Fasting in Ramadān ―What does Fasting mean? Why do we Fast? And what do we get out of Fasting?

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Fasting in Ramadān

By Abu Khadeejah Abdul-Wāhid Alam[1]

All praise is due to Allah, the Lord of all creation. May Allah extol the Messenger in the highest company of Angels and grant him peace; and likewise, his family, his Companions and all those who truly follow him until the Day of Resurrection.

Fasting (Siyām in Arabic) is the fourth pillar of Islam and Allah obligated fasting on this Ummah just as he obligated it on the previous nations. He (the Most High) stated:

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا كُتِبَ عَلَيْكُمُ الصِّيَامُ كَمَا كُتِبَ عَلَى الَّذِينَ مِن قَبْلِكُمْ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُونَ

“O you who believe, observing the fast is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that you may become pious.”[2]

So, fasting was obligated upon the people in the second year after the Hijrah and the Prophet (salallāhu ‘alaihi wasallam) fasted nine Ramadāns before he passed away (salallāhu ‘alaihi wasallam).

Siyām in the Arabic language means to withhold from something, such as speech, walking, etc. In religious terminology, siyām is to withhold with intention (niyyah) from that which would break one’s fast through action or spiritual violation, beginning from the time of the true dawn (Fajr) until the sun sets (Maghrib).

If a person merely withholds from eating and drinking, etc, without intending that for Allah, then that is not to be called siyām in the religious sense even though linguistically it is siyām. This is due to saying of Allah’s Messenger (salallāhu ‘alaihi wasallam):

إنَّمَا الْأَعْمَالُ بِالنِّيَّاتِ وَإِنَّمَا لِكُلِّ امْرِئٍ مَا نَوَى فَمَنْ كَانَتْ هِجْرَتُهُ إلَى اللَّهِ وَرَسُولِهِ فَهِجْرَتُهُ إلَى اللَّهِ وَرَسُولِهِ وَمَنْ كَانَتْ هِجْرَتُهُ لِدُنْيَا يُصِيبُهَا أَوْ امْرَأَةٍ يَنْكِحُهَا فَهِجْرَتُهُ إلَى مَا هَاجَرَ إلَيْهِ

“Actions are based on intentions and each person will be rewarded according to what he intended. So, whoever’s migration was for Allah and His Messenger, his migration was for Allah and His Messenger. But whoever’s migration was for a worldly gain or for a woman he wishes to marry, his migration is for whatever he migrated for.”[3]

So, a person who withheld from food and drinks from the onset of true dawn (Fajr) till sunset (Maghrib), but did not intend to fast that day is not considered to be fasting according to the Sharī’ah, and he will not be rewarded for it, even though he withheld from eating and drinking.[4]

Fasting has two aspects to it: the physical side and the moral side

The physical aspect is to withhold with intent (niyyah) from eating, drinking and sexual intercourse. The moral aspect is to withhold from backbiting, carrying tales, rumourmongering, cursing, speaking with falsehood, lying, using foul language, looking at that which is prohibited (such as movies, pornography, etc.) and listening to that which is prohibited (such as music, slander, etc).

The spiritual violations reduce or diminish the reward of the fasting person and can even leave him with no reward at all for his fast because he is so immersed in these sins. Allah’s Messenger (salallāhu ‘alaihi wasallam) stated: “Whoever does not give up false speech and acting on it, and ignorant behaviour, then Allah is not in need of him giving up his food and drink.”[5] And he (salallāhu ‘alaihi wasallam) said: “Fasting is not just from food and drink, it is also from vain speech and lewd conduct.”[6]

So, the one who withholds from the physical violations of fasting but does not withhold from the spiritual violations has not truly fasted in a manner that is required from him. It is possible that such a person receives no reward for his fast, or he receives less reward in accordance with his sins. And this is the meaning of the saying of the scholars: “A person must abstain from the physical and spiritual violations from the second Fajr (true dawn) until Maghrib (sunset).”

One must be mindful of understanding the issue of Fajr (dawn) because there are two dawns, i.e. two Fajrs. At the onset of first dawn[7], the fast does not begin, and food and drinks are not prohibited and nor sexual relations with one’s wife.

As for the second Fajr, then this is the horizontally spreading whiteness in the horizon, and there is no darkness after it, once it begins. Allah (the Most High) stated concerning it:

وَكُلُوا وَاشْرَبُوا حَتَّىٰ يَتَبَيَّنَ لَكُمُ الْخَيْطُ الْأَبْيَضُ مِنَ الْخَيْطِ الْأَسْوَدِ مِنَ الْفَجْرِ ۖ

“And eat and drink until the white thread of dawn appears to you distinct from the black thread.”[8] This refers to the second (true) Fajr―and a Muslim fasts until sunset (Maghrib). So, once the Sun has set in the west and darkness appears in the east, the Fast comes to an end in accordance with the saying of Allah (the Most High):

ثُمَّ أَتِمُّوا الصِّيَامَ إِلَى اللَّيْلِ

“Then complete your Fast till the nightfall.”[9] And due to saying of the Prophet (salallāhu ‘alaihi wasallam): “If the night appears from over here and the day ends from over there and the Sun has set, the fasting person breaks his fast.”[10]

The wisdom behind Fasting is clear in the saying of Allah:

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا كُتِبَ عَلَيْكُمُ الصِّيَامُ كَمَا كُتِبَ عَلَى الَّذِينَ مِن قَبْلِكُمْ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُونَ

“O you who believe, observing the fast is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that you may become pious.”[11]

The Fast prevents the soul from following its desires and lusts, eating, drinking and sexual relations―because these things burden the soul and cause a person to become negligent, inattentive and transgress. If a person is continually occupied with eating, drinking and satisfying his desires, then it will lead him to ingratitude and transgression, and to become negligent of the remembrance of Allah. But when he fasts, he breaks the strength of his desires as well as his longing for food and drink―and that constricts the path of Shaytān from reaching the human. Shaytān flows through a person like the flowing of blood, so fasting restricts his effect and weakens his strength―and it softens the hearts of the believers. It is for this reason that Allah (the Most High) said, “so that you may become pious.” So, by fasting, one achieves taqwa (piety) and realises his weakness and humility in front of Allah (the Most High). He is reminded of the reality of his weak state, his immense need for Allah, His favours upon him and His bounties of food, drink and pleasures―that which Allah has made permissible for him.

So, when a person tastes something of hunger and thirst, he is reminded of those who are in need, who go to sleep in hunger and poverty and wake up in that state, and that instils in the believer a sense of compassion for others.

Fasting has many pearls of wisdom and numerous benefits. Allah’s Messenger (salallāhu ‘alaihi wasallam) stated in a hadith Qudsi that Allah (the Most High) said: “Fasting is for Me and I will reward the fasting person due to it because he leaves off his desires, his food and drink for My sake. And the odour from the mouth of a fasting person is better in the sight of Allah than the fragrance of musk.”[12] So, even if the odour is repugnant to the people, it is beloved to Allah due to the deed itself.

This is the excellence of fasting over the rest of the deeds―it is a tremendous act of worship. It is, for this reason, we find that the Righteous Predecessors (Salaf) would fast plentifully with optional fasts. This was due to their love of fasting and love of seeking nearness to Allah (the Most High). The Prophet (salallāhu ‘alaihi wasallam) would fast plentifully and he would fast such that it would be said: “He will not cease fasting.” And he would also stop fasting such that it would be said: “He will not fast.”[13] So, the Righteous Predecessors would fast often seeking nearness to Allah, increasing upon their fasting in Ramadān―and that was due to their knowledge of what fasting contains of benefit and excellence.

Allah (the Most High) obligated fasting the whole of the month of Ramadān in His statement:

شَهْرُ رَمَضَانَ الَّذِي أُنزِلَ فِيهِ الْقُرْآنُ هُدًى لِّلنَّاسِ وَبَيِّنَاتٍ مِّنَ الْهُدَىٰ وَالْفُرْقَانِ ۚ فَمَن شَهِدَ مِنكُمُ الشَّهْرَ فَلْيَصُمْهُ ۖ وَمَن كَانَ مَرِيضًا أَوْ عَلَىٰ سَفَرٍ فَعِدَّةٌ مِّنْ أَيَّامٍ أُخَرَ ۗ يُرِيدُ اللَّهُ بِكُمُ الْيُسْرَ وَلَا يُرِيدُ بِكُمُ الْعُسْرَ وَلِتُكْمِلُوا الْعِدَّةَ وَلِتُكَبِّرُوا اللَّهَ عَلَىٰ مَا هَدَاكُمْ وَلَعَلَّكُمْ تَشْكُرُونَ

“The month of Ramadān in which was revealed the Quran, a guidance for mankind and clear proofs for the guidance and the criterion between right and wrong. So, whoever of you sights the crescent on the first night of the month, he must observe the fasts for that month. And whoever is sick or on a journey [and does not fast], the same number must be made up from other days. Allah intends for you ease, and He does not want to make things difficult for you. He wants that you to complete the same number of days and that you magnify Allah [when the month comes to an end] for having guided you, so that you may be grateful to Him.”[14]

So, Allah (the Most High) obligated fasting the month of Ramadān upon every sane adult Muslim who is in good health and resident―and gave an allowance for the sick person and the traveller that they may break their fast and makeup what they have missed later from other days of the year. So, fasting in Ramadān is obligatory either by fasting in the month or by making it up later [if a person has a Sharī’ah excuse].


[1] These notes are based primarily on the explanation of Bulūgh Al-Marām min Adillatil-Ahkām of Al-Hāfidh Ibn Hajr (rahimahullah) by Al-‘Allāmah Dr. Sālih Al-Fawzān (may Allah preserve him) entitled, Tas-heel Al-Ilmām bi-Fiqhil-Ahādeeth min Bulūgh Al-Marām, vol. 3.

[2] Al-Baqarah 2:183.

[3] Bukhāri, no. 1, Muslim, no. 1907.

[4] Likewise, can be said for the person who withholds from food and drink for the purpose of losing weight without intending to fast religiously. However, the one who fasts for the sake of Allah as an act of worship, and also hopes to lose weight as a consequence and to improve their health, then such a person has fasted correctly and is rewarded for their fast.

[5] Al-Bukhāri (no. 6057), from Abu Hurayrah (radiyallāhu ‘anhu).

[6] Al-Hākim (1/430-431) and he graded it as sahīh; Al-Bayhaqi (4/270), from Abu Hurayrah (radiyallāhu ‘anhu).

[7] Also referred to as the false dawn or false Fajr (al-fajr al-kadhūb).

[8] Al-Baqarah: 187.

[9] Al-Baqarah: 187.

[10] Al-Bukhāri (no. 1954), Muslim (no. 1100).

[11] Al-Baqarah 2:183.

[12] Bukhāri (no. 5927), Muslim (no. 1151).

[13] ‘Ā’ishah (radiyallāhu ‘anhā) stated: “The Messenger of Allah would fast so often that we would say, ‘He will not stop,’ and he would stop fasting such that we would say, ‘He will not fast.’ I never saw Allah’s Messenger (salallāhu ‘alaihi wasallam) complete a whole month of fasting except for Ramadan and he never fasted so much as he did in Sha’bān.” (Reported by Bukhāri and Muslim)

[14] Al-Baqarah: 185.

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