The rich cannot buy themselves out of fasting

"Specific days (are designated for fasting); if one is ill or traveling, an equal

number of other days may be substituted. Those who have the ability, may substitute

feeding one poor person (for each day missed). If one volunteers (more righteous

works), it is better. But fasting is the best for you, if you only knew"

2:184

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!

Needless to say, this is a false claim that 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 do your salat or utter the shahada as long as you feed a poor person!!!

From the correct translation of 2:184 (see top of this page) it becomes clear that the concession decreed by God is given only for those who have a legitimate excuse for missing fasting (illness or travel). Only these are given the choice of fasting other days or feeding a poor person if they can afford it.

Out of the two choices, God says that to fast is the better choice:

"But fasting is the best for you, if you only knew"

We are also told 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, this is apparent from the words:

"If one volunteers (more righteous works), it is better"

Therefore the rule is as follows:

1- As a general rule, 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 for you, as it was decreed for those before you" 2:183

"Those of you who witness this month shall fast therein" 2:185

2- Those who are temporary ill or travelling, may refrain form fasting those days and fast other days when they are well or return from travelling:

" .... if one is ill or traveling, 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" (are able to, or can afford to), may substitute (the missed days) with feeding one poor person (for each day missed). "If one volunteers (more righteous works), it is better" 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. This is because feeding the poor (charity) is also a righteous practice which is highly regarded by God. This is evident from the number of Quranic verses which speak of zakat (charity), they are much more in number than the verses which speak of fasting.

4- The choice of feeding the poor or doing fasting is an arrangement confirmed in other Quranic verses as well (as will be demonstrated below). This shows that it is an authorised concession and that it is in agreement with the correct interpretation of 2:184.

5- Those who volunteer better work, or in other words, not only do they feed a poor person, but also fast other days instead of the days they missed are doing better still:

"If one volunteers (more righteous works), it is better"

6- Those who are permanently ill, so are not able 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 He does not intend causing anyone hardship in practicing the religion.

Relevant Questions:

This issue of having a choice between fasting or feeding the poor raises a number of questions:

1- When we read 58:4, 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.

"If you cannot find a slave to free, you shall fast two consecutive months before resuming sexual relations. If you cannot fast, then you shall feed sixty poor people"

This arrangement may lead us to understand that since 60 days fasting are given as equivalent to feeding 60 people, then the general rule is that one day fasting is equivalent to feeding one poor person. Are we correct?

2- Well, if we read 5:89 we find that God is speaking about those who violate an oath, and the penalty for doing so gives us a different ratio between fasting and feeding the poor:

"If you violate an oath, you shall atone by feeding ten poor people from the same food you offer to your own family, or clothing them, or by freeing a slave. If you cannot afford this, then you shall fast three days"

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 that the better option is to fast other days "But fasting is the best for you, if you only knew". But if not, substituting it (fediah) 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 taking advantage of God's Merciful law of not fasting during these days.

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 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 (as explained) it is not a penalty for a sin. After that, God has left it to our ability and our willingness to do more righteous work. Feeding the poor here is not an atonement for a committed sin.

"If one volunteers (more righteous works), it is better"

But as mentioned, violating an oath or estranging our wives are sins, thus God decrees specific penalties to atone for these sins.