Understanding the six fasts of Shawwal

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This is a short post which seeks to help people understand the six fasts of Shawwal. They are not meant in and of themselves as stand-alone fasts but are intrinsically connected to Ramadan and meant to be performed in a particular way. The following is a brief explanation:

1. Ramadan has a number of purposes and has done from primordial times when the lunar month was called by another name in an earlier language and culture (such as Noah’s or Abraham’s). Amongst them is to familiarise one’s self with refraining to indulge core impulses and base desires – it’s not merely about feeling hungry and thirsty. The final Prophet lamented, “Perhaps a person fasts and achieves nothing from his fast except hunger and thirst…” (al-Nasā’ī)

2. Shawwal is the 10th Arabic month of the Hijri calendar. The first day of Shawwal represents the end of Ramadan, and so God appointed it as a ‘Festival for the end of fasting’ (Eid al-Fiṭr) – to glorify God and celebrate His guidance. It is related by Abu Ayyub al-Ansari that the Prophet said: “Whoever fasts Ramadan and then follows it up with six fasts in Shawwal, it’s as if he fasted a lifetime (al-dahr).” (Muslim) Jurists also took al-dahr to mean “a year” based on the hadith of Thawbān.

3. What do the six fasts of Shawwal speak to? Well if we hold that fasting Ramadan is to temper the sway of base desires, then it makes sense that rather than abruptly ending an ongoing exercise and diminishing it’s institution, there’s a pause to allow the body to recuperate but then a follow up with six fasts to reinforce the newly learned behaviour for longer and sustained effect, at least for the rest of the year until the next Ramadan. This might speak to the point the Prophet made, “it’s as if he fasted a lifetime/a year” as in it would help to restrain his nafs (base self) in the long term by cementing important constricting habits. Fasting the three middle days of a lunar month (ayām al-bīdh) seems to also serve a similar purpose.

4. From this we learn that:

  • these fasts are a follow on after a month of fasting. They’re not meant in and of themselves (لذاتها) as stand-alone six fasts. Without following Ramadan, they do not serve the purpose for which they are intended.
  • it is the Ramadan fasts that are the ultimate mechanism that God instituted for human benefit, and fundamental to the Abrahamic way. Nothing comes close to them in sanctity or value. It something else did, God would’ve obligated those as well. This goes for all obligatory acts – there’s a reason they’re obligatory.

So (hopefully) having made this clear, the following ought to be taken into consideration:

1. These six fasts are optional. They’re not simply highly encouraged as some make out and then pressure others into, but they are virtuous for the reasons outlined above. Those hesitant to fast because they need a break, or having found Ramadan particularly difficult, should not feel pressured to fast out of social conformity or the fear that they’ll be socially disparaged. (If you are disparaged by your cohort, then it’s a sign that you really need to check your social circle and their religious literacy level.)

2. In general, these fasts should be performed towards the end of Shawwal, and in brief, for two reasons: so that we strongly differentiate between the key fasts of Ramadan and these six add-ons; and so that reinforcing advantageous constricting habits takes place in an optimum way. Imam Malik b. Anas discouraged people from fasting in Shawwal for the first reason, and Imam Abu Hanifah discouraged fasting straight after the festivities. Malik added that the the early Muslims (salaf) wouldn’t fast the six, nor the learned and righteous of Madinah, fearing that it was a blameworthy innovation (bid’ah). Given the hadith of Abu Ayyub, what he perhaps meant (as innovation) was that people would take the six as being comparable to the Ramadan fasts or overstate its significance. Furthermore, it may be the case that there wasn’t a culture of fasting the six in Madinah either because it was deemed that Ramadan sufficed, or because of the nominal reporting of the hadith suggests that it was said to specific persons for specific reasons which many felt didn’t apply to all.

3. If we except that these fasts are a follow on after a month of fasting, it makes sense that those who have to make up Ramadanic fasts (out of travel, sickness, menses, etc) do so before fasting six days, and that’s not to mention the explicit wording of the hadith: “Whoever fasts Ramadan *and then follows it up…” Furthermore, making up the Ramadanic fasts in Shawwal serves a similar purpose to the six in that they follow up Ramadan and similarly reinforce the nafs-constricting proclivities, so in such situations where one might run out of time to perform the six Shawwal fasts due to making up the Ramadanic ones, it isn’t necessarily a loss.

4. As for those who boil it all down to ritualistic acts and ajr (reward) seeking, I sincerely commend the simple and sincere desire to please God, but the main point of the six fasts might be getting lost. This deen is one of insight, intelligence, and meaningful purpose.

And God knows all things as they are in reality.

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