I was wondering if I can get Prof. Khaled Abou El Fadl's opinion on the obligation of fasting on little girls who have started their period. Is it really in keeping with the essence of Islam or even helpful to Muslims in the 21st century to insist that, just because of a physiological event, a little girl that is emotionally and mentally still a minor must be held accountable for performing religious rituals that she can barely understand or endure?
[Name Withheld for Privacy]
Al salamu alaykum and Ramadan Mubarak,
Scholar of the House website was kind enough to forward your message to me. You wrote inquiring whether it makes sense that a child, simply because he or she has reached puberty, in this case, has begun menstruation, be obligated to fast the month of Ramadan. You made a reference to this being the 21st century and to the child’s lack of comprehension as to why they would be fasting or not. From the tone and wording of your message, I assume that you are under the impression that simply because a child has reached the age of puberty, that they are now accountable for fasting Ramadan from sunrise to sundown. While this is a common misimpression in the Muslim community, the age of fasting for a child is not conditioned on puberty or the lack thereof. Put differently, simply because your child, who I assume is 12 or 13 years old, has reached puberty, it does not mean that they should be forced or compelled to fast from sunrise to sundown. The religious responsibility before Allah is determined by physical ability. This means that as parents, we must encourage our pubescent children to fast as much as they are able to. It is best to train them to fast in stages so they are encouraged to fast a few hours, then half a day and so on until they have physically and intellectually matured to a full embracement of the practice of fasting Ramadan with a full appreciation of its significance and virtue. The Qur’an is rather clear on this matter (Q 2:183-185) that fasting has been decreed for Muslims as it has been decreed for other religions (ie. decreed in the Torah, etc.), and that those who are unable to physically endure the rigors of fasting, they are to feed the needy in expatiation. So to summarize, once a child has reached the age of puberty, most typically 12 to 14, we start training them to fast as much as they are able to. For parents who are financially able to do so, for every day of fasting, they should feed a needy person on behalf of the child. This comes out to around USD$20 for each day of fasting ($20 x 29 or 30 days). It is well established that the kafara (expatiation money) can be paid at the beginning or end of Ramadan as a donation to any organization that assists the poor or needy. If the parents are financially unable to pay the kafara, then God does not demand what is beyond a human being’s ability and God is most merciful and forgiving.
Again, I would like to emphasize that there is an unfortunate misimpression widespread among many Muslim parents that once their child reaches puberty, regardless of the child’s endurance or strength, they must be forced to fast from sunrise to sundown. This is not simply wrong but could even be abusive and unacceptable coercion. A child must be trained to embrace the practice of fasting willingly, happily and cheerfully, and to understand why Muslims fast and the philosophy behind it. As parents, we kindly explain that once we start becoming adults, we have social responsibilities towards society and that as parents, we are obligated to help our children discharge these social responsibilities in “backing them up” by paying the kafara. We must also stress upon the child that they should develop their own personal relationship with Allah and should volunteer to fast from sunrise to sundown as soon as they are physically able to do so. The physical ability and endurance of each child varies widely, not only by genetic composition but by geography (for example, it makes a big difference if a child must fast a 12-hour day as in the Middle East, or a 16-hour day as is currently the case in the West) and various complex factors of socialization.
Dear sister, always remember that if you attempt to coerce a child to do what they are spiritually and physically not ready and not well adapted to perform, the consequences could be quite counterproductive and even negative. I say all of this but in all cases, God knows best. May God forgive me for my shortcomings and I pray that Allah blesses you and your family with everything that is merciful, beautiful and virtuous.
Wa al-salamu 'alaykum.