The Imam of the Land of Hijra, Imam Malik ibn Anas (may Allah be pleased with him) narrated in the Muwatta:
[Section on Hurrying to Break the Fast]
The Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) said, “People will continue to be all right as long as they hurry to break the fast.”
‘Umar ibn al-Khattab and ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan would pray the Sunset Prayer when they saw the night darkening, before they broke their fast. That was during Ramadan.
The first hadith is also narrated by al-Bukhari and Muslim. The vast majority of Muslims, if not all of them today, understand this noble hadith to mean that one should break the fast as soon as possible after the call to the Sunset Prayer, before the prayer itself. According to this understanding, the narration by Imam Malik about the two rightly-guided caliphs Umar and Uthman (may Allah be pleased with them) would establish the permissibility of delaying the breaking of the fast until after the Sunset Prayer. This was a possible explanation given by Imam Shafi’i who also narrated this practice of Umar and Uthman. Imam al-Mawardi narrated in al-Hawi al-Kabir that Abu Bakr and Umar both delayed the breaking of the fast until the horizon turned black. Imam Mawardi said: “They did that to show the permissibility of delaying the breaking of the fast and that it is not obligatory to break the fast immediately.”
However, another possibility is that Imam Malik placed this narration after the hadith to explain the hadith. That is, it was to explain that the Sunna time to break the fast is not only before the Sunset Prayer, but that it simply means to not wait a very long time until the sky becomes extremely dark, like the time in which Jews and Christians break their fast. Abu Hurayra narrated a similar hadith with the addition: “Because the Jews and Christians delay the breaking of their fast.” (Narrated by Abu Dawud and Ibn Khuzayma and others). Those who have seen the fasting of the Jews knows that their fast ends much later than the fast of the Muslims, and our Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) wanted to show that there is no piety in Muslims waiting until the Jewish time to break the fast. Therefore it is to explain that the Sunna of hurrying to break the fast covers both the time before and after praying the Sunset Prayer. It could even be to show that the correct understanding of the hadith is that hurrying to break the fast means hurrying to break it after one has first prayed the Sunset Prayer, which should be given priority. We will now investigate this possibility.
Sahl ibn Sa’d, who narrated the same hadith in the Muwatta said: The Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) said:
“My Ummah remains upon my Sunna as long as it does not wait for the stars to break its fast.”
(Narrated by Ibn Hibban in his Sahih and al-Hakim in his Mustadrak)
Imam al-Dawudi (d. 402 Hijri) was the second person to write a commentary on the Muwatta of Imam Malik, and one of the first two people who authored a commentary on Sahih al-Bukhari. He wrote,
“What Malik narrated in the Muwatta [regarding Umar and Uthman] does not go against the narrations about hurrying to break the fast, because they were concerned about the affair of the prayer first, and would hurry to break the fast after it, without much movement between them.” This was quoted by Ibn Battal in his commentary on Sahih al-Bukhari.
Similarly the great Maliki jurist al-Baji wrote: “They (i.e. Umar and Uthman) would hurry to pray the Sunset Prayer because hurrying to do so is established by the law as is agreed upon, and is not from the disliked delaying of the breaking of the fast. What is disliked is to delay the breaking of the fast in an exaggerated manner until the stars are so bright so their lights are all very clear, not delaying it for another act of worship.”
Shaykh Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi wrote:
It is more fitting to hurry to break the fast at the time of sunset but after the Sunset Prayer. That is because Allah made the Sunset Prayer as an odd-numbered prayer to seal the prayers of the daytime on an odd number(i.e. as He made the Witr prayer an odd-numbered prayer to seal the prayers of the night time, for Allah loves odd numbers that remind of His singularity and one-ness).
Therefore one should pray this prayer with the same quality which he possessed during the day time, which is refraining from food and drink. I prefer that once he has finished his obligatory prayer, he should then have his fast-breaking meal, even if just a sip of water or some dates, before the extra prayer (i.e. the Sunna prayer after the Sunset Prayer). He who does that will remain all right (as the hadith states)… Let the sips of water or dates be odd in number, and then pray (the Sunna prayer) after that.
We have said that one should hasten the Prayer, so that one breaks their meal after the Sunset Prayer and before the extra prayers, because it is from the action of the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace). We gave precedence to the Prayer above the breaking of the fast because Prayer, even though it is for the servant’s own benefit – is the right of Allah, and the breaking of the fast is your own right, and the right of Allah has priority of being fulfilled than the right of the created being.
In the very least, the purpose of this little investigation was to show that it is not disliked to break the fast after the Prayer, but only disliked to exaggerate the fast, and wait until the stars have become clear, thinking that this was an act of greater piety, as indicated by the other narrations. Often times people find the Prayer has started but they rush to find a way to break their fast before praying, thinking that they have to do that, when they can pray first and then break their fast.
Second, if we look at the wording of the hadith narrated by Ibn Hibban in his Sahih collection, we see that the Messenger of Allah explained the delaying of the breaking of the fast with the bright appearance of the stars. If he (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) had intended that people break their fast before the Sunset Prayer, one would expect him to use the Prayer as a reference point, as everyone who is fasting is expected to pray after the sun has set. However the hadith does not use the Sunset Prayer as a reference point for delaying the prayer, but rather the brightness of the stars, which indicates that the prayer has already ended and the next reference point is the brightening of the light of the stars. This makes this hadith an evidence for waiting to break the fast until after the Sunset Prayer, and Allah knows best. In the very least, however, this hadith shows that whether one breaks the fast before or after the prayer, both are considered within the Sunna as long as one breaks the fast before the sky becomes so dark that the stars become very bright.
Imam Abdul Wahhab al-Sha’rani who authored many great works on hadith and comparative fiqh wrote in his hadith collection Minah al-Minnah:
“He (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) would break his fast on fresh dates before he prayed, and would often break his fast after the prayer….Abu Bakr and Umar (may Allah be pleased with them) would only break their fast after the prayer.”
Perhaps Imam Sha’rani meant Umar and Uthman according to the authentic narration by Imam Malik, Imam Shafi’i, and Imam al-Bayhaqi, or perhaps he was referring to the narration by Imam al-Mawardi that Abu Bakr and Umar would delay the breaking of the fast until darkness has set. This implies that Abu Bakr broke his fast after having led the Muslims in prayer once the sun has set. Combining both narrations, results in each of the first three rightly-guided caliphs being known to delay the breaking of the fast until after they have prayed. It is possible to understand from this that the Messenger of Allah (may Allah be pleased with him) would eat before the prayer out of concern for the weaker Muslims, to show them its permissibility, but that Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman understood from him that the ideal time for the stronger Muslims who can wait, is to break their fast after the prayer, and Allah most wise knows best. May Allah azza wa jall guide us to the true understanding of the Sunna and set our hearts, intentions, and actions straight. There is a great sweetness in praying the Sunset Prayer on an empty stomach for those who have tried it.
* I have removed the chains of transmission from the quotation of the Muwatta for the sake of brevity. Also, the first hadith is repeated twice, first on the authority of the Companion Sahl ibn Sa’d al-Sa’idi (may Allah be pleased with him), and then again on the authority of the Imam of the Followers, Sa’id ibn al-Musayyib (may Allah be pleased with him).
* It has been reported that Ibn Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him) always broke his fast before the prayer. There is also a narration by Abu Ya’la in his Musnad on the authority of Anas ibn Malik (may Allah be pleased with him): “I have never seen the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) pray the Sunset Prayer without having first broken his fast, even if on a sip of water or a date.” Ibn Hajar said: its chain is ok (jayyid). However, if this narration is authentic, such a statement by a Companion is not a definitive proof as scholars of jurisprudence know because Anas ibn Malik did not see the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) every time he broke the fast. Furthermore, others have seen him break his fast after the prayer, as reported by Imam Abdul Wahhab al-Sha’rani who had an encyclopedic knowledge of hadith narrations and who had access to several ancient hadith collections now lost, and authored several great works on hadith and jurisprudence and comparative fiqh. Second, we have stated that it is possible that this was out of concern for the weaker Muslims. However, Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman understood that it was superior to wait until after the prayer and Allah knows best.
* The Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) said:
“When the sun has set over there, and the night has come from over there, then the fast of the fasting person has been broken.”
This means that the fast has already ended whether someone has eaten something or not. What remains is to break the fast with one’s action (eating or drinking), so that the fast is broken both in the sight of God and with one’s action.
Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi wrote:
“The Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) called the eating or drinking a breaking of the fast, even though he also said that one has already broken his fast by the coming of the night and the setting of the sun. So eating is to combine two types of breaking the fast: the breaking of the fast with one’s own action, and the breaking of fast in divine judgment.”
* Ibn Arabi wrote in his discussion of the Witr prayer: “The Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) made the Sunset Prayer an odd-numbered prayer to seal the prayers of the daytime, even though it is only prayed after sunset….likewise the Witr prayer seals the prayers of the night time with an odd number….”