Fasting becomes required as a duty when a boy or a girl attains puberty. Prior to that, it is not obligatory. This applies to all Islamic duties of worship. This is considered the age when a person can fulfill regular duties, such as prayers and fasting, because his or her sense of responsibility is deemed to have reached a sufficient stage of maturity.
It is well known that we are recommended to train our children to pray when they become seven years old. A Hadith of the Prophet directs us to tell our children to pray when they are seven and to use light corporal punishment for not praying when they are 10. The question arises whether the same applies in the case of fasting. The question, then, is: Are children to be encouraged, or indeed ordered to fast before they attain the age of puberty when it becomes obligatory to them?
Generally speaking, the best answer to a question like this is that which is provided by an authentic Hadith. In this respect, we have a Hadith related by Al-Bukhari on the authority of one of the youngest lady companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him), Al-Rubayie bint Muawwith. She reports: “The Prophet sent messengers to the villages of the Ansar on the morning of Ashoura (i.e. 10th of Muharram) with the message: He who has started the day not fasting, let him finish his day, and he who has started the day fasting, let him continue his fast. We used to fast that day afterward, and make our children fast as well. We would make them woollen toys. If a child cries of hunger, we gave it a toy to play with until it was time for ending the fast.”
Before we begin commenting on the fasting of children, it is important to note that prior to making fasting obligatory during the month of Ramadan, it was a duty for Muslims to fast on the tenth of Muharram. We have mentioned in the past the reason for choosing that day. We repeat here in brief that when the Prophet emigrated to Madinah, he found out that the Jews fasted on that day.
When he questioned them, they told him that they celebrated the anniversary of the event when Moses was saved by God from his enemies. The Prophet said that he and the Muslims have more in common with Moses and they were better entitled to celebrate that occasion. He ordered his companions to fast on that day. Although fasting on the tenth of Muharram is no longer obligatory since the obligation was transferred to fasting during the month of Ramadan, it is still recommended as a Sunnah of the Prophet.
It is perfectly clear from this Hadith that the Prophet’s companions used to make their children fast. It is important to understand that fasting is not obligatory to children until they have attained the age of puberty. Most scholars agree, however, that children may be encouraged to fast, if they can bear the hardship of fasting. However, there are differences among scholars with regard to when to start the training of children to fast. Some of them suggest the age of seven or ten, as in the case of prayers. Others, like Ahmad ibn Hanbal, suggest beginning at ten, while other scholars mention the age of 12 as the starting point.
The Maliki scholars generally have a different view which suggests that children need not be encouraged to fast. However, that is a view which cannot be supported by valid evidence. I have already mentioned in the past that the Maliki school of thought considers “the practice of the people of Madinah” as a valid indicator of what is acceptable in Islam. The fact that Madinah was the cradle of Islamic society and that most of the Prophet’s companions lived there and continued to be there for a long time after the Prophet has molded life in Madinah in the proper Islamic fashion makes its way of life an example of Islamic life. Hence, when something is a common practice among the people of Madinah, it must be based on sound Islamic teachings.
Al-Bukhari points out that the practice of the people of Madinah in this particular respect was to encourage children to fast. He relates that Umar, the second caliph, saw a man who was drunk during one day in Ramadan. He rebuked him saying: “Confound you, how do you do this when our children are fasting?” He ordered him to be flogged.
This report suggests that it was common practice among the people of Madinah at the time of Umar, when Islamic practice was still perhaps at its purest, to encourage children to fast as a means of training. Umar’s words to the drunken person suggest that it was common for young children to fast. He was certainly infuriated by seeing a drunken man during the day of Ramadan. To drink on any day is, from the Islamic point of view, to commit a grave sin which is punishable by flogging and exile. To do so during the day, in the month of Ramadan, is to be doubly sinful, since the negligence of the duty of fasting is a grave sin as well. However, we note that Umar did not allow his outrage to get the better of him by increasing the punishment of that man. He only punished him for drinking, the punishment of which consists of flogging (80 lashes) and a year in exile. Umar sent the man to Syria.
We have thus established that encouragement of young children to fast is the weightier opinion to which most scholars subscribe. According to the Hadith which we have quoted, the children who were encouraged to fast at the time of the Prophet must have been very young, probably less than ten years of age.
This we can understand from the statement given by the Prophet’s companion who reports this Hadith, when she says that mothers used to make soft toys in order to use them as a distraction to their children who might cry from hunger. Such a toy does not provide much distraction for an 11 or 12 year old. Those children who cried must have been younger than that.
Needless to say that encouraging a child to fast does not mean forcing him or her to fast throughout the month. That is neither wise nor necessary. Parents should approach the training of their children to fast in an easy, relaxed way which makes fasting desirable to the child. Perhaps the encouragement to fast should be coupled with a reward which may be given at the end of the day and encouraging words by other members of the family which give the child a sense of joining the adults in the family. That is bound to make the hardship of fasting much easier to bear.
Moreover, a child may be encouraged to fast one or two days the first time around, perhaps when he is nine or 10.
The number of days which he fasts may then be increased gradually so that when he attains the age of puberty, he finds fasting the whole month, from dawn to dusk, presenting no great difficulty.
ssIt is such an easy way which is characteristic of the Islamic approach to religious duties.