The Five Pillars of Islam: Saum - Fasting Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Five Pillars of Islam: Saum - Fasting

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Welcome to part three of this overview of the Islamic pillars. We have talked about Kalimah Tayyibah (Imaan) and Salaat in the first two parts and hopefully have reached a better understanding of those two pillars. This leaves us with three pillars, which are Saum, Zakat and Hajj.

The Last Three Pillars

When many people view the Islamic faith and its five pillars, they make an interesting observation. The first two pillars of Islam (Imaan and Salaat) are both essentially non-physical things and require spirituality more than physical effort. But the last three pillars seem more physical than spiritual to the observer.

The primary thing that needs to be realised is that though the first two pillars are essentially the most important parts of the Islamic faith, these last three are regarded as just important and are compulsory for all Muslims. One way of viewing it is that Imaan and Salaat are what is required to be a Muslim and that Saum, Zakat and Hajj are the best ways for an individual to improve their level of faith and remembrance of God which leads to Salaat becoming more central in life and which in turn increases a believer's Imaan in God.

Muslims believe that faith in the first two pillars makes the intention1 of the last three pillars possible. If an individual has intention and performs the last three pillars it increases their spiritual growth, and in turn strengthens the first two pillars.

These last three pillars are well-known, just like the first two, but again the understanding of this significance to Muslims is not there for the majority of people.


Ramadhan is the name given to the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Like the Gregorian calendar, the Islamic calendar has 12 months2, but instead of using the sun to determine the months, the Islamic calendar uses the moon. A lunar year is around ten or 11 days shorter than a solar year and so the Islamic months cycle through the Gregorian calendar, coming ten or 11 days earlier each year. This cycle takes approximately 34 years to complete, so on average every Muslim goes through at least two complete cycles of fasting in his or her lifetime. This means that all Muslims experience fasting through both the longer and hotter days of Summer and the shorter colder days of winter, whereas by following the solar calendar, the dates of Ramadhan would remain the same and some Muslims would only experience the hardship of fasting through the summer months, while those living in other places on Earth would always have the easier winter months.

The word Ramadhan is derived from the Arabic verb3 'ramad' which literally means 'to bake a sheep in its skin'. It was given this name because the time of the Prophet in Mecca fell during the height of summer, and when fasting in these conditions in a desert Muslims would feel like their stomachs were roasting due to lack of water. However, the word 'Ramadhan', in the context of the five pillars is 'the month of burning away sins.'

The month of Ramadhan coincides with the sighting of the new moon and ends with the sighting of the next new moon. If the moon cannot be spotted for some reason4 then Ramadhan starts when the previous month5 has reached 30 days in length.

Some people think that the significance of the new moon came about due to superstitious reasons that have prevailed through all ages in some form or another6. The Muslim holy book, Al Qur'an, warns Muslims from this train of thought in sura 2 ayah 1897 by telling Muslims that the new moon is a guide so Muslims have a clear sign of when to start and when to end their fasts and other such things.

The mentioning of the Qur'an brings us on to the final thing to say about Ramadhan which is that the Qur'an was sent down to mankind in the month of Ramadhan according to Sura 2 ayah 1858. The Prophet Muhammad received the first revelation of the Qur'an during the month that became known as Ramadhan.

Saum and Rozah

The Arabic word 'Saum' in its literal sense means 'abstain' and when used to refer to the five pillars of Islam then people take it to mean 'Rozah', which actually means fasting. This Rozah under the five pillars happens during the month of Ramadhan. Unfortunately, the word 'fasting' can be a bit misleading as for many non-Muslim people the word fasting simply means to go without food and drink for some duration of time.

For Muslims, fasting is not just about going without food and drink for a month, as many things that were permissible (Halal) are made forbidden (Haram) during Ramadhan.

An example of some of the things forbidden in Islam is given in the following hadith9:

Fasting is not abstaining from eating and drinking only, but also from vain speech and foul language. If one of you is being cursed or annoyed, he or she should say, I am fasting. I am fasting.

This hadith reflects in essence how, during Ramadhan, a Muslim must guard not only his hunger but also his tongue and his attitude. Ramadhan is not just about fasting either; it involves many other important things that form this one pillar of Islam called Saum. This entry will be dealing with all these to bring about a better understanding as to what Muslims actually have to do during Ramadhan.

As stated in the above, hadith fasting is not just about refraining from eating and drinking, though this is the most easily-recognised part. When Muslims fast they have to abstain from several things between sunrise and sunset, which are:

  • Food and Drink
  • Sexual intercourse
  • Smoking10
  • Fighting11

These are the four physical things that Muslim must abstain from doing, but there are also several other things to be abstained from which are:

  • Arguing
  • Bad language
  • Back-biting and gossip
  • Violence12
  • Being rude and impolite
  • Getting angry

These last things should be refrained from at all times but especially so during the month of Ramadhan and while fasting.

The goals of fasting

As already mentioned, fasting is not just a physical act to Muslims and when performed with the right intentions then it has many rewards. Every time a Muslim fasts during Ramadhan, his spiritual growth increases. Here is a list of what Muslims believe are the benefits of fasting:

  • It teaches mankind sincere love; Muslims fast out of a deep love to God. Muslims believe that anyone who loves God truly understands what love is.
  • Fasting cultivates a sound and vigilant conscience. Muslims fast in public and in private. Muslims fast not just to please God but also to satisfy their own conscience. As is the case with most things in Islam, there is no mundane authority to make sure someone is doing as they should.
  • Fasting gives Muslims an optimistic outlook on life, giving them hope because a Muslim who fasts is hoping to please God and seek his grace.
  • Fasting helps to increase an individual's control over their desires, since fasting in Islam is not just about abstaining from food and drink but also about avoiding desires and physical temptations: it helps to to increase Muslims' willpower.
  • It helps Muslims to be more patient and less selfish. When a Muslim fasts they feel the pain of deprivation but they endure it in silence. Though this deprivation is only temporary it gives a Muslim a taste of what it is like for others to face hardship; others who might have to go without food and water for several days and not just a few hours. This leads to Muslims becoming better able to sympathise with someone worse off than them and more likely to help them if they can.
  • It helps instil the concept of equality and unity between Muslims as no matter where in the world a Muslim may be, there will be other Muslims all over the world doing the same duty, in the same manner and at the same time as that individual regardless of wealth, status, nationality and colour.
  • It helps a Muslim separate soul from body. After a period of fasting, a person no longer thinks that he/she is hungry but rather starts to think 'my body is hungry'. This helps develop the spiritual conscience of a Muslim.

All these things are only achieved, however, by fasting for the right reasons, with the right intention. For example, fasting just because you're told to or because you want to be able to use fasting for your own advantage13 will not lead to spiritual growth.

Taqwa and Shukr

The Arabic word 'taqwa' comes from the word 'waqa' which means 'to produce', 'to protect', and 'to keep safe'. Muslims believe that the best way for a Muslim to avoid doing wrong deeds is to have God consciousness. It is this God consciousness that is referred to as taqwa. Muslims believe that God has not only full knowledge of all that we do, but also all that we think, and so knows what our intentions are behind any action. When Muslims are aware of this it is called having taqwa, and as such helps a Muslim to avoid doing wrong. Muslims believe that all people hear the whispers of shaytan14 and can be tempted by them. This would include the bad thoughts that people sometimes have urging them to do something they should not. Taqwa helps a Muslim to ignore such temptations or thoughts as they aware that it is wrong and that God knows all. This is what is meant by God protecting people who believe and not those who disbelieve. Only a person who believes in God can have the added benefits of taqwa.

A recorded dialect between Ubayy ibn K'ab to the second caliph, Umar ibn Al-khattab gives a good example of how a Muslim applies taqwa to life. Here is what was said:

'Umar asked 'Ubayy to define what Taqwa was, to which 'Ubayy replied "Have you ever walked along a thorny path?", "Yes" came the answer from 'Umar. "What did you do?" asked 'Ubayy. "I was on my guard", 'Umar replied and 'Ubayys reply to this was "That is Taqwa".

What is meant by this is that as a Muslim walks the journey of life, he should be mindful and careful at all times to refrain from doing wrong. Of course, everyone makes mistakes and people are bound to do something wrong at some time in their lives, but people should do their best to refrain from wrong and to seek forgiveness when they do err.

Another translation of taqwa is 'fear of God' and a good explanation about the meaning of taqwa in this way can be found in the same recorded dialect15:

Hence Taqwa means to protect oneself against the harmful of evil consequences of one's conduct. If, then, by 'fear of God' one means fear of the consequences of one's actions -whether in this life or the next (fear of punishment on the last day) - one is absolutely right. In other words, it is the fear that comes from an acute sense of responsibility, here and in the hereafter, for the God of the Qur'an has unbounding mercy - although He also wields dire punishment, both in this world and in the hereafter.

Taqwa makes Muslims more alert and cautious of the things happening around them and their own actions and intentions. This helps Muslims avoid committing bad actions and to keep doing good deeds. When a Muslim has taqwa they also have something called shukr. Shukr translates as 'thankfulness', and in terms of Islam it means thankfulness to God. Muslims believe it is their duty to be thankful to God and that they should be thankful for all things that they have16.

Taqwa and shukr are interconnected with each other and so a Muslim who is conscious of God is also thankful to God. This taqwa helps Muslims during Ramadhan to ignore any temptations that might arise, such as having a sneaky bite to eat. Also, when Muslims break their fast they are thankful to God for giving them the strength to fast, and for the food and drink they have.


As with all things in Islam, a Muslim must make intention when he/she fasts. It is important for Muslims to make intention for fasting at or before Subha saadiq (early dawn). This intention is called 'niyyat' and like in prayer does not have to be verbal declaration and so can just be said in a Muslim's thoughts. There are several reasons why making intention is important. Here is a brief summary of the main reasons:

  • It helps to remind Muslims that their fasting is not meant to get them reward in this life, but is intended, rather, to please God and be rewarded in the next life.
  • It helps Muslims to remember that they should not be boastful about fasting and other related things, and not to seek benefits from fasting. For example, some Muslims try to use Ramadhan as an excuse for time off work, which is actually wrong as all Muslims can work and fast at the same time17.
  • It acts as a reminder that God knows everything that you do, and so while you may be able to get a sneaky bite to eat behind people's backs, you won't be able to hide such an action from God.

Aside from fasting, intention is important because it is what God judges everyone on. Muslims are told that actions are judged according to the intention behind them, and for everyone is what he has intended18.

People exempt from fasting

While fasting during Ramadhan is very important, a few people are exempt:

  • The elderly.
  • Pregnant women: fasting can cause harm to a woman or her unborn baby.
  • Women who are breastfeeding: it can affect and endanger the life of the mother and baby.
  • Anyone's whose health might be endangered either through lack of food or through illness.
  • People who do very heavy or strenuous manual work and have no other means of support if they become too weak to work through fasting.
  • Menstruating women as it is important that their energy levels are kept up and that they stay healthy.
  • Any individuals travelling on a journey of more than 77 kilometres and who are not planning to stay anywhere for more than 14 days.
  • Children up to the age of puberty.

Children have no obligation to fast until they reach puberty but can be encouraged to participate in fasting up to their own capacity. For example a child may wish to fast from morning till noon and can be encouraged to do so, but a child can not be forced to fast or to continue fasting if they are having difficulties.

Muslims who are sick, travelling, doing heavy and strenuous manual work, or women on their monthly periods or breastfeeding are exempt from fasting but should make up for missed days of fasting in the following year at some point or after the next Ramadhan. Making up for missed fasts can be done in whatever way the person decides: for example, they may have missed seven days of fasting and so may decide to fast one day of the week for seven weeks. If it is not possible to make up for missed days for some reason or another19, then they should feed a person in need for every day they have missed if they can afford to do so.

The chaining of Shaytans

Muslims believe that Shaytan20 started his goal of defying God at the same time of the creation of Adam. Shaytan was banished from paradise but given respite till the day of judgement. Shaytan swore to corrupt mankind and make all that was bad seem good to them and so lead astray all but the strong believers21.

Shaytan's aim is to do whatever he can to lead people from the straight path. While Muslims believe that Shaytan has no real power or control over humanity they believe that he relies on humanity's weaknesses such as selfishness and greed and so on. Muslims believe he influences the bad thoughts that people sometimes have in order to try and get people to do bad things. As Muslims believe Shaytan has no real power it means that all people are responsible for their own actions22 and so should protect themselves with taqwa.

However, during the month of Ramadhan, Muslims believe that Shaytan and his followers are not allowed to roam about freely, and, as such, any action an individual takes is free from the whisperings of Shaytan. However, if someone is influenced during the other 11 months by Shaytan then it is most likely they will continue this way through Ramadhan. The point of a month free from this influence to enable an individual's taqwa to increase and helps develop it in those whom may be finding it hard to stay on the straight path but wish to become stronger.

The accidental breaking of fast

It can be easy for some Muslims to forget they are fasting - especially during the first few days before the routine is established - and to eat or drink something by accident. Should someone who is fasting accidentally eat or drink something then this forgetfulness does not break the fast. In the Qur'an Muslims are told the following:

If somebody eats or drinks forgetfully, then he should complete his fast, for what he has eaten or drunk has been given to him by God

It is interesting to note that the Arabic word for human being is 'insan' which is derived from the word 'nasiya' which means 'to forget.' This indicates that it is in human nature to forget and make mistakes and so Muslims believe that humans should be aware of this and be quick to repent if they do wrong and not dwell on it afterwards as everyone makes mistakes.

Now that we have looked at the general rules for fasting lets take a brief look at how Muslims implement the above in their lives throughout Ramadhan.

Suhur and Iftar

Suhur is the Arabic name given to the pre-dawn meal eaten by Muslims before they start a day's fast. As the first light of dawn appears, Muslims will sit down and eat this meal to give them strength for the day. It is also a time for Muslims to be thankful for the food and drink they have, as soon they will know what it is like to be without food and water. The point of suhur is not to overindulge but just to have a glass of water and a small bite to eat - it is in no way intended to be a three course meal, but rather a little food to give energy for the rest of the day.

The pre-dawn meal is blessed, so do not neglect it even if you only take a sip of water. Verily, God and the angels bless those who have pre-dawn meals.

'Iftar' is the Arabic word for the breaking of the fast at the end of the day. Shortly before the sun starts to set, Muslims will sit and reflect upon the passing day and their fast. After every day of fast, a Muslim hopes that they have improved themselves in some way and will make supplications to God to accept their fast.

Three (types of) people will not have their supplications rejected: a fasting person until he breaks his fast, a just ruler and an oppressed person.

Just before Maghrib23, Muslims will break their fast with some dates and water, then after completing Maghrib they will sit down and have their main meal. This meal should be simple and not too big24. Iftar is usually a time spent with friends and family at home or at the mosque as Muslims believe that there is much reward in giving someone food so they can break their fast.


During Ramadhan, Muslims are urged to spend some of the night at the Mosque taking part in tarawih 25 prayers. This prayer is usually performed just after Isha26 prayer by a Hafiz27 and one thirtieth of the Qur'an is recited each day.

Life after Ramadhan

Ramadhan is a time of change and reflection for Muslims. It is about psychological, spiritual and physical change in a Muslim's life. Ramadhan is a bridge for those who believe, it is a way of getting from one level of faith to the next, for Muslims who want to get more devout then their Imaan will continue to grow after Ramadhan but for those who don't then it will pass them by and they will return to the state they were in before. For Muslims who wish to improve their level of faith, Ramadhan can be just the thing to help them improve. Muslims believe that every day they should reflect on the day they leave behind, to recognise their own weaknesses and strengths and to re-evaluate their awareness of God.

To conclude this entry here is a quote from Iman al-Haddad's 'The book of Assistance.'

Reflection is the lamp of the heart; If it departs the heart will have no light.28.
1'Niyyat' in Arabic: the intention behind any religious action in Islam should be to please Allah.2The 12 months are: Muharram, Safar, Rabi'al-Awwal, Rabi'ath-thani, Jumadal-Ula, Jumadath-thaniyyah, Rajab, Sha'ban, Ramadhan, Shawwal, Dhul-Qa'dah and dhul-Hijjah3Unlike western languages where root words are mainly nouns, root words in many eastern languages are usually verbs. Adjectives in Arabic are also considered verbs as they express the way a noun 'acts' or projects' itself to an observer: ie, an apple projects itself as being red or green. The word Islam, which means 'to submit', is actually considered a verbal noun as it is the name of a action and not a name of an institution, personnel decision or a social system.4Such as it being a cloudy day5Sha'ban6One still in use today is that of turning into a werewolf on a new moon, though these days its more a joke than a seriously-held belief7They ask you concerning the New Moons. Say: They are but signs to mark fixed periods of time in (the affairs of) man...8Ramadhan is the (month) in which we sent down the Qur'an as a guide to mankind...9Sayings of the Prophet Muhammad that were observed and recorded by his followers10Smoking is haram to Muslims but many Muslims do smoke11Fighting should be avoided during Ramadhan unless necessary for self-defence12Other than fighting: ie, intimidation and threats13Some people use fasting as a excuse for doing less work, for example.14Satan - ie, the devil. Comes from the root word, Shatana, which means to distance or be removed from.15Ibid, Chapter 2, page 2916Life, Food, Water, Health, Wealth, etc.17There are a few exceptions to this rule, which will be dealt with further on in this entry18Hadith19Such as continued weakness or illness20Shaytan in Islam is not a fallen angel, as angels are not self-aware, but rather a jinn. The jinn are a sub-race created out of fire by God that exist much the way we do, but we cannot see them and they can see us. It is this concept of jinn that formed the western world's idea of genies21See Qur'an Sura Al-Hijr 15:34-4022The Qur'an alludes to this in sura Ibrahim 14: 22.23This is the fourth of the five daily prayers all Muslims must perform. It is performed around the time the sun is setting.24Unfortunately, in some households people put on weight rather than losing it while fasting simply because they see iftar as a big party, an excuse to overindulge - this goes against the whole point of fasting.25'Tarawih' means 'to rest' and comes about because there is a brief rest between every four rakat or units/cycles of prayer.26The last of the five daily prayers27Someone who has memorised the whole of the Holy Qur'an.28Chapter 9, page 31

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