Pakistan's heat wave: When fasting is a sin

Story highlights

  • More than 1,000 people have died in a heat wave in Pakistan during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan
  • Islam's Prophet Mohammed instructed followers not to fast if doing so could harm their health, according to Dr. Kashif N. Chaudhry

Dr. Kashif N. Chaudhry is a cardiovascular medicine fellow at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center in Burlington, Massachusetts. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)In October of 2005, during the month of Ramadan, a devastating earthquake claimed close to 100,000 lives in the north of Pakistan, and injured just as many. I had the opportunity to serve the victims of this tragedy in the Kashmiri city of Bagh.

Of the many things I vividly remember is caring for some men and women with life-threatening injuries who refused treatment because they were fasting. They considered it a grave sin to break the fast.
As a medical professional, this was especially frustrating. Similarly, I have come across pregnant women who had suffered from hypoglycemic episodes (low blood sugar) but still continued to fast during the holy month of Ramadan, putting two lives at risk.
    Similar, if not worse, conditions are prevalent right now in parts of Pakistan. It pains me immensely to read that more than 1,000 people have already succumbed to heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
    I do not know how many of these victims were fasting, but this tragedy has brought back memories of Kashmir. As a physician, and a fellow Muslim, I feel this calls for some serious education and awareness.
    It is true that fasting is a virtue in many faiths. But it no longer remains a virtue in such extreme circumstances. In fact, it becomes a sin.
    The Holy Quran states that fasting is not a compulsory obligation for those who suffer from sickness or endure the hardships of travel, or find great difficulty for any other reason. As, and when, these conditions of adversity change, the missed fasts can be repaid.
    This is because Allah desires ease for us, and not hardship. Why then do some Muslims think it is an absolute compulsion to fast during Ramadan? Do they think they can forcibly please God, despite His own clear commandments to take it easy and not put their lives at risk?
    There is no better way to understand the commandments of Islam than to see how the Prophet Mohammed applied them in his own life. And it is very clear from studying his example that he discouraged fasting during traveling and illness or at other similar times of difficulty.
    It is narrated in the hadith (sayings and stories about Mohammed and his companions), for instance, that once the prophet stopped while on a journey and called for a cup of water to break his fast. He raised it to make sure everyone saw it, and drank from it.
    Despite him breaking his fast, some people continued theirs. When he was told about these people, he expressed his displeasure and stated that they were being disobedient. This tradition is also reported in the hadith books of Jami al-Tirmidhi and Sunan Nasai.
    Another similar incident, recorded in authentic traditions, relates to a journey during a hot summer day when only some of the Muslims chose to fast. Those fasting were so weak and dehydrated that they could barely get up, while those who were not fasting took care of all the work and fed the animals. Prophet Mohammed was pleased with those who skipped the fast during the extreme heat, saying it was they who received the reward that day.
    Islam lays great emphasis on goodness and thus prescribes prayer, fasting and charity as means to achieve spiritual excellence.
    However, according to the requirements of wisdom, it also makes exceptions to these rules. For example, the very poor accrue no sin for not giving the zakat (obligatory alms). In fact, they receive from these alms. Travelers are required to cut short their prayers, with no loss in the reward of salat (prayer).
    Similarly, those in hard situations are exempted from the requirement of fasting.
    We know from numerous other authentic traditions that Prophet Mohammed did not hesitate to break his fast when embarking on a journey. He emphasized that to stubbornly continue fasting under harsh circumstances was not an act of righteousness, but of disobedience.
    During another of his journeys, he came across a man being protected from the sun by a number of other men. On being told that the man was fasting, Prophet Mohammed said that it was not righteous that one should fast on a journey. Interestingly, this narration is cited in almost all major hadith books -- Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Sunan Abu Dawud and Sunan Nasai.
    Prophet Mohammed is also known to have discouraged fasting for the sick, and for pregnant women and nursing mothers. At another place, he equated those who fasted during times of hardship to those who did not fast during normal conditions -- both disobeying God.
    After this clear direction from the man who brought the Islamic faith to mankind, how can anyone continue to be confused on this matter?
    Why do some Muslims still believe they can please God by force, by defying his own commandments? Do such hardheaded people think they are more "Muslim" than the Prophet himself?
    I do not intend to engage in a scholarly discussion on the degree of travel, sickness or other hardship that is enough to warrant an exemption from fasting. Our bodies are unique and are the best judge of what we can bear, and what we cannot.
    But what we can all agree upon from the example of Prophet Mohammed is that those directly affected by the hot weather conditions currently prevalent in Pakistan definitely have a legitimate reason to refrain from fasting.
    Until the Pakistani government does its job of providing round-the-clock power and air-conditioned public shelters, those exposed to the current heat wave -- especially the children, elderly and sick -- must ensure proper hydration for themselves. And once these harsh weather conditions change for the better, they can repay the missed number of days at a later time.
    This approach is in line with the requirements of wisdom -- and the teachings of Islam.