Why do Muslims fast during Ramadan and who is exempt?

Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam and was prescribed to Muslims in the second year of the Hijri calendar

Muslim workers break their fast at sunset during a mass iftar in a park in Sharjah during Ramadan in April 2022. Ali Haider / EPA
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Ramadan will begin on March 23 this year for most countries in the Middle East and will prompt millions of Muslims around the world to abstain from eating or drinking from dawn until sunset each day for a month.

As they fast, Muslims will be performing one of the central elements of Ramadan and fulfilling one of the five pillars of Islam.

What are the five pillars of Islam?

These mandatory pillars comprise the basic tenets of Islam and are considered the foundation of life for Muslims. Along with fasting, the other four pillars include prayer, giving alms or zakat, performing Hajj and the shahada — a declaration of faith whereby a Muslim professes that there is only one God (Allah) and Prophet Mohammed is his messenger.

Although fasting takes centre stage during Ramadan, it is not exclusive to the holy month. Many devout Muslims choose to fast each Monday and Thursday, as the prophet recommended, and on Arafat Day, the day before Eid Al Adha.

But fasting is not all that is expected of Muslims during Ramadan. Devotees must also be extra careful not to commit any sins during the holy month, including lying or swearing. Increased piety, tolerance and patience are also key to a successful Ramadan, of which the objective is effective self-discipline — where God’s orders are obeyed even when no one is watching.

A family gather for iftar in Jerusalem's Old City. Reuters

Why do Muslims fast in Ramadan?

By abstaining from eating and drinking all day, Muslims who are able to fast come to understand and empathise with the less fortunate.

"When people feel the hunger of their empty stomachs, they remember their less-fortunate brothers and offer them what they can to make them happy," Dr Ahmed Al Haddad, the Grand Mufti of Dubai, previously told The National.

“Fasting is also healthy and increases well-being, as one organises their food and drink.”

From the perspective of faith, he said, fasting also drew people closer to God.

“The goal of fasting is to protect the self against disobeying God and against following desires blindly,” said another preacher, who preferred not to be named.

“The more you grant the self its desires, the more it will want regardless of the damage its desires might cause.”

Removing the urge to eat and drink also encourages people to think past impulses, practice patience and focus on issues that feed the soul instead.

When was fasting introduced?

The notion of fasting was ­revealed to the Prophet Mohammed in a Quranic verse during the second year of the Hijri calendar – the year the prophet moved from Makkah to Madinah.

"Oh you who believe! Prescribed for you is the Fast, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may deserve God's protection (against the temptations of your carnal soul) and attain piety," the Quran says.

From then on, fasting during Ramadan was made mandatory for all Muslims – except in certain circumstances.

When are Muslims exempt from fasting?

Exemption from fasting extends to Muslims who are sick or travelling a long distance. Muslims are also exempt from fasting if they are menstruating or have not yet reached puberty.

What are the benefits of fasting?

The religious benefits for fasting are said to be vast. The prophet is believed to have said, “whoever fasts Ramadan with good faith and expecting God’s reward, will have their pasts sins erased”.

Dr Al Haddad said fasting is also beneficial to society.

“It unifies Muslims all around the world to fast during this one month,” he said.

While fasting, Muslims are said to feel the unity of the Ummah (community), as they share a purely religious practice away from politics and nationalism.

"Fasting also brings out the good in people, as they gather to do good deeds, be kind to the poor and meet their family members," the Grand Mufti said.

*A version of this story first appeared in The National in May 2019.

Updated: June 06, 2023, 11:27 AM