Five Pillars of Islam: The Fast

Every year in the month of Ramadan, all Muslims fast (sawm/siam) from first light until sundown, abstaining from food, drink, and sexual relations. Those who are sick, elderly, or on a journey, and women who are pregnant or nursing are permitted to break the fast and make up an equal number of days later in the year. If they are physically unable to do this, they must feed a needy person for every day missed. Children begin to fast (and to observe the prayer) from puberty, although many start earlier.

Although the fast is most beneficial to the health, it is regarded principally as a method of self-purification. By cutting oneself off from worldly comforts, even for a short time, a fasting person gains true sympathy with those who go hungry as well as growth in one’s spiritual life.

“Ramadan is the (month) in which was sent down the Qur’an
as a guide to mankind also clear (Signs) for guidance and
judgement 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 anyone is ill or on a journey the
prescribed period (should be made up) by days later. Allah
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 ye shall be grateful.” (Qur’an: 2:185)

The fourth pillar of Islam is fasting. Allah prescribes daily fasting for all able, adult Muslims during the whole of the month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the lunar calendar, beginning with the sighting of the new moon. Exempted from the fast are children, the very old and the insane. On the physical side, fasting is abstaining from food, drink, and sexual relations beginning from first light of dawn until sunset. On the moral, behavioural side, one must abstain from lying, malicious gossip, quarrelling and trivial nonsense. Those who are sick, elderly, or on a journey, and women who are menstruating, pregnant, or nursing are permitted to break the fast, but must make up an equal number of days later in the year. If physically unable to do so, they must feed a needy person for each day missed. Children begin lo fast (and to observe the prayers) from puberty, although many start earlier.

Although fasting is beneficial to the health, it is regarded principally as a method of self-purification. By cutting oneself off from worldly pleasures and comforts, even for a short time, the fasting person gains true sympathy for those who go hungry frequently, and achieves growth in his/her spiritual life, learning discipline, self-restraint, patience and flexibility.

During this month of fasting, one is encouraged to read the entire Qur’an. During the last ten days – though the exact day is never known and may not even be the same every year – occurs the Night of Power (Laylat al-Qadr). To spend that night in worship is equivalent to a thousand months of worship, i.e. Allah’s reward for it is very great. On the first day of the following month, after another new moon has been sighted, a special celebration is made, called Eid al-Fitr. A quantity of food is donated to the poor, communal prayers are held in the early morning, followed by a day of celebrating, visiting relatives and friends.

Apart from Ramadhan, Muslims are encouraged to fast on Mondays and Thursdays throughout the year but not constantly. Fasting on the two festival days, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha is strictly forbidden.