ramadan

The Muslims Who Fast Sunup to Sundown for Three Straight Years

In a school in remote Central Java, students practice an extreme version of the fasting month.
The Muslims Who Fast Sunup to Sundown for Three Straight Years
All photos by author

Imagine if the fasting month ran non-stop for more than 39 months. In total, it's a little over 1,210 days of fasting from sunrise to sundown. This was how Agus Aji Putro spent his teenage years.

“After a while, I got used to it," Agus told me. "But I never had any doubt that even if I didn't reap what I sowed, that one day my children or grandchildren will. The results of a prayer aren't instant. But there will be a result."

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Agus, now 30, is a follower of a school of Islamic Salafist thought that believes that extreme levels of fasting bring them closer to God. This idea is based on the Dala'il al-Khayrat, a book of prayers written by Sufi scholar Muhammad Sulaiman al-Jazuli ash Shadhili back in the 15th Century. Devotees in Indonesia repeatedly read the book while fasting non-stop for months on end in a practice locally called dalail khairat.

When I visited the Darul Falah Islamic boarding school, in the Jekulo subdistrict of Kudus, Central Java, students were reciting prayers from palm-sized versions of the Dala'il al-Khayrat as they waited in the mosque for the ashar, or afternoon prayer. It was only the early days of Ramadan, a period when many Muslims in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority nation, fast sunup to sundown until Eid al-Fitr. But when the rest of the country is celebrating Eid, or Lebaran as it's locally known, the students at Darul Falah will still be fasting.

"The Ramadan fasting isn't part of dalail khairat, and there are days when Muslims are not allowed to fast," explained KH Ahmad Badawi, the oldest of three brothers who run the school. "That's why we add to the duration."


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Gus Badawi's father KH Ahmad Basyir was also a preacher at the school. Darul Falah has been in his family for generations, and the now gray-haired Badawi can trace a straight line from the oldest Islamic boarding schools practicing a version of Sufism from the early days of the 20th Century to today.

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“So here’s the line: My father had a teacher named KH Yasin, who owned the oldest Islamic boarding school in Jekulo," Gus Badawi explained. "His teacher had a teacher too, and this goes all the way back to the writer of the Dala'il al-Khayrat. This connection between the current generation of students and the early ones is called sanad. And the sanad at our place is built not only on our readings of the Dala'il al-Khayrat, but also in our fasting."

This fasting is central to the Darul Falah's beliefs. The Dala'il al-Khayrat itself is available for anyone, Muslim or not, to read. "There are Western people who read this as well," Gus Badawi told me. "In Indonesia, this tradition has been practiced for years."

But the act of fasting while you recite the prayers contained in the Dala'il al-Khayrat can bring you closer to God, Gus Badawi explained. Three years is no simple feat, and the school has a strict interview process to vet potential candidates before they embark on the journey. During the interview, applicants will have to fast for anywhere from one to two weeks. If they pass the test, they start fasting for three years, three months, three weeks, and three days straight.

Those who successfully complete the fasting will receive the blessing of the Islamic school and, according to their beliefs will be closer to God.

The school's students come from nearly every walk of life, from young teenage students to grown truck drivers, businessmen, and civil servants. The only rule the school has is that married men secure the permission of their wife before they start fasting.

“Married men are not recommended to do this," Gus Badawi told me. "Their wife might need their help, or they might have work to do. You should think carefully before joining us."

Gus Badawi spoke to me while sitting cross-legged on a green carpet in the front of his school. He wore a sarong and a long-sleeved batik with a white peci covering his greying hair. Inside, a lot of the students were crowded onto the cool tiles of the Baitussalam mosque, some of them asleep in the mid-day heat, others reading from the Quran or the Dala'il al-Khayrat. The book is seven chapters long and the students read one chapter per-day, every day.

It takes this kind of devotion to truly understand the bond between Muslims and the Prophet Muhammad, Gus Badawi explained. Not everyone who goes to an Islamic boarding school is a good Muslim, he said. It takes more than a few years of study to be a good santri (an Islamic student).

“People always think they have to study in Islamic boarding school to be a cleric," Gus Badawi told me. "Being a good cleric means having strong faith in God. That’s why these students choose to come here to get our blessing by fasting for three years straight."