By: C. Mofty
The first thing to understand is the difference between what is known as fard and what is known as nafl. Fard is obligatory, it is what Allah requires us to do, and leaving it is a sin and we will be held accountable for it. An example is two rakah of Fajr prayer and the fasts of Ramadan.
Nafl literally means extra. Nafl worship is voluntary, it is not required from a Muslim, rather it is up to the individual to offer it. It is optional and voluntary. The Muslim is not sinful for neglecting nafl, but is rewarded for doing it. Therefore, nafl worship is recommended. Examples of nafl fasts will be covered in this lesson.
Many times a new Muslim is anxious about fasting the whole month of Ramadan (9th Islamic month). Voluntary fasts provide an excellent opportunity to practice fasting while earning rewards before Ramadan approaches. At the same time, one must remember not to burn out, but to be gradual without being negligent.
The Most Important Nafl Fasts
1. Six Days in the Month of Shawwal (the month following Ramadan or the 10th Islamic month)
The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said,
“Whoever fasts during the month of Ramadan and then follows it with six days of Shawwal will be (rewarded) as if he had fasted the entire year.” 
It is forbidden to fast on the day of Eid or Eid-ul-Fitr to be specific. You can keep these six fasts anytime after the day of Eid and they do not have to be kept consecutively. If you wish you can fast them separately as long as they are completed within the month of Shawwal.
2. Fasting the Ninth Day of Dhul-Hijjah (12th Islamic month)
The Islamic month in which the Hajj is performed is known as Dhul-Hijjah. “Day of Arafah” is the ninth day of that month.
It is recommended for those not performing the Hajj pilgrimage to fast this day as the Messenger of Allah said: “Fasting on the day of Arafah is an expiation for two years, the year preceding it and the year following it.” 
3. Fasting the Tenth Day of the Islamic Month of Muharram (1st Islamic month)
Muharram is the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar. The tenth day of this month has a special name – “Ashura.” What does one get for fasting it? The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) informed us,
“Fasting the day of Ashura is an expiation for the past year.” 
4. Fasting Mondays and Thursdays
Abu Hurairah (may Allah be pleased with him), the close companion of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him), reported that the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) would fast on Mondays and Thursdays. When asked about that, the Prophet, may the mercy and blessings of Allah be upon him, said: “The actions are presented on every Monday and Thursday. Allah forgives every Muslim or every believer, except for those who are boycotting each other. He says (about them): ‘Leave them.’” 
When the Prophet was asked about fasting on Mondays, he said: “That is the day on which I was born and the day on which I received revelation.” 
5. Fasting most of the month of Sha’ban (8th Islamic month)
Sha’ban is the name of the Islamic month that comes before Ramadan. The Prophet would fast most of the month of Sha’ban.
‘Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her), the wife of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him), said: “I never saw the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) fast a complete month except for Ramadan, and I have never seen him fast more in a month than he did in Sha’ban.” 
Differences Between Fasts of Ramadan & Voluntary Fasts
1. The intention for a voluntary fast can be made during the day
Let us say that you woke up and prayed Fajr. You did not have the intention to fast that day and you also did not eat, drink, have intercourse, or otherwise do anything that would break a person’s fast. This is provided most of the day has not passed with a day being the number of hours between the Fajr prayer and the Maghrib prayer. The intention of a voluntary fast can be made during the day as long as most of the day hasn’t gone by.
Later in the day, you can make the intention for a voluntary fast if you have not done any of those things that break the fast. This is based on ‘Aishah’s (may Allah be pleased with him) hadith: “The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) came to us one day and said: ‘Do you have any (food)?’ We said, ‘No.’ He (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said: ‘Therefore, I am fasting.” 
You must have the intention the night before to fast the next day for Ramadan fasts.
2. It is permissible for one who is performing a voluntary fast to break his fast
The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said: “The one who is fasting voluntarily is in charge of himself. If you wish you may fast and if you wish you may break your fast.” 
Abu Sa’id al-Khudri (may Allah be pleased with him) said: “I prepared food for the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). He (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) came to me with some of his companions. When the food was laid out, one of the men said: ‘I am fasting.’ The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said: ‘Your brother has invited you and incurred expenses in your behalf.’ Then he (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) asked him, ‘Break your fast and fast another day in its place if you wish.’ “ 
Breaking a day of fasting during the month of Ramadan without a legitimate reason, on the other hand, is a serious sin even if the person makes it up later.
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· Nafl – a voluntary act of worship
· Muharram, Sha’ban, Ramadan, Shawwal, Dhul-Hijjah – names of some important Islamic months. Muharram is the 1st month of the Islamic calendar, Sha’ban the 8th, Ramadan the 9th, Shawwal the 10th and Dhul-Hijjah the 12th.
· Arafah – the 9th day of the Islamic month of Dhul-Hijjah.
· Ashura – the 10th day of the Islamic month of Muharram.
· Eid – festival or celebration. Muslims celebrate two major religious holidays, known as Eid-ul-Fitr (which takes place after Ramadan) and Eid-ul-Adha (which occurs at the time of the Hajj).
· Fard – an obligatory duty.
· Fajr – the morning prayer.
· Hadith – (plural – ahadith) is a piece of information or a story. In Islam it is a narrative record of the sayings and actions of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) and his companions.
· Hajj – A pilgrimage to Mecca where the pilgrim performs a set of rituals. The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, which every adult Muslim must undertake at least once in their life if they can afford it and are physically able.
· Rakah – unit of prayer.
· Ramadan – The ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. It is the month in which the obligatory fasting has been prescribed.