Judges are more lenient in Ramadan

Photo by Mongkolchon on Adobe Stock

Photo by Mongkolchon on Adobe Stock

Do fairness and fasting go together ? During Ramadan, judges of the Muslim faith pronounce 40 % more acquittals than usual. This excess of clemency has just been revealed by an analysis of 380,000 judicial cases handled by 8,500 magistrates in the Indian sub-continent by economists Sultan Mehmood, Avner Seror and Daniel L. Chen.


By Avner Seror

Avner Seror

Auteur scientifique, Aix-Marseille Université, Faculté d'économie et de gestion, AMSE

Lucien Sahl

Lucien Sahl

Journaliste scientifique

What goes on in the mind of a judge? How does he know whether to grant an acquittal? How too determine a sentence? Attempts to answer these questions are part of the reflection on the decision-making capacity of individuals.

The decisions of judges and jury members are subject to special scrutiny. Only these magistrates have the power to pronounce a court decision capable of acquitting or convicting. Due to the consequences, these decisions must be as objective as possible. Nevertheless, those in positions of judicial authority are still human beings and can be affected by even the smallest everyday things.

Among judges, hunger is associated with greater severity1 . But what happens when it is associated with other elements such as an call to generosity and mercy, which is found at Christmas time?Which of the psychological factors or the moral injunction will prevail?

To find out more, economists Sultan Mehmood, Avner Seror and Daniel L. Chen looked at the effect on judges' decision-making of an event combining fasting and piety: Ramadan.

  • 1Danziger, S., Levav, J. & Avnaim-Pesso, L. Extraneous factors in judicial decisions. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. 108, 6889–6892 (2011).

More lenient judges

In 2011, a study following eight Israeli judges concluded that the best time to be judged was after the lunch break. Although now criticised for the methodology used, this result is part of the scientific literature linking physiological deficiencies, such as sleep and food deprivation, to the severity of judges.

For another part of the literature, food deprivation can have positive effects2 . Fasting resulting in the reduction of body fat, the lowering of cholesterol, or the stimulation of neurotransmitters is associated with better cognitive abilities3 . An improvement in memory and thinking that could be beneficial to judges.

Rituals, both cultural or religious, can also have an influence either by physiologically impacting their participants or by moral injunctions. Christmas and its famous "Christmas spirit" is a good example of an incentive for generosity. However some rituals, because of their very nature, are more interesting to investigate.


  • 2Santos, H. O. & Macedo, R. C. Impact of intermittent fasting on the lipid profile: Assessment associated with diet and weight loss. Clin. Nutr. ESPEN 24, 14–21 (2018).
  • 3Bogdan, A., Bouchareb, B. & Touitou, Y. Ramadan fasting alters endocrine and neuroendocrine circadian patterns. Meal–time as a synchronizer in humans? Life Sci. 68, 1607–1615 (2001).
Photo by Jonatha Pielmayer on Unplash

Table set with a spoon and an empty plate.

Ramadan, a unique object of study

With a population of about two billion, Muslims are the second largest religious group in the world. The fasting of the month of Ramadan is probably one of the most followed religious rituals. This pillar of Islam is governed by strict rules. It requires all adults in good health to consume neither food nor water from sunrise to sunset for a period of 40 days. Pious behaviour is expected through prayers, introspection and acts of charitable giving.

Although imposing constants, its secular rules also generate differences between each iteration. Subject to the lunar calendar, the period of Ramadan advances by 11 days each year. The daily duration of fasting also undergoes this inexorable movement, since the period of daylight varies during the year. Its odyssey through the calendar results in variations in the seasons and in the intensity of fasting between years.

Ramadan is the same for everyone, causing inequality among its practitioners. The period between dawn and dusk varies with geographical location and more specifically with latitude. In 2023, the average daily fast duration in Lille is 14 hours and 52 minutes, i.e. half an hour longer than in Marseille. In huge territories such as the Indian subcontinent, the differences between the most distant points can be as great as two hours.

Ramadan is marked by both stability and variation. To scientists, this makes it a remarkable object for study. The annual change of date makes it possible to isolate seasonal effects and to focus on the effects of the ritual, while the variations in the length of daylight between years and territories provide information on the intensity of the fast. For some it is even more interesting than other rituals such as Christmas or Easter whose religious dimension have been somewhat lost in Western culture.

More lenient judges

For their study, the trio of economists looked at two countries with large Muslim communities: India and Pakistan.

In total, they had the records of 917 Pakistani judges from 1950 to 2016 and 7,668 Indian judges from 1997 to 2018, or about 400,000 court cases. Since Ramadan is a Muslim affair, the first step in their study was to differentiate Muslim judges from their colleagues. This is easy for Pakistani judges, as their religion is recorded in the court records. This is not the case for their Indian counterparts. This problem was circumvented with the help of an artificial intelligence that assigned a religion to each judge according to their surname. All that remained was to analyse this large volume of data.

Their results are indisputable. During Ramadan, Pakistani and Indian judges of Muslim faith pronounce 40% more acquittals than usual. The length of the day and therefore the intensity of the fast even has an effect, since each additional hour of fasting compared to the average increases the acquittal rate by 10%.

Less criticized decisions

The issuance of a court decision does not necessarily mark the end of a legal procedure. Any stakeholder can challenge it by appealing. In the event of an appeal, the court of appeal will issue a second judgment that may confirm or invalidate the first decision. This legal procedure can be seen as a safety net to identify and correct bad decisions.

During Ramadan, the rate of appeals and reversals of judgements by Muslim judges is lower. As with leniency, the length of the fast has an effect with a 3% decrease in the appeal rate and a 5% decrease in the reversal rate per additional hour. These values indicate that not only are Muslim judges more lenient, but they also make better decisions during Ramadan. This conclusion is supported by a lower rate of recidivism of acquitted individuals during this period.

The authors of the study explain this result by the influence of "the idea of clemency inherent in the Muslim ritual" on judicial decisions. However, its influence "goes further by inciting judges to make better decisions".

Photo by Corgarashu on Adobe Stock

Balance in a court evoking the notion of justice

A conscious bias

In conducting the study, the researchers interacted with Pakistani judges who were aware of being biased during Ramadan. In their view, this excess leniency is even a problem.

"I interviewed a lot of judges in Pakistan, and they generally acknowledged that they were more lenient during the ritual, but found it hard to admit that it was beneficial," says Sultan Mehmood.

Translated from French by

Translated from french by Cate Evans


Mehmood S., Seror A., Chen D. L., 2023, "Ramadan fasting increases leniency in judges from Pakistan and India", Nature Human Behaviour, 1‑7.