It’s that time of year again, where restaurants everywhere appear much quieter during the day and only seem to come alive at night; streets are filled with stalls selling local delicacies in the evenings; and old yet evergreen Raya songs start playing at every corner of shopping malls. It is the month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, when the Koran was first revealed to Prophet Muhammad thousands of years ago.
On the surface, this is the holy month where Muslims fast from dawn to dusk – they abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and sexual activities during the day, but these restrictions are simply the tip of the iceberg. Ramadan is more than just physical abstinence, it is also intended for spiritual growth – to ask forgiveness and to forgive, to reflect and to bring oneself closer to the Creator.
However, what happens when legal and social enforcement interfere with what is supposed to be a personal spiritual journey?
Although Ramadan is a quiet time of year for many, it keeps JAWI (Federal Territory Islamic Department) quite busy. Since 18 June, JAWI officers have arrested 28 people for smoking or eating in public, or selling food to Muslims. They also identified a number of Ramadan “hotspots” where Muslims go to eat food during daylight hours.
Malaysia is one of the countries which criminalises the act of not fasting or eating in public during Ramadan. Under section 15(b) of Syariah Criminal Offences (Federal Territories) Act 1997, any person who eats/drinks/smokes in public will be prosecuted.
Contrary to common belief, fasting is actually not required for all Muslims. There are several exceptions to this practice, and this include people who do not have a sound mind; travellers who travel for more than two days; people who are ill and may bring harm to themselves if they were to fast (including old folks); as well as women who are either menstruating or experiencing post-partum bleeding.
So how would the law apply now, considering these exceptions?
According to Hafizah, a practicing lawyer based in Kuala Lumpur, Syariah law falls under state matters, so the law would differ in each state. Having said that, some states may impose stricter regulations than others, for example Kelantan.
In Kelantan, food-sellers who sell halal food are expected to only start selling after 3pm during Ramadan, and they will be fined if they fail to adhere to this ruling, regardless of whether they are Muslims or non-Muslims.
In Kelantan, food-sellers who sell halal food are expected to only start selling after 3pm during Ramadan, and they will be fined if they fail to adhere to this ruling.
While it may be slightly less strict here in Kuala Lumpur, especially since the 3pm rule does not apply, food-sellers who sell food to Muslims for immediate consumption will still be penalized under Section 15 (a) of Syariah Criminal Offences (Federal Territories) Act 1997, which states that any person who sells food/drink/tobacco to Muslims for immediate consumption during Ramadan will be prosecuted.
According to Hafizah, while the general rule is that a large part of the Syariah law applies only for Muslims, this rule falls under part three of the Syariah law: offences relating to the sanctity of the religion of Islam and its institution, which means it applies to everyone regardless of their religion.
Food-sellers who are found guilty under this Act will be fined a maximum of RM1000 or imprisoned for a maximum term of six months or both. For second or subsequent offences they can be fined a maximum of RM2000 or imprisoned for a maximum term of one year or both. The sentence is the same for those who are caught not fasting or eating in public.
This punishment is perhaps the reason why food-sellers are particularly careful when it comes to serving food during Ramadan. If one is Malay or possesses Malay features, expect to not only be questioned by restaurant owners or workers during the day, but also to be refused service altogether.
“I’ve yet to enter a restaurant in Ramadan without being asked by the workers if I’m Malay,” comments John, who has grown accustomed to this ‘procedure.’
This is especially common for Chinese-Indian Malaysians. “I’ve yet to enter a restaurant in Ramadan without being asked by the workers if I’m Malay,” comments John, who has grown accustomed to this ‘procedure.’ “It gets a bit annoying at times but I understand that they are simply keeping themselves out of trouble.”
Another Chinese-Indian, Joelle, has also experienced the same thing from time to time. “I’ve not only been asked if I was Malay,” he said, “I’ve also been given a lecture about why they can’t serve Muslims!” He laughs. “As long as they ask politely then it’s fine. They can even check my IC too if they wish to do so.”
The case was slightly more serious for Joseph, a non-Muslim of a Chinese-Indian descent. “I wasn’t just questioned by the workers, I was questioned by the police!” According to him, the incident occurred when he was fifteen years old at a local Mamak restaurant when the authorities were making rounds. “I was unlucky because it just so happened that I had forgotten to bring my IC with me, so they brought me to the station,” he continued. “I thought they were going to charge me for not bringing my IC but instead they kept pestering on why I wasn’t fasting. My father had to come downtown to help me out. It was such a hassle.”
Unfortunately, however, not only do the authorities make mistakes in this matter, but sometimes so do the restaurant owners and workers. With a pre-existing stigma within the society against those who do not fast, strict regulations only seem to add fire to the flame.
Pauline, a Sarawakian native, was one of the victims to this discrimination. Unlike John and Joelle, she went through a harsher treatment by the workers in a local fast-food restaurant. “I was having lunch with my brother one day, but they did not question me. Instead, they just stared at us menacingly.” It did not end there.
“While we were leaving, one of them shouted sarcastically, ‘lain kali jangan lupa puasa ye!’” (Next time don’t forget to fast!) Her brother, outraged by this treatment, went up to them and slammed both their ICs on the table to show that they have been mistaken. “They didn’t really care,” she sighed. “Instead of showing remorse or apologising, they continued exclaiming rude remarks to us.”
According to her, one of the staff even shouted, “lain kali bagitau lah!” (Next time let us know!) “Odd,” Pauline said. “We never knew we had to tell them we weren’t Muslims just to get a sense of respect.”
“While we were leaving, one of them shouted sarcastically, ‘lain kali jangan lupa puasa ye!’”
If this is the sort of treatment non-Muslims get for eating in a public place during Ramadan, one could only wonder how Muslims will get treated if they are seen not to fast.
In this country, the lines between a personal choice and a social and legal obligation are often blurred. While Islam is lenient enough to exempt certain individuals from fasting, the law does not exempt them from punishment if they are caught eating in public.
“Muslims can be caught not only for not fasting, but for disrespecting the holy month by eating in public. They must show respect towards those who do fast,” Hafizah explained.
But would seeing a Muslim brother/sister eat in public really offend other Muslims? Shouldn’t we, regardless of our faiths and beliefs, leave the judgments to God – especially when it comes to religious matters and practices?
It is unclear whether the legal enforcements have actually deterred the act of eating in public. In 2011, 25 Muslim men in their 30’s were caught eating in public during the first three days of Ramadan while in 2013, 82 Muslims were caught eating, drinking and smoking in public. Both events occurred in Sarawak and were handled by the Sarawak Islamic Religious Department. Just last year, action was also taken against 96 Muslims for the same offence in Penang.
Looking at these numbers, one could only wonder whether the law has been serving its purpose to deter the unwanted behaviour. Another thing to consider is, were all these people well-informed of the legal consequences before they were caught?
Of course Malaysia is not the only country which criminalises the act of not fasting or eating in public during the holy month, and some other countries even convict non-Muslims. In 2010, two non-Muslim foreign-workers in Algeria were convicted for having lunch during their break and in 2014, a Christian man in Iran had his lips burnt with cigarettes for eating during the day. Just last year in Iran, 480 Muslims who were caught eating were sentenced to public flogging.
According to Muslim scholar, Sheikh Mahmud Al-Buraiki from Yemen, Islam does not encourage or recommend any worldly punishments for those who do not fast, because their punishments will definitely come in the hereafter.
Although Ramadan comes to an end this week, we should not stop reflecting. Instead of aiming to “uphold the sanctity of Islam” as the authorities often claim to do, perhaps it is wise to first and foremost answer this simple question: does legislating religious practices produce better Muslims?
Names have been changed to maintain confidentiality.
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