Religious musings

I recently discovered a religious paradox while having a discussion with a Muslim friend at work. He is fasting while observing Ramadan, an Islamic holy month.

His definition of the fast is that no food or drink can be consumed between sunrise and sunset. Consequently, he has to get up around 5am to eat a big meal before work, then goes all day without food. There are other restrictions as part of the fast, such as no smoking, I think no swearing, and so on.

However, there is apparently an important exception to the fast. It is OK to break the fast if you are traveling. We both figure the exemption comes because traveling out of town can be exhausting, so you have to eat something.

We think this may have come because when all this fasting business began centuries ago, people pretty much walked wherever they were going. It is certainly unreasonable to expect somebody to walk miles each day with no nutrition, particularly if you don’t know where the food is going to be on the way.

The problem arises with the definition of “traveling.” My friend says there is a specific distance, set by Islamic law, that you must go to be considered a traveler. He didn’t know it exactly, but said it’s about ten miles. We joked that he can get McDonald’s in Reynoldsburg any time he wants and he would be cool with God.

Now, conservative Muslims are more likely to fast — some liberal followers don’t observe it at all. But conservatives are also more likely to stick to a strict interpretation of “traveling” and use the ancient measure of ten miles. I think liberal followers would be more willing to look at the traveling exemption and take into account several obvious differences in 21st-century travel — it’s much faster these days, food is readily available everywhere, and you can travel thousands of miles in a day with no serious physical exertion. Certainly, liberal Muslims should interpret the rules differently based on today’s realities. And ironically, conservatives have given themselves a free pass on fasting as long as they manage to skip a few miles out of town. As I understand it, theoretically, you could do this every day and be considered to have fasted in accordance with Islamic law.

I’m not making a commentary on Islam per se, and I certainly don’t claim to understand the full story here or on all of its precepts generally. But I find it interesting to highlight a situation where it seems clear to me that following the rules strictly (eating ten miles away) produces an outcome that is generally opposite to the actual intent of those rules (fasting as a sign of strength and commitment in one’s religious beliefs). Conservative adherents to all faiths should take a look at their regulations and consider whether the practice actually encourages the desired outcome.

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