Ask the VM: Fixing the length of fasting during Summer

Question

This year Ramadan falls during June, which makes the length of the fasting day in the Northern Hemisphere very long. Even in the UK, in the northern areas, duration of the fast is over 19 hours. Is there any ruling in the Holy Quran or the hadith or by jurists to say that the length of the daily fast may be reduced?

Answer

There is no direct ruling in the Holy Quran or the hadith, which says that hours of the daily fast may be reduced. However, the Holy Quran says:

Do they not reflect on the Quran? Or, are there locks on the hearts? (47:24)

Taking this as our guiding principle, let us look at the background to the revelation regarding the timing of the daily hours of fasting, Commands of the Holy Quran, the hadith and the opinions of the jurists to see what is said about the timing of the daily fast.

Background to setting the timing of the daily fast being fixed from dawn to dusk

The Holy Quran did not prescribe the times of starting and ending the daily fast when Muslims were first Commanded to fast during Ramadan. Muslims set these times. The fast started when a person fell asleep at night and it was broken at sunset the next day. So if a person fell asleep at 10:00 pm that is when his fast started and if the sunset was at, for example, 06:00 pm the next day, then the fast would be about 20 hours long. This caused great hardship and some people even fainted.

It was at this time that the revelation regarding the timing of fasting e.g. from dawn to dusk on the same day, was sent down. By fixing the timing of the fast in this way the Holy Quran reduced the daily fasting hours to around a maximum of 15.

Therefore, we may consider long fasts to have been stopped by Allah because He sent down a revelation to end this practice. We may use this as a strong argument to say that daily hours of fast can be reduced.

The Holy Quran

Let us now turn to the Holy Quran. It says:

O you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may guard against evil. . . But whoever among you is sick or on a journey, (he shall fast) a (like) number of other days. And those who find it extremely hard may effect redemption by feeding a poor man. . . Allah desires ease for you, and He desires not hardship for you, . . . And spend in the way of Allah and cast not yourselves to perdition with your own hands and do good (to others). (2:183 -195)

Let us now reflect upon these verses, as the Holy Quran Commands us. We have to start with deciding what is the object of fasting and what is not the object of fasting. The Holy Quran tells us that the object of fasting is to make us pious and it is not to cause us hardship. Clearly, if we can achieve piety, the objective of fasting, by fasting for fewer hours, this is permissible. Further, fasting for 19 hours is causing hardship to almost everyone and this is exactly what the Holy Quran says Allah does not want to do. It then goes on to provide relief to the sick, the travellers and the old by saying they can fast at a time other than Ramadan or feed a poor person. Thus the Holy Writ takes common situations where fasting will cause hardship and provides alternatives. There were other conditions not known to the people at that time where fasting causes hardship and we can extrapolate what the Holy Quran has done so that fasting is possible without hardship.

In the verses that follow, the Holy Quran describes other duties of the Muslims and adds that Muslims must not do anything that puts them in danger. Fasting for 19 hours or more will put people’s health in danger. Therefore, in my opinion fasting for long periods violates the purpose of fasting, the relief given by Allah in those situations when fasting causes hardship and by putting ourselves in danger.

Hadith

Just like the Holy Quran there is no direct reference in the hadith to reduction of the number of hours of the daily fast. However, there are references in the hadith to fixing timings of the daily prayers. There is a hadith in Abu Dawood (36:13), according to which the companions (r) asked the Holy Prophet (s) about the timing of the prayers when the day and night last for months. The Holy Prophet (s) replied that in that case, in such places to fix the length of a day, they should use the length of the day in their own countries. And, then fix the timing of the prayer according to that.

This is not an isolated narration. It is in many collections such as Musnad Ahmad, Tirmidhi and Muslim there is a hadith regarding the coming of the Anti-Christ. The hadith relates that when the Anti-Christ appears he will stay on earth for 40 days and at the time a day will be a year or a month or a week or a day. The Holy Prophet (s) was asked about the timing of the daily prayer when the day is a year-long and whether the five daily prayers will be said over a year. The Holy Prophet (s) gave the same reply quoted above.

In Islam prayer has a higher place compared to fasting. Thus, if timing of prayer can be fixed, the same can happen to the daily fast.

It is also worth pointing out that the fast is ended at the time of the maghrib prayer. Thus, if the time of maghrib prayer is fixed, the time of breaking the fast is also fixed.

There are many hadith, which speak of Islam being a religion of ease rather than difficulties (Tafseer ibn Kathir, vol 1, page 852 onwards). Therefore, we have to be sure that we follow the Holy Prophet’s (s) injunction in this regard and act upon the relief that Islam has granted us.

Classical Jurists

Ibn Hajr in Fatul Bari (volume 2, page 62) and Imam ibn Tamiyah in Mukhtasir fatwah (vol l, page 38), among others, say that the Commands of the Holy Quran are for normal circumstances. When we face exceptional circumstances then we have to reflect and find a solution. I suggest that having to fast for 19 hours is exceptional and we need to reduce this to a manageable number.

Modern Scholars

Among others, Sheikh Mahmud Shaltut of Al Azhar has said (Fatawah, page 125) that the Command of the Holy Quran regarding when to start and when to end fast is for normal circumstances where the length of the day is around the average annual length of the day. Many countries in the Northern Hemisphere are above 45 degrees. This includes most of Europe, whole of Russia and Canada and a part of the US. In these countries the day is extremely long during the summer and thus it is not normal. Therefore, in these countries we need to set a limit to the hours for which we fast.

Alternatives

Scholars have suggested these alternatives.

  • That those who cannot fast for such long hours feed a poor person for each fast, as prescribed by the Holy Quran.
  • That people take advantage of the relief given where the Holy Quran says that if we cannot bear the fast then put it off to another time. The problem is that a person who does this will miss the wonderful atmosphere of Ramadan.
  • That we adopt the timing of fasting at Makkah. The reasoning is that had the Holy Prophet (s) been alive at this time that is the number of hours he would have fasted.
  • That people in lands with long hours of daily fast find the timing of the fasts in the nearest country where hours are close to average and use them.

This has been produced with the Northern Hemisphere in mind where the fasting day is long at this time (June 2015). When the fasting day is short in the Northern Hemisphere it will be long in the Southern Hemisphere. However, in the Southern Hemisphere this problem of long days hardly arises because only a little land mass (apart from Antarctica) is at a latitude more than 45 degrees.

 

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