Every year, as Ramadan begins, columns of newspapers are filled with discussion of this great duty, which is one of the five pillars on which the structure of Islam is built, as described by the Prophet (peace be upon him). Much of this discussion is repetitive. Scholars who are approached to write about Ramadan will often select the most prominent aspects of this great month and the duty of fasting we have to observe for its duration. Unaware of what other scholars and publications have already written and published, the most important features of this great duty tend to be highlighted in almost every publication. This makes writing on such occasions rather boring to both reader and writer. Moreover, it leads to the neglect of other important aspects which are normally reduced to a secondary grade, simply because everyone finds it easier to speak on the general principles. In an attempt to avoid being repetitive, we at times concentrated our discussion of Ramadan on trying to capture the significance of certain Hadiths relevant to this blessed month. We talked about the duty itself, its reward and what code of behaviour it imposes on a fasting person. Over the next few weeks, we will try to discuss other aspects of the duty of fasting and the month of Ramadan. Inevitably we will touch on some aspects that we discussed previously, but we will try to steer away from repetitiveness.
In Ramadan we fast every day from dawn to dusk. This is the timing given to us by God in the Qur’an, as He states: “You may eat and drink until you can distinguish the whiteness of the day against the blackness of the night at dawn. Then continue your fast until nightfall.” (2: 187) This Qur’anic verse was not revealed at the time when the duty of fasting was imposed in the second year after the Prophet’s settlement in Madinah. What Muslims were required to do before the revelation of this verse was to start their fast once they have prayed Isha and gone to sleep. In other words, they were allowed to eat, drink and have sex with their spouses from sunset until they went to bed after Isha, no matter how early at night they did so. They had to continue fasting until sunset the following day. Al-Bukhari relates on Al-Baraa’s authority: “If a man from among Muhammad’s companions was fasting and it was time to end the fast, but he slept before he broke his fast, he was not allowed to eat for the rest of that night, or during the following day until the evening. Qays ibn Sirmah, a man from the Ansar, was fasting. When it was time to end his fast, he came home and said to his wife: ‘Do you have any food?’ She said: ‘No, but I can go and seek some food for you.’ He had spent all that day working. As he sat, sleep overtook him. When his wife came back and saw him, she said: ‘Deprived you are.’ When it was midday the following day, he fell unconscious. This was reported to the Prophet (peace be upon him). Shortly afterward, the verse was revealed which starts with: “It is made permissible for you to have sex with your wives in the night of fasting.” They were exceedingly pleased with its revelation. Also revealed in the same verse were God’s words: “You may eat and drink until you distinguish the whiteness of the day against the blackness of the night.’”
This Hadith tells us how the ruling of fasting and the length of time one has to fast was changed. At the beginning, the time of starting the fast was not very definite. It depended on going to bed after praying Isha. That did not leave Muslims much time to rest from fasting. When it was sunset, they broke their fast, offered Maghrib prayer and had a meal. When they had done that, it was not long before Isha prayer was called. Their social habits meant that they went to bed shortly afterward. Once they slept, they could not eat, drink or have sexual intercourse with their spouses. This meant that the day of fasting extended to something like 21 or 22 hours. Every thing, however, depended on keeping awake after sunset. If anyone was overpowered by sleep, he had to continue fasting, even if he had not had a meal after such a long day.
This Hadith tells us that this Ansari companion of the Prophet, Qays ibn Sirmah, came to his wife at Maghrib time asking her whether she had anything for him to eat. It may sound strange to us that after such a long day a man might not have had anything in his home to eat. Commentators on Hadith give different explanations on the basis of the fact that this Hadith is related in several versions, some of which give further details and the reason for Qays’s wife to go out seeking food at that particular time. Some scholars of Hadith mention that Qays was working throughout the day on a farm and he could not manage to bring any food with him. A more detailed version of this Hadith suggests that he brought some dates with him and asked his wife to offer some of the dates in exchange for flour in order to cook him a hot meal. He was bored with eating dates every day. When she went about doing what her husband requested, he sat down to relax and was soon overtaken by sleep. All this serves to show that many of the Prophet’s companions were poor. They hardly had anything more than their bare necessities. A fasting person was required to work very hard throughout his day that he could not relax for half an hour at the end of his day without dozing off. It was a hard life.
Fasting for long hours in such conditions made the duty very difficult indeed. It is not surprising that when a person missed his evening meal, as Qays did on this particular occasion, he found fasting too difficult to withstand. Qays was not an old man, yet he fell unconscious by midday after going without food for about 40 hours.
That fasting was obligatory for such very long hours in the early stages of Islam was yet another test required of the early Muslims. When they had kept it up to the extent that a person like Qays would refuse to eat or drink after nearly 24 hours of fasting, because eating after having slept constituted disobedience of God’s orders, then God lightened their duty by giving them, and all Muslims in future generations, a more relaxed time for preparing for their day of fasting.
Fasting is now required from dawn to dusk. We note that the Qur’anic verse speaks of distinguishing the whiteness of the day against the blackness of the night. This is an idiomatic translation of this Qur’anic statement. A more literal translation may be rendered as follows: “You may eat and drink until you can distinguish the white line from the black line at dawn.” The Arabic term, khayt, used for “line” also means “thread”. Some of the Prophet’s companions, however, took this expression literally. Adiy ibn Hatim reports that when this verse was revealed he said to the Prophet: “Messenger of God! I placed under my pillow two ropes, a white one and a black one, so that I could distinguish night from day.” The Prophet said to him: “Your pillow is certainly wide. This is a reference to the blackness of the night and the whiteness of the day.” (Related by Al-Bukhari and Muslim.) Adiy ibn Hatim was not alone in doing so. We have several Hadiths that suggest that many of the Prophet’s companions understood the statement literally and tried to determine the time for the beginning of fasting by holding a white thread and a black one. They continued to eat and drink until they could clearly distinguish one from the other. We note here how the Prophet explained to Adiy what was meant by the Qur’anic verse.
He first told him that his pillow was wide. He meant that Adiy would be sleeping late if he waited until he could distinguish one rope from the other. The break of dawn takes place earlier. Much of the light of the approaching day would be needed before we are able to distinguish the two ropes. Ibn Hajar, a great scholar of Hadith in his own right, mentions in his extensive commentary on Al-Bukhari’s Sahih anthology of Hadiths that the Prophet’s reply was figurative, pointing in a different direction. He is of the view that the Prophet meant that Adiy’s pillow must be very wide indeed if it could cover the two ropes God meant, i.e. the blackness of the night and the whiteness of the day. When the Prophet made this abundantly clear to his companions, they were in no doubt about the time when they have to start their fast. Anyone could determine that by merely looking at the sky. He is certain to note when the first ray of light shows against the blackness of the night.