It is a dangerous sign of the times for Malaysia when we can shamelessly condemn senior citizens who do not fast during Ramadan in mainstream media.
A case in point is the 71-year-old man who was caught eating in public in Kedah. He claimed that he broke his fast at a non-halal shop because he did not have the energy to continue fasting.
The Quran tells us that we must always stand up for justice, even if it is against ourselves [4:135] because Allah orders justice, kindness and good conduct, and forbids injustice, immorality and oppression [16:90].
What does this mean, really? It means that the religious department must do what is fair and right and merciful by the old man and for every person they “catch”, even if it goes against what they believe for themselves.
In Islam, it is permissible for many people not to fast. These exceptions reflect the wisdom of Allah and the deep compassion and consideration that Islam has for the different circumstances that different people experience in this world.
So the question really should be, why are we ashamed of Allah’s mercy?
Instead of publicly condemning the tired old man and handing him a letter of summons, shouldn’t the religious department be ensuring that he gets enough nourishment, that he takes his medicines and that he gets home safely? And what if he gets tired tomorrow?
How can the authorities ensure that this old man has access to good halal food and will not be harassed when he buys it? How can they ensure that people who do not need to fast are able to exercise their right to eat and take care of themselves during Ramadan?
A few days ago, a friend who was five months pregnant and working three hours away from home, went to buy food at a fast food outlet, but was not allowed to eat at the outlet.
Instead, she was forced to pack her food and asked to leave the premises.
Since she shared a car with some colleagues, she could not eat there. She ended up eating sitting on the pavement on a back alley so she could eat without being disturbed.
Not long before that, I heard the story about a new mother who was forced to fast by her office despite still breastfeeding her child.
Instead of milk, her breasts started excreting blood because of severe dehydration and malnutrition, forcing her to break her fast. Because the workplace did not permit her to eat openly at the office and the canteen would not serve her, the poor woman had resorted to eating sandwiches in the toilet – which she continues to quietly do today.
I have heard so many stories of people who are dependent on medication who struggle through the month of Ramadan. Finding ways to discreetly eat and take their medicines is one thing, but I notice a dangerous caving in to social pressure among so many of them when they force themselves to fast anyway.
For so many, being thrown off their medication schedules exposes them to severe long-term and often life-threatening consequences.
And then there are tiny food stall owners – the kind you would see selling nasi lemak and kuih early in the morning – and other food establishments that are forced to close during the month without any consideration as to how they would generate an income and make ends meet throughout the month and, on top of that, pay for Raya celebrations at the end of Ramadan.
Those that take the risk of selling food during Ramadan are really not doing so to simply defy the law. They had made the difficult decision to do so because of financial desperation. Because they have rent, bills and other expenses to pay for. For so many of them who already live in poverty, they do it because they do not have a choice.
These are just some examples of the many, many people who are forced to hide, just because some people think that it is “disrespectful” for them to sell, buy and eat food openly during Ramadan.
But what does respecting Ramadan really mean?
Ramadan is more about just refraining ourselves from eating and drinking throughout the day. More than that, it is about the purification of the heart and the mind, where Muslims are encouraged to be more charitable, do good deeds, say good things and think good thoughts.
It is a month where we up our prayer game in hopes of Allah’s mercy, forgiveness and blessings.
According to At-Tirmidhi [Sahih 1924], if we want Allah to be merciful to us, we have to be merciful to the creations of Allah. How can we ask Allah to forgive our sins and make us better people when we cannot look beyond the faults of others and help them better their lives?
I know that we are nearing the end of Ramadan, but the overzealousness of moral policing by the religious departments of the different states seems to have become a competition to see who can issue the most summonses.
Just because we don’t see people selling and eating food does not mean that we have created a pious and righteous community. We have simply created a community of actors who are obedient to the authorities on the surface while suffering in the background.
As always, of course, we have a choice.
We can choose a hard stand by shutting down all food shops and asking everyone who is not fasting to hide throughout the entire month.
Or we can celebrate Allah’s mercy in all its forms this Ramadhan — not only in amplifying our prayers, for forgiveness and blessings, but also by reflecting on Allah’s deep compassion for people whose lives are affected by the month of Ramadan.
Ramadan is a chance for us to empathise with those among us whose daily lives are the hardest. So, instead of issuing summonses to poor food vendors, we should be more charitable towards them and strategise long-term poverty eradication programmes for them.
Ramadan is a chance for us to appreciate the experiences of women and how we can extend compassion towards them, not only during menstruation, but also during pregnancy and throughout motherhood.
Ramadan gives us a glimpse into the challenges of old age — something Insyaallah, we will all experience someday.
The tiredness and forgetfulness are only some of the limitations that they go through. How would we like to be treated when the physical, psychological and emotional deterioration takes over?
Ramadan also opens our eyes to the thousands of Malaysians who are unable to fast for medical purposes and whose health should not be made to suffer further this month.
Allah is not cruel. Not only has Allah disallowed oppression among human beings [Sahih Muslim, Book 032, 6247]; Allah is kind and loves kindness in all forms [Sahih Bukhari 6528]. This must be the basis of how we practise Islam.
Majidah Hashim is communications manager for Sisters in Islam. She can be contacted via Twitter at @majidahhashim.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.