Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, began Saturday, ushering in a holy period that Muslims observe partly by fasting from dawn to dusk.

That sounds simple enough. But in Pakistan, practicing Islam has been more complicated ever since Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq led a coup and declared martial law in 1977. Zia Islamized almost every aspect of Pakistani society, including the observance of fasting during Ramadan.

In 1981, Zia issued an ordinance officially prohibiting public eating and drinking during Ramadan's fasting hours. The dictate also forced public restaurants and eateries to close. Anyone breaking this rule could face three months in jail and a fine of about $5. (Luckily, the ordinance exempts food service in hospitals, schools, airports, and train and bus stations.)

The ordinance also requires movie houses and other theaters to remain closed for three hours starting at sunset during Ramadan. Anyone violating those rules faces as much as six months in prison and a fine of about $50.

Such laws not only deprive Pakistanis of their religious freedom. They also create the impression that Islam is a religion of intolerance.

Ramadan should teach us a lesson of patience, encompassing tolerance for those who practice other faiths or follow Islam differently, including those who don't observe fasting or regular prayers - all of whom are just as likely to be good and decent people.

But Zia's toxic traditions plague Pakistan to this day. His Ehtram-e-Ramzan ("reverence for Ramadan") ordinance remains in effect because no subsequent government has dared go against it for fear of angering religious scholars and parties. While the law is not enforced as strictly throughout the country as it once was, there have been arrests for violating its provisions in recent years.

Moreover, the ideas behind the law color Pakistanis' behavior. Now those Muslims who fast believe it is their right to taunt and criticize those who don't.

It's ironic that many observe fasting just to show that they are "good Muslims." They boast of how regularly they fast and pray, not skipping a single roza, or day of fasting, and enthusiastically participating in Tarawih, the special evening prayers during Ramadan.

Islam teaches its followers to be humble, not to use its practices to declare their superiority to other Muslims. Fasting should not be reduced to an opportunity to criticize non-fasters and prove oneself saintly.

The practice of fasting is meant to instill a sense of tolerance, compassion, and empathy. If you are fasting but unable to behave well - if you refrain from eating and drinking all day, but not from backbiting, lying, bickering, and other misbehavior - it is not worth the effort.

Simply starving will not get you into the good books of the angels. It might help you lose a few pounds, but you can do that by eating less and exercising.

It is good for your body, mind, and soul if you are devoted to pleasing God and will go to any length for that purpose. But vicious thoughts and disrespectful behavior toward others can't please God - even if you don't skip a single day of fasting.

As for me, I don't fast. I believe religion is a matter between me and my God, and I don't need to observe fasting just to prove myself pious.

As far as pleasing God is concerned, I think he will be pleased if you take care of his people. And, by the way, you can do that each day of the entire year - not just for one month!