Some Aspects of Fasting

Friday Khutba by Dr Zahid Aziz, for Lahore Ahmadiyya UK, 22 March 2024

“O you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may guard against evil.” — The Quran, ch. 2, v. 183

یٰۤاَیُّہَا الَّذِیۡنَ اٰمَنُوۡا کُتِبَ عَلَیۡکُمُ الصِّیَامُ کَمَا کُتِبَ عَلَی الَّذِیۡنَ مِنۡ قَبۡلِکُمۡ لَعَلَّکُمۡ تَتَّقُوۡنَ ﴿۱۸۳﴾ۙ

This is the first verse in the section of verses of the Holy Quran which ordain fasting in the month of Ramadan. It is important to remember that fasting in Islam does not just consist of not eating or drinking, but in fact abstaining from every kind of selfish desire and wrong-doing. The fast is not merely of the body, but essentially that of the spirit. The physi­cal fast is really only a symbol and outward expression of the real, inner fast. A person who is fasting is actually saying: “I am refraining from all wrong actions that I desire to do, by refraining from my deepest physical desires.” In this connection, the Holy Prophet Muhammad has said:

“He who does not give up uttering falsehood (qaul az-zūr) and acting according to it, God has no need of his giving up his food and drink.” (Bukhari, hadith number 1903)

In another version of this hadith, there is a small addition:  “He who does not give up uttering falsehood and acting according to it, and ignorance” (Bukhari, hadith 6057). The word for ignorance here is jahl. So all talk and behaviour based on igno­rance must be avoided as well.

Imam Bukhari has given this version of this hadith the heading: “The word of Allah: And shun false words (qaul az-zūr)”. He is referring to a verse of the Quran in which it is stated: “And shun (or refrain from saying) false words (qaul az-zūr)” (22:30). What he is pointing out is that the Quran itself forbids Muslims to speak these things called qaul az-zūr, or false words. So this command in hadith not to speak false words is supported by the Quran itself.

There is something which people call the niyyah or “intention” of fasting. The word niyyah means intention, aim or pur­pose in doing something. But it is wrongly thought that the niyyah of fasting is the repeating of certain words in which you say that you intend to keep the fast. On Ramadan timetables and other information about fasting, these words of niyyah, or intention to fast, are often quoted in Arabic and these are supposed to be uttered when starting the fast. This saying of the niyyah or intention by a set formula of words is not mentioned anywhere in the Holy Quran and the Hadith. Only in the case of voluntary fasting outside Ramadan, there is mention in Hadith of certain Companions declaring their intention during the day to keep a voluntary fast that day, when they had not eaten anything up to that time of the day (Bukhari, hadith 1924 and its chapter heading). It is under­standable why in that case the intention needs to be said in words. But there is no point in expressing such an inten­tion when starting a fast in the month of Ramadan, when you know that you are going to be fasting. But this niyyah has another meaning.

In Sahih Bukhari, there is a chapter in the book on Fasting which is headed:

“He who fasts during Ramadan having faith (in Allah) and seeking His plea­sure and having an intention (niyyah).”

The words of the Holy Prophet are then given, saying: “People will be raised up (on the Day of Judgment) according to their intentions (niyyah).” (Bukhari, heading above hadith 1901). Similar words also occur in Hadith in regard to other acts of worship. The meaning is that those who carry them out, for example, prayer or fasting, merely as a ritual, cannot benefit from them. Only those can benefit who understand their aim and purpose and try to achieve it. For them, the fasts can bring such spiritual progress that it protects them from committing sin. The aim or purpose of fasting is, according to the Quran, to make the fast: (1) a spiritual dis­cipline, meaning to attain nearness to God and to have Him uppermost and closest in one’s mind when perform­ing any actions, (2) to make it a moral discipline, meaning to refrain from all evil, selfishness and greed, and (3) a means of feeling the deprivation that other people have to endure and to use your resources to alleviate their distress. So our niyyah of fasting are not any set words that we need to utter, but it is to think about what we want to achieve through fasting.

There is a well-known hadith in Bukhari as follows:

Fasting is an armour (or shield) with which one protects oneself; so let not him (who fasts) utter immodest (or foul) speech, nor let him act in an ignorant manner; and if a man quarrels with him or abuses him, he should say twice, I am fasting. And by Him in Whose hand is my soul, the odour of the mouth of one fasting is sweeter in the estimation of Allah than the odour of musk — he gives up his food and his drink and his (sexual) desire for My sake; fasting is for Me and I will grant its reward; and a virtue brings reward ten times like it.” (hadith 1894, see also hadith 1904)

It is not refraining from food that makes the breath of the faster so sweet; it is ref­rain­ing from foul speech and abuse and evil words and deeds of all kinds, so much so that he does not utter an offensive word even in response. What reaches God is the sweetness of behaviour of the fasting person, not the sweetness of his breath. While a fasting person undergoes a physical discipline by curbing his bodily desires, that is to say, the craving for food and drink, and the sex appetite, he is actually required to undergo a direct moral dis­cip­line by avoiding all kinds of evil words and evil deeds. Note also here God saying that the person fasting is doing it “for Me”. This means fasting to attain nearness to God, fasting purely for the purposes for which God has ordained fasting. If during fasting something happens which could lead the fasting person away from the high objec­tive he is seeking to attain, he should control his emotions and refrain from follow­ing them. In the sight of God, the fast loses its value not only by taking food or drink but also by telling a lie, using foul language, acting unfaithfully, or doing an evil deed.

Another well-known hadith in Bukhari runs as follows:

“When the month of Ramadan starts, the doors of heaven are opened and the doors of hell are closed, and the Satans are shackled in chains.” (hadith 1899)

The opening of the doors of Paradise and the closing of the doors of hell are for those who benefit from the fasts of Ramadan and build in themselves the true spirit of Ramadan in their lives. The devils are chained for the person who keeps the fast because he curbs and chains his lower passions — which are the desires which the devil arouses to make a person fall into evil. The doors of Hell are closed on him because he closes the door on doing all evil which leads to hell. The doors of Heaven are opened for him because, by rising above physical desires and by devoting himself to the serv­ice of humani­ty, he opens the door to lead a new kind of life in this world. So it is by fasting in its true spirit that the fasting person himself or herself, by their own action, chains the devils, closes the doors of hell and opens the doors of heaven.

All the commandments of the Quran are meant for those who are full-grown and capable of understanding what they are doing and why. This also applies to the commands relating to fasts. The under-age youngsters should not fast, but the Caliph Umar is quoted as saying: “Even our children are fasting” (Bukhari, heading above h. 1960). The idea behind it may have been to habi­tuate children to fasting. Otherwise, only such people are under obligation to fast who are phys­ically fit and capable of under­standing the purpose of fasting. There is no harm if children are asked to keep a few fasts in order to get them accustomed to it, provided there is no great hardship involved. However, the teach­ings of Islam do not require non-adults to fast.

As to what breaks the fast, the three things which a person should abstain from in fasting are eating, drinking and having sexual intercourse. If any of these three acts is done out of free will and intentionally during the fast, this would break the fast. But if done by mistake, which may be by forgetfulness or under the wrong impression that the fast has ended, the fast remains and must be completed. It is stated in a hadith:

If he (the fasting person) forgets and eats or drinks, he should complete his fast, for Allah fed him and made him drink.” (Bukhari, hadith 1933)

It is stated in traditional Islamic literature that if a fast is broken on a cloudy day, under the impression that the sun has set, and the sun then appears, then also the fast should be completed till sunset. It is not invalidated. In our modern times, this should not happen as we know what the present time is and we know from published time­tables when the fast ends. However, mistakes are still possible through confusion and misunderstanding. Therefore this principle still applies to such circumstances, that if you thought the fast had ended and ate something but then realized that it had not ended, you simply continue the fast till it actually ends. You don’t need to repeat the fast or pay any kind of penalty for it.

The Holy Quran does not mention any punishment for someone who deli­berately breaks the fast. Hadith only shows that it is sufficient that the violator should be sincerely repentant.