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? If one resorts to the advice of a 14th century legal work, like that of the Egyptian Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri (The Reliance of The Traveler, translated by Noah Ha Mim Keller, 1991), it is noted that a child of 10 should be beaten for not fasting. Depending on how one defines the level of a beating, which is also allowed in the same text for disobedient wives (but not for disobedient husbands), the resort to such corporal punishment has changed in much of the world in the succeeding 6 centuries.

The issue then arises, as it has now in the Berber region of Algeria, of whether or not a Muslim who does not fast should be persecuted, beaten or arrested. Returning to al-Misri’s text, there are ways in which penance can be made for deliberately violating the fast. For example, if a man engages in sex during the day during Ramadan, the penalty is to free one sound Muslim slave. If the man does not own a slave, then he can simply fast two other days to make up for this violation. The woman in this case is not obliged to make up the fasting day. By the way, al-Misri adds that it is even unlawful to kiss during a fast day, although it is okay to apply kohl to the eyes. The assumption underlying al-Misri’s interpretation is that only crazy or ignorant people would knowingly break the fast. Given the public pressure of the day, this is quite understandable. Thus, nowhere does he suggest major penalties for someone who breaks the fast.

There are many Muslims who do not rigorously observe fasting, nor follow all the rules to the letter of medieval law, but still reserve the right to practice their faith. Lost in the legalism is consideration of why one should fast at all. Is it really the case that the purpose is simply to conform to a rule? Reading between the legalistic lines, it should be clear that intention plays a major role. The “best” Muslim may be the one who follows the rules to the best of his or her ability and is also an upright, caring and loving person; ritual duty blends with the proper moral intention. But who is a “better” Muslim? One who is thankful, not greedy, helps out the poor and chooses not to fast by all the rules or one who is meticulous in following the rules but is greedy, unthankful and cheats his or her neighbor? If you think the latter, than I think Sufis are right in noting that such legalism plays fast and loose with the meaning of the ritual. If breaking the fast offends Allah, then this is an issue between the believer and Allah. If you think that Allah will not judge the believer’s action, then you really do not believe in Allah or the afterlife at all, but simply in your own desire to influence another person’s behavior here before barzakh. If breaking the rule is wrong simply because it is a rule, then the meaning is lost.

My point is not to speak against fasting in Ramadan, which millions of Muslims find spiritually as well as physically rewarding when done for the right reasons. But, as many Muslim clerics have noted, the spirit of Ramadan is not served when it is commercialized or devoid of spiritual jihad, just as Christmas can become little more than tinsel and glitter if not a time to reflect on the moral principles that Jesus proposed. So, if your brother or sister decides not to fast, this is not your problem, nor are you the best judge of that person’s faith. When the urge arise to punish another, just remember “not so fast.”