The fast of Ramadan
May God forgive me and guide me regarding any sign that would have been misinterpreted in this study and elsewhere. May He always guide us to a better understanding of His profound scripture so we can purify ourselves and increase our knowledge.
(2:183) O you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you, like it was prescribed to your predecessors, that you may become righteous. (2:184) It is a precise number of days, therefore, whoever among you is sick or on a journey, will have to compensate with the same number of days at a later date. As for those who experience difficulty to do it, they have to feed someone instead. And whoever volunteers to do more, it is better for him. But fasting is better for you, if only you knew. (2:185) The month of Ramadan is the one during which the Quran was revealed as a guidance for mankind; [it provides] proofs corroborating that guidance, as well as the ability to distinguish [between right and wrong]. Therefore, whoever among you witnesses this month shall fast therein; whoever is sick or on a journey will make up for the missing days at a later date. God wants to facilitate things for you and does not intend any hardship upon you, so you may fulfill the prescribed period and magnify God for having guided you, and for you to be appreciative. (2:186) And when My servants ask you about Me, behold, I am near: I respond to the prayer of the one who implores every time he calls Me. So let them respond to Me and believe in Me so that they may be guided. (2:187) Approaching your spouses during the nights of fasting has now been made lawful for you. They are like a garment for you, and you are like a garment for them. God knows that you used to deceive your souls, so He had compassion upon you and forgave you. So you may now have an intimate relationship with them, and seek what God has ordained for you. Eat and drink until you can discern the white [horizon] line from the black [horizon] line at dawn. Then, fast completely until night[fall]. Do not have any intimate relationship with them, while you are secluded in the mosque (performing the “I’tikaf” or pious retreat, which applies primarily to the pious retreat at the sacred Masjid during Hajj during the four sacred months that start with Ramadan, or in any mosque as well). These are the limits set by God, so do not test them. God thus clarifies his verses for mankind, that they may preserve themselves.
The word “Ramadan” derives from the root “ramida”, which means “to be burning, be blasted by the sun”. “The month of Ramadan” literally means “the month of intense heat”. There are two main interpretations regarding the connection between the meaning of the word “Ramadan” and the fact that it is the 9th lunar month:
- According to the Lane lexicon, it is “the 9th month of the Arabian months: so called because, when they changed the names of the months from the ancient language, they named them according to the seasons in which they fell, and this month, or “nâtiq” (ناتق), for this was its ancient name, agreed with the days of vehement heat.”
- Another reason why “Ramadan” relates to “intense heat” is because Muslims experience thirst and hunger during the fast, which would be similar to what they would experience during a very hot month or a drought.
In any case, since seasons vary and since the lunar calendar allows gradually all seasons of the year to fall during Ramadan over a 33 year period, the main meaning should be related to the feeling of thirst and hunger that we experience regardless of where we are on earth.
Ramadan, the first month of Hajj
Ask any Sunni or Shia Muslim: “What is the most sacred month in Islam?”, and they will unanimously reply that it is the 9th lunar month, the month of Ramadan. Strangely, if you ask them if the month of Ramadan is one of the four sacred months of Islam, they will answer that it is not, as they claim they are the 11th, 12th, 1st and 7th, being influenced by hadiths other than God and his revelations (Al-Bukhari, 2958). But according to the Quran, and contrary to what is taught in traditional Islam, the 9th lunar month (Ramadan) is the first of the last four consecutive sacred months which end the lunar year (9th, 10th, 11th and 12th), and during which it is possible to perform the Hajj (9:2, 9:5, 9:28, 9:36). I strongly advise the reader to consult the article entitled “Hajj and ‘Umrah” to verify the Quranic proofs regarding the Sacred months.
Quranic rules regarding the beginning of the lunar month
The Quran commands us to fast during the entire lunar month of Ramadan (2:185), which depending on the year, will last 29 or 30 days. The Quran relies on a lunar calendar that is so precise that it does not leave any room for the slightest doubt when it comes to when the lunar month starts and ends: The words “night” (ليل) and “daylight” (نهار) intersect in 42 verses in the Quran, almost always to indicate the alternation between the night and the day. The first word “night” mentioned in those verses occurs consistently before the word “daylight” in all verses that deal with the alternation between the night and the daylight (that is to say in 40 verses out of 42): It is an obvious sign that the Muslim day starts at sunset, in other words, as soon as it is nighttime (you can check for instance verses 2:164, 2:174, 3:27, 3:190, 6:13, 6:60, etc…). The new day also starts at sunset in Judaism, Islam being the fulfillment of the religion revealed to the people of Israel. The only two exceptions where the word “daylight” occurs before the word “night” (11:114 and 28:72) are self explained by the meaning of the verses: 11:114 mentions the two ritual prayers at “both ends of the daylight” (the sunset and dawn time frames where the daylight is intertwined with the night), and 28:72 explains that God could have created instead a continuous “daylight” without any “night”, which explains why the word “night” logically appears after the word “daylight”.
The new moon must rise before sunset for the first lunar day of the month to be taken into account because, otherwise, the first night (that is to say the first lunar day) would be incomplete (let’s imagine for instance a new moon that would rise at 10 or 12 hours after sunset). The Muslim lunar calendar is perfect, meaning that there is no room for incomplete days (for example half days). If the new moon rises even one second after sunset, for instance on a Tuesday, the first day of the new lunar month will only start at sunset on Wednesday. This means that the first day of fasting will be on Thursday, the day following the actual first night of Ramadan.
Since the first day of the lunar month starts at sunset, and that the first day of fasting is the next day, the night of decree (the 27th night of Ramadan, mathematically coded in the Quran, see article on this website), more important than 1000 lunar months in Islam (97:3), is the one following the 26th day of fasting.
Lots of traditional Muslims who allow themselves to be influenced by non Quranic hadiths claim that someone must imperatively see the new moon in the sky with his own eyes to be able to determine the first day of fasting. Such medieval rules regularly create discord in the Muslim community when it comes to determine the first day of fasting, especially when the sky is overcast. Thanks to modern astronomy, we know extremely precisely when the moon rises everywhere in the world, and centuries in advance! This is why Muslim who follow the Quran alone rely on science and common sense, not on hadiths other than God and His revelations.
It is important to point out that, according to the Quran, the concept of “night” does not start when it is completely dark, but as soon as the sun vanishes behind the horizon at sea level. For instance, verse 92:1 shows that the concept of “night” (ليل = layl) starts at sunset (92:1: “By the night when it extends itself”). By comparison, 93:2 also mentions the word “night”, but when the night is completely dark, that is to say after the last traces of daylight disappear in the sky at twilight (93:2: “And by the night when it becomes obscure”). Since the same word “night” can either mean the “night” at sunset, and the dark “night”, we have to rely on the context of a given verse, and its broad meaning as being part of a universal religion. For example, God says in 2:187: “… then observe the fast until the night…”. The expression “until the night” obviously means “until Nightfall” in the context, and not the dark night, because Islam is a religion designed for the entire human race, and for instance, it would not be possible for people who live in high latitudes (like Sweden) to fast when Ramadan falls at a time of the year where there is no dark night for several months. Islam is a religion of common sense, and easy to practice (2:185: “God wants to facilitate things for you and does not intend any hardship upon you, so you may fulfill the prescribed period ...”), it is why it would not make sense for someone to fast until the dark night, or until any time after sunset, since we saw that the concept of “night” (ليل = layl) starts at sunset in the Quran, that is to say when “the night extends itself” (92:1).
Why do we fast during the month of Ramadan?
(2:183) O you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you, like it was prescribed to your predecessors, that you may become righteous. (2:184) It is a precise number of days, therefore, whoever among you is sick or on a journey, will have to compensate with the same number of days at a later date. As for those who experience difficulty to do it, they have to feed someone instead. And whoever volunteers to do more, it is better for him. But fasting is better for you, if only you knew.
The month of Ramadan symbolizes the month of revelation to mankind, not only because it is the one during which the Quran was revealed (2:185, 97:1), but in my opinion because it is the month during which God spoke to Moses for the first time (27:9). In addition, since the ritual of fasting, as well as all rituals of Islam, were initially revealed to Abraham, it makes sense that it also be the month during which he received revelations for the first time: The fact that imperfect tense is used in 97:4 implies repetitions, and that it has always taken place since the creation of the earth and the moon (and will until the end of the world), since it is the day when the angels and Gabriel deliver God’s annual decrees on earth:
(97:4) The angels and the spirit (Gabriel) descend therein, by their Lord’s leave, every decree.
The blessed night, and therefore the month of Ramadan (the first of four sacred months), have a much deeper meaning than the revelation of the Quran. It is in my opinion a month where lots of landmark events in the history of mankind have happened, or will happen, as explained in the article on “the night of decree”.
By fasting and remaining chaste from dawn to sunset, God teaches us how to remain righteous (2:183). He teaches us how to restrain our passions, and to understand a little better how blessed we are every time we take a meal. It is a time when we should get even closer to God.
A person who has a hard time fasting must feed a poor person instead (2:184: “As for those who experience difficulty to do it, they have to feed someone instead”. It is therefore clear that the fast of Ramadan and charity are closely related. By experiencing hunger and thirst, we feel the same thing as poor people, and it is a strong incentive to help them even more. It is a lesson from which we should learn during, and especially after the Ramadan. It is also an opportunity for us to be better prepared mentally and physically to face life’s challenges.
Furthermore, God says in 2:184 that “fasting is better for you, if only you knew”, which implies that the fast of Ramadan has many benefits, especially health wise; we will only mention a few:
- It is an opportunity to lose weight every year, thus avoiding gaining weight without interruption over several years.
- The deficit of food in the stomach forces the body to consume some of our fat reserves, detoxifying them in the process. It also detoxifies the stomach and the blood, and lowers the cholesterol, thus reducing the risk of heart attack and stroke.
- Fasting improves blood circulation substantially after a few days of fast.
- It allows the stomach to get some rest for extended periods of time.
- The size of the stomach shrinks gradually during Ramadan, forcing the person to eat less, even when the fast is over.
The fast of Ramadan is a yearly opportunity to reset and maintain your health and spirit.
It is very important not to abuse and negate the spirit of Ramadan, for instance by eating too much during the night; It is better to have dinner as usual, and only drink (abundantly) or just have a very light meal before dawn (unless one has to perform physical tasks during the day). This very simple plan allows the body to get used to eat less and less during the month and to get more benefits from it.
The month of Ramadan is not a feast, as it is often seen in some Muslim countries, but a physical and spiritual experience during which we have the opportunity to get closer to God.
The fast of Ramadan: The Quranic verses tell us that it is not possible to eat and drink, nor to have any intimate relations with our wives from the beginning of dawn to sunset (2:187: … So you may now have an intimate relationship with them, and seek what God has ordained for you. Eat and drink until you can discern the white [horizon] line from the black [horizon] line at dawn. Then, fast completely until night[fall]…).
If someone is ill or on a journey, he or she should not fast, and fast at a later date (2:185). Furthermore, Islam is a very flexible religion, with a constant emphasis on charity: A person for whom it is too hard to fast (due to a medical condition or not) has to feed a poor person instead (2:184: “As for those who experience difficulty to do it, they have to feed someone instead.”), even though, as we saw, if “fasting is better for you, if only you knew.”The fast of Ramadan is as simple as that.
The Quran abolished the fact that it was not possible to have an intimate relationship with your spouse during the entire month of Ramadan: 2:187 specifies that it is now possible during the night. The only exception is if a person does a spiritual retreat in a mosque: The concept of abstinence mentioned in 2:187 regarding places of worship is understandably valid at any time of the year according to the verse.
The same rule of abstinence is also valid during the entire time one performs the hajj (2:197), which generally lasts three days, and which can be performed at any time from the first day of Ramadan until the end of the lunar year (4 full lunar months). It should be emphasized that fasting is waved for People who travel and complete the hajj during the month of Ramadan (2:185), but they are required to make up for the missed days at a later date.
If they can’t afford to sacrifice an animal during the hajj, they have to fast three days during the hajj, and seven at a later date (2:196), in addition to making up for the missed days of fasting, because they are considered to be travellers.
Some traditional Muslims make fasting more complicated by claiming that it is not permitted to swallow your saliva while fasting. The Quran clearly and simply states that you can’t eat nor drink: Saliva is part of the way God designed our bodies, and swallowing your saliva has nothing to do with the definition of the verb “to drink”.
Despite the fact that we fast more or less time depending on the season and where we live, Islam was designed to be a universal religion and people end up fasting the same amount of time over a 33 year period if they stay in the same area, which is one of the reasons why God chose a lunar calendar in Islam.
Let us finish by saying that fasting without doing the ritual prayers is a pure waste of time from a religious standpoint, because a person who does not pray is not Muslim according to the Quran, as explained in the article on the ritual prayer.