Fasting is an institution found in all world religions in one shape or other. The Holy Qur’an declares:
“O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may become righteous.”
In Hinduism, fasting is known as ‘varat’ or ‘barat’. Only ascetics are required to abstain from food for forty days. For other believers, the process of fasting is more flexible; they are allowed to eat fruit, drink milk and water freely and only foods that are cooked on fire are disallowed during the fast. This and further details about fasting in Hinduism can be found in Sanatan Dharm. In Confucianism, fasting believers are required to wear bright clean linen clothes and to change his or her food. In Buddhism, monks and nuns have a meal at noon and then do not eat at all. The main reasons they fast are for health reasons and to enable meditation in comfort. Apart from nuns and priests, Buddhists do not fast at all, as they believe it is deviating from the ‘Middle Path’. In Judaism, before the Babylonian Exile, fasting is termed as ‘afflicting soul’. In Leviticus 23:27 we have, “On the tenth day of seventh month there shall be a day of atonement, it shall be a holy convocation; and ye shall afflict your souls.” This is an annual fast which falls on the day when God delivered followers of Moses(as) from Pharaoh. During the Babylonian Exile, four more fasts were appointed in commemoration of the siege and destruction of Jerusalem. There are also additional fasts for particular reasons, such as to atone for sins. We read, “and they gathered together to Mizpeh, and drew water, and poured it out before the LORD, and fasted on that day.” Moses(as) fasted twice in his life for forty days. The first time was before he received the tablets on the Mount, and the second, on his return, when he found the Israelites practicing idolatry.
“When I was gone up into the mount to receive the tables of stone, even the tables of the covenant which the Lord made with you, then I abode in the mount forty days and forty nights, I neither did eat bread nor drink water; and the LORD delivered unto me two tables of stone…And the Lord said unto me, Arise, get thee down quickly from hence; for thy people which thou hast brought from Egypt have corrupted themselves;… So I turned and came down from the mount…And I fell down before the Lord as at the first, forty days and forty nights: I did neither eat bread nor drink water, because of all your sins which ye sinned…”
In Christianity, we read that Jesus(as) fasted for forty days abstaining from food:
“Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward ahungered.” 
Jesus(as) fasted this lengthy period only once in his life. Perhaps he was not tempted by the devil again. In the New Testament, his forty-day-fast has been mentioned only once. In Catholicism, only meat is forbidden during fasting. Bread, butter, vegetables, fruit, and all types of drinks may be consumed with the fast remaining intact. Among Protestant churches, fasting is optional. A Christian may fast individually as an exercise to discipline himself. There are no dietary rules and prohibitions and the time and manner of fasting is left to the individual’s discretion.
After a brief overview of fasting in other religions, we now come to Islam. Fasting was first prescribed in the year 2 A.H. (After Hijrah), when the following verse was revealed in the Holy Qur’an:
“O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may become righteous.”
This was followed by the commandment that earmarked Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic Calendar, as the month for fasting:
“The month of Ramadan is that in which the Qur’an was sent down as a guidance for mankind with clear proofs of guidance and discrimination. Therefore, whosoever of you is present at home in this month let him fast therein. But who is sick or is on a journey, shall fast the same number of other days. Allah desires to give you facility and desires not hardship for you.” 
Accordingly, Ramadan of the year 2 A.H. became the first ever Ramadan to be observed as the month of fasting. Fasting is obligatory for every adult Muslim; those who are sick or on a journey should fast the same number of other days, to make up for the missed fasts, when they recover or when their journey terminates. Those who are permanently sick, face long-term ill-health or suffer from ailments that do not enable them to fast for medical reasons, are advised to feed a poor person for each fast, if they can afford to do so. This rule also applies in the case of pregnant women and those nursing their children. Those who are permanently on journey, like drivers, train guards, pilots etc. are not exempt. For the purposes of fasting, they are not counted as travellers, as travelling is part of their profession. The Islamic fast is observed from dawn to dusk. The faithful abstain from food and drink and all kinds and conjugal relations for this period. Having breakfast before dawn is advised as to avoid unnecessary burden on the body and immediately after sunset, the believer is commanded to open his fast without unnecessary delay. The Holy Prophet(saw) advised, “People will continue to have good as long as they open their fast immediately after sunset.” 
The essence of the commandment of fasting is submission to God. In other words, when He commands ‘abstain’, one must not eat; and when He commands ‘eat’, then one should comply without unnecessary delay. Further, the Islamic teaching regarding fasting is more prescriptive and rigorous compared to some other faiths. For example, in some religions only cooked or baked food are forbidden, while one may eat a lot of fruit and drink and any amount of water. In certain faiths, only meat is forbidden and all other edibles can be consumed freely. Such allowances mar the very purpose of fasting and its real essence, that is, abstention from food and drink is ignored. In some religions, fasting is mandatory only for the leadership and not for ordinary followers. However, Islam enjoins fasting on all adults, the exemption being due to incapability only. Other religions mostly use the solar calendar to regulate fasting and as a result, their fasts always fall around the same fixed days every year. Islam adopts the lunar calendar for this purpose, meaning that the Islamic fast is observed around the year in different seasons during the believer’s life; thus the entire year is involved in this sacred practice. Abstention from food is not the only purpose of Ramadan. The Holy Prophet(saw) said:
“Fasting is a shield; so the day someone of you fasts, he should not indulge in foul talk nor should he shout. And if someone abuses him or fights with him, he should simply say to him, ‘I am fasting, I am fasting.’”
So, the fast is a shield to protect from evil. If somebody indulges in unbecoming topics or actions, his fast is of no avail. The Holy Prophet(saw) has taught:
“He who does not shun telling a lie by word and deed, should know that God needs not his abstention from food and drink.”
A person who is observing a fast is advised to spend most of the time executing his duties toward God and His creation. He should give more attention to the five obligatory Prayers along with supererogatory prayers like tahajjud (after midnight) prayer etc. He should try his utmost to help the poor and needy in the society. In this way, he will be able to achieve the pleasure of God. The Holy Prophet(saw) has emphasised the observance of the tahajjud prayer during Ramadan saying:
“Whoso stands in tahajjud prayer in Ramadan with firm faith and with the intention of achieving the pleasure of God, all his previous sins are forgiven.”
Those who cannot manage to observe tahajjud prayers in Ramadan, are allowed to perform the tarawih prayers in congregation after Isha (night) prayer. Hadhrat Umar(ra), the Second Khalifa (Successor) of Islam after the Holy Prophet(saw), would go round Madinah every night to check for himself that all was well. Once, when he was on his round, he saw people praying in the mosque after Isha prayer in the month of Ramadan. Some were praying in groups and some individually. He preferred that all should pray behind one Imam, so he appointed Hadhrat ’Ubayy bin Ka‘b(ra) as their Imam. Then one night when he was on one of his usual rounds, he saw people praying in congregation behind the Imam. He was pleased and said, “How nice is this innovation” and added, “But the last part of night is better than this part”. He meant that tahajjud is better than tarawih.
The Holy Prophet(saw) said, “When the month of Ramadan enters, the gates of heaven are flung open and the gates of hell are shut, and satans are chained.” This is the excellence of Ramadan; that in this month all avenues of evil are blocked, so that a person can reach nearness to God without hindrance. Here arises a pertinent question for some: If satans are chained in Ramadan, why do those vices that are committed throughout the year, also occur even in this sacred month of Ramadan? The question has arisen as a result of a lack of reflection over the actual words of the Holy Prophet(saw). He says, “When Ramadan enters.” Where does it enter? Clearly what is meant here is that when Ramadan enters into the hearts and souls of the believers, then their satans are chained. The Holy Prophet(saw) once said, “Everybody has a satan who tries to lead him astray.” At this, he was asked, “Even you, O Prophet of Allah?” He replied, “Yes; but my satan has submitted to me.” This Hadith teaches all those faithful believers who let Ramadan enter into their hearts, that their satans are undeniably chained and can do no harm to such believers, however, others in whose hearts Ramadan does not happen to enter, leave their satans free. This is why we observe that vices are also committed during Ramadan just as they are committed in other months. In one Hadith Qudsi, the Holy Prophet(saw) narrated that God has said, “Every act of a son of man is his, save the fast; for it is but Mine and I am its reward.”
As God does not need food and drink, the perpetual ‘fast’ is His, however, man cannot survive without food, and can fast only for some hours. When a faithful one, out of his great love for God, desires to become like his Beloved and tries to abstain from food, bearing the hardship happily, he thus attracts God’s love. “I am its reward” means the fasting believer gets Allah as a reward of his fast. For different good acts, a believer receives different types of favours; for fasting he receives God Himself. This is a great excellence of Ramadan. Once the Holy Prophet(saw) addressed his followers saying, “O people, there has dawned upon you a great month, a blessed month.” The Holy Prophet(saw) has used the word ‘Mubarak’ (blessed). This word has been derived from ‘birkah’, which means a pond to which flows rainwater from all around, so Ramadan being a ‘Mubarak’ month means that this month is a collection of all virtues.
Ramadan is a large spiritual fruit bouquet comprising obligatory and supererogatory worship, fasting and charitable acts etc. There is even a taste of Hajj entailed. About Hajj we know that ‘there is to be no foul talk nor any transgression, nor any quarrelling during the pilgrimage’ (Qur’an, Ch.2:V.198); so is the case with Ramadan: “The day someone of you fasts, he should not indulge in foul talk nor should he shout. And if someone abuses him or fights with him, he should simply say, ‘I am fasting, I am fasting’. Here is another saying of the Holy Prophet(saw) which invites our attention. He said, “By Him in whose hand is my soul, Khuluf (disagreeable smell) of the fasting person’s mouth is more pleasant to God than the fragrance of the musk.” Khuluf is an unpleasant smell. There are two types of offensive smell which come out of one’s mouth:
- The stench caused by the food particles for not brushing the mouth after meals. This is not the Khuluf referred to in the Hadith, because this uncleanliness is abhorred in Islam. The Holy Prophet(saw) has been reported to have said, “Clean your teeth, clean your teeth, do not come to me with dirty teeth”. He emphatically instructed to clean the mouth after meals. He would clean his mouth several times a day ― not only twice ― with the cleaning stick (miswak). Even when fasting, he was often observed cleansing his mouth with miswak. He said, “Of the best habits of a person fasting is cleaning the mouth with miswak. A substitute for miswak is brushing one’s teeth with a toothbrush and toothpaste, so a fasting person is advised to brush his mouth time and again during the fast.
- The second type of disagreeable smell coming from the mouth has nothing to do with uncleanliness. According to Arabic, “Khuluf is a change in mouth’s smell caused by the delay in taking food.” Thus, Arnold Ehret writes in his work Rational Fasting: “Each healthy or sick person deposits on the tongue a stinking mucus as soon as he reduces his food or fasts. This occurs also on the mucus membrane of the stomach of which tongue is an exact copy.”
So due to fasting, the tongue and stomach are affected; while the tongue is cleared of this foul smell by repeated brushing, nothing can be done about the smell from the stomach and this is the smell which has been mentioned in the Hadith. It is not due to uncleanliness but rather it is a result of having abstained from food. As the believer suffers this in order to comply with the commandment of God, this smell becomes more pleasant to God than the fragrance of the musk. Just imagine the stinking clothes of the one who quickly jumps in a drain to save somebody’s child who fell therein accidentally. Imagine how pleasant their stinking clothes would be to the child’s mother!
The Meanings of the Word ‘Ramadan’
‘Ramadan’ has been derived from the root Ramd, which means scorching heat. The Holy Prophet(saw) taught, “Ramadan has been given this name, for it burns away all sins.” The one fasting goes through Ramadan satisfying all conditions of this month to emerge spiritually purified. Ramadan may have been derived from Ramd Al-Nasl, which means ‘placing the spearhead between two smooth stones and beating it thoroughly so as to sharpen it.’ In the case of fasting, the two smooth stones are dawn and dusk, in between which, the fasting person’s soul is beaten by pangs of hunger and acute thirst and thus it is sharpened. Dawn and dusk are smooth, for the faithful can eat and drink at these two times and so with a sharpened soul, the faithful can overcome satanic attacks. Again, Ramadan may have been derived from Ramada Al-Tair, which means the burning of a bird’s stomach due to acute thirst. Thus, the bird flies desperately in different directions in search of water to quench its thirst. So too in Ramadan, the faithful one, who is a spiritual bird, becomes restless due to the thirst of God’s love. He desperately tries hard to search for the water of God’s love and forgets eating and drinking and engages in different acts to achieve his goal. Ultimately, God grants him His love and the faithful one attains spiritual satisfaction.
I‘tikaf – 10 Days in Seclusion
I‘tikaf means seclusion. In Islamic terminology, it means to withdraw from worldly affairs and busy oneself in the remembrance of God during the last ten days of Ramadan, preferably living in a mosque. One should not leave this seclusion except for going to the privy or taking a bath. The time is utilised in praying, supplicating, reciting the Holy Qur’an, and pondering over its inner-meanings. While one can nap or sleep during the day or night to refresh oneself, most of the time should be utilised in the remembrance of Allah. The Holy Prophet(saw) used to enter his place of I‘tikaf on 20th Ramadan, after morning prayer. I‘tikaf is terminated with the sighting of the crescent of next month, Shawwal, after 29 or 30 days of Ramadan.
Lailatul-Qadr (The Night of Dignity)
During the last ten days of Ramadan, there occurs a particular night among the odd nights of this period which is known as Lailatul-Qadr in Islamic terms. It may fall on the 21st, 23rd, 25th, 27th or 29th of Ramadan. This night is full of blessings as this seems to be the climax of Ramadan and prayers are accepted very readily in this night. Hadhrat ‘A’ishah(ra), wife of the Holy Prophet(saw), once asked the Prophet(saw), “What should I say, if I happen to know the night that is Lailatul-Qadr?” The Holy Prophet(saw) said, “Say, O God! Thou art most forgiving, munificent; thou lovest forgiving, so forgive me.” A faithful who abides by all the obligations and requirements of Ramadan with full fervour and sincere efforts may be successful in experiencing that night and it is the strong spiritual feeling of the faithful which convinces him of the presence of the blessed night.
Lessons of Ramadan
- A fasting person experiences the pangs of hunger in his stomach for a full month and comes to know practically the agonies of the poor in the society. This urges him to help the poor whole-heartedly having personally experienced their plight to a degree.
- Taking breakfast at an odd time before dawn seems to be a bit difficult in the beginning, however this practice trains one who fasts to adapt to the odd circumstances when in crisis he may have to take food at irregular times along with other irregularities in the normal course of life.
- One who fasts abstains from even lawful things during Ramadan for the pleasure of God, so it becomes easy for him to shun unlawful acts for the sake of God.
- The fast teaches that for the achievement of high targets, one has to put in tremendous and sincere effort.
We pray that Allah enables all of us to observe Ramadan, satisfying its conditions and fulfilling all its obligations to achieve God’s love, Amin.
Malik Jamil R. Rafiq is the Principal of Jamia Ahmadiyya (Institute of Theology & Languages), Rabwah, Pakistan.
- Holy Qur’an, Ch.2:V.184.
- Ashok Mehta Rajput, Sanatan Dharm (Balochistan, Gita Marg society)
- Sahihul-Bukhari, Kitab al-Saum, Bab: Siyamu yaumi ‘Ashura’a.
- 1 Samuel, 7:6.
- Deuteronomy 9:9-18.
- Matthew 4:1-2.
- Holy Qur’an, Ch.2:V.184.
- Holy Qur’an, Ch.2:V.186.
- Jami-ul-Tirmidhi, Abwab Al-Saum, Hadith 715.
- This is a general rule. If somebody feels himself unable physically to bear the abstinence, he may fast the same number of other days; but he should assess his ability sincerely, fearing God.
- Sahihul-Bukhari, Kitab al-Saum, Bab: Ta‘jil al-iftar.
- Sahihul-Muslim, Kitab Al-siyam, Bab: Hifz al-lisan li al-Sa’im
- Sahihul-Bukhari, Kitab al-Saum, Bab: Man lam yada‘ Qaulazzuri wal‘amala bihi.
- Sahihul-Bukhari, Kitab al-Saum, Bab: Man Sama Ramadana imanan wah-tisaban wa niyyatan.
- Sahihul-Bukhari, Kitab al-Tarawih.
- Sahihul-Bukhari, Kitab al-Saum, Bab: Hal yuqalu Ramadanu au shahru Ramadana.
- Sahihul-Muslim, Kitab Sifatil-Qiyamati wal-jannati wannari, Bab: Tahrish al-Shaitan.
- Hadith Qudsi means ‘sacrosanct Hadith’. In this, Holy Prophet(saw) quotes the saying of the Almighty God.
- Sahihul-Bukhari, Kitab al-Saum, Bab: Fadl al-Saum.
- Shu‘ab al-Iman, li Al-Baihaqi, Bab: Fada’il shahr Ramadan.
- Muslim, Kitab al-siyam, Bab: Hifz al-lisan li al-sa’im.
- Sahihul-Bukhari, Kitab al-saum.
- Kanzul-Ummal, Bab: al-siwak.
- Sunan Ibn Majah, Kitab al-Siyam, Bab: Ma ja’a fi al-siwak.
- Lisan al-Arab under khalafa.
- Arnold Ehret, Rational Fasting, (New York, Benedict Lust Publications, 1971), 7.
- Kanzul Ummal, Kitab al-Saum.
- Al-Munjid, under Ramd.
- Al-Munjid, under Ramd.
- Jami-ul-Tirmidhi, Kitab al-Da‘awat ‘an Rasulillahi(saw) .