Ramadan is the ninth month of the lunar calendar that the pre-Islamic Arabs of the Hijaz utilized. This month came to be of central importance to Muslim worship and identity. Each year, during the month of Ramadan, Muslims are required to abstain from eating food, drinking liquids, and engaging in sexual activity from dawn to sunset. The average American has become more familiar with this religious practice as Muslims have slowly established their voices within mainstream American society in the last decade. Muslim leaders often go to great lengths to highlight the health benefits of fasting, its connection to a sense of social justice, and its promotion of the virtue of patience. Certainly, millions and millions of Muslims all over the planet look forward to this holy month to build a stronger relation to God, to seek forgiveness for past sins, and to better themselves as human beings. But, there is another side to the story that almost never makes it to the feel-good articles about Ramadan. It concerns the issue of personal choice.
It would seem that choice is a key component in the fasting equation. Why would people deprive themselves of daily essentials for a whole month if it was not out of religious conviction? One major reason is simply that they have to. There is no choice in the matter. This might not be clear in our American setting where in most cases, fasting is not only a personal choice, but also a proud act and a strong identity marker at a time of intense identity politics. Even in the cases where young Americans of Muslim background are unwilling to fast but are careful not to shock their practicing parents, the option of eating and drinking away from the disapproving eyes of relatives is available. Unfortunately, this ability to choose is not a possibility for many people in various parts of the so-called Muslim world.
Muslim scholars and jurists have generally interpreted the religious texts to have given permission to those who are sick, traveling, or pregnant to skip the fasting with the understanding that they would make up the missed days at a later time (note that menstruating women are required not to fast). But how about those individuals who do not fit in one of these categories? Some might not be convinced that fasting is a religious obligation. Others might not identify themselves as Muslim despite having been born and raised in Muslim families; and openly leaving Islam is a serious offense in the eyes of one’s community and most governments. Part of the difficulty is that in most “Muslim countries,” anyone born to Muslim parents is legally considered Muslim by the authorities. This is very significant because there are often laws in the books that criminalize breaking the fast during the month of Ramadan. Similarly, the few restaurants that remain open to cater to religious minorities are prohibited from serving Muslims. Even when state authorities do not intervene, one might have to deal with a particular brand of “true believers” who take it upon themselves to physically intimidate those who dare breaking the holy fast.
Seemingly, the more practical option for non-fasters is to eat and drink in the privacy of their own homes. However, there are at least two thorny problems with this solution. Firstly, there is the lack of privacy. In the majority of cases, people live within large extended families. This is exacerbated by the epidemic lack of economic independence that leads most young women and men to continue living with their parents into their thirties. The result is a large number of households in which reigns a subtle and sometimes not so subtle type of coercion. Secondly, even if a non-faster were to find the needed privacy, there remains the question of whether it is dignified to live in this fashion. I would argue that it is not, because dignity is directly connected to a person’s freedom and to her ability to control her own life.
Understandably, many rituals and forms of worship within the religious traditions that developed in the premodern societies of the Near East and the Mediterranean Basin tended to seek social solidarity and stability. The collective generally, though not always, had primacy over the individual. But even when considering this fact, one must acknowledge that the Islamic tradition contains plenty of resources to celebrate individuality, including the fundamental teaching that human beings are responsible for their actions and that they would be judged as individuals in front of God in the afterlife. As the Qur’an puts it:
ولا تزر وازرة وزر أخرى وإن تدع مثقلة إلى حملها لا يحمل منه شيء ولو كان ذا قربى
And no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another. And if a heavily laden soul calls another to help with its load, nothing of it will be carried, even if he should be of kin. (Qur’an 35:18)
In addition, fasting within an Islamic framework stands out as an individual duty par excellence. This is captured in a hadith qudsi* in which Muhammad said:
كل عمل ابن آدم له إلا الصوم فإنه لي وأنا أجزي به
God said: every action of a son of Adam (a human being) is his own except for fasting; it is for me and I will reward it accordingly. (Narrated by al-Bukhari in his Sahih)
In commenting on this text, Muslim scholars often stress that the high status of fasting stems from the fact that only God and the fasting person know whether the latter is truly performing the fast of Ramadan. This is unlike the other more public, and thus witnessable, acts of worship that include the five daily prayers or Salat (of which at least some would be performed in congregation at the mosque), the pilgrimage to Mecca or Hajj (which is a highly celebrated achievement), and the almsgiving or Zakat (which involves the receiver of charity).
I will humbly suggest that the high degree of coercion and intimidation that occurs around the issue of fasting within many Muslim communities is both demeaning to individual human beings and harmful to the integrity of religious observance. As the Qur’an insists, submission (islam) ought to be to God alone. In other words, every person is responsible for her own actions in front of God. Instead, what we witness in the situations that I described above is submission to the religious and political authorities and to a kind of social coercion that should have no place in our world today. One might raise the objection that in places where oppression takes very harsh forms, there are bigger issues to tackle than the freedom to skip the Ramadan fast. I would respond that such a stance is myopic because it neglects the indivisibility of human dignity and the importance of cultural change in eradicating the roots of oppression. In my mind, it is a priority for Muslim communities to live up to the ideals enshrined in their tradition and to provide future generations with the tools to celebrate pluralism, human dignity, and individual choice.
So, to all Muslims around the world who are performing the Ramadan fast I say, may your fast be fruitful! And to those who choose not to fast I say, may a day come in which your choice is truly respected and your contribution to society not diminished because of your different position!
* Orthodox Muslim scholars defined a hadith qudsi as a saying of God in the words of Muhammad as distinct from the Qur’an which they described as the Word of God in origin and language.