Kitab al-Sawm I – Preliminaries | al-Fiqh al-Istidlali

In this series of posts, we will be going over a few rulings pertaining to fasting, generally found in Kitāb al-Ṣawm (Book of Fasting) of various jurists. The content will be descriptive in the sense that we will explain arguments put forth by some jurists, including any arguments proposed for differing opinions – although this is not to say that all explanations are going to be exhaustive and sufficient – in fact far from it. An exhaustive explanation and argument can span over numerous pages, exploring all possible intricate details, but such a treatment of the issues is not our intent here. These posts are intended for an audience interested in getting a general idea of the various methodological approaches taken by jurists when deducing law, and for those who already have a general understanding of Islamic legal jargon, in order to get a taste of what the process of deriving law generally entails.

It should also be noted that these posts are a result of a semester-long discussion between two seminarians where both were reading up on transcriptions of the lessons by jurisconsults such as Sayyid Shubeyri Zanjāni, Shaykh Nūri Hamadāni, Shaykh Mazāhiri, and the order of discussion has been taken from the 2-volume work al-Fiqh al-Istidlāli of Shaykh Bāqir Irwāni (not to be confused with his 3-volume Durūs al-Tamhīdiyyah fi al-Fiqh al-Istidlāli).

Before we begin, one discussion pertaining to all Islamic law that often takes place is the determination of whether a law is ta’sīsī or imḍā’ī. Ta’sīsī laws are those that were brought and propagated by the Prophet (p) and were completely new ideas for the Muslim community. For example, Ṣalāh as we know it, or the concept of Zakāh. On the other hand, there are numerous laws which are imḍā’ī; that is to say these were norms that existed amongst the Arabs and the Prophet (p) came and signed off on them, and approved of them. Many contract laws are of this nature, such as selling & buying, or marriage. Of course, in some of these laws there were indeed changes made by the Prophet and those specific changes would be considered ta’sīsī.

When it comes to Ṣawm, what we know is that the Qur’ān claims to have prescribed something similar upon certain previous nations,[1] however there isn’t any evidence to suggest the Arabs themselves would fast. In other words, Ṣawm seems to be a completely new institution that the Prophet introduced to the Arab Muslims, and as per some historical records this seems to have been after the migration to Medina.

Once we know that the concept of Ṣawm is ta’sīsī, this implies that our primary source for all information concerning its details will be from the Prophet and the later Imams. Unlike imḍā’ī laws, where we can attempt to look to see how the Arabs performed a certain action to be able to determine what exactly was it that the Prophet (p) approved of. Hence, in our first post, we now address the question: What is Ṣawm and is Ṣawm an instance of a ta’abbudi act of worship, or tawassuli?

The definition of Ṣawm (fasting) may come across as a pointless discussion, but its relevance will be seen shortly and also in some subsequent discussions – particularly in the discussion of intention (niyyah). Ṣawm has been defined as Imsāk – meaning to restrain or stop oneself – from a number of mufaṭṭirāt (things that invalidate the fast) while maintaining an intention of seeking proximity to Allah (swt).[2] However, Imsāk from the invalidators implies the absence of an action and hence the question becomes, how does a command tense (amr) – something that necessitates one to do something – relate to something that is non-existent? As an example, when a command is given: pray (salli); to fulfill this command, a person is required to perform a series of actions and it can then be said a person has performed their prayers. However, in the case of fasting, when it is said: fast (ṣum), no action is being performed, rather it is the absence of certain actions (absence of eating, absence of drinking etc.) This would be absurd, because one cannot “do” or “perform” the absence of an action.

This requires us to determine whether Ṣawm is a compound or a simple reality? To illustrate what this means take prayers as an example. Prayers is a compound reality, where numerous parts such as the takbīr, qiyām, rukū’, sujūd etc. come together to form what we know as Ṣalāt. Some have likewise argued, that Ṣawm is a compound reality compromised of numerous parts, however these parts are the various restraints: restraining from eating, drinking, sexual intercourse etc. They argue that commanding to perform the absence of these actions is not an issue, because each of these non-existents are classified as ‘adam mudhaf (non-existence which are related by the mind to certain faculties and kinds of existents) and therefore not absolute non-existence (as such a thing does not – by definition – exist).[3]

Some argue that the above explanation is not sufficient. They suggest that all forms of worship, including prayers and fasting, are simple (as opposed to compound argued in the paragraph above), mental designations (‘unwān) which are to be attained after its particulars are brought into existence in external reality (the latter being the designated – mu’anwan). For example, prayers are a simple concept, however if we want to bring this simple concept of our mind into external reality, we have to perform its parts. So, from the moment a person makes their intention to the last salām that is given, only after that can it be said, “Ṣalāt” was performed. Likewise, fasting is also a simple designation in our mind where a person in terms of their actions makes the intention before the morning prayers, and refrains from doing anything that may break his or her fast, until sunset when it can finally be said that Ṣawm was performed. In the case of prayers, the designated parts are existent, and one abstracts the concept of Ṣalāt from it, and in the case of fasting, though the designated parts are non-existent, one abstracts the concept of Ṣawm from the absence of indulging in the invalidators. This is why if one makes the intention to pray, what is in their mind is the designation (the Ṣalāt), not the designated (all its parts). Fasting is also similar as far as what is in the mind of a person fasting is the simple designation (the Ṣawm), not the designated (refraining from the mufaṭṭirat).

According to the second group, one can say that the concept of Ṣawm is a simple concept or designation (‘unwan basīṭ), which is attained and brought into existence by its designated parts (albeit a refrainment) in the external world. The command tense thus is related to the designation, which is a simple concept, and not the designated parts. This holds true for all other forms of worship as well.

The second question that we need to address is, whether fasting – an act of worship – is ta’abbudi or tawassuli. Ta’abbudi acts of worship are those that require an intention of qurbah for their validity, whereas tawassuli acts are those that do not require an intention. An example of a tawassuli act would be if one had an impurity on their body, they must wash it before performing their prayers. If they were to doze off besides a pond, and that part of their body goes in the water subsequently washing off the impurity, this is sufficient and there was no need for the person to have been awake, and to have intended to wash their body part. The view of all jurists, without an exception, is that fasting is a ta’abbudi act of worship (which will also later open the door to the question of how does a fasting person remain in the state of fasting while sleeping), but they have given different justifications for this.

Perhaps the most commonly-used evidence is the fact that it is from the musallamāt (claims that are accepted by all for whom the discussion is relevant) of the religion. This group further argues that discussing this question is similar to discussing whether prayers themselves are necessary, or whether fasting is an obligation within the religion of Islām itself – something no jurist will ever bother discussing. In other words, this is not a question worthy of debate or an issue that requires any justification, due to its obvious nature.

Nevertheless, we find Sayyid Khoei (d. 1992) attempting to justify this claim using two different narrations.

Hadith #1 from Imam Bāqir (s):

بُنِيَ الْإِسْلَامُ عَلَى خَمْسٍ عَلَى الصَّلَاةِ وَ الزَّكَاةِ وَ الصَّوْمِ وَ الْحَجِّ وَ الْوَلَايَةِ

Translation: Islam is built upon five (pillars): Upon al-Ṣalāt, and al-Zakāt, and al-Ṣawm, and al-Ḥajj, and al-Walāyah.[4]

Sayyid Khoei argues that for something to be a pillar of the religion of Islam, and to not be an act that requires an intention to reach proximity to Allah (swt) is extremely far-fetched. Furthermore, the concept of Walāyah is a ta’abbudi concept and it being mentioned in this narration shows that the pillars are those things in which intentions play an important role.

Response by Sayyid Shubeyri Zanjāni: This is not the only narration on this topic, and in other similar narrations we find other things also mentioned as pillars. One of the most important pillar mentioned is Jihād, while we know is not a ta’abbudi act of worship. In Jihād the intent is to overcome one’s enemy, and whether one has an intention to seek proximity to Allah (swt) or not, does not take away from the material achievements of the Jihād. What the Legislator (God) is looking at is the overall success of the believers and victory over their enemies, which is attained even if one did not have the intention of qurbah. Perhaps it is better to understand these set of narrations as an outline of Islam’s most fundamental goals – whether they are ta’abbudi or tawassuli.

Furthermore, Walayah itself is a tawassuli concept. It serves to fulfill the well-being of a society, so that law and order can be maintained (whether those laws themselves happen to be ta’abbudi or not). This purpose is served whether one has an intention of qurbah or not while appointing someone as a Wali. This is very clear in states run by those who do not believe in a God to begin with.

Sayyid Khoei later brings another contextual indicator from the same narration to strengthen his argument :

لَوْ أَنَّ رَجُلًا قَامَ لَيْلَهُ وَ صَامَ نَهَارَهُ وَ تَصَدَّقَ بِجَمِيعِ مَالِهِ وَ حَجَّ جَمِيعَ دَهْرِهِ وَ لَمْ يَعْرِفْ وَلَايَةَ وَلِيِّ اللَّهِ فَيُوَالِيَهُ وَ يَكُونَ جَمِيعُ أَعْمَالِهِ بِدَلَالَتِهِ إِلَيْهِ مَا كَانَ لَهُ عَلَى اللَّهِ جَلَّ وَ عَزَّ حَقٌّ فِي ثَوَابِهِ

Translation: Even if a man (during the course of his life) would stand up in worship in his night, fast during his day, gave all his belongings in charity, and performed Hajj every year, but he did not acknowledge the Walayah of the Wali of Allah, such that he follows him and ensures all his acts are under his guidance, he has no right over Allah (swt) for (seeking) his reward.

Sayyid Khoei uses this part of the same narration to suggest, that the Imam has even referred to a person fasting, yet if one did not acknowledge the Walayah, even that fast will not be worth anything. In other words, even if the person had done the intention of qurbah while fasting, it would be to no avail.

Response of Sayyid Zanjāni: This argument is not very clear, because both ta’abbudi and tawssuli are rewarded based on one’s intentions. The difference in these two is with regards to what God wants, where we say that what God wants from a ta’abbudi worship is not achieved except by an intention, whereas in tawassuli acts, that which God wants can be achieved even without an intention. Sayyid Shubeyri Zanjāni says, he is not able to understand what having an intention of qurbah while not acknowledging the Walāyah which results in the absence of reward, has anything to do with it being ta’abbudi.


[1] Al-Baqarah 2:183

[2] See ‘Urwah al-Wuthqa of Sayyid Muhammad Kazim al-Tabataba’ee al-Yazdi, Vol. 3, Pg. 521

[3] For more on this, see Bidayah al-Hikmah, The Elements of Islamic Metaphysics, by ‘Allamah Tabataba’ee, translated by Ali Quli Qara’i, Pg. 16

[4] Usul al-Kafi, Vol. 2, Pg. 18

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