Fasting Before Ramadan Was Ordained

In this article, I investigate the institution of fasting in Hijaz prior to the ordinance of Ramadan.


The historical sources of Islam inform that pagan Arabs used to fast on the day of Ashura’, viz. the tenth of Muharram. On this day they would also clothe the Ka’bah (Ahmed). The Prophet Muhammad – infinite peace and blessing be upon him – before and after Prophethood would also fast on this day.  Whether or not the Prophet (SAW) advised his Companions j to observe the Ashura’ fast during the makkan period is not known, but it is highly likely that they fasted too.  For, the speech the Prophet’s cousin, Jafar ibn Abi Talib (RA) made to the Negus of Abyssinia makes clear reference to fasting as an institution enacted by the Prophet (SAW). This indicates that it may have been legally-binding to fast on the day of Ashura’.  His speech is dated to year five into the Prophet’s office, corresponding to eight years before the Prophet’s migration to Madinah.

The Prophet’s migration 210 miles north to the then Yathrib marked the first Muslim interaction with Jewish society. Muslims learnt that Jews also observed the fast of Ashura’.  Their explanation of observing the fast was that it was to commemorate the day Yahweh (God) saved Moses from the wretched Pharaoh.  The Prophet (SAW) upon hearing this uttered, ‘We have more right over our brother Moses.’ A variant from Abu Hurayrah h informs us that Prophet Noah (AS) to commemorate the halt of his ark on Mount Judi, also fasted on the tenth of Muharram (cf. verse 11:44).  Another variant from Ibn Abbas k also claims Christians were no less observant of the Ashura’.  This seemingly anomalous addition is rationalised as Christ being a Jew who came as a continuum of Judaism and that much of Christian law is based on the Torah. (Ibn Hajar, fath)

Why the Pagans fasted on the day of Ashura’ is unclear, yet it is possible this may have resulted from their complex.  The Jews and Christians were considered superior because they possessed ‘Scripture’ – hence the term ‘people of the Book’ (ahl al-kitab).  It is because of this, Priests and Rabbis, in addition to the soothsayers, had become popular points of reference.  Khadijah, Allah is pleased with her, had taken the Prophet (SAW) to her cousin, Waraqah ibn Nawfal, shortly after he received the first revelation.  Chieftains of Quraysh, especially the arch enemies of Islam, Abu Jahl, Utbah ibn Farqad etc, paid visits to Rabbis, asking them for material that would disprove Mohammed’s claims and expose his deceit.  Women who had difficulties in conceiving children from the Ansar would vow to give their children a Jewish upbringing should they conceive a child.

Another opinion explaining why the Pagans may have observed the Ashura’ fast is attributed to the Follower (tabii) Ikrimah r.  He narrates that during the pre-Islamic era the Quraysh grieved over a sin they had committed and, consequently, fasting was suggested to them as a means of atonement.  The narration, however, fails to inform who might have proposed this method of repentance.  A more general thesis posited by some theologians is that the pagan fast of Ashura’ may have originated from the shari’ah of Abraham and inherited from there.

Whatever the reason behind Pagans fasting on the day of Ashura’, the sanctification of Ramadan as a month of fasting was revealed during the second year of migration, the same year the qiblah was diverted from the Noble Sanctuary (Temple Mount) in Jerusalem towards the Sanctified Masjid (al-Masjid al-Haram) in Makkah, or more specifically, towards the Ka’bah that was still shelved with idols and was circumambulated by Pagans in nudity.

“Many a time we have seen you [Prophet] turn your face towards Heaven, so We are turning you towards a prayer direction that pleases you.  Turn your face in the direction of the Sacred Masjid: wherever you [believers] may be, turn your faces towards it (2:144)

Later Jurists that have followed have inferred the fast of Ashura’ was obligatory upon early Muslims whilst others, although agreeing that the Prophet (SAW) never neglected this fast, believe it was never obligatory upon Muslims – or at least not prior to the migration to Madinah.  This is based on the differing narrations of A’isha, Ibn Abbas, Abu Musa, Muawiyah and others j, some of which will follow.

There are narrations that specify the Ashura’ lost its legally-binding status after the ordinance of Ramadan. A’isha’s report suggests the Prophet (SAW) obligated the fast of Ashura’ after his arrival in Madinah. If this is taken in to consideration along with the fact that he migrated to Madinah in Rabi al-Awwal, it would mean it, the Ashura’ fast, was legislated in the second year of migration (2 AH), the same year in which fasting Ramadan was prescribed, and not anytime before.

Ibn Abbas and Abu Musa’s narrations also agree with A’isha’s opinion that the Prophet (SAW) announced the obligation of the Ashura’ after his encounter with the Jews of Madinah, but it is possible to conclude that he was merely reinstating the obligation to his followers after having learnt the Jews also fasted on that day.  Those who argue its obligation began in Madinah believe this was because Muslims were expected to follow the previous shariah codes, which in this case was the shariah of Moses and which was to remain binding until further notice.  Whether the Prophet (SAW), prior to his office, followed a valid previous shariah code is a matter of immense discussion, occasion for which is not permitted here.  What is clear, however, is that Muslims observed their fast according to previous conventions before Islam introduced its particular amendments (Muslim; cf. verse 2:186).

Imam Malik ibn Anas r relates the priceless words of Muawiyah ibn Abi Sufyan h.  He once articulated on the pulpit: “O people of Madinah, where are your scholars? I heard the Prophet say, ‘Today is the day of Ashura’. Allah has not prescribed its fast upon you, nonetheless I am fasting.  Therefore, those of you who wish to fast may do so and those who do not are at liberty not to’”.

There is occasion to be had with the seemingly contradictory clause of the fast of Ashura’ not being prescribed at all.  Imam al-Nasa’i r is of this position i.e. the fast was never obligatory, yet given the plethora of alternative narrations a more conciliatory hermeneutic is warranted.  It seems, based on the given context and figure of speech, that Muawiyah’s intent is to explain Allah (SWT) has not prescribed the Ashura’ in the manner Ramadan is prescribed in the Qu’ran.  Secondly, it seems that Muawiyah/the Prophet is not accounting for the historical context but is merely giving the current ruling. It must be borne in mind that Muawiyah h converted to Islam during the year of the conquest, the narrators of the Ashura’ being obligatory are amongst the earliest Muslims. (Lucknawi, Muwatta’)

Ibn Masud h explains, ‘Once Ramadan was obligated the Ashura’ was discarded.’  However, even in this statement one must question what was abandoned since the advisory status (mustahabb, mandub, sunnah) seems to have remained after the inception of Ramadan. What greater endorsement of this can there be than the Prophet (SAW) having fasted every Ashura’ and announced the year he died, ‘Should I live to see the next Ashura’, I shall fast the ninth and tenth’?  It seems implausible to deny the meritoriousness of a practice given so much attention by the Prophet (SAW).

In year two, verse (2:183) was revealed. This forms the basis of mandatory fasting in Ramadan.

The verse, along with its two supplements, is as follows (translation taken from Taqi Uthmani):

“You who believe, fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you be mindful of God” (2:183)

“Fast for a specific number of days, but if one of you is ill, or on a journey, he should fast on other days later.  For those who can fast only with extreme difficulty, there is a way to compensate: feed a needy person.  But if anyone does good of his own accord, it is better for him, and fasting is better for you, if only you knew” (2:184)
“The month of Ramadan is the one in which the Qur’an was revealed as guidance for mankind, and as clear signs that show the right way and distinguish between right and wrong. So those of you who witness the month must fast in it. But the one who is sick, or is on a journey (should fast) as much from other days (as he missed). Allah intends (to provide) ease for you and does not intend (to create) hardship for you. All this is so that you may complete the number (of fasts as prescribed) and proclaim the Takbir of Allah for having guided you, and (so) that you may be grateful” (2:185)

“When My servants ask you about Me, then (tell them that) I am near. I respond to the call of one when he prays to Me; so they should respond to Me, and have faith in Me, so that they may be on the right path” (2:186)

“It is made lawful for you, in the nights of fasts, to have sex with your women. They are apparel for you, and you are apparel for them. Allah knows that you have been betraying yourselves, so He relented towards you and pardoned you. So now you can have sexual intimacy with them and seek what Allah has destined for you and eat and drink until the white thread of the dawn becomes distinct from the black thread; then complete the fast up to the night. But do not have sexual intimacy with them while you are staying in masjids for I‘tikaf. These are the limits set by Allah, so do not go near them. Thus Allah manifests His signs to the people, so that they may be God-fearing”(2:187)

It is important to note the Qur’an adds historicity to its repertoire of persuasion.  In this verse, apart from the honourable address of ‘you who believe’, recourse is made to the past – ‘as it was prescribed to those before you.’  This persuasion, it is understood, is borne out of recognition that fasting was absent amongst the initial addressees. Further analysis shows that every religion prior to Islam – Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, not to mention Christianity and Judaism – corresponds to the Qur’an’s declaration, and thus forms an important part of its inimitability (ijaz).

Editor’s note:

It is sunnah to fast on the day of ‘Ashura and the day before it according to the hadith mentioned above. It is a good idea that readers put the date in their diaries from now so as not to miss out on this important sunnah and virtuous deed. It serves as a reminder of the virtue and benefits of fasting, some months after Ramadhan and the days of hajj if we have not been able to sustain regular fasting. One may take inspiration from it and consider fasting more regularly on Mondays and Thursdays and the middle most days of the lunar month.

By: Shaykh Uwais Namazi


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