When fasting becomes a sin

Published: June 24, 2015
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Foreign workers break their fast outside the Imam Turki bin Abdullah mosque in the Saudi capital. PHOTO: AFP

Fasting during Ramadan.
PHOTO: REUTERS Foreign workers break their fast outside the Imam Turki bin Abdullah mosque in the Saudi capital. 
PHOTO: AFP

It was the October of 2005, during the month of Ramazan, when a devastating earthquake claimed close to a hundred thousand lives in the north of Pakistan, and injured just as many. I had the opportunity to serve the victims of this tragedy in the Kashmiri city of Bagh.

Of the many things I vividly remember is caring for some men and women with life-threatening injuries who refused treatment because they were fasting. They considered it a grave sin to break the fast. As a medical professional, this was especially frustrating for me. Similarly, we have all come across pregnant women who suffered from hypoglycemic (low blood sugar) episodes but still continued to fast during the month of Ramazan, putting at least two lives at risk.

Indeed, it is true that fasting is a virtue. But what some Muslims don’t understand is that it no longer remains a virtue in such extreme circumstances. In fact, as I point out below, it becomes a sin.

The Holy Quran states in chapter 2, verse 184 that fasting is not a compulsory obligation on those who suffer from sickness or endure the hardships of travel, or find “great difficulty” for any other reason. As, and when, these conditions of adversity change, the missed fasts can be repaid. This is because Allah (SWT) desires ease for us, rather than hardship. Why then do some Muslims think it is an absolute compulsion to fast in Ramazan? Do they think they can forcibly please God, despite His commandments to take it easy and not put their lives at risk?

We can all agree that there is no better way to understand the commandments of Islam than to see how Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) applied them in his own life. And it is very clear from studying his example that he discouraged fasting during travelling and illness or at other similar times of difficulty.

It is narrated in Sahih Muslim, for instance, that once the Holy Prophet (PBUH) stopped while on a journey and called for a cup of water to break his fast. He raised it to make sure everyone saw it, and drank from it. Despite him breaking his fast, some people continued their fast. When he was told about this, he expressed his displeasure and stated that these people are the disobedient ones. This tradition is also reported in the hadith books of Jami Tirmizi and Sunan Nasai.

Another similar incident, recorded in Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim, relates to a journey during a hot summer day when some of the Muslims chose to fast. Those fasting were so weak and dehydrated that they could not even get up, while those who were not fasting took care of all the work and fed the animals. The Holy Prophet (PBUH) was pleased with those who skipped the fast during the extreme heat, saying it was they who received the reward that day.

Similar, if not worse, conditions are prevalent right now in parts of Pakistan. It pains me immensely to read that over 800 (and counting) people have succumbed to heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke. I do not know how many of these were fasting, but this tragedy has brought back memories of Kashmir. As a physician, and a fellow Muslim, I feel this calls for some serious education and awareness.

Islam lays great emphasis on goodness and thus prescribes prayer, fasting and charity as means to achieve spiritual excellence. However, according to the requirements of wisdom, it also makes exceptions to these rules. For example, the very poor accrue no sin for not giving the zakat (obligatory alms). In fact, they receive from these alms. Travellers are required to cut short their prayers, with no loss in the reward of salat (prayer). Similarly, those in hard situations are exempted from the requirement of fasting.

We know from numerous other authentic traditions that the Holy Prophet (PBUH) did not hesitate to break his fast when embarking on a journey. He emphasised that to stubbornly continuing fasting under harsh circumstances was not an act of righteousness, but of disobedience.

During another of his journeys, the Holy Prophet (PBUH) came across a man being protected from the sun by a number of other men. On being told that the man was fasting, he said that it is not righteous that one should fast on a journey. Interestingly, this narration is cited in almost all major hadith books – Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Sunan Abi Dawud and Sunan Nasai.

Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is also known to have discouraged fasting for the sick and pregnant women. No wonder he was a mercy for mankind. At another place, he equated those who fasted during times of hardship to those who did not fast during normal conditions – both disobeying God.

After this clear direction from the man who brought this faith to mankind, how can one continue to dwell in ignorance? How can some Muslims still believe they can please God by force, by defying his own commandments? Do such hard-headed people think they are more ‘Muslim’ than the Prophet (PBUH) himself?

My intention is to educate fellow Muslims that it is perfectly in line with the teachings of Islam to not fast in extreme circumstances. I do not intend to engage in a scholarly discussion on the degree of travel, sickness or other hardship that is enough to exempt one from fasting. Our bodies are unique and are the best judge of what we can bear, and what we cannot. But what we can all agree from the example of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is that those directly affected by the hot weather conditions currently prevalent in Pakistan definitely have a legitimate reason to refrain from fasting.

Until the government does its job of providing round the clock power and air-conditioned public shelters, those exposed to the current heat wave – especially the children, elderly and sick – must ensure proper hydration for themselves. And once these harsh weather conditions change for the better, they can repay the missed number of days at a later time. This approach is in line with the requirements of wisdom – and the teachings of Islam.

kashif.chaudhry

Kashif Chaudhry

A graduate of King Edward Medical University, Lahore and Mt Sinai University Hospital in New York, Kashif is currently completing his Cardiology fellowship in Boston, USA. He writes for various American newspapers and Pakistani publications and blogs at the Huffington Post. His interests include medicine, human rights and interfaith dialogue. He tweets @KashifMD (twitter.com/KashifMD)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Amrutam Aparya

    Very well written. Let this be translated in the other languages and published.Particularly the Mullas and Maulvis shall be educated on this. Let them not threaten people with dire consequences if they do not fast during Ramzan. Similarly the Zakat amount collected shall be spent to create livelihood opportunities for the poor rather than giving them food and forget. I learnt that 60% of the Zakat collected is spent on Madarassahs which is a criminal waste. We all know that the most of the Madrassahs in Pakistan preach more of hatred and terrorism and less on religion and modern education.Recommend

  • anon0912

    I seem to remember recalling those that die during Ramadan going straight to heaven.Lo and behold,despair not and rejoice.Recommend

  • Critical

    Its been 3 years since I’ve started following ET tribune…Looks like few things are as predictable as clockwork in their blogs…

    For eg,just when the start of every Holy Ramzan month,there will a blog about how fasting is beneficial for ur health and it will make us pious

    and then another article telling us its not mandatory to fast…

    Just the wordings and the author changes but the jist of the blogs remain the same….

    I think ET should start moderate the blogs better so that they need not repeat the same information again and againRecommend

  • Peace

    100% true.God loves us very much and don’t want to put us in hardship or unease inspite of that he wants from us True obedience.
    So, a person can not get God’s pleasure by fasting,when God says not to fast in these circumstances,but actual God’s pleasure is in obedience.
    And we can find all his sayings & commands in his Holy book ” Quran” ,all we need to read it and understand it by the help of sayings of Holy Prophet (pbuh).Recommend

  • Saima Qaisrani

    That is absolutely true. Islam is the religion of Salamti, mean giving life, not taking or wasting life. If it is really hard due to weather to fast, do it later when weather is better. Remember none of our good deed will make us to deserve Jannah but it is Allah’s kindness and forgiveness which will do it. I think the religious scholars need to come forward and prove their role as our people will prefer to hear it from a Moulvi rather than a doctor.

    Recommend

  • pietrocrazy

    Such a good, good point, and so very necessary, too. Ramadan is meant to test you and challenge you, not hurt you. Islam never endorses self-harm!Recommend

  • pk

    But why can’t god protect its followers in such bad condition. Why all rewards are available only after death, an imaginary world that no body has seen.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Logical and sensible.Recommend

  • Pookie Shy

    As a commandment from the Creator of the earth and heaven to not fast during extreme hardship than why do some of us take it upon ourselves to continue to fast is beyond my comprehension. Faith requires one to put their arrogance and ego aside and with complete humility follow Allah’s command without doubt, question, excuses or disbelief. Faith is not selective compulsive adhering to some commands of Allah while ignoring the rest. No verses of the Holy Quran can be ignored or considered redundant simply on the basis of individuality putting human life at risk.Recommend

  • Muhid

    The so-called torchbearers of Islam, our local molvis and maulanas, do not preach these things in their sermons. All they are concerned about are the ‘Ummah’ being destroyed by yahudiis and other various conspiracy theories. The molvis are the ones who have practically brought the country to the current state by separating progressiveness from Islam.Recommend

  • Syeda Ali

    Sane enough! Really this goes beyond comprehension why do people fast when they are risking their lives? One of the many factors is that they don’t know all that you have discussed. People should be told this via Media LOUDLY. Its a sin they are committing… not any virtueRecommend

  • T chaudhry

    All we need is to get knowledge about our pure and pristine religion. If we follow Quran as was followed by the Holy Prophet, these extremes will never devastate our lives. Infact quranic commandments should be followed keeping in view the conditions expounded with them. Who else can explain Quranic injunctions than the one on whom it was revealed.
    .Recommend

  • Adeela Chaudhry

    The purpose of religion is not to make our lives hard. Those who chose to make life hard upon themselves in the name of religion are unfair. When clear guidelines have been laid in the Quran, and yet people chose to adopt extreme ways contrary to the guidelines then what they are following is not true religion, and in this case not true Islam. Recommend

  • T chaudhry

    All we need is to get knowledge about our pure and pristine religion. If we follow Quran as was followed by the Holy Prophet, these extremes will never devastate our lives. Infact quranic commandments should be followed keeping in view the conditions expounded with them. Who else can explain Quranic injunctions on whom was it revealed.Recommend

  • https://twitter.com/shoaib_112 Mirza Shoaib Ahmad Jarral

    You are dying and at the same time God should always save you?he shouldn’t let you die? this is what you want? Incidents are suppose to be happen and the bad condition you are claiming for is completely our self-created mess.and the word “REWARD” you used tells by it self that you can only get after some tests and practices.Recommend

  • Usman

    We need scholars like you!Recommend

  • Nimra Aslam

    ”Faith is not selective compulsive adhering to some commands of Allah while ignoring the rest”
    Exactly!Recommend

  • abeer

    Very nice mashaAllah.moderateRecommend

  • ranger

    Are you planning to die during ramadan?Recommend

  • anon0912

    I prefer hell to be honest.Recommend