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  1. Types of Fasting

  2. When Does Ramadan Begin and End?
  3. Different Locations
  4. The End of Ramadan
  5. The Hours Decreed for Fasting
  6. Who Must Fast
  7. Making up the Missed Days
  8. Paying a Recompense
  9. Days When Fasting Is Forbidden
  10. Voluntary Fasts
  11. The Predawn Meal and Breaking the Fast
  12. The Essential Elements of Fasting
  13. Avoiding Unbefitting Actions
  14. Being Generous and Doing Other Meritorious Acts
  15. Permitted Acts
  16. Forbidden Acts Requiring a Make-up Day
  17. Acts that Invalidate the Fast and Require a Make-up Day and Expiation
  18. Places with Very Long Days and Very Short Nights
  19. The Virtue of the Night of Power (Laylat al-Qadr)
  20. The Meaning and Principles of I‘tikaf
  21. Oaths
  22. Vows

The fourth pillar of Islam is the Ramadan fast, during which Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, and sexual relations or satisfaction from dawn until sunset. Concerning the order to fast, the Qur’an declares:

The month of Ramadan, in which the Qur’an (began to be) sent down as a pure source of guidance for people, and, (when practiced,) as clear signs of guidance and the Criterion (between truth and falsehood). Therefore, whoever of you is present at this month must fast it, and he who is so ill that he cannot fast or is on a journey must fast the same number of other days. God desires ease for you, and desires not hardship for you, so that you can complete the number of the days required, exalt God for that He has guided you, and it is hoped that you may give thanks (due to Him). (2:185)

Types of Fasting
There are two types of fasting: obligatory and voluntary. Obligatory fasts can be further subdivided into the fast of Ramadan, the fast of expiation, and the fast of fulfilling a vow. Here we shall discuss the Ramadan and voluntary fasts.

When Does Ramadan Begin and End?
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. A lunar month is approximately 29.5 days, which is the time it takes for the moon to orbit Earth. Since a lunar month is, on average, one day shorter than a solar month, a lunar year is 10 to 12 days shorter than a solar year. Therefore, Ramadan comes 10 to 12 days earlier each year and so moves through the seasons, providing equal conditions for people living in different lands.

A new lunar month begins when, during the moon’s orbit around Earth, the moon is in conjunction with the sun and the sun’s light hits the side of the moon that is turned away from Earth. In this position, the moon is said to be a “new moon,” with its dark side turned toward Earth. By definition, a new moon is not visible from Earth, as the sun’s light shines only on the side facing Earth.

As the moon continues to orbit around Earth, it starts to form a crescent. This will be minutes after the new moon forms, even though the crescent will not be visible for several hours. In some traditional Islamic countries, Muslims do not start fasting until they see the actual crescent. This event is confirmed by sighting the new moon, even if it is seen by only one person, or by the passage of 30 days in the immediately preceding month of Sha‘ban. However, according to some modern scholars, God has given us scientific knowledge to determine exactly when a lunar month will begin and end. Therefore, any observatory or other astronomy-related center should have this information for the area in which we live.

Fasting starts on the first dawn of the new month. During the few hours between the new moon and the following dawn, Muslims can eat and drink, and then start fasting when the first thread of light is observed in the sky.

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Different Locations
Most scholars say that it does not matter if the new moon has been seen elsewhere. In other words, after the new moon is seen anywhere in the world, all Muslims must begin fasting.

The End of Ramadan
The Ramadan fast ends when the new moon (Shawwal) is seen. Most jurists state that the new moon must have been reported by at least two just witnesses.

The Hours Decreed for Fasting
According to the Qur’an, the fasting hours are as follows: You can eat and drink until you can discern the white streak (of dawn) against the black streak (of night); then complete the Fast until night sets in (2:187). Thus, the fast should start at the first thread of light at dawn (between 1.5 and 2 hours before sunrise, depending on the time of year), and maintained until sunset (the beginning of night).

Who Must Fast
All scholars agree that fasting is obligatory upon every sane, adult, healthy Muslim male who is not traveling or fighting on a battlefield at that time. As for women, those who are menstruating or having post-childbirth bleeding cannot fast. In addition, the following groups of people do not have to fast: those who are insane, minors, or travelers; pregnant women who fear that their unborn child might be harmed; the old and sick who think that fasting might harm them; and those who work in harsh circumstances or suffer such hunger or thirst that they fear fasting might result in death.

Making up the Missed Days
People who are (not chronically) ill and travelers can break their fast during Ramadan, but must make up the missed days. If travelers make the intention to fast during the night, they can still break their fast during the day. If they have already made the intention to fast while resident but then decided to travel during the day, most scholars maintain that they must fast.

Those who have broken their fast because of harsh circumstances also must make up the missed days. The scholars agree that menstruating women, women with post-childbirth bleeding, and pregnant and breast-feeding women who fear that fasting might harm them or the baby, must make up the missed days.

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Paying a Recompense
Those who are too old to fast, as well as the chronically ill, are permitted to break their fast, for fasting would place too much hardship on them. However, they must feed one poor person for each day that they did not fast. If those who were traveling or had another excuse die before making up the missed days, no recompense has to be paid. If they requested their heirs to pay such a recompense, however, the money should be taken out of the deceased’s estate. If those who died without making up the missed days, even though they had enough time to do so, must request their heirs to pay the necessary recompense.

Days When Fasting Is Forbidden
All scholars agree that fasting on the two ‘Iyds (‘Iyd al-Fitr and ‘Iyd al-Adha) is forbidden. It does not matter if the fast is obligatory or voluntary. Fasting voluntarily on Friday exclusively is disliked. If one fasts on the day before or after it, if it is a day on which one customarily fasts (e.g., the 13th, 14th, or 15th of the month), or if it is the day of ‘Ashura (Muharram 10), then it is not disliked to fast on such a Friday. The same rule applies to Saturday. Fasting on the “day of doubt,” when one is not sure if it is the last day of Sha‘ban or the first day of Ramadan, is also disliked, as is fasting on consecutive days without eating at all (al-wisal).

Voluntary Fasts
The Messenger exhorted Muslims to fast on the following days: six days of Shawwal; Muharram 10 (‘Ashura) and the days immediately preceding and following it; most of Sha‘ban (the month preceding Ramadan); every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday during the sacred months (Dhu’l-Qa‘da, Dhu’l-Hijja, Muharram, Rajab); every Monday and Thursday; and the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth days of each month. He also permitted those who can fast every other day, which is called sawm Dawud (the fast of Prophet David), to do so.

The Predawn Meal and Breaking the Fast
Having a predawn meal between the middle of the night and dawn is sunna (recommended). It is considered best to delay it so that it will be eaten as close to dawn as possible. Those who are fasting should hasten to break the fast when the sun has set and, just before eating, make the following supplication (highly recommended): “O God, I have fasted for You, believed in You, placed my trust in You, and break my fast with Your provisions.”

The Essential Elements of Fasting
Making the proper intention to fast the month of Ramadan is required. Preferably, this intention should be made before dawn and during every night of Ramadan. However, it is valid if made during any part of the night and can even be made as late as noon if one forgot to make it before dawn. It does not have to be spoken out loud, for it is, in reality, an act of the heart that does not involve the tongue. In addition, it is fulfilled by one’s intention to fast out of obedience to God and to seek His pleasure. According to many jurists, the intention for a voluntary fast can be made until noon.

During the fasting hours, one cannot eat, drink, or engage in marital sexual relations. Before the Qur’an’s revelation, married couples could not engage in sexual intercourse during the fasting period. This rule was alleviated by 2:187, which allows sexual intercourse between married couples during the nights of Ramadan:
It is made lawful for you to go in to your wives on the night of the Fast; (there is such an inalienable intimacy between you that) they are a garment for you (enfolding you to protect you against illicit relations and beautifying you,) and you are a garment (of the same sort) for them. (2:187)
However, it is still forbidden during the fasting hours.

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Avoiding Unbefitting Actions
Fasting, a type of worship for drawing closer to God, was ordered to purify the soul and train it in good deeds. Those who are fasting must guard against any act that might cancel the benefits of their fast. Thus, their fast will increase their personal God-consciousness and piety. Fasting is more than not eating and drinking; it also means to avoid everything else that God has forbidden. The Messenger said: “Fasting is not (abstaining) from eating and drinking only, but also from vain speech and foul language. If one of you is being cursed or annoyed, he should say: ‘I am fasting, I am fasting.’”

Being Generous and Doing Other Meritorious Acts
Being generous, studying the Qur’an, and supplicating to God are recommended at all times, but are especially stressed during Ramadan. During the last 10 days of Ramadan, God’s Messenger would wake his wives during the night and then, remaining apart from them, engage in acts of worship. He would exert himself in worshipping his Lord during this time more than he would at any other time. (Bukhari, “Sawm,” 2:9; Muslim, “Siyam,” 164)

Permitted Acts

  • Pouring water over oneself and submerging oneself in water.
  • Applying kohl, eye-drops, or anything else to the eyes.
  • Kissing, provided that one has self-control.
  • Rinsing the mouth and nose, without swallowing any water.
  • Tasting a liquid, food, or something else that one wants to buy. However, anything edible must not be swallowed.
  • Chewing gum (unlike something that has no sweetness or fragrance) is disliked but does not invalidate the fast.
  • Eating, drinking, or having sexual intercourse during the night until dawn.
  • If one eats due to forgetfulness, the day does not have to be made up later or expiated.
  • Performing ghusl before dawn is not required, but it is advisable to be pure before fasting.
  • If a woman’s menstrual or post-childbirth bleeding stops during the night, she can delay ghusl until the morning and still fasts. However, she must perform ghusl before the dawn prayer.
  • Those who are fasting can use a tooth stick or a brush to clean their teeth. It does not matter if this is done at the beginning or at the end of the day.
  • Smelling perfumes.
  • Swallowing anything wet with saliva remaining in the mouth after rising.
  • Swallowing only a few drops of tears and sweat, the taste of which one does not feel.
  • Eating anything edible remaining between teeth and which is smaller than a chickpea.
  • Anything that is inedible and enters the mouth without intention (e.g., smoke, dust, and the taste of medicine put on teeth) does not invalidate the fast.
  • Kissing, touching, and stroking the opposite sex, provided that no ejaculation occurs, as well as any sexual activity that does not result in ejaculation. Any ejaculation that is the result of looking and thinking does not invalidate the fast.
  • Having a wet dream during the day or any ejaculation of seminal fluid.

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Forbidden Acts Requiring a Make-up Day

  • Eating due to a mistake or coercion.
  • Swallowing the blood more than the saliva with which it is mixed and the taste of which one feels.
  • Swallowing more than a few drops of tears and sweat the taste of which one feels.
  • Removing from the mouth anything edible that remains between the teeth and which is greater than a chickpea, and then eating it.
  • Vomiting a mouthful. Anything less and which goes back into the stomach does not invalidate the fast. However, if one intentionally takes it back, the fast is broken.
  • Ejaculation that occurs with pleasure by kissing, touching, and masturbation.
  • Menses and post-childbirth bleeding, even if either begins just before sunset.
  • If one eats, drinks, or has intercourse, thinking that the sun has set or that fajr has not occurred.
  • Any injections, whether for feeding or for medicinal purposes. It does not matter if the injection was intravenous or underneath the skin, or whether what was injected reaches the stomach.
  • Any drink or medicine that passes through throat or nose. However, water that passes through the ears is allowed.
  • Any fluid going into body through the rectum.

Acts that Invalidate the Fast and Require a Make-up Day and Expiation
Intentional eating, drinking, and having sexual intercourse during the day require making up the day and an expiation. Expiation is defined as freeing a slave if one can do so; if the person has no slaves or cannot free one for a valid reason, he or she must fast for 60 consecutive days; if one cannot do so, he or she must feed a poor person for 60 days or 60 poor people for one day with meals that are similar to what one would eat at home.

Most scholars say that both men and women have to perform acts of expiation if they intentionally have sexual intercourse during the day even if they had intended to fast on that day. If they engaged in it out of forgetfulness, coercion, or having no intention to fast, they do not have to perform any act of expiation. If the woman was raped or coerced by the man, only the man has to make an act of expiation.

All scholars agree that people who intentionally broke the fast and made expiation, and then broke it again in a way that requires another expiation, they must perform another act of expiation. Similarly, they all agree that if people break the fast twice during a day, before performing the expiation for the first act, they need to perform only one act of expiation. If people break their fast and then repeat it during the same Ramadan without expiation, they only have to make expiation one time. The reason for this is because there is a punishment for acts that are repeated, and if the expiation or punishment is not carried out, all of these acts are combined into one.

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Places with Very Long Days and Very Short Nights
Muslims who are in such areas (e.g., close to the polar regions) should follow the norms of the areas in which the Islamic legislation took place (e.g., Makka or Madina) or follow the schedule of the closest area that has “normal” days and nights.

The Virtue of the Night of Power (Laylat al-Qadr)
This night is the year’s most virtuous night. God says: We revealed it (the Qur’an) on the Night of Power [Laylat al-Qadr]. What will tell you what the Night of Power is? It is better than a thousand months. (97:1-3) For example, any action therein (e.g., reciting the Qur’an, remembering God, performing prayer, coming together to study an Islamic subject, giving charity, etc.) brings as much reward as would doing the same action for 1,000 months that do not contain this night.

It is preferred to seek this night during the last 10 nights of Ramadan, as the Prophet, upon whom be peace, strove his best to seek it during that time. For example, he would stay up during the last 10 nights, wake his wives, and then stay apart from them in order to worship. However, according to Abu Hanifa, any night during the year may be the Night of Power (Canan, ibid., 1:260), and so Muslims should keep vigils for some time every night in order to catch it. Such night vigils have a special importance.

Al-Bukhari records from Abu Hurayra that the Messenger, upon whom be peace, said: “Whoever prays during the Night of Power with faith and hoping for its reward will have all of his or her previous sins forgiven.” (Bukhari, “Fadl Laylat al-Qadr”)

The Meaning and Principles of I‘tikaf
I‘tikaf literally means to stick to something, whether good or bad, and to block out everything else. As a term, it denotes devoting oneself, especially during the last 10 days of Ramadan, to praying in a mosque. God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, performed i‘tikaf for 10 days every Ramadan. In the year that he died, he performed it for 20 days.

I‘tikaf is not acceptable from an unbeliever, a non-discerning child, a person requiring major purification because of (sexual) defilement, and a menstruating woman and a woman with post-childbirth bleeding.
I‘tikaf will be fulfilled if a person stays in the mosque with the intention of becoming closer to God. If these conditions are not met, it is not i‘tikaf. If an individual intends to perform a voluntary i‘tikaf but ends it before the 10-day period has ended, he or she must make up the remaining days later.

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Making an oath means to swear by God that one will not do something. In Islam, one can swear only by God. People who make such an oath must do their best to fulfill it, and so should not make one carelessly.

People who make false statements by mistake or unknowingly, and then swear to them by God, are not held responsible for them and do not have make any expiation. However, consciously lying and then swearing by God or declaring God as a witness to the lie is an extremely grave sin that many times has resulted in misfortune descending upon the liar. Such people must perform an act of expiation, earnestly seek God’s forgiveness, and repair any damage caused by the lie.

If people swear by God not to do something in the future and then do that very act, they must seek God’s forgiveness and make an expiation. In this case, this involves emancipating a slave. If this is not possible, the oath-breaker must feed a poor person for 10 days with meals that are similar to what his family eats. If this is not possible, he or she must fast for 10 consecutive days.

A vow is a solemn promise to do, in God’s name, something that resembles an act of worship and make obligatory upon oneself that which is not obligatory. A vow is considered “Islamic” only if it is made in God’s name and involves an obligatory or necessary act of worship (e.g., to fast or help the poor). Therefore, one can vow to perform two rak‘ats of prayer or fast, but not to make a prostration of recitation or perform ablution, for these latter two acts are not obligatory acts of worship in themselves but rather are the means to such acts. Also, vows can be made concerning only that which can be fulfilled.

There are two kinds of vows: appointed and unappointed. An appointed vow can be, for example, vowing to fast on a certain day if one’s desire for something religiously lawful is met. If the desired thing happens, the vow must be fulfilled. An unappointed vow can be, for example, a vow to fast for one day or to give charity to the poor if one’s desire for something religiously lawful is met. If the desired thing happens, the vow must be fulfilled.

If one vows to do something resembling an act of worship if something does not occur, he or she must either fulfill the vow or make an expiation. For example, if one addicted to lying vows to fast for a week if he or she does not lie again, but then does so, he or she either has to fulfill the vow or make an expiation like that made for broken oaths.

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Recommended Reading:

The Holy Month of Ramadan

Rules and Regulations for Fasting

Last Updated on December 15, 2004

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