Why Do Muslims Fast during Ramadan?
BY Abdullateef Bello
"...whoever witnesses the Month of Ramadan should fast through
As Muslims prepare for the age-old annual compulsory one-month fast, this article looks closely at
some of the reasons why muslims do Ramadan fast. It also traces the history of
fasting in Islam.
History of Ramadan Fast
What turns out now to be a compulsory annual event (i.e fasting during the month of Ramadan by all
able-bodied Muslims) started in the early years of Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w) in Medina, precisely
in the second year of Hijra. Prior to his flight to Medina (known as Hijra), the Prophet(s.a.w) was in
the habit of fasting three times per month (this gives 36 days in a
year) when he was in Mecca and to
a great extent when he settled in Medina. Not long, the Prophet(s.a.w) soon discovered that the
Jews in Medina used to set aside one special day for fasting. By Islamic lunar calendar, the day used
to be 10th of Muharram, often called yawmu :ashura. The Prophet(s.a.w) then asked the Jews about
the significance of the day. He was told that it is the day Allah helped Prophet Musa(a.s) to
humiliate, defeat and drown the tyrant, Fir'aon. By all
standard, since Musa(a.s) was a prophet of
Allah and of course a muslim, the Prophet(s.a.w) felt that Musa(a.s) was nearer to him as a Prophet
(as well as to the muslims) than to the Jews. To this end, he ordered his companions to fast along
with him that day.
Narrated Ibn 'Abbas(r.a): When Allah's Apostle(s.a.w) arrived at Medina, he found the Jews fasting
on the day of 'Ashura. The Prophet(s.a.w) asked (about it) and they replied: "This is the day
Moses(a.s) became victorious over Fir'aon". The Prophet(s.a.w) said (to the muslims), "We are
nearer to Moses than they, so fast on this day" (Sahih Al-Bukhari, vol.6, p.233)
The Prophet(s.a.w) also sent a companion to go round Medina to announce to all the muslims that
whoever has eaten should fast for the remaining hours of the day and whoever has not eaten should
fast for the day (see Sahih Al-Bukhari, vol. 3, hadeeth 181, p. 103). It is evident
that 'Ashura fast
was the first communal fast made obligatory for the muslims by the Prophet(s.a.w) whereas his own
habit of 3-day-fast-per-month remained optional.
The All-knowing Allah formally revealed two verses regarding fasting in the second year of Hijra: the
verses spelt out the reasons for fasting; when to do so; who should be exempted? etc. Let's see the
"O ye who believe, fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for people
before you so that
you will (learn how to attain) piety" (Q2:183)
"(fasting is) for a fixed number of days: but if any one of you is sick, or on a journey, the prescribed
number (should be made up) from (other) days later. For those who can do it (with hardship) is a
ransom, the feeding of one that is indigent. But whoever can give more (than this) of his own free
will--(then) it is better for him, and it is better for you that ye fast, if ye but knew."
these two verses were revealed, 'Aisha(r.a) reported that the Prophet(s.a.w) then said to the
muslims: "Ramadan fast is a divine obligation but whoever likes to fast 'Ashura day (as well) may do
so voluntarily or leave it". Undoubtedly, Ramadan fast is a blessing to the muslims in the sense that
from one-day 'Ashura fast, Allah gave them a whole month of Ramadan instead. Ramadan may be
29 or 30 days depending on when the moon was sighted.
A cursory look at the qur'anic verses above reveals that the All-wise intend ease for the muslims and
not difficulty: for instance, ransom was allowed for those who choose not to fast due to hardship or
difficulty. This freedom or leniency was shortlived when the All-wise and the All-knowing Allah
tightened His injunction with another revelation that nullified giving ransom, by able-bodied muslims,
in exchange for missed Ramadan fast thus:
"Ramadan is the
(month) in which Qur'an was sent down, as a guide to mankind, and a clear
guidance and judgement (so that mankind will distinguish right from wrong). Whoever among you
witnesses the month of Ramadan should fast through it. But whoever is sick or on a journey, the
prescribed period (missed should be made up) by days later. Allah wants ease for you and He does
not want to put you into difficulties. (He wants you) to complete the prescribed period and to glorify
Him in that He
has guided you; and perchance ye shall be grateful" Q(2:185).
This verse shows that Allah wants every able-bodied muslim to "complete the prescribed period"
(30 or 29 days depending on when the moon was sighted). It infact re-emphasises the importance of
Ramadan fast which Allah made clear in the last part of Q(2:184) where He said: "...it is better for
you that ye fast if ye but knew". Unambiguously, feeding of the poor person as a ransom for
fasting (by those who can fast) is not allowed by Q(2:185). This is the genesis of Ramadan fast in
Remarkably, it is clear that 'Ashura fast was replaced by Ramadan fast, but the habit of fasting
3-day-per-month which the Prophet(s.a.w) used to do was a blessing in someway because his 36
days a year fasting can be interpreted thus: Allah approved 30 days as FARD (i.e obligatory) for the
month of Ramadan, and the Prophet(s.a.w) recommended six days fasting
in the month of Shawwal
for all muslims (though this is voluntary). If these two fastings are adopted, one would have done 36
days (which is the same as fasting round the year).