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.

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Sawm: The Esoterics (Bāṭin) of Fasting

Shahru ramaḍāna alladhī unzila fīhi’l-qur’ānu hudan lilnasi wabayyinātin mina’l-hudā wa’l-furqāni fa-man shahida minkumu’l-shahra falyaṣumhu

“The Month of Ramaḍān in which was sent down 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 it.” (Holy Qur’ān 2:185)

Fasting (ṣawm) is among the seven pillars (arkān) of classical Shī‘ī Ismā‘īlī Islām and the five pillars of classical Sunnī Islām.  For Ismā‘īlī gnosis as taught by the Ismā‘īlī Muslim theosophers , each pillar (rukn) of Islām has an exoteric form (ẓāhir), an esoteric meaning (bāṭin), and a spiritual reality which is the esoteric beyond the esoteric (bāṭin al-bāṭin).

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