Sheikh Salman al-Oadah
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Abû Hurayrah relates that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “No one should fast on the day or two before Ramadan, except someone who already has a fast to observe, for he may do so on that day.”

This is an authentic hadîth related by al-Bukhârî (1914) and Muslim (1082).

The meaning of the hadîth:

The day in the Islamic calendar known as 30 Sha`bân is referred to by many Islamic legal scholars as “the day of doubt”. `Ammâr relates: “Whoever fasts the day of doubt has disobeyed Abû al-Qâsim (Muhammad, peace be upon him)” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî]

It is clear from the hadîth that it is unlawful to fast on this day simply because Ramadan is coming, so as to be on the safe side. However, a person may fast on this day if it coincides with his normal program of fasting.

Its legal implications:

In circumstances where the previous night was clear and cloudless and a person simply decides to fast the 30th day of Sha`bân to be on the safe side, there can be no doubt that this is expressly prohibited in Islamic Law, since it contradicts the hadîth.

On the other hand, when the previous evening had been one of rain or was cloudy or overcast so that the crescent moon of the new month would not have been visible even if it had been present, this is a matter of considerable disagreement among scholars, with Ahmad b. Hanbal himself expressing various points of views. There are, in fact, four different opinions that are expressed on this matter:

The first opinion is that it is obligatory for them to fast on that day which might either be the 30th of Sha`bân or the first of Ramadân. This opinion has been related from a number of Companions, including `Umar, `Alî b. Abî Tâlib, `Abd Allah b. `Umar, Anas b. Mâlik, Abû Hurayrah, Mu`âwiyah b. Abî Sufyân, `Amr b. al-`As, al-Hakam b. Ayyûb al-Ghifârî, Asmâ’, and `A’ishah.

It is also related from a number of Successors, including Sâlim b. `Abd Allah b. `Umar, Mujâhid, Tâ’ûs, Mutarraf b. `Abd Allah b. al-Shakhîr, Maymûn b. Mahrân, and Bakr b. `Abd Allah al-Muzanî.

However, it behooves us to mention – as pointed out by Ibn Taymiyah and Ibn al-Qayyim – that most of these narrations from the Companions and Successors do not state directly the obligation of fasting on this day. In some cases, it is just related that the person fasted on this day in that situation. In other cases, it is related that some of them made statements like: “It is dearer to me that I fast a day of Sha`ban than that I leave off fasting on a day of Ramadân.”

The second opinion is that fasting is forbidden on that day, even though the previous night was overcast. This is the exact opposite of the first opinion. This is not an issue where one can play the fence. It is either obligatory or forbidden.

This is the opinion of the majority of scholars, including al-Shâfi`î and Mâlik. It is one of the opinions that is narrated to us from Ahmad b. Hanbal. Indeed, it might be the case that there are four different narrations from him.

Those who hold that it is forbidden also support their view with statements related from the Companions, including other narrations from `A’ishah and `Umar as well as narrations from Ibn `Umar, Ibn Mas`ûd, Hudhayfah, and others.

The evidence that shows the strength of this opinion is the hadîth under discussion: “No one should fast on the day or two before Ramadan…” meaning, that no one should fast on this day specifically withthe intention of being on the safe side against the possibility that it actually is the first of Ramadan.

They also cite the hadîth prohibiting fasting on the “day of doubt”, arguing that this refers to doubt under all circumstances, regardless of whether it was raining or overcast the previous evening.

The third opinion is that, under such circumstances, it is permissible to fast on this day or to refrain from fasting. Perhaps those who tended towards this view were trying to reconcile between the various opinions and narrations related from the Companions and Successors on the issue.

This is the opinion preferred by Ibn Taymiyah, as cited in al-Ikhtiyârât as well as in his commentary of al-`Umdah. It is also advocated by Ibn al-Qayyim in Zâd al-Ma`âd.

He argues by way of reconciling the various statements expressed on the matter as well as by way of juristic analogy. He says: “To declare anything obligatory is uncertain, having neither evidence nor any comparative reasoning to support it.”

He then goes on to explain that prohibiting people from being on the safe side in a matter of worship is contrary to the dictates of juristic analogy, since the general rule for acts of worship is to act with such precaution.

The fourth opinion is that the matter is for the leader of the Muslims to decide. If he announces and declares to the people that Ramadan has arrived, then they must fast. Otherwise, they must refrain from doing so. This is the true opinion of Ibn`Umar. It is also one of the opinions that is narrated from Ahmad b. Hanbal.

Perhaps the reason for this opinion stems from the fact that if all the people are fasting, the individual must fast along with them. Likewise, if everyone is waiting to start the Ramadan fast on the following day, he must wait along with them.

Otherwise, the default ruling would be that fasting is not obligatory. Nevertheless, we would not say that fasting is prohibited on that day when the previous evening had been overcast, in consideration of the large number of Companions, Successors, and others from among the Pious Predecessors who held the view that the Muslims should fast on that day. .Moreover, the definition of “day of doubt” is something that is, itself, a matter of disagreement.

However, it is best not to fast on that day, because taking such a precaution in a matter of worship might lead to a situation where people introduce into the fast that which is not a part of it. One of the objectives of Islamic Law is to precisely determine the times that a particular act of worship begins how and when it begins and comes to an end. Just as we do not pray more than four units of prayer, we should not add to the beginning of the month of Ramadan. This is precisely what the Prophet (peace be upon him) forbade us from doing.