start to observe fasting:
“Many children as well as adults ask at what age fasting should be observed. Hazrat Musleh-e-Mau’ud [Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmadra, the second Khalifah and successor of the Promised Messiahas, and also his son] says, ‘It should be remembered that the Shari’ah [Islamic law] has prohibited children of a young age from observing fasts. However, they should most certainly be trained to observe a number of fasts closer to the age of maturity.’ He says, ‘As far as I remember, the Promised Messiahas granted me permission to observe my first fast at the age of twelve or thirteen. However, some ignorant people make children at the age of six or seven observe fasts and they think that they will be rewarded for this. This is not a deed worthy of reward, rather, it is cruelty as this is the age of nourishment. Indeed, there is an age which is near the days of maturity and the observance of fasting is on the verge of being compulsory. They should most certainly be trained to observe the fast at that time. If we look at the permission and the tradition of the Promised Messiahas, some training should be given close to the age of twelve or thirteen. A few fasts should be observed every year until the age of eighteen, which according to me is the age of maturity for fasting. The Promised Messiahas permitted me to observe only one fast in the first year.’ When he granted him permission to fast at the age of twelve or thirteen, he permitted him to observe only one fast.”
‘It is only excitement at that age and it is due to this excitement that children desire to observe more fasts. However, it is the duty of the parents to prohibit them. Then, there is an age in which children should be encouraged to certainly observe a number of fasts.’ In childhood, it is the duty of the parents to prohibit [children] and to not allow [them] to observe too many [fasts]. After that, when they approach maturity they should be encouraged and made to observe fasts. ‘Along with this it should be ensured that they do not observe too many. Neither should those watching them complain as to why [the children] are not observing all of the fasts, as if a child observes the entire fasts at this age, he will not be able to do so in the future. Similarly, some children are physically weaker. I have seen that some people bring their children to me in order to meet me and they say that the child is fifteen years old, whereas they appear to be seven or eight years old.’ This happens many times. Such [people] come to me as well. He says, ‘In my opinion, such children reach the maturity to observe fasting perhaps at the age of twenty one. In comparison to this, a strong child, most probably at the age of fifteen could be similar to [a child] at the age of eighteen. However, if he holds on to these very words of mine that the age of maturity for the observance of fasting is eighteen, he will not commit any cruelty towards me, nor to God the Exalted, but to himself. Similarly, if a child of a young age does not observe every fast and people criticise him [for that], then they will be hurting themselves (that is, those criticising [will hurt themselves]).’”
Quoting the Promised Messiah’sas eldest daughter, Hazrat Nawab Mubarka Begum Sahibara, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmadaba continued:
“The Promised Messiahas did not like children fasting at a young age, prior to adolescence. One or two were enough. When Hazrat Amma Jaanra (wife of the Promised Messiahas) made me keep my first fast, she organised a very big Iftaari [the meal to break the fast] and invited all the Lajna (female) members of the Jama’at. The second or third Ramadan after that, I kept another fast and told the Promised Messiahas that I was fasting again. The Promised Messiahas was in a secluded enclosure and on a nearby stool there were two paans [traditional snack made from betel leaf]; perhaps Hazrat Amma Jaanra [wife of the Promised Messiahas] had prepared them and put them there. The Promised Messiahas picked up one of the paans and said, ‘Here, eat this paan. You are still weak and should not fast yet and should break your fast.’ I ate the paan and told the Promised Messiahas that Saliha, the wife of our youngest uncle, was also fasting and that she was also was very young at the time, and that therefore he should make her open her fast too. The Promised Messiahas said to call her and so I called her and when she came, the Promised Messiahas gave her the second paan and said, ‘Here, eat this. You do not have a fast.’ I was around ten years old at the time.”
To conclude, it is evident that for Muslim pupils at school, the compulsory pursuit of education as emphasised in Islam, should be prioritised before any acts of religious observance that are not yet binding on them. However, by seeing others’ renewed commitment to self-reform during the holy month of Ramadan, they may be inspired to develop a real understanding and appreciation of the benefits of Ramadan later in life. In the meantime, they have plenty of food for thought.
1.“JCQ Statement – Exam Timetables,” Joint Council for Qualifications, accessed May 1, 2017. http://www.jcq.org.uk/media-centre/news-releases/jcq-statement—exam-timetables.
3. “ASCL Produces Paper over Ramadan and Exams,” Association of School and College Learners, accessed May 1, 2017. http://www.ascl.org.uk/news-and-views/news_news-detail.ascl-produces-paper-over-ramadan-and-exams.html.
4. Victoria Ward, “Primary Schools Ban Children from Fasting during Ramadan,” The Telegraph, June 12, 2015. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/11669767/Primary-schools-ban-children-from-fasting-during-Ramadan.html).
5. The Holy Qur’an, 2:186.
6. Tirmidhi, Kitab Al-Hudud, accessed May 1, 2017. https://sunnah.com/tirmidhi/17/1.