Quran and 2:184 - what is the correct translation?

It is common for Muslims to fast during their month of ramadhan (literal meaning of which is intense heat), and it is commonly considered compulsory for all adults with a few exceptions. Consequently a question that often arises is what is the criteria for this exemption. The relevant part in Quran is shown below: 

(abstinence) a number of days, so whoever of you is ill or traveling then a number from other days, and upon those who are capable of it a ransom/exchange feeding a poor person, and whoever volunteers good/better then it is better for him, and to fast/abstain (sawm)* is better for you if only you knew. [2:184]
*the general meaning of sawm is 'to abstain', with context telling us from what.

The three most common translations of 2:184 are:
"...and upon those who are capable of it (i.e. sawm) but with difficulty* a ransom feeding a poor person.."
*e.g. old age, medical reasons, nursing/pregnant women etc.

"...and upon those who can afford it (i.e. feeding a poor person) a ransom feeding a poor person..."
In other words, in addition to making up fasts from other days also do the above if one is able.

"...and upon those who are capable of it* (i.e. sawm) a ransom feeding a poor person..."
*with the implication being they choose not to.

The majority of translators go with (1), then most common is (2) and last is (3) [source]. Based on the Quranic evidence I am of the view (3) is most sound and I shall now explain why.

The most simple/literal rendering of this part of 2:184 is (3). The reasons for this are:
(i) the most common meaning of "yutiqu" is "capable/able/strength", and this can be seen from Classical Arabic dictionaries and Quranic usage.
(ii) pronouns refer to something previously mentioned in the context. In this case the masculine Arabic pronoun "hu" (in "capable of it") refers back to a masculine noun which would be sawm, making (2) an unusual rendering.
(iii) the Arabic word "fidya" means ransom/exchange, i.e. swap one thing for another. Thus, if one made up for their fasts from other days, there would be no need for a ‘fidya’ as this would not be an ‘exchange/ransom’ but something additional. This is supported by every use of fidya in Quran, i.e. A is ransomed/exchanged for B, never B in addition to A. 
Hence making (2) a poor fit.
(iiii) other occurrences of "wa 3ala allatheena (and upon those who...)" suggest this phrasing is used to refer to a separate situation/group from those mentioned previously, e.g. see 6:146, 16:118. Further suggesting (2) is less likely.

2:184 has already mentioned situations where one may find sawm difficult (i.e. ill/traveling) thus it could be deemed superfluous to say 'those who can sawm but with difficulty' later, if it meant that. However, it could be argued it is simply covering all scenarios, so I do not consider this a significant point.

The verse states "whoever volunteers good/better" and the logic implies it is "whoever volunteers better" i.e. better than feeding the needy (e.g. in addition to that act doing something additional, e.g. feed more, or feed and clothe etc). The simple reason being "volunteering good" i.e. feeding the needy is not a voluntary act but rather what is imposed as a 'fidya'.   

Also, the end of the verse states "and to abstain/fast is better for you" clearly implying there is an option but to fast/abstain is better, 
indicating the correct rendering is indeed "those who are able to do it (but choose not to)" rather than "those who are able to do it but with difficulty".

Interestingly in 2:196 we find abstinence/fast as an exchange/ransom for being unable to provide a hady/ offering (i.e. feeding):
2:184   no sawm ---> ransom/fidya ---> feed the needy
2:196   no hady/offering/animal (i.e. no feeding) ---> ransom/fidya ---> sawm

Whilst (1) "capable of it (sawm) but with difficulty" is a theoretically possible meaning of "yutiqu" according to Classical Arabic dictionaries it does seem to conflict with the following verse 2:185 which states "God intends ease and not hardship" with regards to fasting. Of course, it should be noted that what is deemed difficult is subjective and varies from one person to the next. Even if translation (1) is chosen the person undertaking sawm/abstinence will determine if it is too difficult or not. For example there is no need to look at Traditional Hadith for criteria etc. There are many examples of this self-determining, e.g. Quran 2:219 says spend the excess (in charity), i.e. it will be the one spending who will determine what is the excess. Or in 5:89 when it says "...expiation shall be the feeding of ten poor from the average/equitable of what you feed your family...", i.e. the one expiating will determine what is the average/equitable of what one feeds their family.

We have the following scenarios from verse 2:184:
If you do not fast due to illness –> make up from other days
If you do not fast due to travel –> make up from other days
If you do not fast (for whatever reason) –> exchange by feeding a poor person (can volunteer more) however it is better if one abstains/fasts

To end it should be noted that the primary reason for sawm/abstinence is to help develop taqwa/conscientiousness [see 2:183]. It is a means to an end. One of many ways to develop taqwa, NOT the only way. The Quran is replete with examples of taqwa (e.g. speak truthfully/justly [33:70], seeking God's forgiveness [3:133], keep promises [8:56], patience [3:200], promote reconciliation [49:10] etc).
One should always remember we are only to do what we are able as best/sincerely as we can [64:16] and we are encouraged to listen to what is being said (e.g. differing views) then follow the best of it [39:18].

Peace be upon you.

End Note:
Traditional understandings of 2:184 openly admit that it was common for followers to choose not to fast and fidya instead by feeding a poor person. However many exegetes claim 2:185 abrogated 2:184 because 2:185 does not mention this exemption thus they take this to mean it is not longer allowed and sawm is obligatory upon all except those ill/traveling. This view was not covered in this article as I consider the theory of abrogation to have no validity.

Study Method
further articles

This work would not have been possible without the many people who have contributed to this topic, and without the resources now available to anyone wishing to study The Quran in detail. For these stepping stones I am indebted and truly thankful.


This work reflects my personal understanding, as of May 10th 2019. Seeking knowledge is a continual process and I will try to improve my understanding of the signs within 'the reading' (al quran) and out with it, unless The God wills otherwise. All information is correct to the best of my knowledge only and thus should not be taken as a fact. One should always seek knowledge and verify for themselves when possible: 17:36, 20:114, 35:28, 49:6, 58:11.

And do not follow what you have no knowledge of; surely the hearing, the sight and the heart, all of these, shall be questioned about that. [17:36]