Chapter Two: The Cow (Al Baqara)
Verses 184 & 185..........Part 2
Verses 184 & 185
For a specified number of days. But any of you who are ill or on a journey should fast a number of other days. But for those who can manage to fast with some hardship, there is redemption by feeding a person in poverty. Yet better it is for him who volunteers greater good, and that you should fast is better for you, if you only knew.
It was in the month of Ramadan that the Quran was revealed as guidance for mankind, clear messages giving guidance and distinguishing between right and wrong. So any one of you who is present that month should fast, and anyone who is ill or on a journey should make up for the lost days by fasting on other days later. God wants ease for you, not hardship. He wants you to complete the prescribed period and to glorify Him for having guided you, so that you may be thankful.
(Chapter 2, Verses 184 and 185)
Let’s take a few moments to study how the obligation of fasting was introduced. We start with the phrase in verse 184 where God says: ‘But for those who can manage to fast with some hardship, there is redemption by feeding a person in poverty.’ Here, you may ask: how is a person who is clearly able to fast be permitted not to fast by just donating some money to feed the poor? We answer that this verse was the first step in introducing fasting as a religious obligation.
Fasting, just like many other religious obligations, was introduced gradually. We saw a similar gradual introduction in the laws related to inheritance. First, God Almighty revealed the verse that the will needs to be fair, heard by witnesses, and considerate to all parties and relatives. Later on, God specified in detail the laws of legal inheritance assigning specific percentages to each party. Similarly, Allah initially gave early Muslims a choice of either fasting or feeding a poor person for those who found some difficulty. Later on, as more and more Muslims got accustomed to fasting, Allah made fasting the month of Ramadan obligatory. He says in verse 185: ‘So anyone of you who is present that month should fast’ Note that in this verse, there was no mention of feeding the poor as an alternative to fasting for those who are able. Feeding the poor as an alternative is now reserved for those who are not able to fast permanently, such as the elderly or a person with a chronic illness.
Fasting, like many other Islamic laws, was made an obligation gradually. This is similar to the cases when the early Muslim society was gradually guided towards changing ingrained habits such as drinking alcohol, gambling and practice of slavery. Here you may ask: If fasting was initially optional, then why did God –right after giving the option of payment- say: ‘Yet better it is for him who volunteers greater good? We answer that even though fasting was optional, it was necessary to leave the door of personal effort and hard work open. So a person could fast and feed the poor at the same time as an increase in good. Whoever fasts and feeds more poor people was even better and more praiseworthy. Allah’s reward for those who volunteer good deeds grows exponentially.
The verse continues ‘and that you should fast is better for you, if you only knew.’ This phrase was another step forward on the road towards making the fast an obligation. Fasting is a method to help discipline one’s self. Although it was known and present before Islam, Allah introduced it to early Muslims as a voluntary worship. He prescribed fasting for a few days in the early days of Islam. I am of the opinion that the few fasting days were initially three days out of each month: the 10th, 20th and the 30th. Believers were also given the option to fast these days or pay to feed the poor. But when Allah prescribed fasting for the entire month of Ramadan, it became an obligatory worship and one of the pillars of Islam. Later on, exceptions were made for the ill and those who are travelling. All this was done through the great wisdom and infinite knowledge of our Lord. Thus, scholars –even though they are well-intentioned- should not go against what Allah had prescribed, and encourage the ill or the travelling to fast. God says: ‘anyone who is ill or on a journey should make up for the lost days by fasting on other days later.’ The ruling here is that a sick or travelling person should fast an equal number of days outside Ramadan. The scholars who say that it is the choice of the sick or traveller whether to fast or not are assuming that the verse means that ‘anyone who is ill or on a journey’ and did not fast ‘should make up for the lost days by fasting on other days later.’ We answer that whatever is clear and does not require interpretation in the Quranic text takes priority over that which requires interpretation.
More importantly, Allah has clearly stated the reason for these exceptions. He says: ‘God wants ease for you, not hardship.’ Why would you go against what God wants and make things harder for yourself and others? What I personally believe is that if a traveller or a sick person fasts in Ramadan, then the fasting is not accepted and it has to be made up later.
Here it is worth taking the time to study the lunar calendar. It is interesting to note that most religious times and events are related in terms of nights. This is because dates and months cannot be calculated accurately with the sun. We cannot tell which part of the month we are in by looking at the sun. On the other hand, the shape of the waxing and waning moon gives us plenty of information about time. You and I may be able to roughly approximate the date by looking at the moon, but a Bedouin living in the desert can tell you exactly which night of the month we are in. God says:
It is He who made the sun a shining radiance and the moon a light, determining phases for it so that you might know the number of years and how to calculate time. God did not create all these without a true purpose; He explains His signs to those who understand. (10:5)
Thus, all religious obligations and calculations are based on the entrance of night. For example, the first night of Ramadan starts when the moon is sighted after sunset before the first day of actual fasting. The same is true for the 15th night of the month of Sha’ban which is after sunset of the 14th day and so on. In Islamic obligations, the night always precedes the day. The only exception is the day of Arafah. We do not call the preceding night the night of Arafah.
The Hijri (or Islamic) calendar is lunar. It is different from the Gregorian calendar which is solar. The wisdom behind the Hijri calendar is that if months were measured by the sun, then Ramadan -for example- would occur at the same time and season every year. In some parts of the world, Muslims would have to fast in the summer each and every year, while for others, Ramadan will always occur in winter. But by following the Hijri lunar calendar, Muslims can enjoy fasting and other religious duties in different seasons. This is because the lunar calendar lags behind the solar one by eleven days each year, so with the passage of a few years, events linked to the moon occur at different seasons. This is how God's mercy spreads to all creations.