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Fasting in Religions

By Dr. Abid Ahmad – UK
The Review of Religions, March 2003.

Fasting is the practice of abstaining from food, either completely or partially, for a specified period. It is an ancient practice found in most religions of the world. Recent scientific research suggests that fasting is healthy for a person and when engaged in carefully, may bring about heightened states of consciousness and sensibility. Traditionally, fasting has been a widely used practice observed for the purpose of purifying the person or of atoning for sins and wrongdoing. Most religions designate certain days or seasons as times of fasting for their adherents. Prayer is supposed to accompany fasting in most religions.

Fasting is also an excellent form of training for the physical, moral and spiritual development of man. Although fasting exists in some form or another in most world religions, none of the other faiths attach so much importance to it as Islam. According to the Holy Qur’an, fasting had been commanded in religions prior to Islam. So which are these religions and how does the fasting compare to that undertaken in Islam?

‘O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may guard against evil.’ (Ch.2: v.184)

Fasting in Christianity

The subject of fasting in Christianity is very difficult to discuss, simply because Christianity as a whole is short on religious laws. Besides, there is fundamental disagreement among the scholars to whether Jesus(as) commanded fasting. Fasting in Christianity seems to have changed with time and is affected by social, political, and economic factors.

Lent is the period of fasting for 40 days and penitence traditionally observed by Christians in preparation for Easter. The historical significance of the forty days may be traced to the time of the prophets Moses(as) and Elias who, only approached God on Sinai and Horeb after purifying themselves by a fast of forty days. (Exodus 24:18, Kings 19:18).

Jesus fasted 40 days (Matthew 4:2) before starting his preaching. He would also have fasted on the Day of Atonement, which was an established tradition in Judaism. There are traditions of fasting which differ greatly according to the country in which Christians live. Some abstain from meat, while others from fish. Some will not eat fruits, eggs or luxury foods; some just fast on white bread. Some will abstain from all these items. The intake of fluids is allowed during the fast.

Fasting in Christianity is particularly linked with self- humiliation in repentance (I Kings 21:27, Psalms 35:13). It is also brought into a close connection with prayer (Matthew 17:21) especially in the seeking of God. Christians also view fasting as a time of temptation (Matthew 4:1) and therefore of testing with a view to gaining greater strength.

The Bible also warns of the dangers of fasting. The fast may be regarded by some as a means of getting things from God (Isaiah 58:3). Fasting may be substituted for genuine repentance (Isaiah 58:5) and become a mere convention (Zechariah 7:5). Fasting also performed the wrong way may be seen as a parade of religion or an act of showing off (Matthew 6:16-18), which should never be the true intention of any fast.

Fasting in Judaism

Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) is the holiest day of the Jewish year. Yom Kippur is a day of ‘self- denial’ (Leviticus 23-27) so that Jews may be cleansed of their sins. It is observed eight days after Rosh Hashanah (start of the Jewish New Year). It is believed that on Rosh Hashanah God inscribes all of the Jews names in the ‘books’, and on Yom Kippur the judgement entered in these books is sealed. Yom Kippur is, essentially, the Jews last chance to demonstrate repentance and change the judgement.

Yom Kippur is the only fast day decreed in the Torah. It is a complete 25-hour fast beginning before sunset on the evening before Yom Kippur and ending after nightfall on the day of Yom Kippur. Jews are supposed to refrain from eating and drinking all fluids. It is a day set aside to ‘afflict the soul,’ to atone for the sins of the past year.

On Yom Kippur the focus is on spiritual elevation. One way to do this is to abstain from food, work, material possessions, and superficial pleasures. More specifically, five physical activities forbidden on Yom Kippur are eating and drinking, marital relations, washing, wearing leather shoes and applying lotions.

According to the Talmud, eating the day before Yom Kippur is a blessing equal to the blessing of fasting on the day of Yom Kippur. The festive meal before the fast is called Seudah Mafseket (final meal). Meat is not eaten during this meal, but poultry can be eaten. It is traditional to have soup, but important to put as little salt and seasoning in the soup as possible. Most Jews break the fast with dairy food. Family and friends often break the fast together at someone’s home.

Fasting in Hinduism (including Buddhism and Jainism)

Buddhism and Jainism were both founded around 500BC in India and can be regarded as off-shoots from Hinduism. Hence the fasting in these three religions is very similar.

Fasting in Hinduism indicates the denial of the physical needs of the body for the sake of spiritual gains. According to the scriptures, fasting helps create an atonement with the gods by establishing a harmonious relationship between the body and the soul. This is thought to be imperative for the well-being of a human being as it nourishes both physical and spiritual demands.

Hindus believe it is not easy to pursue the path of spirituality in one’s daily life. Worldly indul- gences do not allow Hindus to concentrate on spiritual attain- ment. Therefore worshippers must strive to impose restrains on themselves to get the mind focused and one form of restraint is fasting. However, fasting is not only a part of worship, but a great instrument for self-discipline too. It is a training of the mind and the body to endure and harden up against all hardships, to persevere under difficulties and not give up. According to Hindu philosophy, food means gratification of the senses and to starve the senses is to elevate them to contem- plation. Hinduism teaches that when the stomach is full, the intellect begins to sleep, wisdom becomes mute and the parts of the body restrain from acts of righteousness.

Hindus fast on certain days of the month such as Purnima (full moon) and Ekadasi (the 11th day of the fortnight). Certain days of the week are also marked for fasting, depending on individual choices and on one’s favourite god and goddess. On Saturday, people fast to appease the god of that day, Shani or Saturn. Some fast on Tuesdays the auspicious day for Hanuman, the monkey God. On Fridays devotees of the goddess Santoshi Mata abstain from taking anything citric. Fasting at festivals is common. Hindus all over India observe fasts on festivals like Shivratri and Karwa Chauth. Navaratri is a festival when people fast for nine days. Hindus in West Bengal fast on Ashtami, the eighth day of the festival of Durga Puja.

Fasting in Hinduism can also mean abstaining from taking certain things, either for religious reason or for the sake of good health. For instance, some peo- ple refrain from taking salt on particular days. It is common knowledge that excess salt causes high blood pressure. Another common kind of fast (known as phalahar) is to forego taking cereals and only fruits are eaten.

The underlying principle behind fasting in Hinduism is found in Ayurveda. This ancient Indian medical system states the basic cause of many diseases is the accumulation of toxic materials in the digestive system. Regular cleansing of toxic materials keeps one healthy. By fasting, the digestive organs get rest and all body mechanisms are cleansed and corrected. A complete fast is good for health. Additionally, since the human body, as explained by Ayurveda, is com- posed of 80% liquid and 20% solid, like the earth, the gravitational force of the moon affects the fluid contents of the body. It causes emotional imbalances in the body, making some people tense, irritable and violent. Fasting acts as antidote, for it lowers the acid content in the body which helps people to retain their sanity.

From a matter of dietary control, fasting has come to be a handy tool of societal control. It is a non- violent form of protest (Gandhi often fasted as a means of peaceful protest). A hunger strike can draw attention to a grievance and can bring about a remedy. The pains of hunger that one experiences during fasting make one think and extend one’s sympathy towards the destitute who often go without food. In this context fasting functions as a societal gain wherein people share with each other a similar feeling of hunger. Fasting provides an opportunity for the privileged to give food to the less privileged.

Fasting in Sikhism

Sikhs do not participate in any form of fasting, as they regard it as a pointless act with no benefit. It is worth pointing out that the Sikh founder, Guru Nanak was actually a Muslim, who did regularly fast. It wasn’t until the 10th Guru or successor of the Sikh faith, Guru Gobind Singh came into power in 1675, that fasting was dropped from the practices of Sikhism.

Comparison to Fasting in Islam

Islam, has taken the lead in reforming the institution of fasting. This was a radical reform in the meaning, rules and purpose of the fast. It made the fast easy, natural and effective. Fasting was a symbol of sadness, mourning, atonement for the sins, a reminder of disasters as well as self-mortification in Judaism and Christianity. Islam radicalised this doom and gloom concept of fasting, into an enlightened concept of self purification. The month of fasting in Islam is a month of worship Muslims welcome each year with energy and happiness. This is contrary to the atmosphere of mourning.

The Islamic laws that govern fasting are fair and universal. For example, fasting was for special classes of people in the previous religions. For the Brahmin class in the Hindu religion, fasting is mandatory only for the high priests. In some Latin religions, it is only women who must fast and there are no exceptions. Islam has made fasting for all adults irrespective of social class or status.

The tradition of sehri (meal before the fast starts) is a good example of Islam making the fast easy for people. One who is fasting is allowed eat food until just a few minutes before morning prayer. Similarly, when it is time to break the fast, the rule is to break as soon as the sun sets, with no delay. Sleeping and resting during the day are all allowed. Working is not stopped and businesses are not closed down for the fast. In Judaism, working during the period of fast is prohibited. Additionally, a person who makes a mistake in fasting is not punished, and the one who forgets and eats is forgiven.

…Allah desires ease for you and He desires not hardship for you…. (Ch.2:v.186)

Fasting in some other religions is based on a solar (Gregorian) calendar. This demands vast knowledge of calculation and astronomy in the making of a calendar. Besides, the months are fixed in a specific season, they do not rotate or change. Fasting in Islam is based on the lunar calendar and is tied to the sightings of the new moon. Allah states:

They ask thee about the new moons. Say: They are means for measuring time, for the general convenience of people… (Ch.2:v.190)

And the hadith:

‘Eat until you see the crescent and break not until you see the crescent. If it is cloudy calculate the period of the month.’ (Sahih Muslim)

This enables Muslims in every corner of the earth, east and west, north and south, and all in between, in remote villages, on mountains, in conditions of illiteracy or literacy, in jungles or deserts to start and end the fast all at the same time, without difficulty. Why the moon instead of the sun as the basis for starting and ending the fast? There are several reasons:

The lunar year is always ten or eleven days less compared to the solar. Thus, if Ramadhan 2001 began on November 17th, Ramadhan in 2002 would begin around November 6th. Consequently, in the course of 36 years, every Muslim would have fasted every day of the year, the short days of the year, the long days of the year, the hot days and the cold days of the year. Muslims in different regions of the world would have had total equality in the number of days they fasted, and would have had an equal amount of seasonal and climatic changes. They would have an equal amount of cold or mild weather Ramadhans. If the fast were based on the solar calendar, the Muslims in hot summer climates would have Ramadhan during hot weather every year, forever. Some Muslims would have fasted long days while others short days, because solar calendar months are fixed and immobile. Additionally, fasting based on the solar system means one may miss certain fruits vegetables in certain seasons, but by the end of the circle a Muslim would have tasted and tried different fruits during Ramadhan, whereas fasting based on the solar calendar would have prohibited some fruits during Ramadhan, forever. This is why Muslims did not change the month of Ramadhan, nor did they distort it by increasing or decreasing days, nor did they change it to different months.

Conclusion

Throughout history, in almost all religions of the world, fasting has long been promoted as a spiritual means for intensifying prayers and faith. People have fasted as it is an obligation to God, leading to good health and spirituality. Fasting brings great spiritual, mental, emotional and physical health. Fasting is now generally accepted as an effective and safe method of detoxifying the body, a technique that men have used for centuries to heal the sick. It purifies the body of the accumulated toxic poison and waste. Fasting regularly, helps the body heal itself as well as awakening the mind and soul. Fasting is now medically proven to be a healthy act and offers numerous benefits to us, some which we know about and some we don’t. As Allah says:

…And fasting is good for you, if you only knew. (Ch.2:v.185)