Ramadan, one of the most important times in a Muslim's annual calendar, started last week. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, during which Muslims refrain from eating and drinking between sunrise and sunset.
The Qu’ran was revealed to Muhammed (SA) during this month, and so many Muslims try to read and recite as much of the Qu’ran as they can during Ramadan. The Qu’ran is also read at special services in most mosques.
Fasting during Ramadan is obligatory for every able-bodied adult Muslim. The fast is intended to instil in Muslims self-discipline and restraint, as well as to remind them of the poor who may often have to go without food – and encourage an attitude of charity and generosity.
In general, the whole month is a period of spiritual reflection, with Muslims trying to give up bad habits, do good and become pure in thoughts and actions.
While fasting, it is common for Muslims to eat one meal, called suhoor, before dawn and another meal, called iftar, after sunset.
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Many Muslims start their iftar meal by eating a few dates, as it is believed that is what Muhammed (SA) used to do. Iftar is often an occasion for many Muslim families to come together to break the fast.
Purpose of fasting
In chapter two verse 183, the Qu’ran says: "O you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those who were before you, in order that you may learn taqwa (piety)."
Taqwa is piety, righteousness and consciousness of God. Taqwa requires patience and perseverance. Fasting teaches patience, and with patience one can rise to the high position of taqwa.
The Prophet (SA) said fasting is a shield that protects a person from sin and lustful desires. When the disciples of Jesus asked him how to cast the evil spirits away, he is reported to have said: "But this kind never comes out except by prayer and fasting." (Matthew 17:21).
Muslims see fasting as a means of releasing the human spirit from the clutches of desires and allowing moderation to prevail in the carnal self.
Fasting is a means of weakening the bestial and reinforcing the angelic elements in human beings. Fasting for a full month every year trains a person, as well as the entire Muslim community, in piety and self-restraint.
Fasting is obligatory
The Qu’ran further says, "The month of Ramadan is that in which was revealed the Qu’ran, wherein is guidance for humankind and the clear signs of guidance and distinction. Therefore, whosoever among you witness the month must fast..." [Al-Baqarah 2:184].
Prophet Muhammad (SA) explained this further in several statements reported in the books of Hadith. It is reported by Imam Al-Bukhari and Imam Muslim on the authority of Ibn Umar that the messenger of God said: "Islam is built on five pillars: testifying that there is no god except God and that Muhammad is the messenger of God, performing prayer, paying the zakah, making the pilgrimage to the sacred house (Hajj) and fasting during the month of Ramadan."
The entire Muslim world is unanimous in the principal of fasting in the month of Ramadan and considers it obligatory on every person who is physically capable.
Who must fast?
Fasting in the month of Ramadan is obligatory for every adult Muslim, male or female, who has reached puberty, is sane and who is not sick or travelling.
Sickness could be a temporary illness from which a person expects to be cured soon. Such a person should not fast during the days of his or her sickness, but he or she must fast later after Ramadan to complete the missed days.
Those who are sick with an incurable illness and expect no better health are also allowed not to fast but they must pay the fidyah, which is giving a day's meals for each fast missed to a needy person. Instead of food for one day, one can also give an equivalent amount of money to a needy person.
Women in their menses and post-natal bleeding are not allowed to fast, but they must make up the fast later after Ramadan. Pregnant women and mothers who are nursing babies can also postpone their fasting to a later time when they are able to do so.
A travel, according to the Shariah, is any journey that takes you away from your city of residence, a minimum of 48 miles or 80 kilometres. The journey must be for a good cause.
One must avoid frivolous travel during Ramadan which causes a person to miss fasting. If possible, one should try to change their travel plans during Ramadan to be able to fast and should not travel unless it is necessary.
The traveller who misses the fasts of Ramadan must make up those missed days later as soon as possible after Ramadan.
Fasting according to the Sunnah
Take sahur (pre-dawn meal). It is Sunnah and there is a great reward and blessing in taking sahur. The best time for sahur is the last half hour before dawn or the time for Fajr prayer.
Take iftar (breakfast) immediately after sunset. Shariah considers sunset as the time when the disk of the sun goes below the horizon and disappears completely.
During the fast, a Muslim must abstain from all false talks and deeds, must not quarrel, have disputes, indulge in arguments, use bad words or do anything that is forbidden.
A person must try to discipline him or herself morally and ethically, besides gaining physical training and discipline. A fasting person should not make a show of his/her fasting by talking too much about it, by showing dry lips and a hungry stomach, or by showing a bad temper. The fasting person must be a pleasant person with good spirits and good cheer.
Muslims are encouraged to do acts of charity and goodness to others and increase their worship and reading of the Qu’ran. Everyone should try to read the whole Qu’ran at least once during the month of Ramadan.
What invalidates fasting
Using a miswak or tooth stick to clean the teeth does not invalidate fasting and the fast. It is permissible to take a bath or shower. If water is swallowed involuntarily, it will not invalidate the fast.
According to most of the jurists, swimming is also allowed in fasting, but one should avoid diving, because that will cause the water to go through the mouth or nose into the stomach.
Using perfumes, wearing contact lenses or using eye drops, taking injections or having a blood test.
Eating, drinking or smoking unintentionally, i.e. forgetting that one was fasting. But one must stop as soon as one remembers and should continue the fast.
Sleeping during the daytime and having a wet dream does not break one's fast. Also, if one has intercourse during the night and is not able to make ghusl (bath) before dawn, he or she can begin the fast and make ghusl later.
Women whose menstruation stops during the night may begin fasting even if they have not made ghusl yet. In all these cases, bathing (ghusl) is necessary but the fast is valid even without bathing.
Kissing between husband and wife is allowed in fasting, but one should try to avoid it so that one may not do anything further that is forbidden during the fast.
Requirement for valid fasting
One should make a sincere intention to fast for the sake of God every day before dawn. The intention need not be in words but must be with the sincerity of the heart and mind.
Some jurists believe the intention can be made once only for the whole month and does not have to be repeated every day. It is, however, better to make the intention every day to derive the full benefit of fasting.