The Notion of Fasting In Islam and Other Religions

Fasting has been a universal religious practice in many religions and within both Eastern and Western societies. From the earliest times, abstinence from eating food or drinking water has been observed for a variety of purposes, some of them being spiritual purification, repentance, mourning, sacrifice, atonement of sins and enhancement of knowledge and power. Today, fasting is also used as a treatment in Naturopathy as well as Ayurveda. Modern medical sciences have proved multiple health benefits gained from fasting. But here we are to talk about the forms and objectives of fasting in world religions:

Fasting in Hinduism:

Fasting is one of the fundamental practices of Hinduism. Hindu devotees are exhorted to fast every once, twice, or thrice a week for the sake of Gods or Goddesses. On their fast days, they also engage in prayer and meditation especially during the nights. The core essence of Hindu fasting is the denial of the physical needs of the body for the sake of spiritual gains. One is encouraged to undergo bodily sufferings and endure hunger and hardship, so his sins would lessen. It is like punishing oneself. So, instead of God punishing him, he punishes himself. Hindus believe this would lessen some of his sins and he would have more good times in his life. According to Hindu scriptures, fasting helps build a personal attachment with the Almighty God by establishing a harmonious relationship between the body and the soul. They say that fasting deters one from indulging in mundane affairs and worldly desires allowing time for spiritual attainment and paying the way to get closer to God. Vedic scriptures enjoin observing a complete fast on the day of Ekadashi. Everyone from the age of eight to eighty, irrespective of caste, gender, or any material consideration, is supposed to abstain from both food and water on this day.

Fasting in Judaism

Fasting in Judaism has myriad objectives. It is seen as both inner-directed and outer-directed in Biblical and rabbinic scriptures. By their act of fasting, Jews invoke God to act graciously towards Israel. While collective fasts are observed to arouse the compassion of the Lord for the whole Jewish community, personal fasts are performed as atonement for individual sins. Jewish bride and groom fast on their wedding day to begin their married life in a state of purity and sanctity, as the act of fasting atones for the previous sins of the couple.

We find comparatively few regular fast-days in Jewish calendar. Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), is the most important fast-day for the Jews, as it has been motioned in the Mosaic Law:

“On the tenth day of the appointed month in early autumn, you must deny yourselves. Neither native-born Israelites nor foreigners living among you may do any kind of work. This is a permanent law for you. 30On that day offerings of purification will be made for you, and you will be purified in the Lord’s presence from all your sins. 31It will be a Sabbath day of complete rest for you, and you must deny yourselves” (Leviticus 16:29-31).

Yom Kippur is believed to be the most significant and serious day in the Jewish calendar, which is observed for repenting and grieving for the sins committed in the past as well as praying for forgiveness.

In Judaism, one purpose of fasting is to lower the volume on physical pursuits in order to focus more acutely on our spiritual selves.

Fasting in Christianity

Unger’s Bible Dictionary explains that the word fast in the Bible is from the Hebrew word sum, meaning “to cover” the mouth, or from the Greek word nesteuo, meaning “to abstain.” It means to go without eating and drinking (Esther 4:16). The form of fast prescribed by Jesus Christ was quite similar to the Jewish fast. Therefore, it must have been complete abstinence from food and drink, as it is obvious from the following Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus Christ instructed his earliest disciples to observe fast:

“And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and dishevelled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth that is the only reward they will ever get. 17But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. 18Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you” (Matthew 6:16).

Although the true form of fasting in Christianity is complete abstinence from food and drink, many Christians today don’t observe it. They drink water or juice, eat certain foods and skip certain meals during the fast, or just avoid eating meat for a few days. But some Christians abstain from both food and drink.

In Catholicism, fasting is considered an exercise that helps strengthen spiritually. By giving up something that isn’t sinful helps Catholics control their fleshly desires and maintain bonds with the poor. Lent, a forty-day period of fasting is observed by Roman Catholic, Anglican, and certain other churches in emulation of Jesus Christ’s example of his fast in the deserts of Judea. The Good Friday fast commemorates the day Christ suffered. Recently, Evangelical fasts have become increasingly popular, with people fasting for spiritual nourishment, solidarity with impoverished people. In some Christian societies, fasting is also observed to advance a political or social-justice agenda. As for Protestants, they consider fasting, usually accompanied by prayer, to be an important part of their personal spiritual experience.

Fasting in Islam

Fasting is the one of the five pillars of Islam. It is mandatory for every Muslim male and female to observe fasts during the month of Ramadan. The form of Islamic fasting is to completely abandon food, drink and sexual intercourse from daybreak to sunset. The fasting person should be adult (one who has reached puberty), sane, healthy, and not travelling, as the Qur’an points out:

The month of Ramadan [is that] in which the Qur’an was revealed the Qur’an, a guidance for the people and clear proofs of guidance and criterion. So whoever sights [the new moon of] the month, let him fast it; and whoever is ill or on a journey – then an equal number of other days. Allah intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship and [wants] for you to complete the period and to glorify Allah for that [to] which He has guided you; and perhaps you will be grateful. (2:185)

The chief objective of Islamic fasting, as enunciated in the Quranic injunctions and Prophetic traditions, is al-Taqwa; meaning righteousness and God-consciousness. The Quran is very clear in its fundamental objective of enjoining fasts upon Muslims. It says: “O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may become righteous (achieve Taqwa).” (2:183).

So, the essence of fasting in Ramadan is Taqwa, or righteousness, which Muslims are required to observe throughout the whole blessed month of Ramadan and onward.

The Islamic notion of fasting is comparatively broader and more result-oriented. Islam introduced a radical shift in the meaning, form and spirit of the fast. It made the fast more natural and effective. Before Islam, fasting was seen as a symbol of sadness, mourning, atonement for the sins, a reminder of disasters as well as self – mortification, but Islam radicalized such doom and gloom notions of fasting, into an enlightened concept of righteousness and God-consciousness.