Fasting in Islam (saum)

Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam. Fasting is fard or obligatory for Muslims in the month of Ramadan. Outside of Ramadan, voluntary or nawafil fasts can be observed on any day of the year except for some prohibited days. Muslims observe fasts for various reasons. Fasting starts at the time of dawn, after having the morning meal, or suhoor. It is broken by having iftaar, or breakfast at sunset. The fasting times near the poles may be calculated or taken from the closest country where the sun sets and rises. Alternatively, those living near the poles can follow the fasting hours of Makkah.

During the fast, Muslims must abstain from drinking, eating, smoking, and having sexual intercourse. Although it is obligatory for Muslims to observe fasting during Ramadan, they may be exempt in some cases, like when ill, or traveling. Such people may have to make their missed fasts later on in the year.

The reasons to fast

There are various reasons for Muslims to fast. As stated in the Quran, in 2:183, Allah has ordered fasts on Muslims, just like He had ordered on earlier people – the followers of past prophets.[1]Quran 2:183 Similarly, in verse 2:185, Allah orders the believers to fast for the month of Ramadan.[2]Quran 2:185 As explained in verse 2:183, Muslims are supposed to fast to attain piety. Fasting is also a way of practicing self-restraint. For one month, Muslims practice to bring their carnal desires under control and strengthen their willpower and faith. Another reason to fast is to feel compassionate and realize the sufferings of the less fortunate ones. Muslims are also encouraged to fast intermittently outside of the month of Ramadan.[3]Sahih al-Bukhari 46 These are voluntary fasts and are not obligatory.

The Rules of Fasting

The requirements to observe fast are to have an intention to fast and to abstain from drinking, eating, smoking, and sexual intercourse during the time of the fast, both during the month of Ramadan as well as outside of it.[4]Qur’an 2:187 The time of fast starts from dawn, just before the Fajr salah – the early morning prayer – to right after sunset, just before the Maghrib salah – the prayer after sunset.[5]Quran 2:187 In places near the poles where the sun does not rise or set for days, the calculated timings may be referred or the timings of a country nearby.[6]Prayer times from equator to poles The intention of fasting is very important as the Prophet said that there is no fast for the one who has no intention of fasting at dawn.[7]Sunan an-Nasa’i 2331 – 2343

Exemptions in Ramadan

For every mature Muslim man and woman, fasting during the month of Ramadan is obligatory.[8]Quran 2:183 – 2:185 There are cases when they are exempted from fasting. Taking good care of one’s health is an important part of the faith. Keeping this in view, people whose health may deteriorate on doing so should hold off from fasting.

People who are travelling are excused from fasting, although they may fast if they want to do so.[9]Quran 2:184-2:185, Sunan an-Nasa’i 2292-2294, 2296-2308 Also, travellers are allowed to break the fast while travelling.[10]Sunan an-Nasa’i 2313-2314 Women who are pregnant and breastfeeding are exempted from fasting.[11]Sunan an-Nasa’i 2315 As for old people who find it difficult to fast and those who are sick and can fast with difficulty, they have a choice to fast or not.[12]Quran 2:183-2:185, Sunan an-Nasa’i 2317-2318 They need to make up for their missed fasts by feeding the needy and poor for each missed day.[13]Quran 2:183-2:185 Women who have their menses during the month of Ramadan should skip fasting and continue after their periods. They should also make up for their missed fasts later.[14]Sunan an-Nasa’i 2318

Sunnah of fasting

Sunnah are Prophetic traditions which every Muslim is enjoined to follow. Among the traditions of fasting are to eat suhoor shortly before dawn[15]Sunan Abi Dawud 2343, Sahih Muslim 1096 a, Sunan an-Nasa’i 2147 – 2150, 2163 – 2165, Sahih al-Bukhari 1921, 1923, Sunan Ibn Majah … Continue reading, making haste in iftaar and breaking the fast with fresh dates and water.[16]Jami` at-Tirmidhi 694-696, 699-701, Sahih al-Bukhari 1957, Sunan Ibn Majah Vol. 1, Book 7 Hadith 1697, 1698 (en) / Book 7, Hadith 1767, 1768 (ar) While fasting, one should stay away from speaking ill, cursing and fighting.[17]Sunan Ibn Majah Vol. 1, Book 7, Hadith 1691 (en) / Book 7, Hadith 1761 (ar), Sunan Abi Dawud 2363, Sunan an-Nasa’i 2217

After the month of Ramadan, the Prophet stressed to fast six days of the following month, Shawwal.[18]Sahih Muslim 1164, Sunan Ibn Majah Vol. 1, Book 7, Hadith 1716(en), Book 7, Hadith 1787(ar), Sunan Abi Dawud 2433, Jami` at-Tirmidhi 759 Out of Ramadan, the Prophet made a practice to fast on Mondays and Thursdays of the week. He consistently fasted three days of a month – a Thursday, then the following Monday and Thursday.[19]Jami` at-Tirmidhi 745, Sunan Abi Dawud 2450 – 2452, Sunan Ibn Majah Vol. 1, Book 7, Hadith 1739 (en), Book 7, Hadith 1811 (ar) It is, therefore, Sunnah to fast three days of every month, preferably among Mondays and Thursdays.

Forbidden days and disliked practices of fasting

The two days of Eid are for rest and celebration for the Muslims and therefore the Prophet Muhammad – peace be upon him – forbade fasting on the two days of Eid, and the days of tashreeq – the three days after Eid-ul-Adha, or the Eid of sacrifice.[20]Jami` at-Tirmidhi 771, 772 He also forbade to fast continuously out of Ramadan. Rather, one should at most fast alternate days.[21]Sahih Muslim 1159, Sunan Ibn Majah Vol. 1, Book 7, Hadith 1706 (en) / Book 7, Hadith 1776 (ar)

Regarding voluntary fasting, the practice of singling out Friday is disliked, except for someone fasting both on the previous and the next day, as Friday is like Eid for believers of Islam.[22]Jami` at-Tirmidhi 743, Sahih al-Bukhari 1985, Sunan Abi Dawud 2420, Sunan Ibn Majah Vol. 1, Book 7, Hadith 1723 (en) / Book 7, Hadith 1794 (ar) Similarly, singling out Saturday for voluntary fasting is also disliked, as it is the Sabbath day for Jews.[23]Sunan Ibn Majah Vol. 1, Book 7, Hadith 1726 (en) / Book 7, Hadith 1797 (ar)

The Month of Ramadan

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and an eagerly awaited period for Muslims. Although it is not among the four sacred months of Islam, it is the most blessed month. It is in Ramadan that Allah revealed the Quran.[24]Quran 2:185 In light of this, Muslims consider this month very auspicious. For most Muslims, this is the time of the year when they try to break bad habits and form good ones.

In this month, many Muslims abstain from entertainment and rather choose to spend their time in learning the Quran. Some participate in the practice of Itikaf, where the men spend part or full of the last ten nights of the month in seclusion in the mosque, focusing only on increasing their faith and connection with Allah, abstaining from all worldly affairs. Many women do the same, except in their homes. An obligation of this month is the giving of Zakat-al-Fitr, which is charity for the poor and needy, at the end of Ramadan, but before the Eid prayers.[25]Sahih al-Bukhari 1503-1512, Sahih Muslim 984-986, Jami` at-Tirmidhi 677 This charity is to help the poor and needy, and also to cleanse oneself from their sins and shortcomings.[26]Sunan Ibn Majah 1827

Different countries and regions follow unique traditions. Mostly the month begins on sighting the moon when people greet each other by saying ‘Ramadan Mubarak’. In many localities, for example, the iftaar is conducted in the mosques, where community members gather to break their fast together. Ramadan ends with Eid-ul-Fitr on the first day of the next month, Shawwal.

Revelation of the Qur’an

As stated in the Quran, 2:185, Allah has revealed the Quran in the month of Ramadan. As per the verse 97:1, the revelation took place on Laylat-al-Qadr or the Night of Decree. This refers to Allah sending down the Quran on this day, all at once, from al-Lawh al-Mahfuz or the Preserved Tablet to Baytul-Izzah or the House of Might, in the Heaven of this world.[27]Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Tafsir Imam Qurtubi The angel, Jibrail revealed it to the Prophet on the command of Allah, in the span of 23 years.

The verses were sent down as per the requirements of the time. The angel Jibrail used to repeat the Quran with the Prophet every Ramadan.[28]Sahih al-Bukhari 6, 1902, 3220, 4998, Sahih al-Muslim 2308, Sunan an-Nasa’i 2095 It is believed Jibrail had dictated the Prophet the order of the verses and chapters of the Quran at that time. It, therefore, became a practice to recite the whole Quran at least once during the month of Ramadan. This is done in the prayers of tarawih after Isha salah. The most common practice is to recite at least one of thirty parts of the Quran each night.

The Night of Decree – Laylat-al-Qadr

This is the night, as quoted in the Quran 97:1, that Allah sent down the Quran. The chapter 97 is dedicated to this night as this is a very important event. In verse 97:3, Allah says that this night is better than a thousand months of prayer. The Prophet Muhammad has said to look for this night. The date of Laylat-al-Qadr is not known. Just that it lies on the odd ones of the last ten days of the month of Ramadan.[29]Sahih al-Bukhari 2014-2023

The last ten days are also the days in which the Prophet took part in secluding himself in the mosque just for prayers, known as Itikaf.[30]Sahih al-Bukhari 2014-2023 The Prophet would also keep awake himself and his family during the nights of these days to pray.[31]Sahih al-Bukhari 2024 It is, therefore, Sunnah to undertake Itikaf and pray as much as possible in these nights.

Common traditions around the world

The month of Ramadan begins on the sighting of the new moon. Most people in the Arab and Indian subcontinent greet each other on the eve of Ramadan by saying ‘Ramadan Mubarak’. The night concludes with the first tarawih prayers of the month. Mosques generally have more people during this month, as compared to other times. After Suhoor, people generally go to the mosques to attend Fajr prayers. In many places, drums are beaten to wake people up for Suhoor. Many mosques conduct Iftar as the Maghrib prayer is just after it.

Ramadan ends with the sighting of the new moon. As it is dependent on the moon, the date of Eid varies from region to region. Most people wake up early to attend the Eid-al-Fitr prayers in the mosque, after which people greet each other with ‘Eid Mubarak’. Eid is one of the two days of enjoyment and celebration for Muslims around the world. And accordingly, this day is celebrated with special delicacies and wearing new clothes.

Sources and further reading

Most of the translations of the Quran were searched and viewed on the and the Clear Quran websites.
The hadiths were searched and viewed on the website.