In Islam, for any act of worship to be valid and acceptable, it must be observed by the instruction of Allah (SWT) and the practice of the Messenger of Allah (saas). We did not know about fasting until we were told about it. It would be unwise to just decide to fast in the way one wishes. That is why there are in Islamic Law (Shari'ah) rules of fasting (Adab As-Siyam). Observation of these rules helps the devotee maximize the physical as well as spiritual benefits of fasting.
Sehri is a light meal taken shortly before the break of dawn. There is consensus that this meal is a highly recommended Sunnah.
In reports by Bukhari and Muslim, Anas (raa) related that the Messenger of Allah said: "Take your early morning meal for that is a blessing." In another report by Miqdam bin Ma'a Diyikarib (raa) the Messenger of Allah (saas) said: "Take this early morning meal for it is a blessed meal."
In both ahadith the statement underscores the importance of Sehri and cautions anyone from thinking they can just stay without a meal all night and continue with fasting. This may explain why the statement came as a command. Although it is not mandatory to eat Sehri, it is highly encouraged so that anyone intending to fast will make an effort to take Sehri.
The crux of the matter is not to show how strong you are, but how obedient you are. Sehri, above all, ensures that the devotee has the energy he or she will need during the course of the day, and it makes the fast easier.
What constitutes Sehri?
Sehri can be achieved by a large meal, a small meal, or even by a sip of water or soup. In a report by Abu Sa'eed Al-Khudri (raa) the Messenger of Allah (saas) said, "Sehri is a blessed meal, do not neglect it even if it is a mouthful of drink. For Allah and the Angels bless those who observe it." (Ahmed)
You see, what reaches Allah is the intent that you have made a genuine effort to obey Allah in fasting. This is why it is recommended to make intention with the Sehri, to emulate the Prophet, and to eat the food to gain strength and energy during fasting, so as to get the reward from Allah. The hadith also contains the information that during the course of this meal the faster receives a special blessing that cannot be found elsewhere: that Allah (SWT) blesses your meal and that the angels seek on your behalf forgiveness for you during Sehri. Thus, with Sehri you receive both physical and spiritual blessings.
Time of Sehri
The time for Sehri begins from midnight until the break of dawn. It is recommended, however, to delay it till shortly before the time of Subh (morning) prayer.
In a hadith by Zaid bin Thabit (raa) he related that: "We ate Sehri with the Messenger of Allah (saas) then we went to pray Subh". I asked the Messenger `What was the period between sehri and prayer?' He responded `The period between them is the equivalent of the time it takes to recite fifty verses in Al-Qur'an.'" (Bukhari and Muslim)
This citation is instructive in that it settles the question of whether one should stop eating before morning prayer (Subh/Fajr), or before sunrise, as we see in certain prayer times tables showing the so-called shuruq (the sunrise, which some think is the time to stop eating). The hadith is explicit. The recommendation to delay Sehri is only to the hour or so before (Subh). The mention of the period of recitation of fifty verses (ayat) is a cushion or a grace period in which food or drink should not be taken. All the reports that recommend delay of Sehri must be understood in this way.
During the time of the Messenger of Allah (saas), the tradition of two adhans (or call to prayer) was established, and it has continued up until now in some Muslim countries. The first adhan is to indicate the beginning of Sehri: the adhan of Abdullah Ibn Umm Maktum (raa). The second is the adhan of Bilal Ibn Rabah (raa): the adhan of Salaah, a morning prayer.
However, if you hear the second adhan while you are eating or drinking, you should immediately stop eating in preparation for fasting.
Doubt in the break of dawn
Even in the age of mobile phones, watches, and alarm clocks, sometimes we doubt whether it is time to stop eating. In this event, one should eat and drink until he is certain and no longer in doubt about the break of dawn. No decision on Islamic deeds should be based on doubt. Allah (SWT) made the determining factor in every affair certainty. He (SWT) says:
"And eat and drink until the white thread of dawn appears to you distinct from its black thread." (Al-Qur'an 2:184) As I mentioned earlier, "White thread" is meant the light of the day. And "black thread" is meant darkness of the night. Hence, the verse is explicit in that eating and drinking are permitted until the doubt and uncertainty are removed from your mind.
A man told Ibn Abbas, (raa), that he observed Sehri and he only stopped when he doubted the break of dawn. Ibn Abbas (raa) instructed him to eat as long as he doubted until he doubts no more. Similar reports are attributed to many companions and scholars inferring from the above verse.
With the advance in timekeeping technology, and the proliferation of wristwatches, and alarm clocks, the possibility of uncertainty is minimized, at least in the case of a believer who has a timekeeping device. These timepieces can be set, not only to sound an alarm, but to call Al Adhan, recite some verse, or simply just tell you to get up for Sehri.
In the heartland of the Muslim world, the states take the responsibility for public announcements with the firing of cannons, or radio, or television announcements. There has evolved a special culture of Ramadan in many countries.
Working hours in some Muslim countries during Ramadan are shifted to night, virtually changing or shifting daytime activities to night hours. In some countries, the governments are not involved in public announcements, but some families and volunteers over the years have taken the duty of wake-up calls by going door to door, in groups and individually in an attempt to wake up the city for Sahur.
It would be excellent if Muslims in non-Muslim countries try to adjust their annual vacations during Ramadan, to allow themselves the maximum use of the blessed month.