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Paper presented at the Second Universiti Malaya Medical Center Conference on Medicine from the Islamic Perspective held at Sheraton Subang on 11-13 October 2002 by Professor Omar Hasan Kasule, Sr. MB ChB (MUK), MPH, DrPH (Harvard). EM Web address:


Discussion of the medical benefits of saum should not distract us from the more important considerations of its obligation as ‘ibadat and its virtues, fadhl al saum. Saum according to Islamic regulations has no physiological harm. Saum is practical training in five important aspects: control of the food appetite, control of the sex appetite, behavioral self restraint, compassion for others, and personal empowerment. Control of the food appetite prevents diseases due to malnutrition. Control of the sex appetite prevents sexually-related diseases and conditions. Behavioral self-restraint prevents aggression that results in physical and mental harm. Compassion for others enables a more equitable distribution of health-related resources to relieve the disease burden of the less privileged. Personal empowerment strengths individual will to adopt and maintain a healthy life-style.


1.0 SAUM:

1.1 Obligation of saum

Saum is obligatory and is one of the pillars of Islam, al saum rukn al Islam[i], enjoined by the Qur’an[ii]. It has two main pillars, arkaan al saum, intention, niyyat al saum, and abstinence from food or drink, imsaak 'an al ta'aami wa al sharaabi. The definition of saum as prohibition of entry of anything through any of the external body orifices is figurative but is true. Food and drink through the mouth are not allowed. Smoking and other inhalants are also forbidden. Sexual relations are strictly forbidden. All these prohibitions operate during the day-light hours because saum is not obligatory at night. Saum is obligatory for adult, sane, and healthy Muslims who have reached puberty or have attained the age of 15 years.


1.2 Virtues of saum, fadhl al siyaam,

The merits are many and varied. The spiritual merits are expiation of sins. The medical merits are self control and discipline with regard to appetite for food and sex. The social merits arise from the self restraint and self-discipline since the saum person is enjoined to desist from quarrelling, loud talk, cruel acts, and falsities. The personal benefits are personal empowerment. Those who fast will enter jannat through the gate of rayyaan[iii]. Saum will be an intercession in the hereafter, al saum shafa’at yawm al qiyamat[iv]. Saum cleanses the body, al saum zakaat al jism[v]. The saum person has two pleasures: when he breaks the fast and when he meets his Lord, li al saim farhataan[vi]. The smell of the mouth of the person saum, huluuf fam al saim, is better to Allah than the best of perfumes[vii]. If a person fasts the month of Ramadhan in the true belief and expectation of reward from Allah, he is forgiven all the previous sins[viii].


2.3 Etiquette and Regulations of saum:

Among etiquettes of saum, adaab al siyam are: intention of saum, niyyat al siyaam, before fajr[ix] and avoiding falsehood or foolishness during saum[x]. Among recommended acts of saum, sunan al siyaam/ manduubaat al saum are: night prayer in Ramadhan[xi]. itikaaf in the last 10 days of Ramadhan[xii], dua at break-fast[xiii],  generosity, al juud; joining kindred relations, silat al rahm; recitation of the Qur'an, tilawat al Qur'an; major ablution before salat al fajr; avoiding back-biting, ghaibat, telling lies, kadhb, and obscenities, fahsh, providing breakfast for the poor, and delaying non-urgent medical treatment. Among offensive acts of saum, makruhaat al siyaam, is kissing for young couples or those who can not control themselves from sexual arousal[xiv]. Prohibitions of saum, muharramaat al siyaam, are sexual intercourse in the day[xv], eating and drinking in the day[xvi]. The following abrogate saum, mubtilaat al saum, and require make-up, qadha: deliberate eating and drinking, akl 'amdan; use of snuff or tobacco in the nose, putting water in the ear until it reaches the ear-drum, excessive madhmadhat, excessive istinshaaq, insanity or loss of consciousness even if temporary, any penetration by any object or material into the body cavity (intra-muscular and intra-venous injections are excepted); vaginal coitus or any other sexual act that leads to orgasm.


1.4 Types of saum

The saum of the month of Ramadhan is obligatory. The following are permitted non-obligatory saum: saum of Mondays and Thursdays[xvii], saum of the 9th and 10th of Muharram, saum of 6 days in the month of Shawal[xviii], saum of 3 days in every lunar month[xix], saum of the day of Arafat for the pilgrim[xx], saum of the sanctified months, ashhur al hurum[xxi]. The following types of saum are forbidden: saum of the 2 days of eid al fitr and eid al adh-ha[xxii], saum during ayaam al tashriik[xxiii], singling out Friday as a day of saum[xxiv], continuous saum, wisaal[xxv], life-time saum, saum al dahar[xxvi], saum of a doubtful day, saum yawm al shakk[xxvii], saum in the second half of sha'abaan[xxviii], and purposely planning to selecting saum on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. Two types of saum are punitive: saum of 3 days during hajj and 7 after return to home country for infraction of a hajj rite  and saum of 60 days for sexual intercourse in Ramadhan.



2.1 Concepts of ‘psychological’ and ‘physiological’ hunger

The purpose of saum is to achieve taqwa[xxix] through disciplining and controlling two of the most powerful human drives: food and sex. It is wrong to think that the purpose of saum is food deprivation because in normal circumstances a person in saum has enough nutrients stored in the body and is not at any moment in physical danger due to food deprivation. He however feels hunger and thirst which are psychological proxies for the food drive whose control is the purpose of saum. The psychological hunger drive is satisfied by ingestion of food or water using the alimentary canal (from the mouth to the anus). It is not satisfied by intake of nutrients through any other route into the body. I am therefore of the opinion that the jauf of the fuqaha is the alimentary canal and nothing else. Saum is abrogated if any material is ingested in such a way that the drives of hunger and thirst are satisfied.


The distinction between ingestion of food and water for satisfaction of the hunger drive and their ingestion for purposes of bodily physiological need is made very clear in the Qur’an[xxx]. Food ingested may not satisfy hunger but may fulfill physiological needs. In sham feeding experiments, an animal ingests food by the mouth but the food does not reach the stomach being diverted by a tube to outside the body. The animal does not feel hunger but suffers from food deprivation. Patients on intravenous feeding get enough nutrients for their physiological needs but feel hungry because they do not eat through the mouth.


2.2 Saum has no physiological harm

Saum does not make the body suffer to attain spiritual benefit. The concept of ascetism in this sense is alien to the Islamic creed. There is no spiritual advantage in punishing or persecuting the body or causing it any harm. The rights of the body must be respected in saum[xxxi]. Decisions of non-obligatory saum should consider three types of rights: rights of the self, haqq al nafs; rights of the family, haqq al ahl[xxxii], and rights of the body, haqq al jasad[xxxiii]. A balance is needed among these rights. A balance must also be established between fulfilling these rights and ‘ibadat.


Saum therefore results in psychological and not physiological hunger. Saum will have to be terminated if it actually results in nutrient deprivation that harms good health in any way. Excessive hunger or thirst that harm health are valid excuses for breaking the fast and making it up later, qadha.


Saum according to Islamic regulations has no physiological harm. Saum during the day has almost the same duration as the normal overnight saum with the difference that metabolism and hence nutrient requirements are lower during sleep. Saum according to the regulations is associated with psychological hunger but does not expose the body to any significant nutrient deprivation. Allah created the sensation of hunger as a warning to humans to start looking for the next meal. Sensation of hunger does not indicate immediate need for food or nutrient deprivation because the body has a reasonable nutrient storage capacity.


2.3 Exemption from saum for physiological stress

The Law provides guidelines on saum for those who may suffer from physiological imbalances. The sick, the young, the travelers, pregnant women, menstruating women, breast-feeding mothers, and any other persons for whom saum is an extra burden are excused from saum or are asked to fast at a different time when they are physiologically competent. Children are told to fast from the age of 7 years but the saum of children[xxxiv]  is for training but is not obligatory. The insane and those with physical conditions that can be aggravated by saum are exempted. The sick are allowed to break the fast and make up for lost days later[xxxv]


2.4 Etiquette of saum for preventing dehydration and hypoglycemia

The Prophet recommended delay of suhuur, ta'akhiir al suhuur[xxxvi], hastening iftar, ta'ajiil al iftar[xxxvii]. Suhuur is delayed such that there is a very short time remaining before fajr[xxxviii]. Breakfast is hastened at sunset[xxxix]. The prophet recommended breaking the fast with dates (high sugar content) and water[xl].


2.5 Exemption of the sick and those under physiological stress

Exemption from saum with no make-up and no kaffaarat occurs in the following conditions: old age, shiekh kabiir; weakness, 'ajz; and illness with no hope of cure, maradh muzmin. The following are allowed to break the saum and make up later: a patient with expected recovery, al maridh[xli], the traveler, al musafir[xlii], the pregnant woman, al hublah[xliii], the breast-feeding woman or nursing woman, al murdhi'[xliv], the menstruating woman, al haidhah[xlv], and a woman in post-natal bleeding, nifaas.


2.6 Allowing activities of normal living during saum

When undertaken according to the teachings of the prophet, saum should not disturb the normal activities needed to work for feeding the family or undertaking ‘ibadat. It is offensive to treat the month of Ramadhan as a month of laziness with no productive work. The following are permitted during the day: using the tooth-pick, siwaak; use of toothpaste can be used provided care is taken not to swallow any of it; rinsing the mouth with pure water with care being taken to avoid swallowing;  washing or bathing in water with care being taken not to swallow any water; applying kuhl, kissing a spouse if there is no fear of sexual temptation, and washing or rinsing inside the mouth and nostrils. The Law also provides for protection of conjugal rights of spouses[xlvi]. A guest does not fast non-obligatory fasts except with the permission of the host[xlvii]. If a person eats or drinks in forgetfulness then all they have to do is to complete the day and the day is considered valid[xlviii]. A non-obligatory fast can be broken at any time but must be redone, qadha[xlix]. The following activities do not nullify saum: wet sexual dream[l], madhmadhat, istinshaaq[li] with no exaggeration, cooling the body such as tepid sponging, tabarrud,[lii].


2.7 Prohibition of harmful actions in saum

The Law prohibits continuous day and night saum, wisaal[liii] and saum every day for life, siyam al dahr.


2.8 Medical guidelines for saum
The person in saum should aim at maintaining normal body weight or actually reducing it if overweight. Over-eating at iftaar and suhuur should be avoided. Over-eating will cause indigestion. The diet should contain sufficient fiber to prevent constipation. Fiber and slowly digested foods with a long stomach transit times are preferred. Enough water should be taken at night both for preventing dehydration and preventing constipation. Adequate fluid and salt intake prevents lethargy in the afternoon caused by low blood pressure. Hunger is a cause of headache especially later in the day. Intake of adequate calcium, magnesium, and potassium will prevent muscle cramps. Hot places should be avoided. Attempts should be made to keep cool. Time should be allowed for adequate sleep because inadequate sleep is a cause of headaches. Monitoring for and prevention of hypoglycemia is necessary during saum. In non-diabetics hypoglycemia may be due to insulin overproduction on intake of refined sugar. In diabetics it may arise due to insulin injections with inadequate dietary intake. Peptic ulcers are aggravated by raised acid levels. Kidney stones may be due to low fluid intake. Joint pains may be due to excess solutes.




2.9 Medication in saum

The general rule is that any substance that enters the body through any of its openings, manfadh, nullifies saum. The openings are the two ends of the alimentary canal, the mouth and the anus. All drugs that are applied externally on the skin do not nullify fating. Use of eye drops does not nullify saum. Nose drops may nullify saum because they could drop into the pharynx and be swallowed. Inhalants also nullify saum. Sub-cutaneous, intra-muscular, and intra-venous injections do not nullify saum. However nourishing injections nullify the purpose of saum. Drugs of whatever form taken orally or anally nullify saum. Sub-lingual pills are allowed.



3.1 Normal Nutrition

The human needs food to survive[liv]. Humans need different amounts and types[lv] of food depending on their gender, age, health status, and type of activity. Humans eat by Allah’s permission. They must therefore mention Allah’s name at the start of the meal[lvi] and praise Him at the end[lvii]. The general principle of the law is that all food is halal unless specifically prohibited. The Qur'an listed permitted food[lviii]. Humans can speculate but cannot know with certainty the reasons for Allah’s decreeing some foods halal and others haram.


3.2 Nutrition and Disease

Malnutrition whether qualitative or quantitative has disease implications. Over-nutrition leads to obesity and related neoplastic and cardio-vascular diseases. Obesity, defined as 120% of ideal body weight or higher, arises in cases of excessive intake and decreased energy expenditure. It is a social and medical disease that was condemned by the prophet. It is directly associated with coronary heart disease. It also has an indirect association through causing a rise in blood pressure. Besides its association with disease, obesity in its extreme forms interferes with performance of physical acts of ‘ibadat such as saum, salat, and hajj. Disease associations with excessive intake of specific nutrients have been described by epidemiologists. Hypertension is associated with high sodium intake. Coronary Heart disease is associated with high dietary unsaturated fats. Colon cancer is associated with a diet of high protein and high fat. Gall stones are associated with high cholesterol and high sugar diets. Diabetes (type 2) is associated with high fat diets


3.3 Human will and disease control

Scientific medicine has made much progress in the control of infectious diseases. Its record on chronic and non-communicable diseases is still poor. This is because these diseases are related to life-style and their control requires changing human will to adopt a more healthy life-style. Human will has in a way become the last frontier in medicine because changes in dietary and sexual habits are very difficult.




3.4 Saum in health promotion and disease prevention:

Saum also has health benefits. It purifies the body, al saum zakat al jism[lix]. Abundant epidemiological evidence has proved that diet is a co-factor in heart diseases and cancer. People or communities with excessive intake of certain types of foods are at increased risk for these diseases. Tobacco is linked to lung and oral cancers. In all such cases there is weak will power to control appetite for food or tobacco. Saum teaches appetite control. The advantages of saum should not be looked at only as deprivation of food for a limited time. The focus should be looked on the long-term benefits that a person undertaking saum gets from strengthening will-power and stopping eating or smoking even if they feel like to eat more.


3.5 Saum and Control of Food Appetite

Saum has a positive impact on the individual. Saum is ‘ibadat that teaches self-control. A person in saum is able to control the food instinct, perhaps the most powerful human instinct. The sense of self-control gained is extendable to other situations of temptation to evil or when facing difficulties. The believers eat differently from the non-believers[lx]. They eat only when they are hungry and do not eat their fill. The meal should not be treated as a form of entertainment. It is a necessary act of ‘ibadat to give the body the energy and nutrients needed to undertake the human mission on earth. Satiety can be described in three states, maraatib al ghadha: the necessary, dharurat; the needed, haajat; and the excess, fadhl. Dharurat is the minimum nutritional intake necessary to maintain health in the best status. It represents the balance between excessive and too little intake. Haajat is intake that is more than dharurat but which prevents the feeling of hunger. It is however recommended not to eat to full satisfaction, shaba’u. Fadhl is the excess intake beyond the need. Waste in eating and drinking is condemned[lxi]. Both obligatory and nafilat saum help in controlling excess intake. A Muslim should eat only what satisfies hunger and give the rest of the food to the needy. It is a waste to eat more than what you actually need. Most of this just passes through the alimentary canal and is voided as waste. It is considered bad to eat whatever you desire without discrimination, sharr akl kull ma ishtahayta.



Saum helps in control of the sex drive[lxii]. Saum is a general protection, al siyaam junnat[lxiii] [lxiv]. It is protection for one unable to marry, al saum wijau li man lam yastati’u an baa’at[lxv]. It is a means of instilling sexual self-control, al saum li man khaafa al 'uzuubat[lxvi].



Saum is an exercise and training in patience. Saum is half of patience, al saum nisf al sabr[lxvii]. It helps control of aggression. A person in saum who is insulted does not respond in kind but just says 'I am in saum'[lxviii]. Saum helps control the tongue; a person in saum who does not achieve this control gets not rewards from the fast[lxix].



Saum is freedom from the daily routines of life. It therefore leads to personal Empowerment. Saum has a beneficial impact on the daily routine of life. Saum breaks the normal routines of life that revolve around meals. It creates a different psychological milieu that liberates the mind from the routines of life and gives it an opportunity to reflect on the bigger issues of the creator, the good and the bad. It is surprising to many people to discover that their daily life routines are tightly controlled by the pattern of meals. A person in saum feels a sense of liberation in Ramadhan when the routines of daily life are changed. Ramadhan is therefore a time of stock-taking when a person can look back in his her life when he or she is in a different mood. Saum is empowerment. A person in saum is able to control the appetite for food and to withstand hunger for a whole day. This is an exercise in self-control and self-discipline that empowers the person. This empowerment can be transferred to other life activities.



Voluntary hunger in Ramadhan gives the rich practical experience of hunger that makes them understand and appreciate the suffering of the poor. It teaches compassion for the poor and the hungry in a practical way. Without this obligatory saum the wealthy would never taste physical hunger. The Qur’an emphasized the virtues of giving food to the needy[lxx]. The prophet taught the virtue of feeding others, fadhl al ‘it’aam[lxxi] especially the hungry, it’aam al jai’u[lxxii]. This can take any of the following forms: sadaqat, kaffaarat, zakat al maal, and zakaat al fitr. The prophet taught the virtue of sharing food when he said that the food of suffices 4[lxxiii]. He also taught that food not needed should be given to the needy, man kaana ghaniyan ‘an al ta’aam faliyuwajihahu ila ghayrihi[lxxiv]. Food security has been an important factor in the growth of human civilization. Early humans were hunter gatherers who spent most of the waking day looking for food and even with that they could not be sure that they could get their day’s meal. When humans settled down in communities and started domesticating plants and animals they were able to assure themselves of food without having to search the whole day. With the problem of food security solved humans could devote energy to tasks of building a sophisticated human civilization. The family unit must ensure food security especially since it has children and pregnant women who are very vulnerable to malnutrition. The prophet recommended putting aside food reserves for a whole year to ensure food security for the family. There is no true problem of food security in the world as a whole. The problem is poor distribution. Whereas food is being wasted in rich countries, humans in poor countries are starving. Situations of war and civil disturbance also create conditions of temporary food insecurity.

[i]  Bukhari K2 B34

[ii] Qur’an 2:183-185, 2:187, 2:19, 4:92, 5:89, 5:95, 9:112, 33:35, 58:4, 66:5

[iii] Bukhari K30 B4

[iv] Ahmad 2:174

[v] Ibn Majah K7 B44

[vi] Bukhari K30 B9

[vii]  Bukhari K30 B2

[viii]  Bukhari K2 B27

[ix]  BG532: Ahmad

[x] BG538: Bukhari

[xi]Bukhari 3:229

[xii] Bukhari 3:243)

[xiii] Tayalisi H2262

[xiv] BG539: Bukhari and Muslim

[xv] Qur’an 2:187, Bukhari 3:139

[xvi]  Qur’an 2:187, Bukhari 3:140

[xvii] BG552: Muslim

[xviii] Muslim K13 H204

[xix] Bukhari K19 B33

[xx] Nisai K22 B70

[xxi] Muslim K13 H202

[xxii] Bukhari K20 B66

[xxiii] BG560 Bukhari

[xxiv] BG561 Muslim

[xxv] Bukhari K30 B20

[xxvi] Bukhari K30 B59

[xxvii] Abudaud K14 B10

[xxviii] Abudaud K14 B13

[xxix] Qur’an 2:183)

[xxx] Qur’an 88:6-7

[xxxi] MB961

[xxxii] Bukhari 3:196

[xxxiii] Bukhari 3:198

[xxxiv] Bukhari 3:181

[xxxv] Qur’an 2:183-185

[xxxvi] Ahmad 5:147

[xxxvii] Bukhari K30 B45

[xxxviii] Bukhari 3:144

[xxxix] Bukhari 3:178

[xl] BG536: Ahmad

[xli] Bukhari K65 S2 B25

[xlii] Ahmad 2:71

[xliii] Bukhari K65 S2 B25

[xliv] Bukhari K65 S2 B25

[xlv] Bukhari K6 B6

[xlvi] MB963

[xlvii] Bukhari K30 B54

[xlviii] Bukhari K30 B26

[xlix] Muslim K13 H169

[l] Abudaud K30 B31

[li] Bukhari K30 B22

[lii] Bukhari K30 B22

[liii] Bukhari 3:184

[liv] Qur’an 2:35 & 106:4

[lv] Qur’an 2:61, 6:141, 13:4)

[lvi] Bukhari K70 B2

[lvii] Muslim K48 H89

[lviii] Qur’an 2:57-58

[lix] Ibn Majah K7 B44

[lx] Bukhari K70 B12

[lxi] Qur’an 7:31)

[lxii] Bukhari K30 B10

[lxiii] Ahmad 1: 195

[lxiv] Ahmad 1: 195

[lxv] Bukhari K30 B10

[lxvi] Bukhari 3:129

[lxvii]  Ahmad 4:260

[lxviii] Bukhari K30 B9

[lxix] Bukhari K30 B8

[lxx] Qur’an 2:184

[lxxi] Bukhari K79 B9

[lxxii] Bukhari K70 B1

[lxxiii] Bukhari K70 B11

[lxxiv] Ahmad 5:65

Omar Hasan Kasule Sr October 2002