Valid exemptions for not fulfilling the obligations of fasting Ramadan fall under five major categories. (This does not include menstrual and postnatal bleeding.) Anyone who breaks a Ramadan fasting day with a valid exemption must simply make up the missed day before the following Ramadan (or offer appropriate redemption if fasting is not possible). If someone breaks a Ramadan fast without a valid exemption, this entails a penalty of expiation known in Arabic as kaffarah, or “covering over,” such as fasting consecutively for two months, if one is able.
Here is a summary of the five major categories of valid exemptions from fasting Ramadan.
1. THE FIRST CATEGORY OF VALID EXEMPTION: ILLNESS
Illness is any condition that takes a person outside the bounds of health as the result of some indisposition. Ibn Qudamah (d. 1223ce) said: “There is consensus among the scholars regarding the permissibility of breaking the fast due to illness in general, as stated in 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).
The Companion (of the Prophet, on him be peace) Salamah ibn Al-Akwa‘ reported:
When the verse “wa ‘ala’l-ladhîna uûthiqunahu…” / “Yet for those who are hardly able to endure it…” (Surat Al-Baqarah, 2:184) was revealed, those who wanted to break their fast were allowed to break their fast and pay the redemption, until the verse “Shahru Ramadan alladhi…”’ / “It was the month of Ramadan in which…” (Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:185) was revealed and abrogated the one before it.
So, the prescription to fast went through stages. First, God permitted the believers to break their fast. Then God obligated the fast unless one had a valid justification for not doing so.
Illness remained a valid reason for not fasting, though not any illness or pain legitimately excuses one from fasting. If one fears that fasting will worsen the sickness, delay its cure, or cause damage to anything in the body, then one has a valid excuse for breaking the fast. In fact, one should break one’s fast under these circumstances, for the higher obligation is to keep oneself from becoming debilitated or, of course, from perishing.
If one is well, but feels the difficulty of fasting, this does not rise to the level of sufficient cause for breaking the fast. The exception here is the Hanafi legal school’s position that if one who is well believes it very likely the fast will cause him or her to fall ill, one can break the fast. If, however, the fear of illness is anxiety or apprehension of illness, more delusion or obsession than actuality, then it is not permissible to break fast.
The Malikis disagree with the Hanafis in this, holding that if the healthy person has no illness to begin with but merely harbors a fear that fasting will cause illness, then he or she is barred from breaking the fast because the fear of illness neither proves the likelihood of such an outcome, nor does it meet the standard of a sufficient legal proof authorizing action. If, however, one knows with great certainty that fasting will definitely cause real harm, he or she can break the fast. The distinction, then, is diagnosing the likely onset of real harm as a result of fasting as opposed to a difficulty caused by fasting, as difficulty in fasting is a wholly invalid justification.
Now, even though one who is ill ought to break the fast, it does not render his or her fast invalid if one chooses to complete the fast.
Some scholars divide the sick into four classes regarding the obligation to fast:
A. THE UNABLE: One who cannot fast because of a valid fear of an illness or debilitating weakness that fasting will likely cause. In this case, one must break one’s fast. It is an obligation to do so.
B. THE ABLE WITH HARDSHIP: Fasting imposes a great hardship on this person. Such a one must fast, unless it is legitimately determined that the fast is very likely to result in physical harm.
C. THE ABLE WITH HARDSHIP AND FEAR OF ILLNESS: One who is able to fast, but with great hardship, who fears that fasting will exacerbate his or her sickness. Such a person is justified in breaking fast. According to one opinion, this person “must” break the fast. According to another, he or she “should” break the fast.
D. THE ABLE WITH DIFFICULTY: One for whom fasting creates great difficulty but to whom it does not present any genuine physical danger. This individual is obligated to complete his or her fast.
THE SECOND CATEGORY OF VALID EXEMPTION: TRAVEL
A. Travel defined and delimited
The kind of travel that allows one to break one’s fast must fulfill at least three conditions, and a fourth, according to all but the Hanafi juristic school:
1. DISTANCE: Enough for one to shorten the ritual prayer (about 50 miles, according to most scholars, but the norm, which is the better measure, is what is considered by people of the time and place a journey).
2. DURATION: The person in the state of travel or far from home does not have the intention of staying at that destination for more than three days. In this latter case, the person may be permitted to not fast during the travel (if they fulfill the requirements of distance, exceedance, and intentionality), but must resume the fast when they arrive at their destination of more than three days.
3. EXCEEDANCE: One must go beyond the limits of the city or town one is staying in. This means if one were to travel 50 miles but still be within his metropolitan or town area, it would not count as travel. The question of whether one’s metropolitan area remains as one’s town or home region should be taken seriously, such as Greater Chicago, for instance.
4a INTENTIONALITY: According to the majority of scholars, the person undertaking the journey must not be making it for unlawful reasons or to unlawful destinations, like a gambling trip to Las Vegas. This is because the allowance to break one’s fast is to make travel easy. If someone is undertaking an unlawful action, they are not included in the principle of creating ease for the traveler.
4b INTENTIONALITY: The Hanafis allow for one who is traveling for something unlawful to break fast because there is no Text of revelation (a verse of the Quran or hadith statement of or report regarding the Prophet, on him be peace) that specifies that the justification for fast breaking is restricted to one traveling for lawful purposes. Further, they specify that the act of traveling itself is not unlawful. So, the fasting exemption, according to the Hanafis, is connected to travel itself, not what occurs thereafter or as a result of it.
The majority of the Companions of the Prophet, on him be peace, agreed that one who begins the Ramadan fast while settled, or in residence, who then travels after the start of Ramadan is still permitted to break fast. This is because (1) the Texts of Revelation that impose the obligation of fasting Ramadan are of a general nature and do not specify any restriction as to mobility or the rules they set. (2) The Prophet, on him be peace, departed on the campaign to free Mecca during Ramadan and broke his fast, even though he began his travel after Ramadan had commenced (Bukhari).
There is record of two legal opinions on fasting Ramadan that are spurious. The first is that once Ramadan begins one is not allowed to travel. This opinion is regarded as weak. The second holds that if one does travel, one must fast. This opinion is rejected.
B. The element of “time of day” and travel
The time of day when one begins traveling affects the permissibility of fast breaking during Ramadan. Jurists identify three time-oriented situations, and append to this discussion a fourth occurrence regarding the breastfeeding or pregnant woman:
1. THE PRE-DAWN TRAVELER: A traveler who begins his or her travel in Ramadan before fajr (dawn), who has intended to travel at that time and to break his or her fast in so doing, has the consensus of jurists that he or she can break fast. The rationale is that such a one is already in a state of travel when the cause for the obligation of fasting — namely, the onset of dawn — begins.
2. THE POST-DAWN TRAVELER: A traveler who begins his or her travel after fajr (dawn) — according to the majority of jurists — is disallowed from breaking fast, since such a one has already begun an obligatory fast in a state of being settled, or resident. Ahmad ibn Hanbal dissents from this position and holds that once travel begins one is permitted to break fast, as travel, unrestricted by time, is itself the cause for the allowance of fast breaking.
Ahmad ibn Hanbal’s position seems the more accurate one due to the hadith reported by Muslim that the Prophet, on him be peace, headed for Mecca in the year of its liberation in the month of Ramadan. He traveled while fasting until he reached a certain place called Kira’ Al-Ghamim. The Companions fasted with him. At this point, it was said to him: “The fasting, indeed, has become a hardship for the people, and they are looking to see what you do.” So the Prophet, on him be peace, called for a vessel of water after ‘Asr and drank in front of the people, and some of them broke their fast while others continued fasting. When the news reached the Prophet, on him be peace, that some of them continued their fast, he said: “Those are the disobedient ones.”
Similarly, Imam Ahmad reported, on the authority of Ibn ‘Abbas, that the Prophet, on him be peace, left for Mecca in the Year of the Liberation during the month of Ramadan and fasted until he reached a certain point on the road. This was around midday. At that point, he reached a water source, and he saw the people with him looking longingly at the water. So the Prophet, on him be peace, asked for a vessel of water, and he waited until all the people were looking at him, and he drank. So the people drank after him.
The scholars that hold it permissible to break your obligatory fast after the start of the fast use this account as a proof for their opinion. They claim also as proof that the status of the traveler has precedence over the status of the settled person.
Still, most scholars, including the Hanbalis, hold that one who intends to fast a day in Ramadan and then embarks on a journey should preferably NOT break fast.
3. The majority of scholars believe that breaking one’s fast immediately before embarking on a journey – for example, breaking fast in one’s home before leaving on a trip – is impermissible because the circumstance that allows for the permissibility of breaking one’s fast is the traveling journey itself. So, one must wait until one is in a state of travel before breaking the fast.
4. The jurists agree that a breastfeeding or pregnant woman is allowed to break fast if she believes that fasting will cause harm to her or her baby. The Hanbalis actually hold the position that it is reprehensible (maqruh) for her to fast in this state. Their proof for this is Tirmidhi reported the Prophet, on him be peace, said: “Indeed God, Transcendent and Resplendent, has relieved the traveler of the obligation of fasting and relieved him of half the salah [ritual prayer obligation]; and He has likewise relieved the pregnant and breastfeeding woman of fasting.”
THE THIRD CATEGORY OF VALID EXEMPTION: AGE
There is consensus that it is permissible for the elderly not to fast. There is no specific definition for old age. It pertains to what people know and agree to be an age that is very advanced and disabling.
THE FOURTH CATEGORY OF VALID EXEMPTION: THIRST AND HUNGER
Severe thirst and grave hunger are both valid reasons not to fast, but not just any kind of acute thirst or hunger. If one really believes that the continuation of their fast will physically harm them because they are suffering from severe thirst or hunger, then it is permissible for them to break fast. If one in the military anticipates engagement and breaks the fast because of this likelihood, but engagement does not occur, there is no penalty for having broken the fast.
THE FIFTH CATEGORY OF VALID EXEMPTION: COERCION
If a faster’s well-being is threatened, such as it being said to a faster: “If you do not break your fast, you will be punished or confined,” there is no penalty if one breaks the fast under such duress. Yet one remains obliged to make up this missed fast.