The Short Answer
All Muslims must know Islam’s legal rulings (ahkam) about missing days of fasting in Ramadan. This is something most of us must manage at one time or another.
Are there people God excuses from fasting Ramadan?
There are two categories of people with valid excuses for not fasting a day or more of Ramadan. (For expiation (kaffarah) payments for willfully violated Ramadan fasts go here to pay)
I. The First Category
One group of fasting-exempt people consists of those who miss fasting days in Ramadan for valid temporary reasons. The most common of these are sickness, travel, pregnancy or breastfeeding. People in this category, who take this divine exemption, must fast days after Ramadan when they become able in place of the ones they missed during Ramadan.
These exempt individuals are classed as a category because they are not obligated to pay a redemption fee, known as fidyah, for missing fasting. Fidyah is the amount of wealth one must offer to the poor in place of each day of Ramadan he or she has missed for a valid reason other than the ones just noted.
The proof for the people of this kind not having to pay the fidyah redemption fee is this verse of the Quran: “Yet if one among you is sick or is on a journey [such a person shall then fast] the same number of other days” (Surat al-Baqarah, 2:185).
The verse before this one also generally indicates this: “It [fasting Ramadan] is for a specified number of days. But one among you who is sick or is on a journey shall fast the same number of other days” (Surat al-Baqarah, 2:184).
As for pregnancy and breastfeeding, the evidence for their inclusion is that the condition of a pregnant or breastfeeding woman, in terms of hardship, is analogous to that of one who is ill.
Also, it is reported that the scholarly Companion Ibn ‘Abbas, God be pleased with him, said to his wife, who was either pregnant or breastfeeding: “You are one of those who cannot endure the fast,” a reference to the Quran’s words “Yet for those who are hardly able to endure it,” which occur in verse 2:184. Some scholars contend this report has further implications (addressed further below).
II. The Second Category
The second group of fasting-exempt people consists of those who miss fasting days in Ramadan for valid permanent reasons, most commonly infirmity due to old age or chronic illness that prevents one from fasting. These people are obligated to pay a redemption fee (fidyah) but do NOT have to make up the fast. The proof for this is this verse of the Quran: “Yet for those who are hardly able to endure it [and do not fast], the redemption [for each day] is feeding an indigent person [instead]” (Surat al-Baqarah, 2:184).
What is the redemption fee (fidyah) and its amount?
The Prophet, on him be peace, as is the standard with most general divine rulings established in the Quran, specified the redemption fee (fidyah) for each missed Ramadan fasting day. Its amount is based on a volume measurement known as a sa‘.
A sa‘ is a traditional volume measure. It is equal to four double-handfuls. (One double-handful is called a mudd.) Here’s a chart of volume measures in the prophetic system adopted from the people of Madinah. (See How is Zakat Calculated on Wealth for an in-depth understanding of Islam’s weights and measures.)
The Prophet set the fidyah redemption fee for each validly missed Ramadan fasting day at half a sa‘ — two double handfuls — of foodstuff common to and normally eaten by the people who live in the same locality where the non-fasting person lives.
Note that a sa‘ volume measurement differs for liquids and grains. One sa‘ of water is 2.75 liters, or just under three quarts. One sa‘ of grain is 2.176 kg, or just under 5 lbs.
Who receives the fidyah redemption?
The recipients of the fidyah redemption fee are those in need.
Again, one feeds one needy person with half a sa‘ per fasting day missed in Ramadan. So if Ramadan is 30 days, and one misses the entire month for a valid reason, one provides 15 sa‘s of food for 30 needy people, or roughly 75 lbs., for example, of rice – or whatever that weight might be for the total of 60 double-handfuls of common foodstuff (wheat, dates, rasins, etc.) in our example.
The fidya equation for food is as follows:
One-Half Sa‘ x Days Missed = Total fidyah Payment
Can one pay fidyah in value?
Like Zakat al-Fitr, the Zakat of Ramadan Fast-Breaking, most scholars today accept value equivalency for fidyah redemption payments. Abu Hanifah, and other prominent jurists, did allow for payment of Zakat al-Fitr in value.
Payment in value is now widely accepted among Muslims, with many Zakat-collecting agencies, like Zakat Foundation of America, converting that currency payment into foodstuffs for distribution to the destitute, refugees, the displaced and the egregiously poor.
For one, the fidyah may need transporting to reach the poor, even in other countries, in order to reach its recipients in most need.
The Ramadan fidyah paid in money, when not being directly provided to one in need, is far easier and more useful today than donations of food items. In addition, most scholars consider any foodstuffs mentioned by the Prophet, on him be peace, as having been common among the community of the time, and so most beneficial and useful to its poor. They see these items as exemplary suggestions, establishing the relative value and purpose of payment in food.
The fidyah of Ramadan provides food to suffice a person in need for a day. So while a fidyah price may be established in accordance with where a fidyah payer resides, the actual food it provides should accord with wholesome food that the needful person who receives it will know and benefit from.
Here, again, the Hanafi position on Zakat al-Fitr provides a useful analogy. It emphasizes the payment mechanism that proves most beneficial to the poor recipient, rather than focusing on a particular food type.
Let us underline, however, that the Prophet, on him be peace, connected the fidyah payment for a valid reason not to fast Ramadan’s days to feeding one in need for a day.
Zakat Foundation’s collection of fidyah accomplishes this underlying aim, locally and internationally: Feeding the hungry.
When should one make up missed Ramadan fasting days?
The majority of scholars are of the opinion that if one delays making up the days of fasting until after the following Ramadan, then along with fasting a day in place of the one missed, one must also pay the redemption fee (fidyah) for each fasting day that one has delayed past that next year’s Ramadan.
If one delays until one passes the next two years’ Ramadan months, then one must pay double the redemption fee (two fidyah payments) for every day delayed, and so on.
Can an example be given?
If a woman does not fast days of Ramadan one year due to pregnancy, breastfeeding or menstruation, she has a valid exemption from those days. But must make up her missed days — according to the majority opinion — prior to the new moon of the next Ramadan.
Yet the legal opinion that no fidyah comes due on her regardless of how long she delays in making up her missed Ramadan fasts appears stronger than the majority opinion.
What is the minority opinion?
The woman in this example has no fidyah payment to make, according to this preferred scholarly opinion.
They cite as evidence a report that Abu Hurayrah and other Companions, God be pleased with them, held this opinion of no due fidyah for one who misses a Ramadan fast with valid exemption.
The legal authority Imam Abu Hanifah also judged that no matter how long one waits to make up a validly missed fast, one does not have to pay the redemption fee (fidyah). He produces as proof the verse of the Quran: “Yet if one among you is sick or is on a journey [such a person shall then fast] the same number of other days” (Surat al-Baqarah, 2:185). This verse states clearly that there is no remedy for missing a day of fasting with a valid excuse other than fasting a day in its place.
In fact, no reliable Text of Revelation — words from the Quran or the Prophet, on him be peace — supports the claim that one must pay a redemption fee (fidyah) if one has delayed one’s make-up fast by more than a year. No Text explicitly lays upon Muslims the obligation of making up their validly missed fasts immediately or within any predetermined time frame.
That is not to say making up one’s missed Ramadan fasts quickly is not desirable. It is highly preferable.
Aisha, beloved wife of the Prophet, on him be peace, and Mother of the Believers, God be pleased with her, as reported in the authentic hadith collections of Bukhari and Muslim, indicated that she would have some days to make up from the previous Ramadan in the following Sha‘ban, the month preceding the next Ramadan.
This means she would sometimes make up her missed Ramadan days 11 lunar months later. It also shows her conscious desire and keenness to make up her validly missed fasting days from one Ramadan before the coming of the next one.
The fact that the majority of scholars hold an opinion does not necessarily make it the preferable legal ruling. Still, it does highly recommend that one hasten to make up one’s missed fasts because no one knows when death shall come.
Also, one may prefer to pay the fidyah if one misses making up one’s validly exempted Ramadan fasts that have lapsed into the coming year’s Ramadan as the safest position before Allah. Moreover, Allah loves and highly rewards the charity that feeds the hungry and needful.
What about the missed fasts of one who has died?
If one dies in a condition, for example due to illness, that prevented one’s making missed Ramadan fasting days up, then no obligation falls on him or her, or their next of kin, to make up for the missed fasting days.
One who dies having missed Ramadan fasting days with a valid exemption, like travel or sickness, and the like, and had the ability later to make these days up, had the obligation to make those days up — an obligation unfulfilled.
The Prophet, on him be peace, according to his wife Aisha, God be pleased with her, said: “One who dies with [obligatory] fasts due, let one’s close kin make this up on his behalf.”
Scholars take this as a desirable (mustahabb) act on behalf of the dead’s near relations but not an obligation (wajib).
Consequently, one who has died with fasting days to make up, his or her children or close relatives may fast those days on the deceased’s behalf, or feed one person for each day missed. The deceased’s relations may make these days up consecutively, at the same time, or in any combination that equals the amount of missed days. Or, they may feed one person per day missed, or do both fast and pay fidyah redemption fee for the days missed.
As for Ramadan fasting days willfully missed by one who could have fasted them but did not, scholars hold such days as lost. Others cannot make them up on the dead’s behalf.
A word on Islam’s ethic of ease
The divine allowance of the fidyah redemption payment — for people who have difficulty fasting to provide sufficient food for those in need — is a sign of Islam’s toleration and ease. Allah does not increase burden on those who are ill or traveling with fasting.
It is important to keep in mind that this provision of ease in Islam takes into consideration the different circumstances of people and does not burden them with unnecessary or overwhelming hardship, neither payer nor recipient.
It is not, however, acceptable for anyone to use the phrase “Islam is a religion of ease” as a cover for neglecting obligations. The fidyah must be paid for those who validly cannot fast Ramadan.