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A Ramadan reflection: Who do we fast for?

IT so happened that this Ramadan I had to take an 18-hour flight to Vancouver to attend the wedding of a close friend’s only daughter. I wouldn’t normally choose to travel during Ramadan but it was a rare opportunity to see my friend’s happiness as she saw her daughter married off.

I did tell a few friends I was going but still, there were several text messages and emails I received during my trip that I had to reply by saying that I was away in Canada. Back came the quick query: how is fasting in Vancouver?

Ordinarily, I suppose fasting in Vancouver would be pretty routine. But I had traveled a long way to attend one event and then pretty much turned around to fly home again. As far as I knew from the Quran, this exempted me from fasting.

In the Surah Al-Baqarah verse 185, God says, “It was the month of Ramadan in which the Qur’an was [first] bestowed from on high as a guidance unto man and a self-evident proof of that guidance, and as the standard by which to discern the true from the false. Hence, whoever of you lives to see this month shall fast throughout it; but he that is ill, or on a journey, [shall fast instead for the same] number of other days. God wills that you shall have ease, and does not will you to suffer hardship.”

But although this principle is well known, it seems almost inconceivable to Malaysian Muslims that any Muslim may not fast, even under circumstances where he or she may be exempted. Was I supposed to lie and say that fasting in chilly Canada was ok and commit a sin instead? In the larger context, why does there seem to be increasing social pressure to fast as evidence of one’s faithfulness to God? Or the expectation that non-Muslims have to defer to Muslims by not eating in front of them?

What’s proof of piety?

Some Muslims read the entire Quran during Ramadan

Some Muslims read the entire Quran during Ramadan

It seems to have become a trend of late for Muslims in Malaysia and perhaps also in nearby countries to prove their piety during Ramadan not only with fasting but with other religious acts. There are people who go for terawih prayers every night for instance. Or who read the entire Quran during the month.

I have no issue with any of these. But I do take issue with the notion that to be a perfect Muslim during Ramadan, one must therefore remove all temptations from our view and become offended at the sight of other people eating. As Indonesian writer Goenawan Mohamed points out, not only do people who fast have to be respected as special (because fasting is viewed as a big sacrifice) but others too have to sacrifice for them.

And yet, isn’t Ramadan about restraint? “O you who have attained to faith! Fasting is ordained for you as it was ordained for those before you, so that you might remain conscious of God.” (Surah Al-Baqara, verse 183). It means to be conscious that God necessitates that one does not act unwisely and without thought. If we face temptation, then we can withstand it because we are conscious of God.

Yet, some Muslims feel offended when others, particularly those of a different faith, eat in front of them. Unlike many countries in the Middle East, life does not stop dead in Malaysia during Ramadan and food outlets remain open because we recognise that there are still people who need to eat, a fact that foreign diplomats who have previously been stationed in the Middle East have remarked on.

However, we Muslims seem to be increasingly mistrustful of ourselves in the face of this traditional openness. Some almost view it as an affront to our delicate natures and perhaps, as Goenawan points out, a disrespect for our “sacrifice”. But fasting is not meant to be a sacrifice because we do it for God. God wants us to remember those who, due to want, are “fasting” everyday.

Is there therefore any reason for the school principal from Bukit Selambau, Kedah, to hurl racist epithets towards non-Muslim students who were eating? Indeed, to purists, it could be said that such harsh words would immediately disqualify one’s fast.

Policing faith

It also does not make sense to have signs in restaurants warning Muslims that if they eat during the day they will be liable for a fine.

There is no punishment prescribed in the Quran for those who don’t fast except that they are enjoined to do charitable works and to do good. The idea of Ramadan is to become aware of those in need and therefore we need to show such awareness through acts of charity and compassion.

Surah Al-Baqara continues, “But whoever of you is ill, or on a journey, [shall fast instead for the same] number of other days; and [in such cases] it is incumbent upon those who can afford it to make sacrifice by feeding a needy person. And whoever does more good than he is bound to do does good unto himself thereby; for to fast is to do good unto yourselves — if you but knew it.”

Yet, Islamic laws in Malaysia criminalise non-fasting during Ramadan for Muslims. Is it not hypocrisy if we will only follow our religious obligations when forced to do so by law?

Breaking fast buffets: Restraint? Excess? (© amrufm | Flickr)

And so, more and more, Ramadan is about excess rather than restraint. Breaking fast buffets are extravagant and expensive. Wastage is the norm. Even terawih prayers are occasions to eat in between devotions. Moments for quiet reflection are few and far between.

I grew up fasting and do it without much fanfare every year. But increasingly I feel the overbearing force of social pressure to fast as a public act, rather than a private one. To prove myself a Muslim, I must now convince other Muslims, not God alone.

Marina Mahathir is an activist, writer, and blogger who constantly needs more outlets to vent because there is never a shortage of issues to vent about.

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12 Responses to “A Ramadan reflection: Who do we fast for?”

  1. frothquaffer says:

    I feel sorry for Muslims who feel they have to perpetuate this “holier than thou” mentality to express their religion. One’s religion is between one’s God and oneself. I have been living in Islamic countries for most of my professional career and while i am not Muslim i do fast during Ramadhan in order to show solidarity with my Muslim colleagues and also to show them that I can work and not whinge or go into “go slow” mode for the entire month.

    Marina, love your God as best you can and don’t let the naysayers get to you; you are stronger and more forthright than they’ll ever be.

  2. aliaaa says:


    My humble two cent regarding the last bit (policing faith) would be: isn’t there a concept in Islam where we should not make public our/others’ wrongdoing in fear that it would give ideas to others to commit the same (humans being human) act. I believe that is the spirit behind enforcing the law against non-fasting Muslims eating in public (and many other acts). We are responsible for ourselves, and the society in whatever we do 🙂

  3. Veryaware says:

    For the record, I’m not Malaysian and neither am I Muslim but I did study at an Islamic high school and Ramadhan was a blessed time for all students. None of the Muslim students were forced to fast and many out of their own conviction chose to not be fueled entirely by guilt but because they always had a purpose for fasting. Sometimes it was to have a better religious connection with themselves or to take a genuine look at their lives without the distractions of human wants which incidentally rubbed off on non-Muslim students like myself to fast along with them in unity. Purpose fuels conviction when people undertake something and that goes for religious issues too. This is just my 2 cents but sometimes the small things do rub off in a good way. I hope you have a blessed Ramadhan, Marina and all Muslim readers as well.

  4. chrisoro says:

    Hear hear! as a convert to Islam the first thing that struck me about fasting, as well as other facets of the religion as it is practised here, is how little it was a personal spiritual journey with God, and how much it was about proving oneself to the community. It’s hypocritical and too much about surface and “face”.

    Whereas the qualities of honesty, integrity and kindness as well as standing up for people in need or weaker than yourself are so poorly valued.

    better the atheist who does good than the pious who rides on righteousness.

  5. dirty fly says:

    I recently took Moral Education paper because passing the paper is compulsory in order to graduate.

    In one of the chapter, we were taught that people without religion opt to do crime. Atheism was portrayed as evil and atheist as sinful.

    Religion is really being misinterpreted in Malaysia.

    Tis is too much proved. With devotion’s visage and pious action we do sugar o’er the devil himself.

  6. Farouq Omaro says:

    From my observation, I could say that less than half male Muslims I know actually fast the whole 30 days of Ramadan. Many never even bother to fast. But all of them refrain from eating in public. So to me, it seems that fasting in Malaysia is about not being seen eating and drinking during the day. Correct me if I am wrong.

    • Merah Silu says:

      Farouq Omaro,

      You are wrong!! Please ask any good Malaysians on your funny observation about fasting in Malaysia.

      • Kong Kek Kuat says:

        @ Merah Silu

        Apart from the opinion that Nazri Aziz is the Samy Vellu of UMNO, I think I can´t disagree with you on this one.

        But, on the other hand, I think Farouq Omaro was commenting on his observations of the majority Muslim-Sabahans, rather than the majority of Muslim-Malayans whom as you rightly pointed out do really fast in Malaysia.

        I have no idea about Muslim-Sabahans, but if the majority of them are like Bung Mokhtar, then Farouq Omaro is very wrong!

  7. ChodeMcBlob says:

    Recently (in my lifetime. As in, a few years ago) I came to accept monotheism and the Qur’an. Thus by definition, I ratify Muhammad as a prophet too. I will never ever ratify oral history written down 300+ years after Muhammad died.

    I will also never want to be labeled a “Muslim” in Malaysia for the very reason highlighted by the author of this article as well as chrisoro.

    The core principle of monotheism is that only God/Allah guides people; and that the world exists to test people by which they differ.

    I am overwhelmed by a sense of humility from reading (a translation of) the Qur’an.

    Apostasy is sin. But no worldly punishment is prescribed for it…for only God/Allah knows who the believers are. The Qur’an is so beautiful in its coherence.

    Faith is not something you use to show to others that you are morally upright. You cannot “show off” faith.

    Religion is another animal all together. It is inherited. It is taught in school. It has nothing to do with faith.

    The situation in Malaysia is getting pretty bad.

    The religionists have idolised Muhammad (ever seen a “Muslim” get upset over depictions of Moses or Jesus? But they explode when you try to draw Muhammad. They were all prophets….but they have idolised Muhammad) and even copyrighted the word “Allah”…which predates Muhammad.

    I call bull[…].

    The religionists tried to play the role of God in guiding people…when in reality even prophets cannot open a person’s heart to faith.

    They are doomed to failure. To those who believe: Don’t just stand and take it. Fight back. Not with violence. Fight back against the arrogance and blatant idolisation of prophets. Fight back against oral history, myth, legend and lies.

  8. Abdullah says:

    Apa yang saya lihat di Malaysia bekalan keperluan asas makanan meningkat setiap kali bulan puasa. Harga pun turut meningkat. Ini menunjukkan umat Islam hanya tidak makan di siang hari tetapi makan dengan berganda di waktu malam.

    Saya agak keliru samada fenomena ini memenuhi tuntutan puasa sebenar.

  9. Eric says:

    Selamat hari Raya to all.

    Marina, please believe my experience. Those “signs in restaurants warning Muslims that if they eat during the day they will be liable for a fine” have only one purpose: enabling the self-appointed religious police to extort bribes from “criminal fast-breakers”.

    That is how low the moral police would stoop.

  10. Muthusamy Gabriel says:

    Hello Marina and all fellow human beings,

    Firstly my best wishes to all Muslims and other human beings during this festive season. Selamat Hari Raya.

    It is about time that all those who believe in their religions reflect on the true spirit of religion. That is to respect each other as human beings and being humans, as far as possible let us DO NOT THINK and or DO NOT DO any harm to others. The rest is up to each individual to practise their beliefs and piety in a manner that they believe in. This ritualistic practice of religion has to be constantly examined in today’s context. As long as one’s practice does not harm others, do what is in your conscience. And let us stop these ill-feelings and sometimes violent attitude towards others just because they do not follow some outdated rule that is out of context of today’s society.

    If this happens, I hope it does, we will have a wonderful world full of religious and human harmony.



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