Fasting during the month of Ramadan, the month when the revelations to Muhammad began, is another of the five pillars of Islam. The term sawm essentially means abstaining from something, and there are references in the Qur’an to abstaining from other things as well, although these are not among the pillars of the faith. Some have even interpreted fasting to be unique among the pillars, and indeed among the righteous conduct of Muslims, in that fasting alone is meant only for God. Abu Hurairah reports that the Prophet Muhammad said, “God has said, ‘Every action of the son of Adam is for him except fasting, for that is solely for Me. I give the reward for it.’” (As-Sayyid Sabiq 107)
While fasting does not receive as much attention as does prayer in the Qur’an, the verses concerning it are fairly explicit, particularly concerning when to fast and the fact that this is an obligation on all Muslims. Those who may not be able to complete the fast are not exempted from it, but only given a respite until conditions change in such a way as to allow them to fulfill their duty. So, for example, the traveler need not fast while on the road, but is certainly expected to make up the lost number of days of fasting later when the journey is complete.
O you who believe, fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may learn self-restraint, fasting for a fixed number of days. But if any of you is ill or on a journey, the prescribed number should be made up from days later. For those who can do it with hardship is a ransom, the feeding of one that is indigent. But he that will give more of his own free will, it is better for him. And it is better for you that you fast, if you only knew.
Ramadan is the month in which was sent down the Qur’an as a guide to mankind, also clear Signs for guidance and judgment between right and wrong. So every one of you who is present at his home during that month should spend it in fasting. But if any one is ill or on a journey, the prescribed period should be made up by days later. God intends every facility for you; He does not want to put you to difficulties. He wants you to complete the prescribed period and to glorify Him in that He has guided you, and perchance you shall be grateful. (002:183-185)
As-Sayyid Sabiq has summarized these exceptions to immediate fasting as follows: “People who are insane, minors, and those who are traveling, menstruating, or going through post-childbirth bleeding, and the elderly and breast-feeding or pregnant women do not need to observe the fast.” (As-Sayyid Sabiq 114) Not all of these people are excused from fasting. The insane are excused, not because they are physically incapable of fasting, but because they are not capable of understanding what they are doing. This point is tied to the necessity of intention in all that a Muslim does. The young (i.e., before puberty) are not required to fast, but are encouraged to try. The elderly and chronically ill need not fast, but should pay a recompense for failing to do so by helping to feed someone who is indigent every day that the Muslim fails to fast. (In fact, there is greater reward for such people to fast. For a sick person to fast could bring them greater suffering, and that is forbidden by God.) Those who may not fast due to temporary conditions are required to make up the fast later.
Having established that fasting is an unavoidable duty on Muslims, and what part of the year that the faithful should fast, the Qur’an then goes on to explain exactly what part of the day a Believer should observe the fast. The test applied in the Qur’an is to distinguish between a white and a black thread. The fast begins in the morning when there is enough light in the sky for the Believer to do so, to distinguish between the two threads. The fast ends in the evening when the light has so dissipated that such a distinction is no longer clear.
One begins a day of fasting by expressing one’s niyyat or intention of observing this essential requirement as a duty to God. The niyyat in this case is expressed as follows: Nawaitu sawma ghadin ‘an ada’i fardi Ramadana hazihis-sanati lillahi ta’ala. (“I intend to fast for this day in order to perform my duty to God in the month of Ramadan of the present year.”) Likewise, there is a particular recitation with which one ends each of the 30 days of fasting: Allahumma laka sumtu wa ‘ala rizqika aftartu. (“Oh God, for Your sake have I fasted, and now I break the fast with the food that comes from You.”)
During the hours of darkness, one may break the fast. One may also enjoy sexual relations with one’s spouse during these hours, but not during the daylight hours. The regulations concerning the fast thus prohibit not only food and drink, but also sex during the day, presumably to establish perfect purity during these hours when one’s mind should be fully dedicated to thoughts of God.
Permitted to you on the night of the fasts is the approach to your wives. They are your garments and you are their garments. God knows what you used to do secretly among yourselves, but He turned to you and forgave you. So now associate with them, and seek what God Has ordained for you, and eat and drink, until the white thread of dawn appears to you distinct from its black thread. Then complete your fast till the night appears. But do not associate with your wives while you are in retreat in the mosques. Those are limits set by God. Approach not nigh thereto. Thus God makes clear His Signs to men, that they may learn self-restraint. (002:187)
Should the faithful follow these injunctions, they may hope for great good from God. Islamic traditions suggest that during the month of Ramadan, the gates of heaven are kept open, while the gates of hell are shut and all demons are chained within. In other words, it is now that the faithful have the greatest opportunity to receive God’s mercy for their sins. Sa’id al-Khudri reported that the Prophet said, “Whoever fasts the month of Ramadan, obeying all of its limitations and guarding himself against what is forbidden, has in fact atoned for any sins he committed before it.” (As-Sayyid Sabiq 109)