Ramadan: Precise Timing for a Great Duty
Al-Bukhari relates on the authority of Al-Baraa’: If a man from among the companions of Muhammad (Pbuh) 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. Qais 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 asleep. When it was midday the following day, he fell unconscious.”
Commentary by Adil Salahi
We fast today from dawn to dusk. This is the timing given to us by Allah in the Qur’an when He says: “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 verse of the Qur’an, however, 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 that they were allowed to eat, drink and have sex with their wives at night, until they had prayed Isha and slept. When they have slept, no matter how early at night they did so, they were not allowed to have anything to eat or drink until sunset of the following day. Al-Bukhari relates on the authority of Al-Baraa’: If a man from among the companions of Muhammad (Pbuh) 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. Qais 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 asleep. When it was midday the following day, he fell unconscious.” This was reported to the Prophet (Pbuh). Shortly afterwards, the verse was revealed which starts with: “It is allowed for you to have sex with your wives in the night of fasting.” Muslims were very pleased with its revelation. Also revealed (in the same verse) were Allah’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 on fasting and the length of time one has to fast was changed. At the beginning, the time for 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. Arabs’ social habits meant they went to bed shortly afterward. Once they slept, they could not eat, drink or have sexual intercourse with their wives. That meant that the day of fasting extended to something like 20 or 21 hours. Everything, 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, Qais ibn Sirmah, came to his wife at Maghrib time asking her whether she had anything for him to eat. It may sound to us strange 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 has been related in several versions, some of them giving further details and the reason for Qais’ wife to go out and seek food at that particular time. Some scholars of Hadith mention that Qais 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 these 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 overtaken by sleep. All this serves to show that many of the Prophet’s companions were poor. They hardly had anything more than bare necessities. A fasting person was required to work very hard throughout the day so that he could not relax for half an hour at the end of his day without dozing off. It was a hard life. Fasting these long hours made the duty very difficult indeed. It is not surprising that when a person missed his evening meal, as Qais did on this particular occasion, he found fasting too difficult to withstand. Qais was not an old man, yet he lost consciousness by midday after going for about 40 hours without food. Making fasting so long at the early stages was yet another test required of the early Muslims. When they have kept it up to the extent that a person like Qais would refuse to eat or drink after nearly 24 hours of fasting, because eating after having slept constituted disobedience to Allah, then Allah 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 term used, the “line”, also means “thread.” Some of the companions of the Prophet, however, took the verse literally. Addi ibn Hatim, a companion, reports that when this verse was revealed he said to the Prophet: “Messenger of Allah, 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-Buchari and Muslim in slightly different versions). Addi ibn Hatim was not alone in doing so. We have several Hadiths which suggest that many of the companions of the Prophet 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 between the two. We can note here how the Prophet explained to Addi ibn Hatim what was meant by the Qur’anic verse. He first told him that his pillow was wide. That was an expression denoting that he could 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 day is needed before one can distinguish one rope from the other. Ibn Hajar; a great scholar of Hadith in his own right, mentions in his extensive commentary on the “Sahih” of Al-Bukhari that the words of the Prophet are used figuratively in a different direction. What the Prophet meant was that Addi’s pillow would be very wide indeed if it could cover the two ropes Allah has meant, namely, the blackness of the night and the whiteness of the day. When the Prophet has made this abundantly clear to his companions, they were in no doubt whatsoever about the time when they have to start their fast. Anyone would determine that by merely looking at the sky. He is certain to note when the first of light shows against the blackness of the night.