Ramadan Fasting in Shia Ismaili Islam: A Historical Overview

Certain Muslim groups in present times have publicly monopolized and “normalized” an image of Islam where Islam equals the so-called “Five Pillars”: the Shahadah, ritual prayer (salah, namaz), pilgrimage (hajj) to Makkah, alms-giving (zakah), and fasting (sawm) from dawn to dusk in Ramadan. However, the idea of Islam = Five Pillars is a historical construct. The Qur’an never defines Islam as “five pillars” and hadiths where the Prophet Muhammad defines Islam as “Five Pillars” only start circulating at 200 years after the Prophet Muhammad’s death. When one sees how Islam has been practiced through 1,400 years of history and continues to be practiced today, the equation of Islam with “five pillars” simply does not hold up to reality.

In fact, the Shahadah is the only “pillar” that binds together all those who identify as Muslims:

The only part of this formula [of the Five Pillars of Islam] that stands up to close scrutiny is the shahada: it would be fair to say that anyone who does not subscribe to it (of course, after interpreting it in his or her own fashion) cannot be considered a Muslim. But the same cannot be said for the other four pillars [prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, alms] since the ways in which these four performative acts factor into the definition of Islam have always been hotly contested, theologically, legally and culturally. Let me cut to the chase and announce the main point directly and clearly: the four ritualistic pillars do NOT form a good and accurate account of being Muslim, historically, sociologically or theologically. To put it in reverse, there have been and continue to be millions of people who wholeheartedly adhere to the shahada but who do NOT perform these four particular ritualistic acts in the manner prescribed in legalistic manuals. Not only that: a good percentage of such Muslims would NOT agree that these four rituals are necessary to be considered. In other words, these “believers” are not just slackers who know perfectly well that they should perform these rituals but fail to do so for a number of reasons. (Incidentally, it is chastening to remember that there may well be more negligent Muslims in the world than observant Muslims.) To stick to only the contemporary Middle East, one can name the Alevis in Turkey (fully one-fourth of the population, perhaps even more), the Ahl-i Haqq in Iran, the Alawis in Syria, the Ismailis in both Syria and Iran, the Yezidis and some radical Shi‘i communities in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. To these Muslims, who observe the precepts of Islam according to their own, alternative pillars, one should add the millions who choose to emphasize beliefs over acts and consequently de-value the performance of some or all of the four ritualistic pillars. These are not negligent believers or simply non-believers, but Muslims who choose to prioritize certain beliefs over certain ritualistic acts in accordance with longstanding theological orientations in Islamic history.

Ahmed Karamustafa, (“Islam: A Civilizational Project in Progress”, in Omid Safi, Progressive Muslims, Oxford: Oneworld, 2003, 98-110: 108-109)

Fasting Practices in the Early Community of Prophet Muhammad

The Month of Ramaḍān in which was revealed the Qur’ān – a guidance for mankind, and manifest proofs of the guidance and the criterion (between truth and falsehood). So whomever among you witnesses the Month, let him fast for it.

– Holy Qur’an 2:185

The word for fasting in Arabic, sawm, literally means “to abstain.” The practice of fasting from food and drink during sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan was first established when the early Muslim community lived in Medinah among Jewish tribes. Before the Qur’anic instruction to fast for the month of Ramadan was revealed, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his family) had commanded his followers to fast on the tenth day of the month of Muharram as the Jews did, as well as on some other occasions. Evidently, these former practices of fasting were replaced by the Ramadan fast – whose exact rules also underwent further modification by the Prophet as attested to in the Qur’an. For example, sexual relations were originally not allowed during the nights of Ramadan; but this command was later modified by Qur’an 2:187, which says: “Allah knows that you used to deceive yourselves, so He accepted your repentance and forgave you.” (Francis E. Peters, Muhammad and the Origins of Islam, 215-216). Similarly, the specifics of other rituals in the Prophet’s lifetime evolved under the Prophet’s guidance during specific situations and were reinforced with specific Qur’anic verses – the change of the Qiblah from Makkah to Jerusalem and back to Makkah being a notable example. There is no historical evidence that there were 5 prayer times (most likely there were 3 prayer times) and even the specifics of ablutions and Hajj are not found in the Qur’an. The only two religious practices the Qur’an emphasizes with repetition are prayer and zakah – and even zakah in the Qur’an is NOT charity, but rather, a “purification due” that the believer offered to the Prophet for the purification and forgiveness of his or her sins (see Qur’an 9:99-103 and note the verb tazakka). When the Prophet was alive, the Qur’an was not a fixed text (it was not a scripture) nor was it used as a source of legal interpretations as it is today. The Prophet, as the divinely-inspired leader and vicegerent of God, guided the believers on every matter (read about his role here) – whether it was rooted in a Qur’anic revelation or not. Even then, the Qur’an’s commands are very much “goal-oriented” and rooted in ethics as opposed to a fixed body of law.

Sunni and Shi’a Approaches to Religious Authority

Following the death of Prophet Muhammad, Shia and Sunni Muslims came to differ about the nature of religious authority and its legitimate possessors. The Prophet had announced that his cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali b. Abi Talib was the Master (mawla) of all the believers after him. Imam ‘Ali claimed to be the rightful temporal and religious leader after the Prophet despite the fact that political authority was assumed by Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, and later Uthman. Even some of Imam ‘Ali’s early followers regarded him as “an absolute and divinely guided leader who could demand of them the same kind of loyalty that would have been expected for the Prophet” (Maria Masse Dakake, The Charismatic Community, 57). For example, one of Ali’s supporters, who also was devoted to the Prophet, said to him: “our opinion is your opinion and we are in the palm of your right hand” (Dakake 58). The early followers of Imam ‘Ali regarded his commands as “right guidance” deriving from Divine support. In other words, ‘Ali’s guidance was seen to be the expression of God’s will and the Qur’anic message. This spiritual and absolute authority of ‘Ali was known as walayah and it was inherited by his successors, the Imams.

In the first century after the Prophet, the term sunnah was not specifically defined as “Sunnah of the Prophet” but was also used in connection to Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, Uthman, and some Umayyad Caliphs. The authority of “Hadith” or traditions ascribed to the Prophet was not mainstream nor was Hadith criticism. Even the earliest legal texts by Malik b. Anas and Abu Hanifa employ many methods including analogical reasoning and opinion and do not rely exclusively on hadith. Only in the 2nd century after the Prophet does the Sunni jurist al-Shafi‘i first argue that only the Sunnah of the Prophet should be a source of law and that this Sunnah is embodied in Hadiths. It would take another one hundred years after al-Shafi‘i for Sunni Muslim jurists to fully base their methodologies on prophetic Hadith (read an academic study on the concept of Sunnah here). Meanwhile, Imami Shia Muslims followed the guidance and interpretations of the hereditary Imams from the Prophet’s Ahl al-Bayt without any need for Hadith and other sources (usul) of Sunni law like analogy, consensus, and opinion. Accordingly, the Ismaili Shi’a with a living Imam did not rely on Islamic jurisprudence or legal theory for guidance.

The existence of a leader, designated by the Prophet himself, certainly stunted the development of a distinct Shi’i jurisprudence. This is not to say there was no Shi’i law. The various descendents of the Prophet who received Shi’i devotion (the Imams) were asked questions about right conduct and proper compliance with the Shari’a. They gave answers with which their followers were ordered to comply. However, when an Imam was present there was no need for an overarching jurisprudence. Since the Imam could answer all legal enquiries, there was no need to create a framework into which the Imams’ rulings collectively might fit. The doctrine of the Imamate, then, reduced the need for legal theory…This lack of interest in legal theory eventually resulted in a lack of interest in the law generally, and the Ismaili Shi’i tradition after Qadi Numan produced few significant legal works.

– Robert Gleave, (Scripturalist Islam, Preface)

Through first 200 years after the Prophet’s death, both Sunni and Shia Muslim communities came to regard fasting as one of the foundational practices of Islam. For Sunni Muslims, fasting consists of one of the Five Pillars. For the Ismaili Muslims of the Fatimid era and thereafter, fasting is among the Seven Pillars of Islam – the other Pillars being walayah (faith, allegiance and love for the Imam), salah (prayer), taharrah (purification), zakah (purifying alms), hajj (pilgrimage), and jihad (struggle). Even in the Fatimid era, when Ismaili Muslims practiced fasting in Ramadan as an obligatory religious practice, they differed from the Sunnis in how to recognize the first day of Ramadan. Sunni tradition relies physically sighting the new moon to mark the commencement of Ramadan while Ismailis used mathematical calculations. This often caused significant disagreement between Ismaili and Sunni scholars on when to begin the fast and when to break the fast on the day of ‘Id al-Fitr. The Ismaili Fatimid hujjat, Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani, wrote an entire treatise defending the Ismaili mathematical method of marking the start of Ramadan.

The Esoteric Purpose of Fasting

According to the Holy Qur’an, fasting was prescribed for the believers so that they may learn taqwah (2:183) – a word which can mean piety, mindfulness, or God-consciousness. The great Islamic philosopher and scientist of Alamut, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, writes that fasting from food and drink “restrains the soul from its base inclinations.” He explains that this form of fasting is practiced for thirty days in a year so that a form or behavioural pattern will become imprinted on the human soul – to the point that all of one’s faculties and desires “become restrained from the pursuit of improper things” (Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, The Paradise of Submission, tr. Badakhchani, 149).

Accordingly, the concept of fasting has a deeper meaning and significance than not eating or drinking. The Holy Qur’an in 19:26 uses the same Arabic word for fasting, sawm, to refer to the vow of silence taken by Mary, the mother of Jesus. In this spirit, the Ismaili Muslims, under the guidance of the Imams, have also emphasised the inner or batini form of fasting. All Ismaili Muslim hujjats, da‘is, and thinkers, under the guidance of the Imams, maintained that the Seven Pillars of Islam have esoteric and spiritual meanings and that sometime in the future, the exoteric or zahiri forms of the Seven Pillars would no longer be mandatory whereas their batini or esoteric meanings would instead be practiced openly. This came to fruition in certain periods of Ismaili history: In 1164, the 23rd Ismaili Imam, Hasan ‘ala-dhikrihi al-salam, declared the period of qiyamah. As maintained by several Fatimid Ismaili hujjats like Sijistani (d. after 971), Ja‘far b. Mansur al-Yaman (d. ca. 960), Nasir-i Khusraw (d. 1088), al-Mu’ayyad al-Shirazi (d. 1078), in the period of qiyamah, the exoteric or zahiri practices of the shari‘ah including namaz, Hajj, and fasting are abolished and no longer mandatory while their batini and spiritual dimensions are practiced. For example, during the qiyamah period, the Ismaili Imam’s guidance on fasting was as follows:

As for fasting of this jama‘at, whereas in the realm of the shari’ah, out of twelve months which make up the year, for one month, from dawn to dusk, one closes his mouth against eating and drinking, the rule of this jama‘at requires that during the whole of one’s life one is not permitted to abandon the true fast even for the twinkling of an eye. They keep not just one organ of the body closed, but rather all seven external and internal organs against that which God has prohibited, so that they may always preserve a state of fasting.”

– Imam ‘Ala al-Din Muhammad of Alamut,
(Nasir al-Din Tusi, The Paradise of Submission, Representation No. 28)

Subsequently, in later periods, Ismailis went back to observing the exoteric shari‘ah as a form of taqiyyah to avoid harsh persecution. This period of taqiyyah – which lasted for the next several hundred years after the fall of Alamut – included the observance of shari‘ah rituals, although there may have been minor intervals of qiyamah occasionally during this period. In either case, those believers who reached the spiritual rank of hujjat were permitted to dispense with observing the shari‘ah (see The Epistle on the Recognition of the Imam, ca. 16th century, tr. Ivanow; Haft Bab Abu Ishaq). However, the Khoja Ismailis of the Satpanth tradition never performed exoteric fasting for the month of Ramadan; they fasted on Beej and on the 21st and 23rd days of Ramadan. During this period, the Ismaili Imams continued to dispense guidance to their murids concerning the esoteric dimensions and practices of faith. Just as zahiri fasting consists in refraining from food and drink during the month of Ramadan, the spiritual haqiqi fasting consists in abstaining from all impure thoughts, words, and deeds for every single day of one’s life. The thirty-fourth Ismaili Imam, Hazrat Mawlana Shah Gharib Mirza, as recorded in his “Counsels of Chivalry” (Pandiyat-i Jawanmardi), has said:

The whole year you must fast, just as the Exoterists (ẓāhiriyān) fast one month. The meaning of this fast is austerity. Control yourselves; keep yourselves away from bad qualities, evil and indecent actions and devilish acts, so that the mirror of your hearts may be gradually polished.”

– Imam al-Mustansir bi-llah III (Shah Gharib Mirza),
(Pandiyat-i Jawanmardi, tr. Ivanow, 37)

Fasting Practices in Modern Ismaili History

In the modern period of Ismaili history, the 48th Ismaili Imam, Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah, has likewise emphasized the spiritual or haqiqi fasting as a spiritual discipline, which consists of always being mindful and keeping away from sins such as lying, cheating, slander, jealousy and other negative deeds. Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah formally ended the practice of taqiyyah where some Jamats had been observing exoteric shari‘ah rituals like namaz and fasting in Ramadan. In guidance given to the Ismailis of Syria, Iran, and Indo-Pak, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah explained that the exoteric or shari‘ah rituals like Hajj to Makkah, physical ablutions before prayer, and exoteric fasting in the month of Ramadan are not paramount; instead, what is essential are the inner or esoteric meanings of these rituals as embodied in a set of spiritual disciplines and tariqah practices. Mawlana Hazar Imam’s own biographer, Malise Ruthven, summarized Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah’s guidance as follows:

Changes were introduced in the areas of ritual. In Syria a new mukhi appointed by Aga Khan III in 1895 was instructed in Khoja doctrines and rituals and told to introduce them into Syria. Similar changes were introduced in Iran. Hajj and fasting were abandoned along with ritual ablutions before prayers: God, rather than his house, was to be worshipped; the true fast was year-round abstention from evil; true ablution was cleansing of the heart. Duties (‘ibadat) regarded as essential by other Muslims, such as Hajj and fasting, were defined as furu’-i-din, auxiliaries of the faith. The usul-i din, the essentials of the faith were unchanged – belief in the oneness of God, in the Prophet, in the Resurrection, in the Imamate and in the justice of God.

– Malise Ruthven, “Aga Khan III and Ismaili Renaissance”,
(Peter B. Clarke, ed., New Trends and Developments in the World of Islam. London: Luzac Oriental, 1998, 371–95: 382)

This general trend, in modern times, toward the de-emphasis of the exoteric and shari‘ah form of ritual practice and the movement towards a more spiritual and esoteric practice was foretold by Prophet Muhammad as recorded in Sunni hadiths:

Ye are in an age in which, if ye abandon one-tenth of what is ordered, ye will be ruined. After this a time will come when he who shall observe one-tenth of what is now ordered will be redeemed.”

– Prophet Muhammad,
(Sahih Tirmidhi, in Seyyed Ameer Ali, The Spirit of Islam, 183)

As Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah has explained in a published farman, the fasting of the haqiqati mu’min does not only take place in Ramadan but is performed on every day of the year (Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah, Kalam-i Imam-i Mubin Vol. 1, Section No. 65). Imam Sultan Muhammad further explained that the exoteric fasting of Ramadan may be necessary for Ismaili Muslims living in certain contexts where taqiyyah is necessary so as not to antagonize others, but the spiritual or haqiqi fasting was obligatory upon all Ismailis wherever they are:

The Prophet has ordered the fast. The fast is there to exercise the body. It is necessary to keep taqiya so that others may not indulge in backbiting (i.e. it may be necessary to observe the fast outwardly in order to protect the community from slander by other Muslims). But you who are haqiqatis (truth-seekers) are under an obligation to fast 360 days (sic). These fasts are:
1. Not to speak a lie
2. Not to deceive, swindle anyone, or abuse trust
3· Not to speak ill behind someone’s back.
In this manner 360 day haqiqi fasts (haqiqi rojaa) are mandatory (faraj) upon the Ismā‘īlīs.

– Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III,
(quoted in Malise Ruthven, “Aga Khan III and the Isma‘ili Renaissance,” 392)

In conclusion, the month of Ramadan serves as a time of heightened spirituality and devotion for all Muslims. Fasting during the Ramadan from food and drink is the exoteric form of fasting appropriate in the period of shari‘ah but not mandatory in the cycle of qiyamah. However, the esoteric forms of fasting embrace additional spiritual disciplines and these are mandatory in every age as per the guidance of the recent Imams. Writing in the 1950s, John Hollister reported that the Ismailis of Persia did not physically fast in Ramadan (The Shi‘a of India, 1953, 390). Brian H. Jones (Around Rakaposhi, 2010) describes living among Ismailis in Northern Pakistan and reports that most Ismailis in the region do not perform the exoteric fast in the month of Ramadan although they are careful to consume food and drink in secluded areas so as not to antagonize those who do observe this fast. Frank Bliss (Social and Economic Change in the Pamirs, 2006, 231) notes in his study of the Pamiris that the Pamiri Ismailis only physically fast for 3 days during the month of Ramadan and consider such fasting to serve no useful purpose while Sunnis fast exoterically for the entire month. Even in Syria, the Ismailis of Salamiyyah do not keep the exoteric fast of Ramadan. The Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah was once asked by his own dentist, Dr. Hasan Nathoo, with regards to the fact that his murids did not pray five times per day nor did they keep zahiri fasts in the month of Ramaḍān. The Imam’s reply was conveyed by Dr. Hasan Nathoo in his own memoirs:

In the matter of the Ismā‘īlīs praying only three times daily instead of five times and not keeping fasts (roza) generally in the month of Ramaḍān, he [the Imam] told me two things: that in the Qur’an there was no specific mention of the number of daily namaz. It was only a tradition (sunnah); the other was that there was a hadith where the Holy Prophet had said that if during his lifetime the people of Arabia observed 90% of his injunctions, 10% would be forgiven. But after his death, if the followers observed even 10%, 90% would be forgiven. These hadiths are confirmed in a book on the life of the Prophet by Martin Lings which I read only recently. This hadith makes Islam the most liberal religion.”

– Dr. Hasan E. Nathoo, (My Glorious Fortnight with Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, London, 1988)

In every age, it is the Imam of the Time who sustains the proper balance between the exoteric and the esoteric dimensions of religious practice. Just as the Prophet Muhammad prescribed and interpreted the exact forms of prayer and fasting in his lifetime, the Imam of the Time, as the bearer of the knowledge and authority of the Prophet, continues this role of ritual interpretation in every age. Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah has stressed the inner meaning and spirituality of the Pillars of Islam, as reflected in the contemporary Ismaili Tariqah practices which emphasize spiritual purification of the human soul and the recognition (ma‘rifah) of the Imam. In closing, we refer to a public statement of Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah which states:

If, rightly, the Muslims have kept till now to the forms of prayer and fasting at the time of the Prophet, it should not be forgotten that it is not the forms of prayer and fasting that have been commanded, but the facts, and we are entitled to adjust the forms to the facts of life as circumstances changed. It is the same Prophet who advises his followers ever to remain Ibnu’l-Waqt (i.e. children of the time and period in which they were on earth), and it must be the natural ambition of every Muslim to practice and represent his Faith according to the standard of the Waqt or space-time.”

– Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III,
(Foreword, Al-Hajji Qassim Jairazbhoy, Muhammad: A Mercy To all the Nations, 14)

As for the month of Ramadan, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah has urged the Ismaili Muslim Jamat to pray more and strive to remember God at every moment during this special month:

Now I am going to tell you about ‘ibadat. Always worship God. This is the month of Ramadan. In this month do more ‘ibadat. Every hour, every minute remember God. Do not forget Him. If you have forgotten Him and have become lazy then take heed that I am reminding you to remember and worship Him.

– Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III,
(Mumbai, April 27, 1891)

For Further Reading:
Ramadan: From Physical Fasting to Spiritual Fasting: https://ismailignosis.com/2014/06/27/ramadan-from-physical-fasting-to-spiritual-fasting/

2 thoughts on “Ramadan Fasting in Shia Ismaili Islam: A Historical Overview

  1. Superb article. It has been always a point of contention and generally as Ismailis have hardtime explaining our lax in following strictly these practices. And frequently we bluff to keep up our standing. Everyone, shias and sunnis alike, should read this well written article with excellent quotes and internalise it, particularly by Ismailis to be able to stand with confidence whenever the Ismaili practises are questioned against the five pillars of Islam.

    I congtatulate the Ismili Gnosis for making these excellent papers accessible to all.

  2. It is good writing piece of work with references. Could get the concept of seven pillars of Islam. Kindly explain the remaining two pillars is upcoming articles or papers.
    Again thanks for such a comprehensive article.

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