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17. Understanding Islam

4.3. PILLAR 3: Sawm (fasting)

The third pillar of Islam is fasting. During the lunar month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, eating, drinking, and sexual relations are not allowed between dawn and sunset. Due to the time changes depending on the time of dawn and sunset, this could be anything from 9 hours in winter to 15 hours in summer, and of course this varies further according to geographical location.

Every adult Muslim who doesn’t have a religious excuse is required to fast. Valid excuses include medical conditions such as diabetes as well as any condition requiring regular medication taken by mouth, breastfeeding where fasting would jeopardise the health of a mother or her nursing, pregnancy, and so on. Although Muslims are not required to fast if they have a valid exemption, most schools of Islam advise Muslims to go ahead and fast if they are able, even though they may be technically exempt.

There are however circumstances where fasting is forbidden; Muslim women are forbidden to fast during menstruation, for example, and if they should fast during this time it is in fact not counted and must be made up at a later date. Other individuals for whom it is considered acceptable not to fast are soldiers in battle and travellers. Those who don’t fast should make up for the missed days after the month of Ramadan is over when their circumstance changes, before the next Ramadan arrives. If their extenuating circumstances are permanent or present for an extended amount of time making it impossible or infeasible for them to make up the fast, a Muslim should compensate by feeding a needy person for every fasting day they missed.

If a Muslim doesn’t fast, or breaks their fasting without a valid excuse either by eating or drinking intentionally or having sexual relations during the day in Ramadan, then they would be considered transgressors and they must make up for it by fasting sixty consecutive days for each day they didn’t fast or by freeing a slave or feeding sixty needy people (Sahih Muslim, 2599).

This type of fasting also is used outside Ramadan as expiation or penance for other sins. For example, if a Muslim breaks an oath then they should fast three days (Qur’an 5:89), wrongful killing of another Muslim requires fasting for sixty days (Qur’an 4:92), and retracting a divorce also requires fasting for sixty days (Qur’an 58:2-4).

Today, Ramadan constitutes a month-long celebration in many Islamic societies. Counter-intuitively, food consumption actually increases significantly during this month. In many predominantly Muslim countries, working hours are shortened, and activities shift from daytime to nighttime. In some countries, all restaurants are closed during the day, and some countries have laws to punish anyone who eats or drinks in public regardless of whether they are Muslim or not, or whether they have a valid religious exemption or not. The punishment ranges from paying a fine as in Brunei, to jail like in Pakistan. Such laws have no foundation in Islamic sources, though, and all they achieve is assuring hypocrisy as those laws are only concerned with the outward appearance of everyone fasting.

During Ramadan, Muslims may become easily irritable and short-tempered, especially in hot weather – something of a paradoxical situation during a time when the primary goal of fasting is to foster righteousness and self-control. Fasting has become more of a social ritual than a religious practice for many. In some Islamic countries, Ramadan regulations have become so absurd and make no sense whatsoever. For example, during Ramadan in Egypt it is not allowed to serve alcohol to Egyptians whether they are Muslims or not (Egypt has a significant recognised Christian minority), but it is allowed to serve it to non-Egyptians regardless of their religions. So a Christian Egyptian may be dining out with a Muslim Saudi; the Christian will be refused a beer, but the Muslim may be served. In the UAE, regulations change from year to year. In recent years, drinking alcohol has been allowed in restaurants and clubs but live music has been forbidden. As you may be aware, there is nothing specific to Ramadan concerning alcohol as its consumption is prohibited year round; such rules and regulations are usually put in place by the government to appease the religious feelings of the citizens rather than to follow any Islamic rules.

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