A number of readers have taken my husband and me up on our offer to answer your Ramadan questions. Today we will field questions about fasting. (If you have been wondering about something Ramadan-related (or Islam in general-related), you can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We will answer as many as we can in the coming days. Also, please subscribe to my newsletter for more posts – usually 2-3 per week – on interfaith, exvangelicalism, and sometimes, politics!
So, questions about the practice of fasting during Ramadan.
What if you need to take medicine during the day?
My husband answered: Islam is a religion based on rules (because humans need boundaries), and grace (because humans are hopelessly imperfect). Last Ramadan, I negotiated with my doctor when I needed a prescription – he said I could take my med in 2 doses (before dawn and after sunset) instead of 3 doses (every 8 hours). That worked for me, but not everyone can do that.
I was taught that taking medicine during the day does break your fast, so if you have to do it, you can approach it one of several ways:
- Don’t fast. Islam allows that option for people who can’t fast for various reasons. If at all possible, you should instead give money to the poor (each local mosque has a recommended amount that you can donate to the mosque itself if you like, and they use it to feed people in need – our local mosque recommends $5 a day).
- Do an imperfect fast. There are many benefits to the practice of fasting even if you don’t do it exactly right. But since it’s not a “true fast,” you should also give to charity to cover your bases.
I pushed back: But sickness is something outside your control. Shouldn’t God’s grace cover something like that? It seems to me that God wouldn’t blame you for taking meds while you fast.
We reached a consensus: People need rules, or else some of us will rationalize anything and everything! If you say, “ok, you can take your pill with a sip of water,” some will think, “if I can take my pill with a sip of water, then probably a whole glass of water, or cup of coffee, is ok. And medicine is easier on my stomach if I have a little something to eat with it, so a donut is ok, or a whole pizza…”
Ultimately, fasting is between you and God. Some people eat (or drink or smoke) in secret so everyone thinks they’re fasting – but God knows. Some people make excuses for what they’re doing, but God knows. It’s better to keep the bar high than to set it too low. God knows if your heart is in your fasting, and that’s what really matters.
I agreed that in Christianity, many of us take advantage of what’s been called “cheap grace”: we know that God is forgiving, so we do whatever we want and then repent. Again, God knows what’s going on in our hearts.
What if you accidentally lick your fingers or something while cooking?
My husband answered: If you accidentally eat something, it does not break your fast, according to what I was taught. People do it, especially near the beginning of Ramadan (after Ramadan, it’s the opposite – you have to keep reminding yourself that you’re not fasting). Again, God knows our hearts: if it’s really just a mistake, God won’t hold it against us.
What about somebody living near the North Pole or South Pole, where the days are really long or really short?
My husband answered: There is no “right” answer to this, but several schools of thought. The local Muslim community will usually decide to follow the schedule of a large city in a “reasonable” latitude; some will choose to follow Mecca’s schedule. Some hard-core Muslims like the challenge, if they can handle it, of having a very short window for eating and a really long fast.
Once again, though, fasting is a matter of the heart, and it’s between you and God.
We hope these answers have helped you understand Islam better. Remember, if you have been wondering about something Ramadan-related (or Islam in general-related), you can send an email to email@example.com. We will answer as many as we can in the coming days. Also, please subscribe to my newsletter for more posts – usually 2-3 per week – on interfaith, exvangeticalism, and sometimes, politics!
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