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Sawm (صوم) or siyam صيام

In Islam numerous fasts (sawm, also siyam) are urged on the believer; the Islamic religion is permeated by the piety of fasting. The Islamic fasts reflect Jewish, Christian, and pre-Islamic Arabian influences, although the precise contribution of each of these traditions remains a subject of controversy. An obligatory collective fast occupies the entire month of Ramadan. Various traditions also recommend voluntary fasting; examples are the fast of `Ashura’ (the tenth day of the month of Muharram, originally in imitation of the Jewish fast of the Day of Atonement), fasting six days in Shawwal (the month following Ramadan), fasting three days of each month, and fasting on Mondays and Thursdays. Expiatory fasting (kaffarah) atones for certain transgressions or compensates for omissions of duty; fasts of varying durations may be undertaken for, among other things, failing to fulfill an oath (see the Qur’an, surahs 5.89 and 58.4) or the accidental killing of a believer (4.92). Some Sufis also undergo fasts as part of their spiritual exercises.

The great fast of the Muslims is the fast of Ramadan, undertaken by the entire community; fasting in this month is the fourth of the five pillars of Islam. The Ramadan fast is instituted in the Qur’an (2.183-187) which begins, “O you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you,” and continues by recommending the fast of “a certain number of days,” with allowances for the sick and the traveler to fast “an [equal] number of other days,” as well as the “ransoming” of the fast by feeding the poor. In these verses the Qur’an also identifies Ramadan as the month in which the Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad, restricts sexual intercourse to the hours of darkness when the fast is not in effect, and commands the believers to begin their fast again when “the white thread becomes to you distinct from the black thread of the dawn.” Thus in Ramadan the believer is obligated strictly to abstain from food, drink, and sexual relations in the daylight hours.

Other provisions concerning the fast come from the traditions of the Prophet (hadith) and the legal (fiqh) literature. These literatures treat such matters as the regulations for the sighting of the new moon of the Ramadan month (which begins the fast), forming the proper intent (niyah) to fast, the times for the beginning and breaking of each day’s fast, actions that have the effect of breaking the fast, exemptions from the fast, and the making up of missed days.

The Ramadan fast, despite the hardships involved (especially in summer when the days are long and the heat intense), has always been widely and strictly kept, and in modern times with the progress of Islamic revivalism observance has become even more general. Only preadolescents and menstruating women are exempt; pregnant and lactating women, the sick, the elderly, travelers, and those engaged in jihad may also be excused, subject to certain conditions.

Ramadan has nevertheless the character of a festival: a substantial and elaborate meal (iffar, “breakfast”) at the conclusion of each day is a time for family and community gatherings; the local authorities are likely to decorate the streets with lights and ornaments; and at the end of the month there is the `Id al-Fitr (festival of the breaking of the fast) in which the faithful gather together for prayer, new clothes are worn, and money and presents are given to children. The zakat al – fitr (almstax of the breaking of the fast), a small amount of money used for charitable purposes, is also contributed at this time. During Ramadan, gatherings for extra prayer (tarawih,) are often held at the mosque at night. The Laylat al-Qadr or Night of Power, said to occur sometime in the last ten days of Ramadan-on which it is believed that the Qur’an was sent down to Muhammad and events are determined for the coming yearmay also be commemorated, for instance by retiring (i’tikaf) to the mosque with one’s fellow Muslims for extra devotions.

Various local customs are connected with Ramadan. In Egypt the children carry elaborately decorated tin lamps from door to door, asking gifts of money or sweets. In Middle Eastern countries a cannon is sounded to signal the end of the day’s fast, sometimes broadcast by radio. In Malaysia around the time of Laylat al-Qadr, small kerosene-lit tin lamps are set outside houses to burn the whole night; these are increasingly being replaced by strings of colored electric lights. In rural areas in Malaysia and Indonesia, the end of the fast is signaled by means of a buffalo-skin drum gong or beduk, a function now also being taken over by broadcast announcement.

Legal opinions (fatwds) continue to be issued on the subject of the fast, and they sometimes touch on novel problems arising from the circumstances of modern life. For instance, does an injection break the fast? On this opinions vary. According to the Fatwa Committee of the great Egyptian Islamic university of al-Azhar (Shaykh Khamis `Umar Muhammad $ubhi, Namadhij min alfatwd, Latakia, Syria, 1391/1971, p. 66), any injection violates the fast, but according to Mahmud Shaltut, a former rector of the same college (Al fatawd, Cairo, n.d., pp. 117-118), all injections and medication taken other than by mouth are allowed. According to the Egyptian Islamic reformer Muhammad Rashid Rida (d. 1935), it is not permitted to a believer pursuing his studies at a Christian school to break his fast in order to continue to excel in that difficult environment (Fatawd al-Imam Muhammad Rashid Ridd, Beirut, 1390-1391/ 1970-1971, vol. 1, pp. 25-26). According to the alAzhar scholar al-Qaradawi (Huda al-Islam, fatawa mu’asirah, Cairo, 1401/1981, p. 282), it is allowed for a Muslim to watch television during the fast, the medium itself not being forbidden; however, one must while fasting be more careful than ever that what is watched is not corrupting in itself, and the broadcasting authorities must also be more vigilant during Ramadan.

In 1960 a series of fatwds was issued in Tunisia under the influence of the secular government, maintaining that those engaged in the economic struggle (jihad) to build the country should (on analogy with the exemption granted those engaged in the military jihad) be exempt from the fast. The fatwds were directed at a phenomenon observable in many parts of the Muslim world: the slowing down of government and economic activities during the fasting month. This opinion did not, however, find favor.

It has often been asked how the fast is to be carried out in places in the extreme north or south where Muslims may now reside, but where the fasting month and the length of days cannot be determined because the sun is not seen to rise and set in the same way as in the middle latitudes. In the opinion of Rashid Rida (vol. 6, pp. 2077-2078), the fast will depend on an estimation of the extent of the month and days, rather than on the sighting of the moon or the rising and setting of the sun; according to Shaltut (Fatawd, pp. 124-125), persons in these areas should take the length of the days to be that of the nearest location where night and day can be distinguished. The question has also arisen whether Muslims in modern times can depend on astronomical calculations to fix the time of the birth of the moon, rather than on the apparently less accurate method of sighting the moon with the naked eye. According to Rashid Rida, one must always rely on actual sighting to signal the beginning of the fast, rather than on science: qualified scientists may not be found in every location, and such persons are not in any case religiously competent.So anxious have Muslims been to establish all possible regulations for the fast that even the instance of fasting on the moon has been considered; in this case the rule is, according to the Lebanese fatwa council (al-Fikr al-Islami I, no. 2, Shawwal 1389/October 1969, pp. 122-123), that the sighting of the nearest heavenly body-the earth-should be substituted for that of the moon.

The question of the sighting of the moon in general has given rise to conflict in immigrant Muslim communities in the West. One faction maintains that fasting must be begun upon sighting the moon with the naked eye, while another wishes to follow modern science by consulting observatories or published tables. In addition, members of different national backgrounds have wanted to fast according to the sighting of the moon in their homelands; this has resulted, contrary to the Islamic ideal, in various groups of fasters in one location beginning Ramadan and even celebrating `Id al-Fitr at different times.

The religious meaning of Ramadan has been discerned by modern thinkers to consist not only in obedience to God but also in moral and spiritual disciplinefor instance, in purifying one’s mind (particularly of bodily desires), strengthening one’s will, and sharing in the hardships of the poor. According to this philosophy, fasting consists not only of abstaining from food, drink, and sex, but also of rejecting all illicit things and thoughts of them. It should not be imagined, however, that this view of fasting is exclusively modern. It has been in evidence throughout Islamic history, beginning with the hadith, and receives eloquent expression in the Mysteries of Fasting (published in English, 1968) of the great mystic and theologian al-Ghazali (d. IIII). Some contemporary Muslims also emphasize the nonpenitential nature of the Ramadan fast, contrasting this with Christian and Jewish traditions.

Some Muslims, seeking a scientific basis for the fast, have pointed to its health benefits. Scholarly commentators, however, while allowing that there may be advantages for the body in the practice of sawm, prefer to deemphasize these and dwell instead on the spiritual aspects. The medical profession has lately become interested in the effects of the fast and the management of patients keeping Ramadan, resulting in scientific studies and a number of articles in professional journals.

Public violation of the fast is abhorred in organized Muslim society. The punishment for deliberately breaking the fast is in the category of ta`zir (“chastisement”). Ta’zir penalties are meant to be exemplary and are left to the discretion of the Islamic judge or other authority; ta’zir may consist of anything from verbal reproach to flogging. The reinstitution of Islamic law in some countries has also meant the reinstatement of ta`zir. Ta`zir punishment for breaking the fast is imposed in Saudi Arabia and is also valid in the Islamic Republic of Iran, although in both these countries there has been considerable latitude in enforcement and wide variation in the nature of the penalty. In some cases the ta`zir punishments have been codified; thus in Malaysia those violating the fast are subject by law (when it is enforced) to a small fine.


Berg, C. C. “Sawm.” In First Encyclopaedia of Islam, vol. 7, pp. 192199. Leiden, 1913-. Offers a detailed account of the legal rules pertaining to the fast.

Gentz, Jochen. “Tunesische Fatwas ueber Fasten im Ramadan.” Die Welt des Islams, n.s. 7 (1961): 39-65. Includes the texts of the opinions.

Ghazali, Abu Hamid al-. The Mysteries of Fasting (A Translation of the Kitab asrar al-sawm of the Ihya’ `ulum al-din). Translated by Nabih A. Faris. Lahore, 1968.

Goitein, S. D. “Ramadan, the Muslim Month of Fasting.” In Studies in Islamic History and Institutions, pp. 9o-iio. Leiden, 1966. The best overall discussion of the subject; treats the origins of Ramadan, especially Jewish origins, and subsequent development.

Jomier, Jacques and Jean Corbon. “Le Ramadan au Caire, en 1956.” Melanges de l’Institut Dominicain du Caire 3 (1956): 1-74. Lively and detailed picture of the daily observances and mores of the fasting month.

Morgan, Kenneth W., ed. Islam, the Straight Path: Islam Interpreted by Muslims. New York, 1958. Includes short statements on the fast from contemporary authorities.

Von Grunebaum, G. E. “Ramadan.” In Muhammadan Festivals, pp. 51-66. New York, 1951. Summary discussion of the fasting month, followed by mention of popular customs, with further references supplied.

Wagtendonk, K. Fasting in the Koran. Leiden, 1968. Exhaustive review of the scholarly literature and close examination of the Qur’anic text yields new interpretations of the origins and development of fasting in Islam.

Prof.Dr.Anis Ahmad is a scholar and educationist. He got Phd. from USA and has experience of teaching in USA, Malaysia and many other countries. Now a days he is Vice chancellor of Riphah international University Islamabad,Pakistan. We have recorded this talk in our studio. We are glade that we will present many more educational ,cultural and knowledge base talks for mass awareness.

Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/sawm/

  • writerPosted On: July 23, 2017
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