By Kashif Chaudhry
June 24, 2015
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 hypoglycaemic (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.
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.