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Published in the 16-31 Oct 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition


Fasting in Islam and other faiths

By M. J. Mohamed Iqbal

Religions other than Islam generally follow the solar calendar: If the solar calendar was to be followed for determining the fasting dates, these dates would always fall in the same season every year. In Islam, however, the fasting dates are determined by the lunar calendar. Therefore, the fasting period changes from year to year with changed length of the day and season. The Islamic fasting month thus comes in different seasons in different countries and therefore the believer experiences both hardship and ease at different times.

In other religions, there is lack of moderation in fasting. Sometimes there is complete starvation for a number of days, and sometimes during fasting, one is permitted to eat everything except cereals and meat. In some faiths, a single fast lasts for many weeks. The Christian monks of Arabia used to fast for many days at a stretch. Among the Jews, a fast lasted for a full 24 hours. Islam adopted a moderate course in this also. It fixed the fasting period for one month but forbade eating and drinking of all kind only from dawn to sunset.

Among Jews, the custom was that whatever they ate at the time of breaking the fast was all that they were allowed to eat. They were not allowed to eat any more after that. In other words, the next fast started from the time the previous one ended. Among the Arabs, it was customary not to eat anything more after having gone to sleep at night. In the beginning, this custom was also common among Muslims. Once it so happened that during the month of Ramadan, the evening meal was not ready in the home of one of the Companions. His wife was still cooking the food, and while waiting for it he fell asleep. When the food was ready, she brought it to him but because he had already slept he could not eat it. Next day he fainted while fasting. The following verse was revealed on this occasion: "And eat and drink, until the white thread of dawn appears to you distinct from its black thread." (2:187)

During the pre-Islamic era, the husband and wife would sleep separately at nights during the fasting period. However, since this was unnatural, when overpowered by their sexual desires, people indulged in intercourse. Islam, therefore, forbade sexual intercourse only during the hours of fasting and allowed it during the night: "Permitted to you in the night of the fasts, is the approach to your wives. They are your garments and ye are their garments. Allah knoweth what ye used to do secretly among yourselves but He turned to you and forgave you: so now associate with them, and seek what Allah hath ordained for you." (2:187)

Forgetfulness, error and faults are excused in Islam. So, if somebody eats or drinks forgetfully, the fast does not break. It has been narrated by Abu Hurayrah radiyallahu anhu that the Prophet (pbuh) said, "If anyone forgets when he is fasting and eats or drinks, he should complete his fast, for it is only Allah who has fed him and given him drink. (Bukhari, Muslim). An act which, although against fasting, is unintentionally, will not annul the fast. 

Among the Jews, because fasting was mostly in commemoration of hardship and was symbol of grief, during fasting they did not clean their faces and would adopt a sorrowful appearance. Islam, however, takes the opposite stance in the period of fasting. To apply oil on the head, to use collyrium (surmah) in the eyes, and to apply perfume while fasting are not prohibited in Islam. To wash the face and to clean the teeth have indeed been encouraged. In addition to cleanliness, the fasting person should present an appearance of joyfulness, happiness and willingness.

Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) used to fast very often. He had fixed certain days in the week and the month for this purpose. For the followers of Islam, these fasts are considered only commendable (mustahab), not obligatory. In addition to these, the Prophet (pbuh) sometimes used to fast continuously day and night. Fasting, in comparison to other worships, is obviously to some extent an act of hardship and suffering. It was, therefore, necessary to prevent the followers of Islam from excess. This practice of wisal (continuous fasting of day and night) was declared strictly forbidden by the Prophet (pbuh) for his followers. When certain companions asked for the reason, he replied, "I am not like you, for I am provided food and drink (by Allah)". (MJMI)

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