We are already a third of the way through Ramadhan and I’m happy to say that none of my three children, including the eldest who is 13, have observed a complete fast. I haven’t allowed them to.
This might be surprising to some, and I’m sure there will be a few Muslim parents who would disapprove. But that doesn’t bother me. What does is the number of young boys and girls who I still see or hear about being pressured into fasting.
Those who work in education will probably be able to relate more to this, particularly practitioners in a primary setting. My wife, who works in a primary school, told me of her dismay at the number of pupils in her class who were struggling to participate in lessons because they were fasting. For example, one boy in Year 5 complained about feeling weak, and when she told him to take some water to break his fast, he refused and said that Allah would punish him if he did.
Unfortunately, he is just one of several kids in the same position, and who don’t know any different – and it both horrifies and upsets me that their parents, or perhaps community leaders, present such a malicious God to their offspring too.
There is no age specified in the Qur’an or hadith regarding Ramadhan. The Prophet Muhammad said that children should become regular in performing prayers from the age of 10, but didn’t say anything about fasting. Whilst fasting is generally expected from the age of adolescence – and this will vary from person to person – it is really down to the individual to decide.
Those who are exempt from fasting – the sick, those needing medication, elderly, women that are pregnant or have given birth, and travellers – are instead required to pay towards meals for the destitute, known as fidya (see my previous blog). Of course, children are not in any position to do this.
Likewise, and pertinently, in the same verse that Ramadhan is spoken of, it states that “God desires ease and not hardship for you” (Chapter 2 Verse 186). Again, that would clearly not apply to a young child who naturally needs regular sustenance.
Let’s not forget the main purposes of fasting either: intensified worship, increased charity and inner change, which can only be expected of those mature enough to exercise such discipline, and most certainly not a primary school pupil.
This is further supported in a hadith of the Prophet who said that there are three groups of people who are not accountable for their actions: “the sleeping person until he wakes, the child until he attains puberty and the one afflicted by insanity until he becomes sane.”
Of course, one can understand the enthusiasm of children when this holy month arrives. I remember too, when I was growing up, the hype and excitement as Ramadhan approached; this was one month that united the whole family, community and indeed the global ummah, and so something I naturally wanted to be a part of. I loved getting up early to have my pre-dawn breakfast and avoid all food and drink up to sunset, so that I could try to empathise with the poor. I was allowed to only because this was around the time Ramadhan fell in the winter months when days are much shorter than the present season.
So I have no problem with children wanting to try or observe the fast for part of the day, as a ‘taster’ if you like before they become fully fledged fasters in adulthood.
But whilst encouragement is one thing, enforcement is quite another.
Last year, two of our children, Anam and Roshaan, insisted on keeping a whole fast, and managed to do so – but I wasn’t comfortable with it, so this year have only permitted Anam (who is 13) on the condition that it is for just a few hours, and that the moment her hunger affects her learning in school, she ends it immediately. And so far, thankfully, she hasn’t been able to last beyond lunchtime!
But at least they have wanted to experience Ramadhan through their own choice.
This way, which gradually makes them understand and appreciate the benefits of fasting, our children are more likely to grow up believing in Allah as a God of Mercy, than the opposite.