Long Fasting Hours Causing Undue Hardship Is Not Piety

Long Fasting Hours Causing Undue Hardship Is Not Piety
Diversity and inclusion are strengths for they allow us to drown out extreme voices, safeguard the rights of vulnerable minorities and allow for multiple viewpoints. This means that Sunni and Shia, Ithna Ashari and Ismaili, Bohra and Ahmadi, progressive and LGBTQ, any and all, are afforded dignity, respect and space especially within the Pakistani Diaspora in the West.

Such diversity applies to religious practice especially during Ramadan, which technically is about cultivating taqwa (moral consciousness) but gets reduced to an exercise in extreme judgment of fellow co-religionists.

Community members look down upon those who do not fast, and those who fast longer hours in the West sell their rigid opinions as that of “normative” Islam. What was meant to be an exercise in self-reflection becomes yet another tool for riya kari (showing off false piety).

Islamic teachings are clear that some people only achieve hunger and thirst for they have failed to attain moral consciousness. This is a consistent teaching on rituals that include prayer and animal sacrifice. We are told that Allah does not need prayer and that it is not the flesh and the blood of the animal but moral consciousness that reaches Allah. Therefore, if people keep long fasting hours at the expense of the spirit, then it is of no consequence.

Islam is a religion of the tariq al wasat (the middle path). Ghuluw (fanaticism) is frowned upon especially in ibada (worship) rituals, which is why the juristic principle is prohibition unless the worship ritual is sanctioned by the primary sources of Islamic knowledge – the Qur’an and the Sunnah.

Dr. Usama Hasan has written an excellent blog on long fasting hours. Some that follows borrows from his piece.

According to his work, the timing and duration of Islamic rituals are based on normal and usual circumstances pertaining to the places of revelation, Mecca and Medina. This principle has been upheld by the likes of al-Asqalani (d. 1449), Ibn Abidin (d. 1836) and even the austere Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328).

Indeed, the Prophet was clear that timings were based on urf (custom), as is evident from the Hadith on Safwan bin Mu’attal whose tribe customarily rose after sunrise, so the Prophet allowed him to pray after sunrise.

In the context of fasting, Mustafa al-Zarqa (d. 1999) proposed that those living in latitudes higher than 45 degrees (which includes most of Europe and all of Canada) should fast according to Mecca timings, as it is the “Mother of Villages,” which Muslims turn to not only for qibla (prayer direction) but also for estimating timings.

Zarqa’s fatwa (religious edict) has precedence in a similar edict by Mohammad Abdou (d. 1905), who opined that fasting hours should be estimated based on cities with moderate hours, which is consistent with the teaching of the middle path or of the Prophet adopting the easier of two equally valid paths.

This is not a novel opinion but one that is entrenched in classical Hanafi jurisprudence as Muslims travelled to Northern Europe in the Middle Ages. Indeed, Mahmud Shaltut (d. 1963), Jad al Haqq (d. 1996), and Muhammad Hamidullah (d. 2002) shared similar opinions on fast timings.

Some Shia Ithna Ashari jurists are even more radical when it comes to fasting. According to a Shia source, Ayatollah Muhaqqiq Damad viewed fasting as dependent on the person’s capacity. This is based on the rationale that this ritual is like Hajj, where pilgrimage is still valid even if one is not physically able to perform one of the acts.

Ayatollah Zanjani even allowed for minimal drinking of water during fasting. This may have been based on the raf al harj (repelling harm) principle. This juristic principle, alternatively stated as, “there is no harm or reciprocating harm in Islam,” is also found in the very passage on fasting. The relevant excerpt from verse 2:185, which is repeated in other places in the Qur’an, reads, “Allah wishes ease for you, not hardship.”

In the context of fasting and praying, al-Shatibi’s (d. 1388) work shows that when Allah offers a facility then he prefers it to be used, as excessive rigidity is not piety. Indeed, the Prophet has admonished his Companions that “among you are those that drive people away.”

Perhaps it is time for ordinary, everyday Muslims to assert that fasting is not just the practice of those Muslims who equate hardship with piety. This means that some fast for twelve hours, as they fast from 6 A.M. to 6 P.M., some fast based on Mecca timings, some fast year long from lying and cheating instead of mere hunger and thirst, and some look beyond rituals to the constant task of nurturing taqwa (moral consciousness).