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Fasting: Fourth Pillar of Islam

Muhammad Zafrulla Khan
The Review of Religions, March 1994

At the time of the publication of this issue of the Review of Religions, Muslims throughout the world will be fasting during the sacred month of Ramadhan. This article by one of the greatest international statesmen and jurists of his age, the late Hazrat Muhammad Zafrulla Khan, gives a brief and lucid insight to the fourth Pillar of the Islamic faith.

‘The Holy Quran states: ‘O ye who believe, fasting is prescribed for you during a fixed number of days as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may safeguard yourselves against every kind of ill and become righteous. But whoso from among you should be ailing, not being permanently incapacitated, or should be on a journey, shall complete the reckoning by fasting on a corresponding number of other days; and for those who find fasting a strain hard to bear is an expiation, the feeding of a poor person, if they can afford it. Whoso carries through a good work with eager obedience, it is the better for him. If you possessed knowledge you would realise that it is better for you that you should fast.’[1]

‘The month of Ramadhan is the month in which the Quran began to be revealed, the Book which comprises guidance for mankind and clear proofs of guidance and divine Signs which discriminate between truth and falsehood. Therefore, he who witnesses this month, being stationary and in good health, should fast through it. But whoso is ailing, not being permanently incapacitated, or is on journey, should complete the reckoning by fasting on a corresponding number of other days. Allah desires ease for you and desires not hardship for you; He has granted you this facility so that you should encounter no hardships in completing the reckoning, and that you may exalt Allah for His having guided you and that you may be grateful to Him.’[2]

‘It is made lawful for you to consort with your wives during the nights of the fast. They are as a garment for you and you are as a garment for them. Allah knows that you were being unjust to yourselves, whereof He has turned to you with mercy and has corrected your error. So consort with them now without compunction and seek that which Allah has ordained for you, and eat and drink till the break of dawn begins to manifest itself. From then on, complete the fast till nightfall. But do not consort with your wives during the period when you are in retreat in the mosques. These are the limits prescribed by Allah, so approach them not. Thus does Allah expound His commandments to the people, so that they may safeguard themselves against evil.’[3]

The idea of the fast has been inculcated in all religious disciplines which are based on revelation, though strict conformity to the ordinances relating thereto is no longer insisted upon. Indeed, within some disciplines, the fast has been reduced to a purely symbolic observance. In Islam, the ordinances relating to the fast are clearly stated and defined and to the degree of their applicability, they are strictly observed. A tendency towards greater rigidity is sometimes encountered and has to be checked and countered through exposition of the true purpose of the fast and of the meaning of the regulations and their spirit.

Subject to the permissible exemptions, the observance of the fast is obligatory upon every adult Muslim during the month of Ramadhan, the ninth month in the lunar calendar current in Islam. As the lunar year is shorter by about eleven days than the solar year, Ramadhan rotates through the year and the seasons, arriving eleven days earlier every year. Thus in every part of the earth, it progresses through every season in turn. In the tropics, when Ramadhan falls in the summer season, not only are days longer than in the winter but the fast entails additional hardship on account of the heat, as normal occupations and pursuits have to be carried on and in the intense heat and dryness, a severe degree of thirst may have to be endured through several hours each day. The fast is, however, in no sense a penance. It is a physical, moral and spiritual discipline, and the object is the promotion of righteousness and security against evil. Through the experience of the fast, the worshipper is impelled to exalt Allah for His having provided the guidance and is prompted to the beneficent use of His favours and bounties.[4]

Outside Ramadhan, a voluntary fast may be observed at any time, except on the two festival days. The Holy Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, often observed a fast on Monday and Thursday but he did not approve of a voluntary fast being observed on a Friday.

A fast is prescribed as an expiation or as an alternative penalty in respect of certain crimes or defaults, but in these cases also, the object is the promotion of physical, moral and spiritual values. For instance, if a person on Pilgrimage to the House of Allah is unable to offer the sacrifice of an animal as prescribed, he should observe the fast for three days during the course of pilgrimage and for seven days after return home, making up ten altogether.[5] The expiation of an oath is a fast for three days.[6] The alternative penalty for killing game while on Pilgrimage is a fast for a number of days corresponding to the number of animals killed. The alternative penalty for manslaughtered is a fast for two consecutive months[7] and the same is the penalty for Zihar, a frivolous declaration by a husband that henceforth consorting with his wife would amount to consorting with his mother, a hateful method of pronouncing a divorce, practised in pre-Islamic days abolished by Islam.[8]

A vow of silence during a certain period[9] has also been described in the Holy Quran as fast.[10]

Physical Observance

The observation of a fast, whether obligatory or voluntary, or by way of expiation or as a penalty, is subject to the same regulations. The period of the daily fast extends from the first flush of dawn normally about an hour and a quarter before sunrise, till after sunset. During this period neither food nor drink or nourishment may be pass through the lips of a person who is observing the fast. Nor should any drug or other substance be swallowed or injected into the system. The fast may, however, be discontinued in case of emergency and would be terminated if the person observing the fast becomes sick. Nor should there be any consorting between husband and wife or any approach to it.

The fast must not be continued beyond sunset even if nothing is immediately available for terminating the fast save a few drops of water, a pinch of salt or sugar, a bit of stale bread or a dried date, etc.

If during the fast, food or drink should be swallowed in complete forgetfulness of the fast, that would not vitiate the fast and the fast should be completed till nightfall. Should, however, something be swallowed through carelessness, even involuntarily, the fast is vitiated and cannot be continued.

It is customary and is considered desirable that a light breakfast should be taken immediately before the commencement of the fast. The breaking of the fast after sunset should not be made an occasion for gorging oneself with food and drink. This would be in contravention of the fast and would be a departure from the example of the Holy Prophet, on whom be peace, which must be adhered to. It could also prove harmful to health.

The month of Ramadhan is a period of intensive training in beneficent values. Abstention from food and drink and conjugal relations for a certain number of hours each day through a month is a valuable exercise in endurance and steadfastness. But that is only the outer shell, as it were of the fast. Yet even this has a great social significance. It brings home to the well-to-do sector of society the meaning of hunger and thirst. Privation ceases, in their case also, to be a mere expression and becomes an experience shared in common with all. The consciousness that a large number of their fellow beings have to go hungry most of the time is sharpened and there is great eagerness to share with them the bounties that Allah has, of His grace, bestowed on themselves.

The True Purpose of Ramadhan

The true purpose of Ramadhan, as of all forms of Islamic worship is to draw people closer to Allah. Though normal pursuits and occupations are carried on as usual, the emphasis on moral and spiritual values and concentration on them are intensified, and everything is subordinated to the main purpose. The hearing, the sight, the tongue, the mind are all under stricter control. For instance, not only vain talk, but much talk is also eschewed, so that there should be greater concentration on remembrance of Allah and reflection upon His attributes. The Holy Prophet said: ‘He who abstains from food and drink during the period of the fast but does not restrain himself from uttering a falsehood starves himself to no purpose.’ It is related of him that during Ramadhan, his own concern for and care of the poor, the needy, the sick and the orphan was intensified manifold, and that his charity knew no limit.

Recitation of the Quran and I’tikaf

The study of the Quran and reflection over the Divine Signs recited therein takes up the greater part of the time that can be garnered by reducing the other demands upon it to a minimum. Divines and scholars carry on discourses on the Quran throughout the month. Voluntary Prayer during the latter part of the night is deemed obligatory during Ramadhan but may be offered individually or in congregation. For the convenience of those who may find it difficult to proceed to a mosque at that hour to take part in the service, a congregational service is held after Isha, the evening service. Whether held after Isha or before Fajar the follow up passage after the Fatiha assumes considerable proportions. The service comprises eight raka’as, offered in four units of two raka’as each, and is led by an Imam who is Hafiz, that is one who has learnt the whole Quran by heart. During this service, the recitation from the Quran is made in sequence and the recitation of the whole of the Quran is completed during Ramadhan. This entails the recitation of approximately one twenty-eighth of the Quran in the course of the daily service, one eighth of that portion being recited as the follow-up passage after the Fatiha in each raka’a. The Imam, of course, recites from memory and the congregation follows the recitation with rapt attention.

That is another unique feature of Islam. No less than seventy times is the Scripture of Islam referred to in the Revelation itself by the name Quran. The word means that which is repeatedly read, recited, proclaimed. It is the only Scripture which is in its entirety expressed in the words of the revelation. It is thus the only one which is literally the Word of God. Its very name is a prophecy that it will be widely and repeatedly read, recited, and proclaimed. Its text, in the words of the revelation, is preserved intact and in its proper sequence in the memories of millions of its devotees from generation to generation. Hundreds of millions read and recite portions of it in Prayer services and otherwise in the course of the day and night around the globe. During Ramadhan the number is greatly augmented. Numberless people read it through by themselves during that month. Others hear it interpreted and expounded.

A much larger number hear it recited from beginning to end in the course of the service just described. All this in the very words of the revelation in which it was sent down close upon 1400 years ago. That in itself is a matchless Divine Sign and Testimony.

During the last ten days of Ramadhan, many people go into seclusion, as it were, in a mosque and devote the whole of their time, not occupied by the obligatory and voluntary services, to the study of the Quran and the remembrance of Allah. This period of complete devotion of a worshipper’s time to the exercise of the purely spiritual values, is the culmination of the physical, moral and spiritual discipline instituted by Islam. To carry such a discipline farther would be a sort of asceticism or monasticism which is not approved of in Islam.[11]


Complete abstention from food and drink during the period of the fast does not constitute so great a hardship for a Muslim as adherents of other disciplines may be disposed to imagine. Muslim children are brought up in an atmosphere of respect for and devotion to the values indicated by the faith. Very early they begin to exhibit an eagerness to practise them. Parents have often to restrain young children from observing the fast. They are trained into endurance of the rigours of the fast through a gradual process, spread over a number of years. A child of twelve or thirteen may be permitted to observe the fast on three or four days at intervals during one Ramadhan. The following year, he may be permitted to increase the number to eight or ten. In the third year he may be content with fasting on each alternate days. In the fourth year, he would be ready to assume the full obligation.

Another very helpful factor is furnished by the dietary regulations of Islam. In the matter of food, the prohibitions are blood, the flesh of an animal that dies of itself and is slaughtered for food, the flesh of swine and the flesh of an animal on which the name of any other than Allah has been invoked, meaning thereby, sacrifices made to idols or other gods and offerings made to saints or to any being other than Allah.[12] The first three categories are prohibited because they are harmful for the body, and that which is harmful for the body is necessarily harmful for the spirit. The last prohibition relates to something which is manifestly harmful morally and spiritually in as much as it involves association of others with Allah.

A relaxation is made in the case of a person who is driven by necessity and to whom no other means of sustenance and nourishment is for the time available. Such a one may partake of a prohibited article of food, consuming only that much as he may consider necessary for his immediate need. In such instance, priority is given to the need of maintaining and sustaining life, as against the possibility of such harm, if any, as might result from the consumption of a minimum quantity of the forbidden article.[13]

Liquor and all intoxicants are forbidden. It is recognised that some people may derive some pleasure or advantage from the use of liquor or other prohibited article, but it is pointed out that the harm resulting from their use is far greater than any pleasure or advantage that might be derived from it.[14] The prohibition however is clear and absolute:

‘O ye who believe, liquor, gambling, idols and divining arrows are only an abomination of Satan’s handiwork. So shun each one of them that you may prosper. Satan’s design is only to promote enmity and hatred between you through liquor and gambling and to keep you back from the remembrance of Allah and from Salat. Will you desist?’[15]

It needs to be remembered that in the matter of any pleasure or advantage to be derived from liquor or any other intoxicant, and the harm that may result from their use, it is, not only an individual or a class that has to be considered; society as a whole must be taken into account. It may well be that the harm resulting to an individual or to a number of individuals may not be overtly manifested, but there is no denying that society as a whole suffers grave harm from the use of liquor and other intoxicants. The purpose of the Quran is not only to furnish guidance for the individual, but to furnish guidance to the individual as a member of society and, indeed, to mankind as a whole.

These are the prohibitions, but not all that is permissible may be used as food and drink in all circumstances. Of that which is permissible, only that may be used as food and drink which is clean and wholesome.[16] This has a relative aspect also. Articles of food and drink over a wide range may be wholesome for a child or for an invalid. But even that which is permissible and is clean and wholesome may be partaken of only in moderation:

‘Children of Adam, look to your adornment at every time and place of worship, and eat and drink but be not immoderate, surely, He loves not those who are immoderate.’[17]

Within these limitations, there is neither harm nor sin in eating and drinking of the good things provided by Allah out of His bounty, so long as the objective is that life may be sustained and health promoted for the purpose of carrying out Allah’s will through firm faith in the guidance that He has sent down and action in conformity therewith.

‘There is no harm for those who believe and work righteousness in respect of that which they eat, provided they are mindful of their duty to Allah and believe and work righteousness, are again mindful of their duty to Allah and carry it out to the uttermost. Allah loves those who carry out their duty to the uttermost.’[18]

Here, then is a gradation which is elastic and yet takes full account of the immediate as well as the ultimate purpose of food and drink. That which is harmful on the whole is forbidden altogether, except in the case of extreme necessity, when the preservation of human life must take precedence even at the risk of some, possibly only temporary, harm. The exemption or relaxation in such a situations is only in respect of the minimum quantity that would suffice for the immediate need. Under this restriction, the possibility of harm would be slight, and once the immediate need has been met, the prohibition would continue to operate.

Of that which is permissible only that which is clean and wholesome may be consumed as food and drink but only in moderation. That again is a relative matter to be determined with reference to the requirements of each individual and class.

Finally, not only the immediate purpose of food, drink, but also the ultimate purpose, namely the promotion of the moral and spiritual values must be kept in view.

Discipline and Righteousness

It will thus be appreciated that a Muslim’s freedom in respect of food and drink, as indeed in respect of all matters is controlled by beneficent regulation, and is disciplined. During Ramadhan, the regulation and discipline become stricter in order to intensify the effort for the achievement of the ultimate purpose. That which is forbidden as being harmful, whether in the matter of food and drink or in respect of any other activity, is to be abstained from at all times. In the month of Ramadhan, there is to be abstention during the period of the fast even from that which is lawful and permissible; food and drink which sustain life, and marital intercourse which promotes the continuance of the species, the purpose being to win the pleasure of Allah. It also has a symbolic aspect. By observing the fast, the worshipper makes a pledge or covenant that if in the course of carrying out his duty of complete submission to the will of Allah, he should be called upon to put his life in jeopardy or to sacrifice the interests of his progeny, he would not hesitate to do so. Such a discipline practised through a whole month every year should ensure that the participant would, during the remaining eleven months of the year progressively achieve greater and greater adherence to moral and spiritual values.

It must never be overlooked that the whole of fasting, whether obligatory, as during the month of Ramadhan, or voluntary, as at other times, is to promote righteousness, which means the progressive cultivation of spiritual values. The same applies when the fast is observed as an expiation or a penalty. The spiritual recompense of proper observation of the fast is high indeed. The Holy Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, has said:

‘There are appropriate spiritual rewards for all worship and righteous action; the ultimate reward of the person who observes the fast solely for winning the pleasure of Allah is Allah Himself.’


The month of Ramadhan is one of the months of the lunar calendar. It begins with the appearance of the new moon and ends with the next appearance of the new moon. As soon as the new moon of Ramadhan is sighted, a joyous surge of anticipation inspires the hearts of young and old. The season of closer communion with his Most Glorious, Ever Merciful, Most Compassionate, Most Forgiving Lord of the worlds, Originator, Creator, Fashioner and Maker, Master of the Day of Judgment, has opened and we have been accorded once more, by His Grace, the good fortune of witnessing it and the privilege of striving to enrich ourselves through the continuous opportunities it provides of seeking the pleasure of Allah. All praise to Allah for His unending bounties! Greetings and felicitations are exchanged all round. All is bustle and solemn preparation. Mosques begin to fill with eager worshippers for the Maghrib service to be followed after brief interval by Isha and then Taravih during the eight raka’as of which the congregation is privileged to listen to the recitation of the Holy Book from the very beginning to the end in proper sequence, evening after evening till, by the end of the month, the whole has been recited. The greater part of the night is passed in supplication and in precise, glorification and remembrance of Allah. Those who prefer to offer the eight raka’as of voluntary Prayer during the latter part of the night rather than in the evening as Taravih occupy themselves with it as the time approaches for a light breakfast in the solemn dawn hour. The Muezzin’s Call to Prayer with its first Allaho Akbar, Allah is Great is the signal for the commencement of the fast and preparation for the Fajr Salat.

Thereafter the normal daily routine is followed with a heightened consciousness of the duty owned to Allah and to His creatures, one’s fellow beings. Praise, glorification and remembrance of Allah form, as it were, the infrastructure of all activity and greater attention is directed towards caring for the poor, the needy, the widow, the orphan, the sick, the distressed, the neighbour, the wayfarer, etc. Courses on the Holy Quran are given in mosques and seminaries. Towards the close of the day the heart experiences a glow of gratitude to the Divine that His Grace has enabled one to approach the end of the fast having spent the night and the day in striving to conduct oneself in conformity to His will.

The Muezzin’s Call to Prayer for the Maghrib Salat is the signal announcing the end of the fast, which is terminated with a mouthful of water, a cup of tea, a dried date or two, or even a pinch of salt should nothing else be immediately available and with the supplication:

‘Allah, for thy sake I observed the fast putting my trust in Thee, and I have ended it with that which Thou has provided. Thirst is quenched and the arteries refreshed and I look for my recompense with Thee, if Thou should so will. I beg of Thee Allah, of Thy mercy that encompasseth all things, that Thou may be pleased to forgive me my sins.’

The Maghrib Salat follows within a few minutes and thereafter, the evening meal is partaken of. It is considered very meritorious to invite others, but more particularly the poor, the needy, the orphan to the breaking of the fast and the evening meal. These two need not be, however, separate occasions. A simple meal may be taken at the time of breaking the fast, thus preceding the Maghrib Salat. An elaborate meal designed as a compensation for the period of assentation is not only contrary to the spirit of the fast but tends to also upset the digestion. In this, the spirit of the fast is not respected and observed as strictly in certain part of Muslim would as could be wished.


The Isha service and Taravih complete the rhythm and tempo of daily life during Ramadhan. When the month beings to approach its end, the general mood is one of pensiveness which promotes eagerness to take full advantage of the remaining days to make up for any shortcomings and fallings off during the earlier periods. Numberless people experience closer communion with their Maker and Creator during this blessed month, the intensity and frequency of which continue to increase as the month progresses.

The fast terminates with the appearance of the new moon. The new moon may be visible after sunset of the twenty-ninth day of the fast, but if not the fast must be continued the next day, thus making a total of thirty days during the month. It may be that on the thirtieth evening, visibility may be very poor due to atmospheric conditions, and the moon may not be visible. That would make no difference and Ramadhan would terminate at sunset on that day, as it is recognised that a lunar month cannot extend beyond thirty days. The same rule governs the commencement of the month.

The day following the last day of Ramadhan, determined as above, is observed as the Festival of the termination of the fast. It is one of those occasions when even a voluntary fast may not be observed. In conformity with the spirit of Islam, the only celebration prescribed for the Festival is an additional service during the forenoon comprising two raka’as and an address by the Imam. The service may be held in one of the bigger mosques of a large city, but in view of the large numbers involved, is generally held in the open. It is customary, following the example of the Holy Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, to take a light breakfast after sunrise before setting out for the service, and also to vary the route home on returning from the service.

The festive character of the occasion is proclaimed through exchange of visits, feeding the poor, visiting the sick and glorification of Allah and celebrating His praise in thankfulness to Him for the guidance provided by Him, particularly with regard to all that pertains to the observance of the fast, and for having enabled those upon whom the fast was obligatory to observe it duly.

Allah is Great, Allah is Great;
None is worthy of worship save Allah;
Allah is Great, Allah Is Great;
To Allah belongs all praise!

  1. Al Quran 2.184/5
  2. Ibid., 2.186
  3. Ibid., 2.188
  4. Ibid., 2.186
  5. Ibid., 2.197
  6. Ibid., 5.90
  7. Ibid., 4.93
  8. Ibid., 58.5
  9. Ibid., 19.11
  10. Ibid., 19.27
  11. Ibid., 57.28
  12. Ibid., 2.174/5
  13. Ibid., 2.174
  14. Ibid., 2.220
  15. Ibid., 5.91/2
  16. Ibid., 2.168
  17. Ibid., 7.32
  18. Ibid., 5.94