I am Muslim – and I don’t fast during Ramadan.
As radical as that may sound to some people it never did to me growing up. I am a Shi’a Imani Nizari Ismaili Muslim, a very small sect (within a sect within a sect within a sect…you get the point) of Shi’a Muslims who believe that the line of the Prophet (PBUH) continued with his nephew, Ali b. Abi Talib (pbuh). Essentially, soon before his death, Prophet Muhammad announced that Imam Ali was to be the Master (mawla) of all of the believers, a pivotal point in the religion. While some took this to mean political leader, others took this to mean religious leader as well, with his guidance being the message of Allah (SWT). That’s where the Shi’a/Sunni split occurred, with Shi’a Muslims believing that Imam Ali’s word was Divine guidance. Over centuries, such splits continued due to, among other things, war, miscommunication, and political and familial allegiances. Nizari Ismails had their start in Iran, but fled to what is now India/Pakistan after the collapse of the Fatimid Empire to avoid persecution. As such, the ancestors of many Nizari Ismails were Hindus. Interestingly, in an effort to convert and integrate, Ismailis took many cultural and religious practices from the Hindus, assimilating into their new home.
…Ismailis took many cultural and religious practices from the Hindus, assimilating into their new home.
Ismailis, unlike most Shi’a Muslims, believe that the line of Prophet Muhammad and Imam Ali continued, and still does today with a present living religious leader, Imam Shah Karim Al-Hussaini (Aga Khan IV). One of the biggest differences between Ismailis and other sects of Islam, and oftentimes why they are rejected by many other Muslim sects, is that Ismailis believe that the Quran was bound by its time. The present living Imam interprets the Quran to keep with modern times, regularly advising us on religious and secular matters, whether it be on education, health, spirituality, or attending Jamatkhana (the place of prayer). As such, the focus of the faith is on the esoteric, the spiritual aspects of the faith, more than the outward, exoteric practices. The practices around fasting (or lack thereof) are therefore in line with the essence of Ismailism.
The purpose of Ramadan is to purify your soul. Along with abstaining from food and water, Muslims are to abstain from evil and impure acts, and focus on the faith and practicing mindfulness. Ismailis, for centuries, have focused on this esoteric and spiritual meaning behind not only Ramadan, but many of the faiths practices. In 1164, Hasan Ala-Dhikrihi al-Aalam declared a period in which exoteric practices such as Hajj and fasting were no longer mandatory, instead concentrating on the spiritual elements behind such acts. The Imam said that while Ismailis were to abstain from eating and drinking for one month, they could never break our true fast, which was abstaining from evil and improper things. In later years, Ismailis went back to performing the exoteric aspects of the religion, including fasting to avoid persecution.
Still, a majority of modern day Nizari Ismailis don’t fast during Ramadan for this very reason. Aga Khan III (pbuh) has stressed the importance of the meaning behind Ramadan. While he has spoken many times on the subject matter, the following quote by Aga Khan III eloquently sums it all up:
The Prophet has ordered the fast. The fast is there to exercise the body. It is necessary to keep taqiya so that others may not indulge in backbiting (i.e. it may be necessary to observe the fast outwardly in order to protect the community from slander by other Muslims). But you who are haqiqatis (truth-seekers) are under an obligation to fast 360 days (sic). These fasts are:
1. Not to speak a lie
2. Not to deceive, swindle anyone, or abuse trust
3· Not to speak ill behind someone’s back.
In this manner 360 day haqiqi fasts (haqiqi rojaa) are mandatory (faraj) upon the Isma’ilis.
– Quoted in Malise Ruthven’s “Aga Khan III and the Isma‘ili Renaissance” at 392.
That’s not to say I don’t know any Ismailis that fast, and not to say that I’ve never fasted, but it’s much more optional, as we’re required to be good Muslims for 365 days of the year. Though I don’t fast, I think Ramadan is a beautiful opportunity to renew your faith and the outward act of fasting is a constant reminder of one’s commitment to their faith. Still, before joining the MissMuslim team, I never thought about the struggles (and emotions) that came with fasting. More than ever, I respect and admire the strength and discipline required to fast for a month, especially during this time of year, but for now, I am a Muslim and I don’t fast during Ramadan.