ṢAWM in Islam signifies fasting, an act of worship that consists of religiously intended abstention from eating, drinking, and sexual intercourse from dawn until dusk. Muḥammad introduced it in ah 1 (622 ce) by fasting and asking his followers to fast on ʿᾹshūrāʾ, the tenth day of the month of Muḥarram, in deference to the Jewish practice. The following year came the Qurʾanic revelation (surah 2:183ff.) whereby the ʿᾹshūrāʾ fast was replaced by the fast of Ramaḍān.
The Qurʾān indicates that fasting is an inalienable part of the religious life of people, since it was prescribed for Muslims as well as "for those before you," in order "that you become pious" (2:183). The earmarking of Ramaḍān, the month in which "the Qurʾān was sent down" (2:185), for fasting seems to be a recognition of the centrality of the Qurʾān in Muslim religious life and an attempt to reinforce it. In Muslim understanding, fasting is a means of fostering piety, of celebrating the glory of God, and of thanking him for revealing the Qurʾān, "a guide for mankind, and clear signs for guidance, and judgment" (2:185).
Except for a very few days of the year, Muslims may fast whenever they wish to as an act of supererogation. Fasting is so meritorious that in addition to obligatory fasting pious Muslims frequently observe voluntary fasting (ṣawm al-taṭawwuʿ ), seeking self-purification and spiritual growth. Certain days and months have been specially recommended for voluntary fasting.
Fasting is obligatory for anyone who makes a vow to fast. In certain circumstances fasting has been prescribed as an alternative means of atonement. In addition, those who miss any days of the Ramaḍān fast (apart from the elderly or incurably sick) must make up the fast at a later date.
As one of the "Five Pillars" of Islam, the fast of Ramaḍān has a special position in Muslim religious life. All Muslims who have attained puberty and are in full possession of their senses are obliged to fast. Persons who are sick or traveling, and pregnant or nursing women, are exempted. Women in their periods of ḥayḍ ("menstruation") or nifās ("bleeding on the childbed") are not allowed to fast, although they are required to make up later for those days missed. The elderly and the incurably sick are totally exempted from fasting, but for every day of fasting missed they should feed one poor person.
Each day's fast commences when "the white thread of dawn appears to you distinct from the black thread" (2:187), and fasting restrictions remain applicable until sunset. This poses a problem in the polar regions, where days and nights are sometimes indistinguishable; it has been suggested, therefore, that the times of sunrise and sunset at the forty-fifth parallel be considered standard for determining times for fasting for places lying between the forty-fifth parallel and the pole.
It is recommended that those who fast should have a meal (saḥūr ) before dawn, preferably as late as possible. Likewise, it is highly recommended that after sunset one should hasten ifṭār, the breaking of the fast. Any food or beverage may be taken for ifṭār, although dates or water is preferred. Ifṭār is usually a light meal and is taken hastily, since the maghrib ("sunset") prayer is performed minutes after sunset. It is considered highly meritorious to provide ifṭār to others, especially to the poor. It is common among Muslims to have ifṭār together in the neighborhood mosque and to invite friends, relatives, and neighbors to ifṭār parties.
Infractions of fasting such as eating, drinking, smoking, sexual intercourse, or indulgence in love play leading to seminal emission invalidate the fast. Such infractions variously necessitate qādāʾ ("restitution") alone, or qādāʾ and kaffārah ("atonement"). Qādāʾ consists of fasting one day for each day of invalidated fasting, whereas kaffārah necessitates the liberation of one Muslim slave, two months of consecutive fasting, or the feeding of sixty of the poor. Both qādāʾ and kaffārah are necessary when the fast of Ramaḍān is deliberately and voluntarily broken without extenuating reasons such as travel or sickness. The jurists are agreed that sexual intercourse necessitates both qādāʾ and kaffārah. In cases of eating and drinking, the Shāfiʿī and Ḥanbalī schools prescribe only qādāʾ, whereas the Ḥanafī and Māliki schools prescribe qādāʾ and kaffārah.
Ramaḍān is a month of concentrated worship and charity. Muslims have been urged to perform special prayers in the evening called tarāwiḥ. These consist, according to most Muslims, of twenty rakʿah s, or prayer sequences; they are generally performed in congregation, with the whole of the Qurʾān recited over the month. The last ten days of Ramaḍān, especially the nights, are considered highly blessed, since one of them is Laylat al-Qadr, the Night of Power, which is "better than a thousand months," the night in which "angels and the spirits descend and it is peace till the rising of the dawn" (97:4–6). Devout Muslims spend the better part of these nights praying and reciting the Qurʾān. It is also recommended that Muslims observe iʿtikāf ("withdrawal") during Ramaḍān, especially in its last ten days. Iʿtikāf consists of withdrawing to a mosque and devoting oneself exclusively to worship. Moreover, following the example of the Prophet, whose charitableness and philanthropy were heightened during Ramaḍān, Muslims show much greater propensity to charity at this time.
The end of Ramaḍān, signaled by the sighting of the new moon, is celebrated in the ʿĪd al-Fitr (the festival marking the end of fasting). The religious part of the ʿĪd consists of two rakʿah s of prayers in congregation and payment of a fixed charity, ṣadaqat al-fiṭr. The ʿĪd, however, also has an important social dimension. Muslim cities and villages take on a festive look, people usually wear their best clothes, and friends, relatives, and neighbors meet in mosques or on streets, congratulating, embracing, and kissing each other. The exchange of visits is also quite common.
Significance and Inner Dimension of Ṣawm
The legal minutiae associated with ṣawm sometimes prevent appreciation of its religious significance and inner dimension. Religiously sensitive Muslims are not satisfied merely with observance of the outward rules, which serve as an assurance against the invalidity of the fast but not of its acceptance by God. The Prophet is reported to have said that "he who does not abandon falsehood and action in accordance with it, God has no need that he should abandon his food and drink." The desire to make one's fasting acceptable to God has led devout Muslims to emphasize the qualitative aspect of fasting. Al-Ghazālī (d. 1111), for instance, emphasized that abstention from food, drink, and sexual satisfaction is only the elementary level of fasting. At a higher level fasting means keeping one's ears, eyes, tongue, hands, and feet free from sin. And at a still higher level fasting means a withdrawal of the heart and mind from unworthy concerns and worldly thought in total disregard of everything but God.
A major object of fasting, in al-Ghazālī's view, is for humans to produce within themselves a semblance of the divine attribute of ṣamadīyah, freedom from want. Another scholar, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawzīyah (d. 1350), viewed fasting as a means of releasing the human spirit from the clutches of desire, thus allowing moderation to prevail in the carnal self. Shāh Walī Allāh (d. 1762), one of the most famous South Asian theologians, viewed fasting as a means of weakening the bestial and reinforcing the angelic element in humans. A contemporary Muslim thinker, Sayyid Abū al-Aʿlā Mawdūdī (d. 1979), emphasized that fasting "for a full month every year trains a man individually, and the Muslim community as a whole, in piety and self-restraint; enables the society—rich and poor alike—to experience the pangs of hunger; and prepares people to undergo any hardship to seek the pleasure of God."
No comprehensive monograph on fasting is available. For relevant materials, see the notes on the Qurʾanic verses 2:183–187 in the major works of tafsīr (Qurʾanic exegesis) and the chapters on ṣawm or ṣiyām in the major ḥadīth collections and works of fiqh. Al-Bukhārī's and Muslim's collections of ḥadīth are available in English translation: See The Translation of the Meanings of Śaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, 4th ed., 9 vols., translated by Muḥammad Muḥsin Khān (Chicago, 1977–1979), and Śaḥīḥ Muslim, 4 vols., translated by Abdul Hameed Siddiqui (Lahore, 1971–1975). See also Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd Allāh al-Khaṭib al-Tibrīzī's Mishkāt al-maṣābīḥ, 4 vols., translated by James Robson (Lahore, 1963–1965). For useful works in English with full chapters on ṣawm, see Inner Dimensions of Islamic Worship (Leicester, 1983), a partial translation by Muhtar Holland of al-Ghazālī's Iḥyaʾ ʿulūm al-dīn ; Abulhasan Alī Nadvī's The Pillars of Islam, translated by Mohammad Asif Kidwai (Lucknow, 1972); and G. E. von Grunebaum's Muḥammadan Festivals (New York, 1951).
The impact of ṣawm on the lives of people, especially the ways in which Ramaḍān has been and is being observed in different Muslim lands, is a subject worth exploring. Good sources are travel accounts written by Muslims as well as outsiders.
Zafar Ishaq Ansari (1987)