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Differing philosophy lets some pause Ramadan fasting

Pakistan Ramadan
Muhammad Sajjad
The Associated Press
Muslims attend Friday prayers during the holy fasting month of Ramadan, at outside area of a mosque, in Peshawar, Pakistan, Friday, March 29, 2024. (AP Photo/Muhammad Sajjad)

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Ramadan is considered one of the holiest months for Muslims. It’s a time when Muslims refrain from eating and drinking from dawn until sunset. But worshippers living with chronic illnesses or women who are menstruating, pregnant or nursing are offered exemptions from fasting.

“What the Quran does specify is that God does not want people to experience hardship. For women still on their monthly cycles, it can create some moments of awkwardness because they are exempt and in fact they should not fast,” explained Hadia Mubarak, assistant professor of religion at Queens University of Charlotte.

Those who are unable to observe fasting for a period of time during Ramadan due to medical reasons have different options to make up for the days they missed. The options depend on the theological philosophy that one follows within Islam.

“One school says if you haven’t made them up within one year, it’s sinful. And you have to now feed a hungry person for every day you missed beyond those 12 months,” said Mubarak.

Another school of thought, called Hanafi, practiced predominantly in Turkey and some parts of Asia, states a person has the duration of their lifetime to make up for their missed fasts.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Esther Ciammachilli: I recently learned through a conversation with a Muslim friend that some people, for example, women who are menstruating, are exempt from having to fast during Ramadan? Can you tell us about the wisdom behind that?

Hadia Mubarak: Ramadan has become a much more visible practice, which is a wonderful thing. But for women who still have their monthly cycles, it can create some moments of awkwardness, because they are exempt, and in fact, they should not fast.

What the grant does specify is that God does not want people to experience hardship. And it specifically says in chapter two of the Quran, verse 185, God intends ease for you, not hardship.

You said that it can create awkward moments for women who might be menstruating. Because if they say, I'm not going to be fasting for the next week, then everyone might obviously know that they're menstruating, correct?

Absolutely. I mean, I have this dilemma myself, right? Because I would have told my students ahead of time, we're fasting for this specific month. And then, before you know it, I have my exemption. And I'm like, ‘What do I do?’ Even though I have that exemption, and I can now bring my bottle of water to class, I just don't, because it's like, I'm making a PSA: It's my time of the month!

So, these things happen. It is an important point of religious literacy for people to know that there are exemptions, and also for pregnant women and nursing women. One thing I'll say is, if a person doesn't have a chronic illness, they're actually required to make up all of those days.

How long do they have to make that up? And what happens if that person can't make up the fasting that they've missed?

There are actually five schools of thought within Islamic law. And that comes as a surprise to many people. But it actually creates a lot of flexibility for Muslims, who are navigating their lives and practicing their faith at the same time, because there are different opinions to choose from.

Now, you're not supposed to choose from these opinions in an opportunistic way, but the flexibility does allow for some ease — and that's the point of it.

One school says, if you haven't made them up, within one year, you actually have to; it's sinful and you have to now feed a hungry person for every day you've missed beyond those 12 months. Another legal school, which is called the Hanafi legal school, and it was the school of thought used by the Ottomans during the Ottoman period — it's still very prevalent in Turkey and South Asia, and even parts of East Asia. And this one gives you basically your lifespan to make up your mistakes.

So before we go, is there anything else that you think the public should know about Ramadan and this holy month?

Fasting is believed to be the ultimate measure of sincerity to God, in the sense that it's not performative. No one really knows if someone's actually observing the fast, right? Anyone can claim to be observing the fast and that just makes it extra special. Muslims believe that God will reward every single person who observes the fast beyond anything they can imagine.


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