Fasting: The Third pillar of Islam

ٖٖFasting during Ramadan is the third pillar of Islam and a form of worship found universally in the world religions. Although there are vast differences regarding the mode of fasting and the conditions applied to it, the central idea of fasting is present everywhere.

Fasting: The Third pillar of Islam


The five pillars of Islam represent the principle acts of worship which are required to practice the faith. Observance and practice of these acts are obligatory for all Muslims. Among them, fasting during Ramadan is the third pillar of Islam and a form of worship found universally in the world religions. Although there are vast differences regarding the mode of fasting and the conditions applied to it, the central idea of fasting is present everywhere.

Islam has taken the lead in reforming the institution of fasting. This was a radical reform in the meaning, rules, and purpose of the fast. It made the fast easy, natural, and effective. Fasting was a symbol of sadness, mourning, atonement for the sins, a reminder of disasters as well as self-mortification in the old religions.

Islam radicalized this doom and gloom concept of fasting, into an enlightened concept of self-purification. The month of fasting in Islam is a month of worship Muslims welcome each year with energy and happiness. This is contrary to the atmosphere of mourning.

The Holy Quran states,

“O ye who believe, fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may safeguard yourselves against every kind of ill and become righteous. The prescribed fasting is for a fixed number of days, but whoso from among you should be ailing, not being permanently incapacitated, or should be on a journey, shall complete the reckoning by fasting on a corresponding number of other days; and for those who find fasting a strain hard to bear is an expiation, the feeding of a poor person. Whoso carries through a good work with eager obedience, it is the better for him. If you possess the knowledge, you would realize that it is better for you that you should fast.”[1]

There is one full month every year in which fasting is prescribed for Muslims all over the world. As the month is a lunar month, it keeps changing around the year about the solar months. This creates a universal balance for the worshippers. Sometimes the fasting in winter months is manageable as far as the days go, in comparison to the long winter nights, while during the summer months, the days become long and exacting. As the lunar months keep shifting by a few days every year, Muslims in all parts of the world have some periods of easy fasting and some of the arduous fasting. Fasting in Islam begins everywhere at the first appearance of dawn and ends with sunset. During this period, one is expected to abstain from all food and drink altogether. It is not just physical hunger and thirst that constitute the Muslim fast, but the nights before the beginning of the fast acquire a far more critical character and play a central role in the institution of fasting. The Muslims wake up many hours before dawn for individual prayer and the remembrance of God. Also, the Holy Quran is recited in every Muslim house much more than in ordinary days. A more significant part of the night is thus spent in spiritual exercises, which make up the very essence of fasting.

During the day, apart from restraining from food and water, all Muslims are particularly exhorted to refrain from vain talk, quarrels or fights, or from any such occupation as is below the dignity of a true believer. No indulgence in carnal pleasure is allowed; even husband and wife during the day lead separate lives, except for the formal human relationship familiar to all people.

In Islam, alms-giving and care for the destitute are so highly emphasized that it becomes part of a Muslim’s daily life. However, when it comes to Ramadan, the month of fasting, Muslims are required to redouble their efforts in this field.

It is reported of the Holy Prophetsa that spending in the cause of the poor was a routine daily practice with him which has been likened unto a breeze, never ceasing to bring comfort and solace to the needy. However, during Ramadan, the reporters of the Ahadith, remind us that the breeze seemed to pick up speed and blow like strong winds[2]. Alms-giving and care for the destitute are so highly emphasized that in no period during the year do Muslims engage in such philanthropic purposes as they do during the month of Ramadan.

The Holy Prophetsa reminded his followers specifically of their responsibilities in the area of human relationship; ‘Do your duty to God as well as to the creation of God equitably’ was the advice. To some, after their insistent petulant begging, he permitted optional fasts only in the style of Davidas. He told them that it was the practice of Davidas to fast one day and abstain from doing so the next. Hence the Holy Prophetsa said, ‘I can only permit you that much and no more.’[3] The institution of fasting is extremely important because it cultivates the believer in almost every area of his spiritual life. Among other things, he learns through personal experience about what hunger, poverty, loneliness, and discomforts mean to the less fortunate sections of society. Abstention from even such practices during the month of Ramadan which are otherwise permissible in everyday life plays a constructive role in refining the human character.

The real purpose of Ramadan, as of all forms of Islamic worship, is to draw people closer to Allah. Though regular pursuits and occupations are carried on, as usual, the emphasis on moral and spiritual values and concentration on them are intensified, and everything is subordinated to the primary purpose. The hearing, the sight, the tongue, the mind are all under stricter control. For instance, not only vain talk but much talk is also eschewed, so that there should be higher concentration on remembrance of Allah and reflection upon His attributes. The Holy Prophetsa said,

He who abstains from food and drink during the period of the fast but does not restrain himself from uttering a falsehood starves himself to no purpose.[4]

It is related of him that during Ramadan, his concern for and care of the poor, the needy, the sick and the orphan was intensified manifold, and that his charity knew no limit.

The Author is the General Secretary of AMWSA, Kolkata & a Member of Noorul Islam Committee Lajna, Kolkata.


[1] Holy Quran 2:184-185

[2] Sahih Bukhari Kitab Bad’ al Wahy

[3] Sahih Bukhari Kitab al Saum, Sahih Muslim Kitab al Siyam

[4] Sahih Bukhari Kitab al Saum


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