Fasting is a personal matter

Among the common debates within Indonesian Muslim society when it comes to Ramadhan (one of the Five Pillars of Islam) is whether entertainment centers, discotheques, restaurants and food stalls should be allowed to continue operating during the month, particularly in daylight hours. Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Hakim Saifuddin recently tweeted that restaurants and food stalls might operate as usual during Ramadhan to provide food for those who are not fasting (non-Muslims) as well as Muslims who are allowed not to fast, such as those on long trips (safar), menstruating women and the sick.

Some Muslims have been angered by his statement, arguing that owners of discotheques and restaurants must close their businesses, particularly during the daytime, to show respect for Muslims, who form the majority in the country. Such dissenters have also compared Ramadhan to the Balinese Hindu celebration Nyepi, when even the airport in Denpasar does not operate. With this logic, Muslims who raid discotheques or food stalls want to be treated like pecalang (traditional Balinese guardians of rituals) when Balinese Hindus observe Nyepi. In a more advanced argument, they refer to a “collective right” (as opposed to individual rights) for Muslims in Ramadhan to be respected as Hindus are during Nyepi.

Let’s analyze why they use this majoritarianism-framed argument or “collective right” language more than a religious-based argument. It is because there is in fact no Islamic scripture-based or traditional Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh)-based justification for prohibiting restaurants from operating during Ramadhan, let alone raiding them. Islamic fasting is essentially individualistic, rather than collectivistic or communal. Fasting in Ramadhan, despite being an Islamic obligation, has no public dimension, unlike other Islamic pillars. The five prayers (salat), for example, are partly communal, since they can be and are encouraged to be performed congregationally (jamaah). Zakat (alms-giving) certainly has a public dimension, as it must be paid to one of the eight categories of recipients (mustahiq). Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) is also performed publicly. This is actually among the reasons why, at least in the traditional fiqh, there is a worldly punishment for those who do not perform salat and zakat. Classical Muslim history cites a war against those who did not pay zakat during the reign of the first caliph.

However, there is no worldly punishment for Muslims who do not fast during Ramadhan, even in the traditional fiqh. There are expiations called fidya and kaffara for violating the fast, but they are more about voluntary compensation and a matter of individual religiosity, rather than of public punishment. I have not found any historical record in the Muslim classical tradition that food stalls were ever raided because they operated in daylight hour during Ramadhan, as they have been in the recent past by groups such as the Islam Defenders Front (FPI).

Furthermore, while salat, zakat and hajj are active religious observances, fasting is a passive ritual. In Arabic, fasting is called sawm or siyam, which etymologically means to abstain or refrain. To fast in Islam, thus, is not to eat, drink or engage in conjugal sexual relationships from dawn (fajr) to sunset (maghrib). Observance of fasting is not visible, as it is a passive action. In addition, fasting is entirely about the individual’s relationship with God, not with other individuals. In a remark of the Prophet (hadith qudsi) often reiterated by Muslim preachers, it is narrated that God said, “Fasting is for Me and it is I Myself who will give the reward for it” (as-sawm ly wa Ana ajzi bih).

The purpose of fasting, as described in the Koran (2:183), is for Muslims to develop the quality of their religiosity and to attain taqwa or consciousness of God—which has a close meaning to the word puasa (Indonesian for fasting), coming from the Sanskrit upavasa, meaning “to be seated near [God]”. Embedded in observances of fasting across religions is the idea that materialism (preoccupation with physical needs and pleasures) can divert humans from God.

In short, fasting is about the individual’s relationship to God. Those Muslims who want to be respected while fasting may learn from Christianity. Jesus (considered a prophet by Muslims), as recorded in Matt. 6:16, said, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting.”

It seems Muslims demanding respect for fasting Muslims are simply demanding everyone notice their supposed piety. Yet this contravenes the very meaning of fasting, which entails a rejection of worldly desires and material ambitions. Also, to return to the analogy, Nyepi to Hindus is not like fasting to Muslims since Nyepi, which means “being silent or quiet”, has a public dimension (as any public noisy activities are against the spirit of nyepi), while Muslims can and must continue to work through the fasting period. 

Fasting is far meaningful when it is exposed to temptations. When there is no food, one has no option but to fast. Religiosity is more valuable when there is freedom to sin.

~ published in the Jakarta Post, 19/06/2015

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