A Traveller’s Fast

by: J.M Butt

One of my dearest teachers at Darul Uloom Deoband was Maulana Faiz-ul-Hasan. Originally from Kashmir, he had lived, studied and taught in Darul Uloom most of his life. He taught me the principles of jurisprudence – usul’ut-tafsir.

His lessons were made all the more memorable due to the fact that they took place in the famous Darul Tafseer – the domed crown that adorns the edifice of Darul Uloom Deoband. Many decades earlier, it had been in the same Darul Tafseer, that Maulana Shabbir Ahmad Uthmani, the most famous Sheikh-ul-Tafseer that Deoband has produced, used to teach Quranic exegesis.

Maulana Faiz-ul-Hasan was fond of giving an example to illustrate one point related to principles of jurisprudence. “Take Haji Jan Mohammad,” he would say, referring to myself. “If he is sitting on an aeroplane, flying to London, then what difficulty is he encountering? None whatsoever. Yet he is entitled not to fast, since he is travelling. And what about a poor Indian farmer tilling his field? He has no right to break the fast, even though he is undergoing such thirst and such fatigue. This is because the exoneration from fasting is not based on physical exertion. It is based on travelling.”

Having adopted the Pashtoon version of Islam, I am not in the habit of breaking my fast when travelling. Doing so may be allowed in Islam (Al-Quran, 2:184), but it is out of the question in Pashtoonwali. In some cases, Pashtoonwali may deviate from strict Islamic tenets. Pashtoons joke about themselves in this regard by saying that Pashto is half infidelity – ‘neem kufr day.’ However, the Pashtoons make up for this by being excessively fervent in their practice of Islam in other instances – not countenancing breaking the fast during a journey, or even during sickness, being a case in point.

In fact, usually I avoid travelling during Ramadan. Ramadan is best spent at home, as most Pashtoons would agree. However, one Ramadan I was particularly busy with my work and had to do a lot of traveling. I went from South Asia to England, from England to Central Asia, then once again from England to the West Coast of the United States. All this time, like a good Pashtoon, I was resisting the temptation to make use of the exoneration given to travellers to break the fast. I must say, sometimes the words of Maulana Faiz-ul-Hasan did come to mind. In particular one late afternoon when, flying on a jet plane heading west towards London, the sun resolutely refused to set. I kept longingly eyeing the dates that Emirates had given me for breaking the fast. Then I would look back out of the window at the sun, and it was no nearer setting. I must have fasted a good four hours’ extra that day, the reason being that when one heads west, one is gaining time. Still, I managed to keep the fast. But it was one of the longest fasts I have ever observed.

A few days later, I took a plane from London to San Francisco. The journey is thirteen hours; the time difference eight hours. Again, one is heading westward. I boarded the plane shortly before sundown. Before boarding the plane, I did my sums. If I was to continue fasting while flying by air to San Francisco, I would be breaking my fast sometime the next morning, London time. Another verse of the Quran came into my mind, also revealed with regard to fasting: Allah requires ease for you, not hardship (Al-Quran, 2:185). I did some instant racking of my brains, in an attempt to come to the right solution – a process known in Islamic jurisprudence as ijtihad. I would continue fasting until it was time to break the fast London time. Then I would partake of food, even though on our journey to the land of the never-setting sun, it would still be day.

So Maulana Faiz-ul-Hasan was wrong after all. Even sitting in the luxury of a plane, there can be a very good reason to break one’s fast. But that reason is not related to the physical exertion of travelling. It is related to time difference. Sadly, Maulana had passed away shortly after I left Deoband. I am sure he would have appreciated this extra nugget of information and would have incorporated it into his jurisprudence classes – again with a nod in my direction.

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