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Anis Ahmad
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World What is This? Provides global coverage of the Muslim experience from the end of the eighteenth century through the twentieth century


For the duration of Ramaḋān, the ninth month of the Muslim lunar calendar all Muslims are required to abstain during the daylight hours from eating any food, drinking any liquids, or engaging in sexual activity. Fasting (ṣawm; pl., ṣiyām) means abstention; through heightened awareness of their own bodily needs Muslims come to greater awareness of the presence of God and acknowledge their gratitude for God's provisions in their lives. Abstinence during Ramaḋān, first prescribed in the second year of the Hijrah, is required of all Muslims except children, those who are ill or too elderly, those who are traveling, and women who are menstruating or have just given birth or are breastfeeding. In such cases one may make up the days of fasting in a later month.

The month of Ramaḋān during which the fast takes place starts with the announcement of the first sighting of the waxing moon and concludes when the moon is first seen for the next month, Shawwāl. If the moon cannot be seen, it ends with the completion of thirty fasts. On each day of Ramaḋān the fasting starts at dawn—defined as the moment when a white thread can be distinguished from a black one by the human eye— and concludes at dusk. Because the Muslim calendar is lunar, the month of Ramaḋān rotates through the months of the solar calendar. This means that fasting sometimes takes place in winter when the daylight hours are few, easing the stringency of the abstention, while at other times the day of fasting may be as long as twenty hours.

Like many other obligations of Islam, fasting during the month of Ramaḋān serves to enhance the sense of community as Muslims across the world join together in performance of this ritual. It is a deeply symbolic time: for a whole month Muslim men and women of all races, nationalities, and ethnic identities join together in an experience of global unity, brotherhood, and sisterhood. Following the example of the prophet Muḥammad, Muslims generally break their fast by taking dates and a glass of water. This is followed by the sharing of a common meal in which people join in expressing gratitude for God's provisions to them.

The Qur'ān traces the origins of fasting as a spiritual exercise to the time of the early prophets and understands it to be an integral part of the teachings of revealed religions (2.183). The month of Ramaḋān itself is particularly sacred to Muslims because it was during that time that the first revelation of the Qur'ān was received from God by the prophet Muḥammad: “During the month of Ramaḋān the Qur'ān was sent down as a guidance to the people with clear signs of the true guidance and as the criterion [between right and wrong]” (2.185). The particular night on which the first revelation came to the Prophet, Laylat al‐Qadr (Night of Power) is referred to in several verses of the Qur'ān. The whole of surah 97 is devoted to this crucial event. It is marked by special celebrations, Qur'ānic recitation competitions, and vigils on odd nights, during the last ten days of Ramaḋān.

Ramaḋān also happens to be the month in which two decisive battles were fought and won by the early Muslim community, namely, the Ghazwat Badr (Battle of Badr, AH 2/624 CE) and the Fatḥ Makkah (Conquest of Mecca, AH 8/630 CE).

Both the historical and the communal dimensions of Ramaḋān are manifested in the fact that each year, over the course of the month, the Qur'ān is recited from beginning to end, just as it was received by the early Muslim community in Makkah and al‐Madīnah (Mecca and Medina) fourteen centuries ago.

Ramaḋān is also the time when the ethical responsibilities of being Muslim are highlighted. Abstention from food, drink, and sex is understood to help develop self‐control through awareness of God (taqwā), which is considered the backbone of religious discipline in Islam, and to aid the believer in feeling the sufferings of others who hunger and thirst: “Believers, fasting is enjoined upon you, as it was enjoined upon those before you, that you become Allāh‐conscious” (2.183). The external observation of the fast is merely a reflection of the internal intention to live a life of ethical and moral integrity. Ramaḋān is therefore the month in which the qualities of God‐consciousness (taqwā), striving for the good (khayr), practicing virtue (ma῾rūf), and demonstrating piety (birr) become the norms both for the individual and for the Muslim community as a whole.

The prophet Muḥammad stressed that Ramaḋān is not simply a time to cease from indulging in the pleasures of the body, but a month in which the range of ethical responsibilities incumbent on Muslims should be given special attention. “If someone does not stop telling lies and promoting falsehoods during the fast, then know, Allāh does not want a person simply to stop eating and drinking” (Bukhārī, vol. 1). Even the concept of abstinence itself takes on a dimension beyond mere fasting. “If a person is fasting and someone tries to fight with him or abuse him, he should not react but should rather abstain from fighting and foul language by saying, ‘I am fasting' ” (Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, vol. 1, Bāb faḋl al‐ṣiyām).

The Prophet stressed that fasting is not intended to be a hardship on people as such, and he certainly did not indicate that enjoyment of food and drink or sex in itself, at appropriate times, is not desirable. He urged the taking of a regular meal (suḥūr) before starting the fast and enjoying a moderate repast at the time when the fast is broken each day (ifṭār). Fasting is intended to be regulated according to the ability of humans to perform it. The Prophet is reported to have said that “if someone were to fast all the time [i.e. without a break] he would not be considered a faster” (Bukhārī, vol. 1, Kitāb al‐ṣawm). Another ḥadīth suggests that one must avoid keeping two or more fasts together without having proper nutrition in between. The Qur'ān itself says that sexual activity with one's wife is permitted at the appropriate time: “Permitted to you on the night of the fasts is the approach to your wives, for they are your garments and you are their garments” (2.187).

Contemporary Muslim interpreters have emphasized the following advantages of fasting during Ramaḋān. It draws people out of their habitual behavior into a fresh state of mind; it is good for physical health; it helps people appreciate the sufferings of others; it provides discipline of the will and training in patience; and it is a means for purifying the soul.

See also Islamic Calendar; Pillars of Islam; Ṣawm.


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