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Sawm: The Fourth Pillar of Islam

There are Five Pillars at the core of every Muslim’s duty to worship God. They fortify the Islamic faith and guide every Muslim into a life of servitude. These include shahada (the profession of faith), salah (prayer), zakat (almsgiving), sawm (fasting) and hajj (pilgrimage).

Sawm, or fasting, is the fourth of the Five Pillars and includes obligatory and bonus fasts. The most significant obligatory fast, from dawn to sunset during Ramadan (the ninth month of the Islamic calendar) involves abstention from food, drink and sexual intercourse. During this month, all adult Muslims must participate if their health permits. Muslims who do not fast, but are physically able to, must feed a poor person and give expiatory alms called fidya (sacrifice). Accordingly, the Quran encourages Muslims to fast, as did their ancestors before them (Al-Baqara 2:183).

Ramadan is the month of relationships, hospitality and generosity. The day starts early with people rising before dawn to eat a meal and drink a lot of water. Then, before sunset, families, friends and visitors gather around a big table full of food and drinks. The evening feast begins with drinking water and eating two or three dates, then praying together and, finally, enjoying the meal. Each night during Ramadan, people gather at the mosque to offer congregational prayers and listen to a recital of the Quran.

As we interact with Muslims, it is essential to show that the practice of fasting is a biblical concept, and we should explain what the Bible teaches about how and why one should fast. The Bible speaks of Jesus, Moses and Elijah fasting for 40 days (Luke 4:1-4; Deuteronomy 9:9; 1 Kings 19:8). Jesus encouraged people to fast (Matthew 6:16-18) and expected His disciples to do so (Mark 2:18-20). Paul fasted and encouraged others to do the same (2 Corinthians 6:5; 11:27; Acts 13:2).

The Bible displays people fasting during times of, or to express, sorrow (2 Samuel 1:11-12) as well as in times of joy (Zechariah 8:18). The Bible also speaks about the fasting God requires (Isaiah 58:3-7) and the blessings of maintaining this practice in one’s life (Isaiah 58:8-10).

Reasons for fasting include strengthening prayer (Ezra 8:23), seeking God’s guidance (Judges 20:26), seeking deliverance or protection (2 Chronicles 20:3-4), expressing repentance (1 Samuel 7:6), humbling ourselves before God (1 Kings 21:27-29), ministering to the needs of others (Isaiah 53:3-7), overcoming temptation (Matthew 4:1-11) and expressing love and worship for God (Luke 2:37).

As for how to fast, the Bible gives directions: pray and confess your sins (Psalm 32:5, 1 John 1:9), keep it secret (Matthew 6:16-18), and prepare yourself physically, for the duration of fasting is for 24 hours (Leviticus 23:27-32), and meditate on the Word of God and prayer (John 15:7, Matthew 26:41).

During the month of Ramadan, invite Muslims to your home to break the fast; Muslims are eager to invite their neighbors to break the fast with them. If a Muslim invites you to their house, please take a gift with you; dates or dried fruits will be the perfect gift during Ramadan. Give words of encouragement to Muslims and never leave their home without praying for them and the rest of the extended family. Discuss with them the importance and true meaning of fasting as given in the Bible. Also, keep some dried fruit with you for an emergency. You never know when you may meet a Muslim weak from the fast (perhaps a diabetic or hypoglycemic), and your act of mercy may save them in this life and open the door to life eternal. Lastly, I encourage you to fast and pray that the Lord will speak to Muslims through a God-given dream or vision. Muslims believe that true dreams will come during the month of Ramadan.