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Lynda Clarke, Wendy Wilson-Fall
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam


In Islam numerous fasts (ṣawm, also ṣiyām) are urged on the believer; the Islamic religion is permeated by the piety of fasting. The religious meaning of Ramaḍan has been discerned by modern thinkers to consist not only in obedience to God but also in moral, spiritual, and physical discipline—for instance, in purifying one 's mind (particularly of bodily desires), strengthening one 's will, and sharing in the hardships of the poor. According to this philosophy, fasting consists not only of abstaining from food, drink, and sex, but also of rejecting all illicit things and thoughts of them. This view of fasting is not exclusively modern. It has been in evidence throughout Islamic history, beginning with the ḥadīth, and receives eloquent expression in the Mysteries of Fasting of the great mystic and theologian al-Ghazālī (d. 1111). Some contemporary Muslims also emphasize the nonpenitential nature of the Ramaḍan fast, contrasting this with Christian and Jewish traditions.

The Islamic fasts reflect Jewish, Christian, and pre-Islamic Arabian influences, although the precise contribution of each of these traditions remains a subject of controversy. An obligatory collective fast occupies the entire month of Ramaḍan. Various traditions also recommend voluntary fasting; examples are the fast of ʿĀshūrāʿ (the tenth day of the month of Muḥarram, originally in imitation of the Jewish fast of the Day of Atonement), fasting six days in Shawwāl (the month following Ramaḍan), fasting three days of each month, and fasting on Mondays and Thursdays. Expiatory fasting (kaf fārah) atones for certain transgressions or compensates for omissions of duty; fasts of varying durations may be undertaken for, among other things, failing to fulfill an oath (see the Qurʿān, surahs 5:89 and 58:4) or the accidental killing of a believer (4:92). Some Ṣūfīs also undergo fasts as part of their spiritual exercises. In verses 2:183–187 the Qurʿān also identifies Ramaḍan as the month in which the Qurʿān was revealed to Muḥammad, restricts sexual intercourse to the hours of darkness when the fast is not in effect, and commands the believers to begin their fast again when “the white thread becomes to you distinct from the black thread of the dawn.” Thus in Ramaḍan the believer is obligated strictly to abstain from food, drink, and sexual relations in the daylight hours.


The great fast of the Muslims is that of Ramaḍan, undertaken by the entire community; fasting in this month is the fourth of the five pillars of Islam. The Ramaḍan fast is instituted in the Qurʿān (2:183–187), in the verse that begins, “O you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you,” and continues by recommending the fast of “a certain number of days,” with allowances for the sick and the traveler to fast “an [equal] number of other days,” as well as the “ransoming” of the fast by feeding the poor. Thus setting forth a primary responsibility of Muslims, the surah “al-Baqarah” is one of the first to be learned by children in Qurʿānic schools.

Other provisions concerning the fast come from the traditions of the Prophet (ḥadīth) and the legal (fiqh) literature. These literatures treat such matters as the regulations for the sighting of the new moon of the Ramaḍan month (which begins the fast), forming the proper intent (nīyah) to fast, the times for the beginning and breaking of each day 's fast, actions that have the effect of breaking the fast, exemptions from the fast, and the making up of missed days.

The Ramaḍan fast, despite the hardships involved (especially in summer when the days are long and the heat intense), has always been widely and strictly kept, and in modern times with the progress of Islamic revivalism observance has become even more general. Only preadolescents and menstruating women are exempt; pregnant and lactating women, the sick, the elderly, travelers, and those engaged in jihād may also be excused, subject to certain conditions. In contemporary times, fasting by pregnant women has become the subject of much debate, as national maternal and neonatal health programs attempt to exert pressure on women where there are high mortality rates of women in childbirth and among young children.

Ramadan is nevertheless a festive period. A substantial and elaborate meal (ifṭār, breakfast) at the conclusion of each day is a time for family and community gatherings; the local authorities are likely to decorate the streets with lights and ornaments; and at the end of the month there is the ʿīd al-Fiṭr (festival of the breaking of the fast), in which the faithful gather together for prayer, new clothes are worn, and money and presents are given to children. The zakāt al-fiṭr (alms-tax of the breaking of the fast), a small amount of money used for charitable purposes, is also contributed at this time. During Ramaḍan, gatherings for extra prayer (tarāwīḥ) are often held at the mosque at night. The Laylat al-Qadr or Night of Power, said to occur sometime in the last ten days of Ramaḍan—on which it is believed that the Qurʿān was sent down to Muḥammad and events are determined for the coming year—may also be commemorated, for instance by retiring (iʿtikāf) to the mosque with one 's fellow Muslims for extra devotions.

Various local customs are connected with Ramaḍan. In Egypt the children carry elaborately decorated tin lamps from door to door, asking gifts of money or sweets. In Middle Eastern countries a cannon is sounded to signal the end of the day 's fast, sometimes broadcast by radio. In Malaysia around the time of Laylat al-Qadr, small kerosene-lit tin lamps are set outside houses to burn the whole night; these are increasingly being replaced by strings of colored electric lights. In rural areas in Malaysia and Indonesia, the end of the fast is signaled by means of a buffalo-skin drum gong or beduk, a function now also being taken over by broadcast announcement. In West Africa, learned men (shaykhs) gather at mosques around the time of Laylat al-Qadr for all-night prayers.

Fasting and Modern Life.

Legal opinions (    fatwās) continue to be issued on the subject of the fast, and they sometimes touch on novel problems arising from the circumstances of modern life. For instance, does an injection break the fast? On this opinions vary. According to the Fatwā Committee of the great Egyptian Islamic university of al-Azhar (Shaykh Khāmis ʿUmar Muḥammad Ṣubḥī, Namādhij min al-fatwā, Latakia, Syria, 1391/1971, p. 66), any injection violates the fast, but according to Maḥmūd Shaltūt, a former rector of the same college (al-Fatāwā, Cairo, n.d., pp. 117–118), all injections and medication taken other than by mouth are allowed. According to the Egyptian Islamic reformer Muḥammad Rashīd Rīḍā (d. 1935), it is not permitted to a believer pursuing his studies at a Christian school to break his fast in order to continue to excel in that difficult environment (Fatāwā al-Imām Muḥammad Rashīd Rīḍā, Beirut, 1390–1391/1970–1971, vol. 1, pp. 25–26). According to the al-Azhar scholar al-Qaraḍāwī (Hudā al-Islām, fatāwā muʿāṣirah, Cairo, 1401/1981, p. 282), it is allowed for a Muslim to watch television during the fast, the medium itself not being forbidden; however, one must while fasting be more careful than ever that what is watched is not corrupting in itself, and the broadcasting authorities must also be more vigilant during Ramaḍan.

In 1960 a series of fatwās was issued in Tunisia under the influence of the secular government, maintaining that those engaged in the economic struggle (jihād) to build the country should (on analogy with the exemption granted those engaged in the military jihād) be exempt from the fast. The fatwās were directed at a phenomenon observable in many parts of the Muslim world: the slowing down of government and economic activities during the fasting month. This opinion did not, however, find favor.

It has often been asked how the fast is to be carried out in places in the extreme north or south where Muslims may now reside, but where the fasting month and the length of days cannot be determined because the sun is not seen to rise and set in the same way as in the middle latitudes. In the opinion of Rashīd Rīḍā (vol. 6, pp. 2077–2078), the fast will depend on an estimation of the extent of the month and days, rather than on the sighting of the moon or the rising and setting of the sun; according to Shaltūt (Fatāwā, pp. 124–125), persons in these areas should take the length of the days to be that of the nearest location where night and day can be distinguished. The question has also arisen whether Muslims in modern times can depend on astronomical calculations to fix the time of the birth of the moon, rather than on the apparently less accurate method of sighting the moon with the naked eye. According to Rashīd Rīḍā, one must always rely on actual sighting to signal the beginning of the fast, rather than on science: qualified scientists may not be found in every location, and such persons are not in any case religiously competent (vol. 4, pp. 1508–1509). So anxious have Muslims been to establish all possible regulations for the fast that even the instance of fasting on the moon has been considered; in this case the rule is, according to the Lebanese fatwā council (al-Fikr al-Islāmī 1, no. 2, Shawwāl 1389/October 1969, pp. 122–123), that the sighting of the nearest heavenly body—the earth—should be substituted for that of the moon.

The question of the sighting of the moon in general has given rise to conflict in immigrant Muslim communities in the West. One faction maintains that fasting must be begun upon sighting the moon with the naked eye, while another wishes to follow modern science by consulting observatories or published tables. In addition, members of different national backgrounds have wanted to fast according to the sighting of the moon in their homelands; this has resulted, contrary to the Islamic ideal, in various groups of fasters in one location beginning Ramaḍan and even celebrating ʿīd al-Fiṭr at different times.

Some Muslims, seeking a scientific basis for the fast, have pointed to its health benefits. Scholarly commentators, however, while allowing that there may be advantages for the body in the practice of ṣawm, prefer to deemphasize these and dwell instead on the spiritual aspects. The medical profession has lately become interested in the effects of the fast and the management of patients keeping Ramaḍan, resulting in scientific studies and a number of articles in professional journals.

Public violation of the fast is abhorred in organized Muslim society. The punishment for deliberately breaking the fast is in the category of taʿzīr (chastisement). Taʿzīr penalties are meant to be exemplary and are left to the discretion of the Islamic judge or other authority; taʿzīr may consist of anything from verbal reproach to flogging. The reinstitution of Islamic law in some countries has also meant the reinstatement of taʿzīr. Taʿzīr punishment for breaking the fast is imposed in Saudi Arabia and is also valid in the Islamic Republic of Iran, although in both these countries there has been considerable latitude in enforcement and wide variation in the nature of the penalty. In some cases the taʿzīr punishments have been codified; thus in Malaysia those violating the fast are subject by law (when it is enforced) to a small fine.



  • ʿAlī, ʿAbdullah Yūsuf. The Meaning of the Holy Qurʿān. 11th ed.Beltsville, Md., 2004.
  • Berg, C. C.“Ṣawm.” In First Encyclopaedia of Islam, edited by M. Th. Houtsma, T. W. Arnold, R. Basset, and R. Hartmann. vol. 7, pp. 192–199. Leiden, Netherlands, 1913–1936. Offers a detailed account of the legal rules pertaining to the fast.
  • Gentz, Jochen. “Tunesische Fatwas ueber Fasten im Ramadan.”Die Welt des Islams n.s. 7, no. 1–4 (1961): 39–66. Includes the texts of the opinions.
  • Ghazālī, Abū Ḥamīd al-. The Mysteries of FastingTranslated by Nabih A. Faris. Lahore, Pakistan, 1968. A translation of the Kitāb asrār al-ṣawm of the Iḥyāʿ ʿulūm al-dīn.
  • Goitein, S. D.“Ramaḍān, the Muslim Month of Fasting.” In Studies in Islamic History and Institutions, pp. 90–110. Leiden, Netherlands, 1966. The best overall discussion of the subject; treats the origins of Ramaḍān, especially Jewish origins, and its subsequent development.
  • Jomier, Jacques, and Jean Corbon. “Le Ramadan au Caire, en 1956.”Mélanges de l ’Institut Dominicain du Caire3 (1956): 1–74. Lively and detailed picture of the daily observances and mores of the fasting month.
  • Morgan, Kenneth W., ed.Islam, the Straight Path: Islam Interpreted by Muslims. New York, 1958. Includes short statements on the fast from contemporary authorities.
  • Von Grunebaum, G. E.“Ramadân.” In Muhammadan Festivals, pp. 51–66. New York, 1951. Summary discussion of the fasting month, followed by mention of popular customs, with further references supplied.
  • Wagtendonk, K.Fasting in the Koran. Leiden, Netherlands, 1968. Exhaustive review of the scholarly literature and close examination of the Qurʿānic text yields new interpretations of the origins and development of fasting in Islam.
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