Fasting in the month of Ramadan is one of the „five pillars” of Islam and every adult Muslim is expected to take part. Anyone who knowingly disobeys the command to fast is threatened with punishment with the exception of those falling into particular categories laid out in the Koran. The Arabic word “sawm” means “to abstain”, for example from speaking, eating, drinking or sexual intercourse.
Fasting was a common religious practice on the Arabian Peninsula even before the time of Mohammed. Before his calling as the “Prophet”, Mohammed withdrew to the desert to fast and meditate.
Fasting first became mandatory for Muslims in Medina. Mohammed and his followers came into contact with Jews there; Mohammed was very interested in an alliance with the Jews against the Meccans. In order to win favour with the Jews, Mohammed, the Muslims and others with them took part in the Aschura-Fast (the fast for the Day of Atonement– see Leviticus 16). The Jews however did not agree to an alliance. After the battle of Badr, in which Mohammed achieved a decisive victory over the Meccans, he no longer needed the help of the Jews and the fast instead became linked to the receiving of the Koran (Sura 2,185).
The Fasting Month of Ramadan
Mohammed is believed to have received his first revelation from the angel Gabriel (Sura 96,1-5) on the 27th night of the month of Ramadan (lailat al-qadr – “Night of Power”; cf. Sura 97 and 44,3), and so the month of Ramadan, the 9th month of the Muslim lunar year, became the month of fasting.
Fasting begins on the first day that the new crescent moon can be seen in the sky; and ends after approximately 30 days, when the crescent moon becomes visible again. Ramadan ends with the feast of the breaking of the fast (`id al-fitr, also known as „the small festival“ or „Sugar-Festival“ – in Turkish: Şeker Bayramı). Because lunar months are shorter than the months in a solar year, Ramadan rotates through all seasons of the year once every 34 years.
Fasting Practice during Ramadan
The basis for the practice of fasting is found primarily in Sura 2,183-187. From sunrise to sunset (as long as a white thread can be distinguished from a black thread – Sura 2,187), Muslims must abstain from eating, drinking and sexual intercourse; even washing out one’s mouth with water, smoking or, according to some theologians, just swallowing saliva, is forbidden. For the fast to be officially valid, Muslims must declare their intent to keep the fast, although it is disputed whether this must take place just once at the beginning of the fast, or daily.
The Ramadan fast affects the pace of daily life in the Islamic world. Less work is done in the daytime and offices close earlier. The focus of the day shifts to nighttime, when Muslims may eat and drink normally. Most families spend more money on food and drink during Ramadan than they would in an average month.
Exceptions and Substitutions
Groups not required to fast are children, the ill, pregnant or nursing mothers, the aged, heavy labourers and others, whose health or life would be damaged by fasting. Those who are travelling receive an exemption from fasting and women are forbidden to fast during their monthly period (impurity). Anyone falling under these temporary exemptions must make up the days missed as soon as possible. However, there is also the option of substituting the required fast with the feeding of a needy person or similar (Sura 2, 184).
Allah does not desire hardship for his people (Sura 2, 185). However, anyone who intentionally breaks fast, must take part in a 60 day atoning fast, redeem a slave, or pay a large sum to charity. If anyone dies while his period of fasting remains unfinished, a close relative should finish the fast for him.
Additional Times of Fasting
Additional days of fasting (as penance) can be mandated as punishment for particular sins (cf. Sura 5,98). For particularly pious Muslims, or for those who want to compensate for bad deeds, there is the option to take part in additional fasts voluntarily. This is seen as desirable and earns merit. Recommended additional days of fasting are for example, the day of Aschura, or a six-day period over the month Shawwal, which follows Ramadan. Fasting on religious festivals is however, frowned upon. On the day of Eid al-Fitr (the festival of the breaking of the fast) and Eid al-Adha (the festival of sacrifice) fasting is forbidden.
Expectations of the Fast
A purely outer observance of the fast is not sufficient. “Whoever does not give up false speech and acting upon it and offensive speech and behaviour, Allah has no need of his giving up his food and drink.”(Sahih Bukhari: Book 31: Hadith 127). For the Muslim, fasting should bring religious renewal and help him to focus less on the transient material world and his bodily needs. Some say fasting cleanses the soul and gives strength to overcome sin. During Ramadan, special Koran recitals are also offered and Muslims gather for nightly prayer meetings at mosques.
Muslims hope that fasting will earn them merit and redemption from their sins, but this is only a vague hope, as they consider God to be free to forgive or judge as he sees fit. Ultimately fasting is purely a fulfilling of ones duty as a Muslim – fasting is necessary because God requires it.
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