The month of Ramadan has great significance for us. It’s during this month that the last Wonderful Book of God began being revealed, a Book that has come as the best Divine message of guidance for humankind to lift it from darkness into light and make it wise (5: 15-16, 62:2, 6:126, 17:9). That is precisely the reason the Quran has ordained this auspicious month for the fasting ritual (2:185). However, if someone is sick or on a journey, he/she is free to fast other days, or even skip fasting by feeding a person. The essential purpose for which fasting has been prescribed is for one to attain taqwa (2:183). Taqwa is interpreted variously: God-fear, God-consciousness, guarding against evil, or uprightness or righteousness.
This is a straightforward message of the Quran. Muslims generally regard this ritual as something to be observed as a necessary duty imposed by God on them, and in the process they mistake this ritual as an end in itself rather than to fulfill God’s advice for attaining uprightness. Also the performers of the ritual often boast of their performance to others, which, I think, is not in keeping with the spirit of the ritual. Whatever good one does is for one’s own benefit (17:15). Fasting is not something one should really boast of.
In my view, fasting has great spiritual value or benefit to the observer, but only if he or she observes it with the right observance and strives to guard against all devilish thoughts and actions. Refraining from food and drink and abstinence offer a golden opportunity for the believer to concentrate on any good work, including meditation and prayer and studying of the Quran with understanding. During the month, some qaris engage in reciting the whole Quran in the prayer. However, recitation in the prayer hardly makes any sense, since all the expressions in the Quranic verses are not consistent with the spirit of prayer. Reciting and studying the Quran with understanding makes sense only outside the prayer. (In prayer, one can, of course, use certain Quranic expressions that are perfectly in tune with the spirit of prayer or glorification of God. But such expressions should be used as the worshipper’s own words, coming from his or her own heart. For more on this, see my paper on prayer here.)
In some Muslim majority countries, restaurants are shut off from public view, with the door closed or a curtain hung at the door. This, I think, is too much religious restriction. Observing the ritual should be left to individuals as a free option. It’s not something to be imposed by any authority. Besides, restaurants do need to be kept open for non-Muslims, and also for Muslims who are sick or traveling. Of course, non-fasters must show due respect to the fasters, and should not display their eating as a sign of slighting the observance of fasting.
The Hadith has added complication and confusion to the practice despite the Quranic message that God does not want to put us to any difficulty or hardship (2:185). It misleads believers on fasting in several ways. One way is through the abrogation of a Quranic verse. “A Hadith narrated by Nafi, who heard it from Ibn Umar at (Sahih Bukhari, Vol. 6, Book 60, # 33) abrogates the Quranic verse (2:184) that states that one who cannot fast should feed a poor man by way of expiation. Another Hadith at (ibid, Vol. 6, Book 60, #32) narrated by Ata who heard it from Ibn Umar implies that this verse is abrogated for persons other than old men and women. Still another Hadith, which ostensibly clarifies it further, is as follows:
Narrated Salama: When the Divine Revelation: “For those who can fast, they have a choice either to fast, or feed a poor person for every day” (2.184) was revealed, it was permissible for one to give a ransom and give up fasting, till the verse succeeding it was revealed and abrogated it. (Sahih Bukhari, Vol. 6, Book 60, #34)
But this sort of abrogation of a verse or part of a verse by the Hadith is not tenable, as God cautions against disbelief in parts of the Quran (2:85). The verse (2:184) states that one should fast a certain number of days, and if he is sick or on a journey, he can fast other days, or those who find it difficult to fast and can afford it, they should pay a ransom in feeding poor persons. The verse at (2:185) advises believers to fast during the Ramadan and repeats the statement that if one is sick or on a journey, he or she can fast other days. This verse does not repeat the earlier statement that one could pay a ransom in the event that he or she cannot fast. This does not mean that the earlier verse message about the ransom has been abrogated. The Hadith misinterprets the Quran.
Thus while the Quran allows one to feed a poor person as expiation for not being able to fast, the Hadith denies it except for old people. This is a flagrant distortion of the Quranic message. In addition, the Hadith exaggerates the virtues of fasting by claiming that the Ramadan fast washes away all of one’s past sins (Sahih Bukhari, Vol. 1, Book 2, #37), and that during the Ramadan the gates of Heaven are open and those of Hell are closed and the devils are chained (ibid, Vol. 3, Book 31, #120, 123), and by making similar more claims. Prayer and fasting are striving for self-purification and self-development. Unless the striving is successful, and unless one is righteous in all respects, such rituals may not erase one’s past sins, regardless of the level of sins.” (This draws, in significant part, on my book “Rediscovering Genuine Islam… .“ The excerpts are also from this book.)