Fasting During Ramadan: Customs and Requirements

Muslims Mark End Of Ramadan In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Women stand in prayer during an Eid al-Fitr celebration, marking the end of Ramadan. Justin Merriman /Getty Images

In line with the long history of fasting in the Abrahamic faiths, Muslims fast from dusk until dawn during the month of Ramadan, which occurs in the ninth lunar month of the Islamic calendar and lasts between 29 to 30 days (dates may vary due to moon-sighting, and the length of fasting may change based on an observer's location). Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam as well as one of the greatest acts of worship a Muslim can perform. The act of fasting during Ramadan has specific regulations and rules. The idea is to cleanse one's body, mind and soul from the world's impurities, improve moral character, focus on the positive, pray and become closer to Allah. 

Abstaining for a Valid Fast

A "valid" fast requires two main factors: intention and abstinence. Muslims must have the intention to fast every night during the month of Ramadan. They also must abstain from acts that nullify the fast: eating, drinking, smoking, engaging in sexual intercourse, intentionally vomiting, menstruating, or bleeding during childbirth. These requirements apply to all observing Muslims who are of age (that is, have reached puberty but are not yet elderly) and who are of sound mind. During fasting, one should only take medication in case of a life-threatening situation.

Most aspects of everyday life are still permitted during Ramadan. Muslims can shower, draw blood, breathe in different smells, rinse the mouth and nose, apply deodorant, kiss or embrace their spouse, and apply eyedrops. Unintentional vomiting (perhaps due to illness), bathing, and brushing teeth do not invalidate an intended fast. Swallowing one's own saliva or phlegm (accidental consumption) and wearing contact lenses are also permissible.

Thinking about breaking the fast, or breaking it accidentally or forgetfully, does not invalidate it, but intentionally breaking the fast requires making up for it in different ways, depending on the type and degree of the transgression. Muslims should break the fast at the appropriate time by either drinking water or eating an odd number of dates. Remember: a single sip of water breaks the fast, so it should only be done at the prescribed times.

Special Circumstances

Islamic scholars have outlined fasting requirements for the general population and explain the accommodations that can be made when someone is unable to fast because of sickness or other health reasons. There are general guidelines and special cases for circumstances such as sickness and chronic health problems, for instance. A pregnant woman who believes fasting will harm her baby is excused from fasting. Also excused are travelers, the elderly, and the insane.

Those who are capable but not fasting for other reasons (such as traveling) are expected to make up for missing the fast when it is possible. The poor may be excused but must ask Allah for forgiveness. On a personal level, some Muslims who fall into an exempted category because of age or health may fast anyway for their own spiritual fulfillment, but it is not required of them.

Rewards of Fasting

The idea of fasting during Ramadan is to bring the faithful into closeness with Allah through observing heightened purity of actions and thoughts. It is believed that the act of fasting - along with other actions undertaken during Ramadan - helps to cleanse the soul and redirect one's self away from worldly concerns.

Fasting during Ramadan is not just about eliminating or abstaining from a list of forbidden actions. In place of these forbidden actions, Muslims ought to spend time in prayer, reflection, charity, and similar things. Self-improvement during Ramadan focuses on becoming closer to God and growing in empathy and generosity.