How Young is Too Young to Fast?

How Young is Too Young to Fast? June 16, 2015

Kids and ramadan_resizedShe sat on the sofa and refused. I tried everything I could to convince her, but she kept refusing and refusing and refusing.

You’re not ready, I told her. You’re too young. It’s too long a day. I love that you want to, but not today. Next year!

And that’s when she started to cry. Why are you making me stop when I really want to? And then she said the words that I have said to her so many times. This is between me and Allah. I want to fast. I know I can. So don’t stop me.

And so I wiped her tears, turned to my mother-in-law and said, looks like she is keeping her first fast. The planned half-day fast turned into a unplanned full fast. Then I called her Baba and told him, asking him to stop at Barnes and Noble and bring home a book she had been wanting to give her as a present. And that was the first time my daughter fasted in Ramadan – no fuss, no big ceremony, no party. Just one young girl who wanted to do it.

She was seven years old, just days shy of her eighth birthday.

The late-summer fasts were still pretty long, and I was concerned for her. I had allowed her to do a few half-fasts, as she was excited and clamoring to be part of the fasting crowd in our family. But I wasn’t ready for her stubborn declaration that day that she was going to fast the whole day. Still, after witnessing the determination in her eyes, knowing she was at home on summer break and doing nothing that day and making her to chill on the sofa for the last few hours before breaking fast, I figured it was ok.

This year, where we live in the eastern part of the U.S., it’s supposed to be the longest fasting season of Ramadan. (Click here to get all your Ramadan FAQs answered.) Daughter A is now 11, nearly 12 years old, and she has declared that she wants to do maximum fasting this year – as many as possible. And, with this being the last Ramadan that falls in her summer break, I’m on board to help make this happen (her Baba is not so enthused, thinking she is still too young and the fasts too long) — which means letting her stay up late, sleep in, resting, not planning  a lot of daytime activities, good nutrition and sensible parental judgment should she seem weak or overtired at some point.

When a child starts fasting and how he/she approaches fasting (doing one, a few, or all 30 at one go, as some kids do) is an intensely personal decision between parents and children. Islamic guidelines teach us that puberty is the marker for when fasting becomes incumbent upon a person. But I also believe, and again, let me reiterate that this is my belief based on what I’ve read and what I’ve mulled over (so don’t quote me as some scholar or fatwa-giver on these things), that fasting is something to be eased into depending on when Ramadan occurs, how old and healthy the child is, what sort of willpower/determination that child has and parental judgment. It’s not to be a burden.

Much of the Muslim blogosphere lit up last week when an article in The Independent wrote about how a primary school in the U.K. banned its students from fasting. Barclay Primary School in East London sent home a very thoughtful letter to its parents explaining why fasting in Ramadan would be banned this year. Please, read the letter in full, because it shows how much the school thought about its decision, weighing in Islamic law, the long fasting hours, the pre-pubescent state of most of its students and health factors. The letter stated that in previous years, they had witnessed a few students grow ill or faint, thereby being unable to access school curriculum while fasting.

The school advised older students to fast on the weekend.

Some British Muslims objected to the ban (while until now, I’ve not seen any reports surface yet of parents in that school objecting):

The decision has sparked criticism from some members of the Muslim community. A spokesperson from the Muslim Association of Britain told Mail Online that parents had the right over the final choice on fasting.

“We believe that there are sufficient and stringent rules within Islam which allow those who are unable to fast, to break fast,” said the spokesman, who added that the rules included those who were medically ill, too young or too old.

I appreciate what the school is trying to do — lookout for the health and welfare of its students. And I respectfully and delicately suggest — without knowing personally any of the parents or students in that particular school or any of the students who reportedly fell ill or fainted from fasting in the past — that maybe Muslim parents should think longer and harder about when their child should fast. Most likely parents already are. I hate to judge people – that is not my place. But we should be able to exercise our rights of religion while accepting all the things our faith offer us to make things easier. We should be making these decisions, not schools.

I didn’t start fasting until the age of 12 in sixth grade (when Ramadan occurred in May, and the fasts were long and during the school year), and eased into doing a full month over the course of two or so years. I did a lot of fasting on weekends and not on weekdays when I had track practice. These were decisions made by my parents and me. My daughter, fiercely determined to do so, fasted for the first time at the age of seven — a decision I supported after looking at all the parameters. Others in my extended family — their children fasted the entire month from the get-go.

My youngest son is now that same age his sister was when she surprised us with her first full fast. He is a different kid, and the fasts are even longer this year. He is not ready nor even interested to try a full fast. And, we’re not pushing it either. I may ask him if he wants to try a half-day fast, though.

Says Patheos Muslim blogger Hind Makki (who blogs at Hindtrospectives) in a Facebook status update:

Full disclosure: my parents forbade me to even half-fast until I was 13 years old because I ate poorly and was underweight [since birth until I was well into my 20s]. Health took priority over fasting in my very religious and observant household.

I think parents, not the school, should the final word on whether their children should fast. But I understand where the school is coming from because 18+ hours is way too long for full fasts for children aged 11 and younger. Maybe these kids can half-fast when their school day ends – there will still be plenty of daylight left before Maghrib!

I agree. Parents, not the school, should be the final word on whether their children fast. I understand where the school is coming from and respect all the thought they put into the letter they sent school families. The approximately 18+ hour fasts occurring in the UK are challenging for many people, including youth.  So let us as parents make the right decisions. Let us guide our children well and teach them the beauty, gratitude and God-consciousness that should hopefully come from fasting. Let us be good examples to them. Let us be aware and take advantage of the ease our faith offers us. Let us remember the mercy and love of Allah. Let us push ourselves and our children, but not hard enough to cause harm.

And forgive me if I’ve made any mistakes in writing this.

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