The rich cannot buy themselves out of fasting
A number of days (designated to fasting), but whoever among you is ill or travelling,
then an equal number of other days, and for those who can bear it, a concession
of feeding a needy person. Then, whoever volunteers extra good work it is better
for him, but if you fast it is better for you, if you only knew.
A number of wrong translations and interpretations of 2:184 led to an erroneous belief that grants the rich the choice to substitute their fasting with feeding the poor!
The following is the relevant section of 2:184 as translated by Marmaduke Pickthall:
" .... for those who can afford it there is a ransom: the feeding of a man in need ..."
According to this erroneous translation, numerous scholars grant those who are well off the choice of either fasting or feeding the poor!
This false claim contradicts the Quran. Fasting is one of the major practices of Islam, and God would not allow some people to avoid one such major practice just because they are rich! This would mean that God gives the rich favours not given to the poor! God would not do that. If we allow such wrong interpretation of 2:184, it would not be any different in concept from saying: If you are rich you do not have to observe your salat or utter the shahada as long as you feed a poor person!
The words in 2:184 speak of a concession decreed by God for those who have a legitimate excuse for missing fasting (illness or travel). Only those are given the choice of fasting other days or feeding a poor person.
Out of the two choices, God says that fasting is the better choice:
But if you fast it is better for you, if you only knew. 2:184
In addition, the words go on to say that the one who fasts other days (in place of the missed ones), as well as feeding a poor person/s is even better still:
Whoever volunteers extra work, it is better for him. 2:184
From the words in 2:184 we derive the following rules:
1- Fasting the month of Ramadan is decreed on all believers. All those who are not sick nor travelling must fast, regardless of whether they are rich or poor:
O you who believe, fasting is decreed upon you as it was decreed upon those before you. 2:183
Those of you who witness this month shall fast it. 2:185
2- Those who are temporarily ill or travelling, may refrain form fasting those days and fast other days when they are well or when they return from travelling:
Whoever among you is ill or travelling, then an equal number of other days (may be substituted). 2:184
3- Those who can afford it, and have missed some days due to travel or illness, are given a merciful choice of fasting other days, or feeding a poor person:
Those who 'yutiqunahu' (can bear it), a concession of feeding a needy person (can be substituted). Then, whoever volunteers extra good work it is better for him. 2:184
Thus the concession of substituting fasting with feeding the poor is not available to anyone who can afford it, it is only offered to those who miss days of fasting with a legitimate reason (illness or travel). It must also be said here that whoever misses few days of fasting due to illness or travel, and prefers to take the option of feeding the poor, then he/she is not avoiding a religious act, but only substituting one for the other.
4- The choice of feeding the poor or observing fasting is allowed by God as we read in other Quranic (as shown below).
5- Those who volunteer extra work, or in other words, not only do they feed a poor person, but also fast other days, in place of the days they missed, are doing better still:
Whoever volunteers extra good work it is better for him. 2:184
6- Those who are permanently ill and so are unable to fast at any time, and are also poor and cannot afford feeding another, have no obligations. This is clear from the various Quranic verses where God states that God does not intend causing anyone hardship in practicing the religion (see 22:78).
This choice between fasting or feeding the poor raises a number of questions:
1- When we read 58:3-4, we find that God is speaking of those who estrange their wives, and how this is unrighteous. God gives a penalty for the men who do so and that is to free a slave. But if this is not possible, then the man must fast two consecutive months (60 days), and if he is not physically able to do so, then he must feed 60 poor people.
The one who does not find the means (to free a slave) should fast two consecutive months before the two of them may touch one another. The one who is not able to do so should feed sixty needy people. 58:4
The rule in these verses which equates 60 days of fasting to feeding 60 needy people, gives us justifcation to say that one day of fasting is equivalent to feeding one needy person.
2- In 5:89, we read about those who violate an oath. The penalty for doing so gives us a different ratio between fasting and feeding the needy:
God does not hold you accountable for your casual oaths, but He holds you accountable for the oaths which you make binding. The atonement for this (violating an oath) is by feeding ten needy people from the same food with which you feed your family, or by clothing them, or by freeing a slave, and whoever does not have the means shall fast three days. 5:89
Here we see that the ratio is not feeding one person or fasting one day. The ratio here is feeding 10 persons or fasting 3 days. This makes us inquire why in 58:4 the ratio between feeding the poor and fasting a number of days is 1:1 but in 5:89 it is 10:3?
3- When we read our original verse, which is 2:184, we find that God gives the minimum possible (feeding one poor person) for every day missed, not 60 poor people (58:4) nor 10 poor people (5:89), so which set of numbers should we follow?
There is a simple answer to all this. To understand this issue, we need to remind ourselves with the subject of each verse and the ratio between feeding the poor and fasting in each:
In 58:4, the subject is of those who estrange their wives. The penalty is feeding 60 people or fasting 60 days. In other words feeding one person is equivalent to fasting one day.
In 5:89, the subject is violating an oath and the penalty is feeding 10 people or fasting 3 days.
In 2:184,, the subject is missing days of fasting through illness or travel. Here we find that unlike 58:4 and 5:89 God says in 2:184 that the better option is to fast other days "if you fast it is better for you, if you only knew". But if not, substituting it with feeding one poor person which is the minimum, then God also encourages us to do more.
The answer is that in both 58:4 and 5:84 feeding the poor or fasting are decreed as penalties for specific sins which we have committed (violating an oath or estranging our wives). And thus the penalties are fixed and not left to our own will. But in 2:184 there is no sin committed, missing fasting through illness or travel is not a sin, it is in accordance wiith God's rules for fasting.
As a result, God in His Mercy says that we should fast other days or feed the minimum number of poor people (one person) then leaves the number of poor people to feed up to us. The total number of days we should fast is fixed for all believers, they are the 29/30 days of Ramadan, so if we miss 5 days for example, we have to fast another 5 days (fixed number). But opting for feeding the poor instead is given the minimum requirement (one person) and this is because it is not a penalty for a sin. After that, God has left it to our ability and our willingness to do extra good work:
Whoever volunteers extra good work, it is better for him. 2:184
In contrast, violating an oath and estranging the wives are sins, thus God decrees specific penalties to atone for those sins.