The Islamic holy month of Ramadan begins today and with it the long hours of fasting by hundreds of millions of Muslims. The daylong fast during the lunar month in which we Muslims believe that the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad is one of the five pillars of Islam. It is a way for Muslims to show their devotion to God, and, some say, to understand the suffering of those who have no choice but to go without food.
The Ramadan fast is not easy. From sunrise to sunset, Muslims are not supposed to eat, drink or smoke, and abstain from sex. For hours, they dream about a sip of water or a bite of bread. Then comes the iftar, which means “breakfast,” but which is often a heavy dinner with family and friends. Then come a few hours of freedom from deprivation, until the sunrise, when the next day’s fast begins.
Muslims around the world observe this 1,400-year-old practice, from the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, where it originated, to Scandinavia, where the latitude has forced some scholars to issue fatwas to accommodate the Quran’s prescription to fast from dawn until dusk.
But no matter where they are, Muslims should be able to fast according to the dictates of their conscience. Unfortunately, some authoritarian governments violate this fundamental freedom. Some ban the Ramadan fast, while others impose it.
The former problem is acute in China, especially in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, which is heavily populated by Uighurs, a Muslim people of Turkic origin. In the past few years, the Communist government there has forbidden civil servants, students and teachers to fast. The government has said it institutes the ban for health reasons and says that it faces threats from Muslim extremists. But the ban only makes Uighurs feel persecuted and alienated from their government, helping, if anything, the small strain of extremists among them who call for armed resistance.
On the other side of the authoritarian coin, various Muslim governments, from Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf states to Iran and Pakistan, impose the Ramadan fast by law. Under these rules, eating or drinking in public during the holy month may mean deportation, a fine or even jail. In many other countries, even if fasting is not enforced by law it is compelled by social pressure. So people — both religious minorities and Muslims who choose not to fast — must appear as if they are fasting, even if they are not.
This religious authoritarianism is senseless and self-defeating. Fasting during Ramadan is an act of worship intended for God. It is meaningful only when it is driven by a genuine will to obey God’s commandments — not the laws of the state or the vigilantism of society. The latter does not nurture true piety, it only nurtures fakeness and hypocrisy. That is why the Quran says there should be “no compulsion in religion” — and no compulsion in fasting, either.
Moreover, according to Islamic jurisprudence, not everybody is supposed to fast. Non-Muslims are not obliged at all. Even among Muslims, the Quran exempts those “who are ill, or on a journey.” It even exempts those “who can fast only with extreme difficulty,” and tells them to feed a needy person instead. “God wants ease for you, not hardship,” the scripture says.
Yet many Muslims choose hardship. During Ramadan last year, more than a thousand people died in Pakistan from dehydration under extreme heat, despite calls from some more flexible clerics to cease fasting. Even those who did decide to give up the fast because they were in danger still could drink water only in private because of the social pressure they faced — a big problem for people who lived on the street.
Even the most rigid Muslim clerics accept that not everybody is obliged to fast during Ramadan. Yet many still support laws that ban public eating and drinking in order to respect the holy month and people who observe it. They should reconsider, though, whether they are really bringing any respect to Islam by imposing its practices. Would we Muslims feel respected if others imposed their proscriptions on us? Should Muslims in India be required to stop eating beef because it offends the sensibilities of Hindus, as a senior member of the country’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party argued last year? Should the Uighurs respect the Chinese Communist Party’s distaste for “superstition,” and stop practicing their faith?
Respect is an admirable trait, but it cannot be imposed by law. It also should not be the basis for dictating the norms of a majority on minorities or individuals.
What is the ideal Muslim approach to Ramadan? My city, Istanbul, offers a good model. Here, we have no laws governing Ramadan. Many people decide to fast, many people decide not to fast. The latter can enjoy restaurants and cafes during the day, and some perhaps even enjoy bars at night, even though Islamic law prohibits alcohol. The pious, meanwhile, fast for the right reason: They are not forced to stay thirsty and hungry by the government. They freely decide to do so out of their sincere faith in God.
Mustafa Akyol is the author of Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, and a contributing opinion writer.