Malaysia Chronicle

Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, is a period replete with philosophical contemplation.

At its most basic, it is about abstaining from all food and drink from sunrise to sunset and to refrain from sinning throughout. Extrapolated, it is about disciplining one’s desires — to do without, to live in moderation, to eschew excess.

And, rather than a corral in which all Muslim goodness is supposed to be poured into one month, Ramadan is intended to be a training month in which a believer pursues moral excellence as a springboard for living as a good person for the rest of the year. But unlike other deeds like praying or giving alms, fasting is a gift that is especially done just for God, meant to bring the believer closer to Him.

Spiritually and philosophically then, the act of gifting requires that the giver understand that their motivation for fasting must come from a sincere devotion to God.

However, Muslim religious authorities in Malaysia seem to have a different take on what the fasting month is about. For, inevitably, during the fasting month, there will be reports of religious authorities coming down hard on eateries that sell food to Muslims in the daytime and much judgment is passed on “geng plastik hitam”, allegedly Muslims who transport their bought meals from the shop in black plastic bags so as to conceal the nature of their purchase.

The assumption is that they are playing truant on fasting. But Islam only forbids Muslims from eating in public during the daytime as a matter of maintaining public morale. So, is it even anyone’s business to check whether they’re eating in private?

In addition, Islam exempts certain people from fasting: the old and infirm, the sick, pregnant women, those on their menses and travellers. But with the exception of heavily pregnant women, there is nothing to differentiate the exempt from anyone else who goes to buy food.

Is a person who is menstruating expected to take out the in-use sanitary napkin to prove that they’re on their period? Are the sick supposed to show a letter from a doctor? And what about people who don’t have time to cook, but must feed their young children or elderly and infirm relatives?

The problem with this sort of enforcement is that it criminalises what, at worst, is a personal transgression. And its wholesale application puts undue pressure on people who have good reason to not fast.

Every Ramadan, there will be doctors who have to plead with their patients to abstain from fasting because it endangers their health and lives — pregnant women who have gestational diabetes, for instance.

And is a construction worker who labours under the hot sun expected to endanger himself or forgo a month’s work? Overzealous enforcement of personal obligations creates a culture where people are afraid to not fast — not because they love God, but because they are afraid of human retribution. And it also creates a culture where others think it is alright to pass judgment and enforce a personal obligation, leading to situations where primary school children are forbidden from bringing food and drinks to school or a mentally disabled child being force-fed rotten chicken because she ate in secret during the fasting month.

Fasting is a personal commitment to God. And if the intention for fasting is wrong, there’s no point in it.



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