Fasting: An Overview


Fasting Through the Ages

The desire to fast seems to be deeply rooted in human consciousness. Fasting has been resorted to for cultural or political reasons as much as for maintaining physical and mental health. More specifically, fasting has been a devotional practice in most religious and spiritual movements throughout the ages.

Islam has perfected the practice of abstinence and fasting as a means of self-purification and worship. The act of restraining the self purifies and enhances awareness and sensitivity at physical, mental and spiritual levels. The seeker realizes the weakness of the self and is gratified by the discipline, restriction and prohibitions, for these limitations are windows to Allah’s limitlessness.

An Overview

The word ‘fast’ in English comes from the Teutonic ‘fastan’, which means ‘firm’ in the sense of ‘to hold fast, be firm, to observe [something] strictly or guard.’ The verb ‘fastan’ means keeping or observing a rule of some kind and maintaining strict obedience to a law. The specific application of this meaning is associated with abstinence from food, and after a time, the abstention from food as a religious observance or as a ceremonial expression of grief became the accepted meaning.

In some cultures, such as the Indians of North America, fasting is held in high esteem, while many tribes of Brazil and the peoples of the Pacific Islands have used it as a rite of initiation. It was once common for hunters to fast before setting out in pursuit of game. Fasting to mark puberty is still a widespread practice among some American Indian Tribes, and is observed as a preliminary rite to marriage among some communities prior to marriage. Severalcultures prescribe fasting as a rite of mourning, such as those in the Andaman Islands, Fiji, Samoa, China, Korea and Africa. In general, we find whenever human beings require or seek heightened awareness or greater closeness to their core or essence, fasting is used as a key practice to achieve this end.

Ancient Egyptians, Greek, Roman, and Chinese cultures practised fasting to cure various illnesses. The Egyptians believed that fasting three days a month helped to preserve good mental and physical health. The Greeks learned the virtues of fasting from the Egyptians and fasted before battle and the Romans followed suit. Socrates and Plato are known to have regularly performed fasts of ten days duration. Today in the West, fasting is used by alternative and naturopathic systems of medicine and healing for curing a host of acute and chronic diseases and as a useful catalyst in helping the body mobilize its own natural immune system.

During the twentieth century fasting has sometimes been used as a tool of political and social protest by individuals as well as groups. During the national struggles for independence from colonial rule, several leaders of the third world in Asia and Africa resorted to fasting to highlight their plight and struggle, often with some success.

In the religions of the East fasting has been practiced for spiritual purification and cleansing from sin. Many stressed that the practice of fasting was utilized in order to acquire control over the senses. Hindu masters recommended a restraint on speech and actions and a total ban on injury to any created being. Gautama Buddha prescribed a middle path for attaining spiritual goals, avoiding the extremes of asceticism or luxury. Most monks, however, would follow austere regimes and fast for several days at a time, patiently bearing mental and physical weakness as a devotional practice.

The Old Testament abounds in references to fasting. David wept and chastened his soul with fasting. The Prophet Moses fasted from all food and drink for forty days and nights when he ascended the mount to receive the tablets of the covenant of hisLord. Ezra, the prophet of the Children of Israel, fasted in order to obtain guidance from his Lord. Daniel fasted for three weeks, seeking his Lord by prayer and supplication.
The Jews observe six obligatory fasts during the year, one of which (Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement) is prescribed in the Old Testament as a two-day fast. Yom Kippur derives from similar linguistic roots as Yawm al-Kaffarah, both of which mean the same thing, i.e. repentance, as Arabic and Hebrew have a common Semitic root. Moses descended with the Torah on Yom Kippur just as the Qur’an was revealed on Laylat al-Qadr, the Night of Determination or Power, during the month of Ramadan.

The New Testament contains numerous references to fasting and vigils. St. Jerome wrote: ‘The fiery darts of Satan are to be quenched and deadened by the rigour of vigils and fasting.’ Jesus is reported in Matthew to recommend sincere and cheerful fasting which became a normal practice for his disciples.

The institution of fasting and abstinence from certain foods in Christianity has its origin in the New Testament as it relates to the fasting of Jesus’ disciples for several days during Lent, the forty¬day period before Easter. The duration of the fast during Lent varied throughout the ages until forty days accompanied by strict rules became the norm. At first only one meal a day was allowed, and not before three in the afternoon, but gradually the time was brought forward to mid-day. Meat, fish, eggs, milk, cheese and butter were absolutely forbidden, but later on small amounts of these foods were allowed in the morning and evening.

Additional fasts were introduced later in different parts of the Church, such as the fast of Rogation Days, the Ember Weeks, the Whitsun Week, and fasts were also ordained by the Roman Catholic Church. Considerable variations in the practice of fasting is noticed between the Orthodox Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Reformed Churches of Europe.

Over time there has been a gradual mitigation in the frequency and rigour of the fasts and abstinences prescribed by Church laws due to extenuating circumstances such as age, health, poverty, hard or continued labour and changing social conditions. Today few are obliged to fast strictly, while some are excused even from abstinence. Roman Catholic legislation further provides for dispensations to be granted by the Church authorities. The overall result is that the practice of fasting has declined and is almost forgotten as a religious exercise.

For Muslims fasting, or ‘sawm’ in Arabic, was commanded in the Qur’an as a major obligatory spiritual discipline for the duration of the month of Ramadan. The Arabic word for fasting is derived from the root, “sama ” meaning to abstain from food, drink, smoking, sensual gratifications, wrong actions, harmful intentions, thoughts, words and deeds.

Islamic fasting is obligatory for one month in every lunar year, that is, Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic calendar. All healthy adults are expected to adhere to the proper rules of fasting. In addition to this obligatory fast, there are many optional fasts, some of which occur regularly every week or month, and some that are scattered throughout the year. These fasts are Sunnah, or the practice of the Prophet.

A Closer look

Fasting is a religious exercise for the whole of one’s being – mind, body and soul. It is an obligation by which Allah is remembered and worshipped, and which brings about proximity between the realms of matter and spirit. The human body is a complex material creation whose substances naturally incline toward physical decay and degeneration. If man is to attain a higher state of spiritual consciousness and growth, it is essential that he restrict and control the lower nature of the self and its desires and attachments. By restricting the physical and lower elements of the self we enhance the higher and Divinely guided facets within us. After a few days of continuous fasting the chemical and hormonal patterns of the body changes and this disturbance in the rhythm continues until one is somewhat confused outwardly. This state makes it easy for one to have a shift in old perceptions and values.

Hunger and thirst are basically the spirit and secret of fasting. By abstention we learn how to restrain the self and restrict its demands. Denying the passions of the lower self, the nafs, is a major purpose of the fast, whereby the seeker is brought closer to the source and root of life within.

In Islam, the fast of Ramadan is not just a ritualistic, ceremonial period during which the Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet as a code of conduct and the means of salvation. Fasting the month of Ramadan is a major discipline on the road of personal spiritual transformation.

Fasting purifies the body, while leaving the mind acutely receptive to meanings and attributes of outer stimuli and events. It was in such a heightened state of awareness that the Prophet Muhammad received the revelation of the Qur’an. Long before the advent of full prophethood, Muhammad regularly went into spiritual retreat for weeks at a time, usually in the cave of Mount Hira. Since no one can be certain as to precisely on which of the last ten nights of Ramadan the Night of Determination falls, Muslims retreat for these ten night to a mosque, in imitation of the Prophetic practice.

‘Fasting is prescribed for you as it was for those before you.’ (2:183) For the Christians fasting was a penitential exercise (the Lenten abstinence), but for the Jews it had an atoning function (Yom Kippur means ‘Day of Atonement’). Muslims fast Ramadan as a total act of worship, dedication, submission and prayer for knowledge of Allah and His ways. Fasting can, however, be undertaken at other times as an expiation or compensation (kaffarah) for sins and errors. The fast of Ramadan is also penitential in character, as exemplified in the practice of retreat.

The personal spiritual benefits that fasting generate are obvious, but the social benefits are equally significant. Both the Arabic terms from fasting, sawm and siyam, are from the root meaning ‘to be at rest; to abstain, to elevate’. The word also implies patience and silence. Thus when Maryam is instructed by Allah (19:26) to say that she has vowed unto the Beneficent a fast and may not speak this day with any mortal, it means she undertook fasting from speech.

The fast of Ramadan is one of the fundamental practices of Islam – the others being prayer, payment of zakat, pilgrimage and jihad. The last three are of a social character in that they bring the whole community into better harmony and understanding. Charity is where every individual gives alms in remembrance of the one Give, Allah. Pilgrimage is where routine everyday life is left behind so as to seek knowledge of the One Sustainer-Creator, and where prince and pauper stand shoulder to shoulder, clad in the same garb. Jihad is to strive to the utmost of one’s abilities, both outwardly and inwardly, against the lower tendencies so as to awaken to our higher light within. Jihad is ever-continuous. But while both prayer and fasting are essentially private acts of worship that have an immediate effect on the practitioner, they also promote unity of the ummah. Prayer is, after all, where the community stands together, shoulder to shoulder, in obedience to Allah.

The shared experience of fasting, breaking the fast and celebrating the Eid promotes the cohesion of the community and unites its direction in life. The successful completion of the month of fasting is a personal triumph for the individual, but one which is shared on the Eid al-Fitr with others. While Eid al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan, Eid al-Adha likewise marks the successful completion of the Pilgrimage. Both celebrate critical events: the latter the redemption of the prophet Isma’il, progenitor of the line of the Prophet Muhammad, the former the descent upon Muhammad of Allah’s final, clear and definitive revelation. In this sense Eid al-Fitr stands worlds apart from the ‘carnival’ that precedes Lent (carnival is from the Latin: carne vale, meaning ‘farewell to flesh’). While ‘carnival’ gives free rein to worldly appetites before their restraint during Lent, the Eid, by contrast, moderately readmits those activities that had been restricted during Ramadan after a period of purification and, as it were, rehabilitation. Thus the correct courtesy is not to marry during Ramadan, but to wait until or after the Eid. Eid is set apart by the donning of new garments, the communal Eid prayer and the hospitality shared among friends and family.

The contrast between fasting and feasting revitalises life in a way that is absent from cultures where fasting has lost its full meaning and benefit. The balance between the two in Islam highlights the fact that Islam is the Din of harmony and equilibrium. The code of conduct of Islam reflects the harmony of creation and the Creator’s Mercy and Love, without denying this world, but acknowledging the Eternal Light which illumines this world and the Hereafter. At the pinnacle of creation stands the Adamic being, constantly struggling in this world, whilst there lies within him a spirit that is beyond the world of time and space. All the Islamic practices, rituals and rules are a means of subduing the lower self, rendering it subservient to the elevating spiritual guidance that is reflected through the purified heart – the ultimate foundation for human contentment and joy.