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Fasting

By:
Fareeha Khan
Source:
The [Oxford] Encyclopedia of Islam and Law What is This? An English-language legal reference for scholars of Islamic studies and Western engaged readers presenting the history and development of Islamic Law.

Fasting

Fasting is a prominent part of Islamic ritual practice, with the fast during the month of Ramaḍān being called one of the “five pillars” of Islam in the following famous ḥadīth:

"Islam is built upon five: testifying there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah, performing the prayer, giving zakat, making the pilgrimage to the House [in Mecca], and fasting Ramadan."

Fasting in Ramaḍān is considered one of the distinctive features (khaṣāʾiṣ) of the community (ummah) of the Prophet. Muslims acknowledge that there is a long tradition of fasting that precedes Islam, since the Qurʾān itself mentions it: “Fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you” (2:183). The distinctiveness however lies in the specificity of how it is performed (e.g., the amount and time of fasting). Also the Islamic fast is considered pure worship (“fasting is for Me”) and non-penitential in nature.

Quoting from a Ḥanafī manual, the legal definition of fasting is “to withhold from eating, drinking, and sexual intercourse during daylight hours, with an intention of fasting, performed by one capable and required to do so.” It is required in Ramaḍān for every individual who: 1) is Muslim, 2) has reached puberty, 3) is sane, 4) can bear the fast, 5) if female, is not menstruating or in the state of postnatal bleeding (nifās). From the preceding it follows that certain individuals are not obliged to fast, such as children or the elderly who are not able to withstand the rigor of fasting. A non-Muslim is also not asked to fast, nor would his fast be considered legally valid (though the Islamic view is that he is punished in the Afterlife for not doing so).

Certain categories of people are not required to fast the obligatory fasts of Ramaḍān, but they are required to make them up at a later time. These include (among others) those who are ill, travelers, and menstruating women. If one misses fasts during Ramaḍān due to illness, traveling or menstruation, one is required to make up those fasts once Ramaḍān is over and they have recovered from whatever condition prevented them from fasting. Pregnant and nursing women may also be exempted and required to make up the fast, provided they have legitimate fear of harm for themselves or the baby. The elderly and infirm, that is, those who have no hope to “recover” from their condition, of course are not required to make up their missed fasts.

The fast itself consists of two conditions: 1) the intention to fast, and 2) refraining from all things that nullify the fast. According to the majority of legal schools, in the case of required fasting such as the Ramaḍān fast, one must make the intention to fast each day, while the Mālikī school permits one to make a general intention to fast at the start of Ramaḍān for the entire month. Each day of fasting lasts from dawn (just before the fajr prayer, when the first light of day appears on the horizon) until sunset (with the maghrib prayer, the moment the orb of the sun completely disappears below the horizon). In order to ascertain these times, contemporary urban populations generally rely on prayer timetables drafted by various official organizations or government-appointed bodies. The majority of legal schools require that the intention for fasting be made “the night before,” that is, before the dawn of that particular fasting day. The Ḥanafī school makes an exception, however, for the obligatory fasts done during the month of Ramaḍān (as opposed to those made up later) and for voluntary fasts. According to this school, for obligatory Ramaḍān fasts and for voluntary fasts, one may make an intention to fast up until the point of midday (ḍaḥwah al-kubrah), provided they have not already done something that would nullify the fast, such as eating or drinking.

A number of things can invalidate the fast, including eating, drinking, smoking, vomiting deliberately, sexual intercourse, and orgasm caused by sexual contact or other deliberate means (such as not looking away from something that excites one). All of these cases have a general principle in common: where something is entering (or exiting out of) one of the “recognized entry points,” such as the mouth or the vaginal opening, into (or away from) what is called the jawf or “body cavity,” which is made up of the throat, stomach, and intestines. Intentionality plays a role here too, such that if one were to become overcome by nausea and vomit involuntarily, or have an orgasm while asleep, the fast is not broken.

Even if one eats or drinks absentmindedly, forgetting that one is fasting, the fast is not invalidated (except for in the Mālikī school, where the person would have to continue to refrain from eating and drinking after accidentally eating something and would still have to make up the day of fasting later). Legal scholars make a differentiation between forgetting and making a mistake, an example of the latter being to consciously break the fast early because one thought the sun had set when it had not. Since this latter case is done with intention even if done in error, the fast is invalidated and must be made up. The Shāfiʿī school adds another category to forgetfully and mistakenly committing a violation: to unknowingly do so, that is, not knowing that that particular action is considered a violation. So, for example, if a new Muslim was not aware that drinking breaks the fast and—while aware of his fast—had a glass of water, his fast would remain valid.

Mistakenly breaking a fast requires only a single make-up fast. However, deliberately breaking a fast with no excuse has more serious consequences. Though breaking the fast without excuse is sinful in all cases, some violations are deemed more heinous and require an expiation (kaffārah; see KAFFARAH) along with the makeup fast. The legal schools differ as to which violations require an expiation. The Shāfiʿī and Ḥanbalī schools require it only for sexual intercourse, following the evident meaning of a well-known Prophetic ḥadīth obliging the kaffārah for someone who does this, while the Ḥanafī and Mālikī schools extend the ruling of the ḥadīth to other violations such as eating and drinking.

According to the majority of legal schools, the expiation would be fulfilled by the following, as explained in the above mentioned ḥadīth: 1) freeing a slave [which is no longer possible in our day], and if unable then to 2) fasting consecutively for sixty days, and if genuinely unable to do this then to 3) feeding sixty poor people. In the Mālikī school the expiation is fulfilled by the same actions, except the order of preference is different, such that feeding the poor is most preferred, then freeing a slave, then the two months of consecutive fasting. According to the Ḥanbalī school, if one misses a day during the sixty-day consecutive fast due to a legitimate excuse (e.g., travel), one can continue from where one left off afterward. But for all other schools, if even a day is missed due to a legitimate excuse, the entire sixty-day count must be begun anew.

As mentioned earlier, fasting is required on every day of Ramaḍān, which is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. This results in twenty-nine to thirty days a year of obligatory fasts for all who meet the conditions of requirement. Aside from these fasts, other fasts can be kept during the year as well. Some of these would also be obligatory on the individual to perform—such as makeup fasts for those missed in Ramaḍān; expiatory fasts; or those kept to fulfill a vow of fasting.

One can also keep voluntary (nafl) fasts during the rest of the year. It was the practice of the Prophet to keep fast on Mondays and Thursdays, so many Muslims perform voluntary fasts on these days of the week. Other days on which it is recommended to keep voluntary fasts include: the six days of Shawwāl (the month immediately following Ramaḍān); on the ninth and tenth days of the month of Muḥarram; on the full moon (“white”) days, which are the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth of each lunar month; and on the first nine days of the month of Dhū al-Ḥijjah. While these days are specified due to their association with Prophetic practice, in essence one may keep fast on any day of the year except five. The five prohibited days are: the two days of feasting (ʿĪd al-Fiṭr, immediately following Ramaḍān, and ʿĪd al-Aḍḥa, which commemorates Abraham’s sacrifice) along with the three days that follow ʿĪd al-Aḍḥa (ayyām al-tashrīq). It is also disliked in the Ḥanafī and Shāfiʿī schools to fast perpetually on every day of the year, though the Mālikī school permits and even recommends it for one who is able. Some schools hold it to be disliked to single out Friday for fasting, due to the ḥadīth stating as such. Interestingly, some Ḥanafī jurists considered the singling out of Friday to be only mildly disliked (makrūh tanzīhan), while others of the same legal school held it to be recommended to do so.

As has been mentioned it is required to make up missed obligatory fasts. The recommendation is to do so as soon as one is able, with the Shāfiʿī school requiring that they be made up before the next Ramaḍān. According to the Shāfiʿīs, along with the makeup fast itself, for each year of delay one is required to add 0.51 liters of food per day missed, which must be donated to the poor.

There are different legal opinions however in the case of chronic illness or infirmity. If one never recovers from one’s excuse not to fast, he is obviously not required to do anything in terms of making them up. The Ḥanafīs, however, require that he pay fidya, which is generally stated to be 2.2 kilograms of food, to be paid to the poor for each day missed.

While the main rulings related to fasting are long established, as in all other areas of Islamic legal practice, contemporary questions still arise for which jurists must be consulted. Many of these questions are answered by building legal opinion on the precedent set by earlier jurists. For example, questions related to whether the use of asthma inhalers or insulin injections breaks the fast are answered with reference to older opinions about the body cavity (jawf), and the entrance of foreign material through “recognized entryways.” Thus, the use of an asthma inhaler would invalidate the fast, since the mouth is such an entrance. On the other hand, insulin injections would not break the fast, since the injected substance is not entering through a recognized entryway. These examples demonstrate the legal treatment of modern issues based on a straightforward application of traditional legal rulings. However, sometimes one may come across legal opinions related to fasting that cause modern jurists to completely reevaluate medieval Islamic legal precedent, as can be seen in the following two cases.

Cervical Smear Tests

A cervical smear, or pap smear, test generally accompanies pelvic exams and is used to test for cervical cancer. The test is done by placing a lubricated speculum inside a woman’s vagina. According to classical legal thinking, such a test would break the fast since a foreign body is entering the body cavity through a recognized entryway (i.e., the vagina). Muslim jurists have traditionally held that the vagina counts as such an entrance because they believed there to be a connection between the vagina, the bladder, and the stomach.

For classical jurists something like a pap smear would invalidate a woman’s fast regardless of whether or not the speculum was lubricated. The lubricant would invalidate the fast due to the assumption that it would eventually reach the body cavity. And even without lubricant, the insertion of the speculum would break the fast, since the complete insertion of a solid substance into the anus or vagina also invalidates the fast.

However, some contemporary Ḥanafī jurists such as Rafiʿ ʿUthmani have ruled that a pap smear does not break a woman’s fast. After consulting with modern medical practitioners, who deny there being a connection between the vagina and the body cavity, ʿUthmani holds to the view that a smear test does not invalidate the fast. His fatwā on the issue represents an interesting example of how long-established legal rulings can be reevaluated by qualified jurists through the consultation of experts on secular knowledge. His opinion is not followed by all contemporary Ḥanafī jurists, but has become a viable source for leeway on the issue due to differences of legal opinion.

Summer Fasting in Northerly Latitudes

Because the lunar year is some ten days shorter than the solar year, Ramaḍān gradually moves around the solar calendar, such that it rotates all four seasons every thirty years. This means that Ramaḍān sometimes falls within the short days of winter, and other times in summer on the longest days of the year. Muslims generally consider this to be part of the spiritual challenge of Ramaḍān—that for a few Ramaḍāns in one’s lifetime, one will be called on to expend extra effort when refraining from food and drink between sunrise and sunset on those long summer days. However, for Muslims living in certain parts of the globe, a genuine legal conundrum is posed: how does one fast in northerly regions where for a month before and after the summer solstice (21 June) there is continuous daylight? In these regions, the sun never descends 18 degrees below the horizon (which is the astronomical description of true nightfall), and thus true dawn (when the fast is supposed to commence) cannot be determined.

In the seventeenth-century Ḥanafī text Radd al-Muḥtār, a number of solutions are considered. Does one estimate the time needed to eat, drink, and do one’s obligatory prayers, and subtract that amount from a portion of what would otherwise end up being a twenty-four-hour (and therefore nonstop for a whole month) fast? Does one make up the fasts at a different time of the year? Or does one, as held by the Shāfiʿī school, estimate the length of night by looking to the closest city that does in fact have a true nightfall and dawn?

The most well-known solution is perhaps the latter one, and is often cited as the way to handle such a situation. Like other Shāfiʿīs before him, the contemporary Shāfiʿī jurist Nuh Keller cited this opinion in his well-known English manual The Reliance of the Traveller. However, as Muslims have begun to have more of a presence in cities such as Oslo and Helsinki, the practical difficulties of applying this opinion have caused Keller to retract the previous opinion and instead advance what he terms the “Fixed True Dawn Method,” which he describes as follows: “to commence fasting at the time of the last true 18-degree time for one’s location, and then continue beginning to fast at that time until there is a true 18-degree time again.” Meaning, for example, if the last time true dawn occurs in one’s location at 1:27 A.M., one should continue using this time as one’s marker for the start of the fast until there is dawn again.

Keller offers “impossible hardship” as legal justification for abandoning the earlier Shāfiʿī opinion. He says that in populous regions of the world where this is a real concern, even if one were to go to the closest city with true nightfall, that city would only have nightfall for a matter of seconds or minutes (since the earth’s surface is a gradient, and the change in timings very gradual). Keller estimates that for most healthy adults, a minimum of three hours of night are needed for one to replenish oneself with nourishment such that one could fast and remain functioning (e.g., able to work) the next day.

In addition to impossible hardship, Keller offers other legal reasons for adopting the Fixed True Dawn method, as opposed to other opinions that some Muslims in these regions follow (such as using the times of the closest Muslim country, Tunisia in the case of Europe, or those of Mecca and Medina). One reason he cites is the need to have taqwā or “godfearingness,” since one may ask, how can one really feel safe before God eating into bright daylight hours in Ramaḍān? Another reason he mentions is taken from a proof derived from the ḥadīth corpus itself. According to a ḥadīth in Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, the Prophet mentioned to his companions that at the time of the anti-Christ, a day will be like a year. The Companions asked, will it be enough for us to perform the prayers of a single day and night? To which the Prophet responded, “No. Estimate for it [the duration of] its measure [in time].”

Ḥadīth commentators mention that the estimation called for by the Prophet here was that of the “usual” times, or those “familiar” to the people. Keller interprets this as an indication for groups to use an estimate of a time duration that is familiar to their own locale, and thus mentions the ḥadīth as a way of supporting his position (i.e. to not resort to the closest city), and instead to use the fixed true dawn of one’s own locale.

Keller’s 2013 fatwā is an interesting example of contemporary ijtihād, or reevaluation, of legal sources to come up with a modified solution. He himself admits that the Fixed True Dawn Method was not one he created, since “it has already been used successfully in Norway and the United Kingdom.” But the detailed level of his legal exposition, coupled with the scientific and geographical justifications mentioned in his fatwā, offer a unique perspective on the lived experience of fasting in the contemporary age.

Bibliography

  • Jaziri, ʿAbd al-Rahman al-. Islamic Jurisprudence According to the Four Sunni Schools (Al-Fiqh ʿAla al-Madhahib al-Arbaʿah), vol. 1: Modes of Islamic Worship, translated by Nancy Roberts. Louisville, Ky: Fons Vitae, 2009.
  • Misri, Ahmad ibn Naqib al-. Reliance of the Traveller: A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law. Translated by Nuh Ha Mim Keller. Beltsville, Md.: Amana Publications, 1994.
  • Shurunbulali, Abu ʿl-Ikhlas al-. Maraqi ʿl-Saʿadat, Ascent to Felicity: A Manual on Islamic Creed and Hanafit Jurisprudence. Translated by Faraz A. Khan. London: White Thread Press, 2010.

Online fatāwā consulted:

  • Adam, Muhammad ibn. “Does a Cervical Smear Test invalidate One’s Fast?” islamqa.org/hanafi/daruliftaa/8354.
  • Adam, Muhammad ibn. “Fasting in Extreme Latitudes.” 13 Aug. 2013. seekershub.org/ans-blog/2009/08/13/fasting-in-extreme-latitudes.
  • Azam, Tabraze. “Do Insulin Injections Nullify the Fast?” 16 July 2014. seekershub.org/ans-blog/2014/07/16/do-insulin-injections-nullify-the-fast.
  • Azam, Tabraze. “In Need of Asthma Medication: Is My Fast Broken?” 17 Aug. 2014. seekershub.org/ans-blog/2014/08/17/ in-need-of-asthma-medication-is-my-fast-broken.
  • Keller, Nuh Ha Mim. “Ramadan and Fixed True Dawn.” 29 July 2013. untotheone.com/articles/articles-by-sheikh-nuh/ramadan-and-fixed-true-dawn.
  • Nsour, Rami. “Inhaling Smoke, Emitting Pre-Sexual Fluid, Accidental Eating and Fasting in Maliki School.” 11 Dec. 2013. seekershub.org/ans-blog/2013/12/11/ inhaling-smoke-emitting-pre-sexual-fluid-accidental-eating-and-fasting-in-maliki-school.
  • ʿUthmani, Rafiʿ Ahmad. Aug. 2010. “Dawabit al-Mufattirat.” seekershub.org/ans-blog/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/ principles-on-what-invalidates-the-fast.pdf.
  • Younas, Salman. “Pap Smear Test: Will It Invalidate One’s Fast?” 13 Aug. 2010. seekershub.org/ans-blog/2010/08/13/pap-smear-test-will-it-invalidate-ones-fast.
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