As the month of Ramadan draws to a close, the ethical dissonance that now overshadows just about everything else in the Middle East is evident in the daily news. Muslims are dying daily from suicide bombs strapped to the waists of fellow Muslims, military bullets in Egypt and Syria, as well as sectarian violence just about everywhere. The focus during this month of Ramadan is on fasting, a temporary denial of the basic necessities (food water and sex) for a period of time under the sun. But it would be much better if the fasting extended to a moratorium on all violence.
Islam did not invent the idea of fasting, which was once a major ritual in both Judaism and Christianity. One might argue that contemporary Catholic Lent is a watered-down version, playing fast and loose with the more rigorous traditions of the past. In Islam fasting is one of the so-called five pillars, a ritual that most Muslims believe is essential for the believer. The Quran is quite clear on this:
Ramadhan is the (month) in which was sent down the Qur’an, as a guide to mankind, also clear (Signs) for guidance and judgment (Between right and wrong). So every one of you who is present (at his home) during that month should spend it in fasting, but if any one is ill, or on a journey, the prescribed period (Should be made up) by days later. Allah intends every facility for you; He does not want to put to difficulties. (He wants you) to complete the prescribed period, and to glorify Him in that He has guided you; and perchance ye shall be grateful. Surat al-Baqara (2:185)
The fact that there are exceptions (while traveling, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding or menstruating, taking necessary medicine, etc.) indicates that there has always been flexibility built into the ritual. In these cases the rule is that the fast be made up at another time in the year. Some individuals (a child before puberty, or someone who is insane or even a person who has a terminal illness) are not obliged to fast at all, nor to make up any fasting days.
But how much flexibility? What if a Muslim chooses not to fast for a reason other than those laid out in centuries of Islamic fiqh? (more…)