Fasting in Islam and other religions

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Sheikh Mubarak Ahmad

1910-2001

For every spiritual exercise in Islam, the ultimate aim is the attainment of God’s pleasure through the regulation of one’s life in accordance with His ordinances.

Of the five articles of faith of Islam, the fourth is fasting during the month of Ramadan. The Holy Quran states:

“O ye who believe! fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may become righteous. [The prescribed fasting is] for a fixed number of days, but whoso among you is sick or is on a journey [shall fast] the same number of other days; and for those who are able to fast [only] with great difficulty is an expiation – the feeding of a poor man. And whoso performs a good work with willing obedience, it is better for him. And fasting is good for you, if only you knew.

“The month of Ramadan is that in which the Quran was sent down as a guidance for mankind with clear proofs of guidance and discrimination. Therefore, whosoever of you is present [at home] in this month, let him fast therein. But whoso is sick or is on a journey, [shall fast] the same number of other days. Allah desires [to give] you facility and He desires not hardship for you, and that you may complete the number, and that you may exalt Allah for His having guided you and that you may be grateful.” (Surah al-Baqarah, Ch.2: V.184-186)

“It is made lawful for you to go in unto your wives on the night of the fast. They are a garment for you, and you are a garment for them. Allah knows that you have been acting unjustly to yourselves, wherefore He has turned to you with mercy and afforded you relief. So you may now go in unto them and seek what Allah has ordained for you; and eat and drink until the white thread of day is distinguishable from the dark thread of night. Then complete the fast till nightfall and do not go in unto them while you remain in the mosques for devotion. These are the limits [fixed] by Allah, so approach them not. Thus does Allah make His commandments clear to men that they may become secure against evil.” (Surah al-Baqarah, Ch.2: V.188)

Now, if Islam had claimed to be a religion and had not incorporated fasting as a discipline, can you imagine the mockery which would have been hurled by the Jews, the Christians, the Hindus, etc? But then can it be said that Islam copied this teaching from other religions? Yes, provided it is also said that Islam believes in the Unity of God, in His chosen prophets, His Sacred Books, in acting righteously, etc.

Thus, in the above verse, God Almighty warns Muslims that they must not think that they are the only ones who have been commanded to fast for a fixed number of days. Such a commandment existed for other religions as well. But look at them – what have they done to this commandment! A great majority of their believers today do not fast at all, or if they fast, they fast partially for one day a year. It is only in Islam that it became a principal article of faith and, although there are some noticeable exceptions, a vast majority of Muslims still adhere to this commandment, fasting for a period longer than in any other faith.

Hinduism

Owing to the very many sects in Hinduism, it is difficult to find a code of standard practice, although various days have been appointed for fasting. The fast commences in the evening and ends the next day with the sighting of the moon. During this time, water may be drunk but nothing cooked may be had as food. This does not prevent the consumption of fruit, etc. Thus, such a fast is a partial abstention from food and water.

Among certain Jain communities, females commence the fast in the early morning with a spoonful of previously boiled water and eat or drink nothing for several days. A kind god does not demand such extreme expiation from the believers.

Judaism

Although Mosesas is said to have fasted for a period of 40 days (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 9:9), Elijah went in the strength of one meal for 40 days (I Kings 19:8), Esther announced her special fast for three days and nights (Esther 4:16), David’s valiant men mourned the loss of Saul and his sons by fasting for seven days (I Chronicles 10:12), Daniel realising the significance of a vision continued a partial fast for three weeks (Daniel 10:2-3), yet the present practice amongst most Jews is to fast for 24 hours on the Day of Atonement. This again is a partial fast and nothing cooked may be had.

Christianity

Jesusas is said to have stayed in the wilderness, without food, for 40 days (Matthew 4:2; Mark 1-13 and Luke 4:2). He also referred to three aspects of Christian behaviour in his sermon on the mount (Matthew 6:1-18): almsgiving, prayers and fasting. The reference “be not like the Jews…” refers to the fact that the Jews at that time wore sackcloth, disfiguring their faces so that they may appear as if fasting. It is quite clear that Jesusas did not forbid fasting, rather he assumed that his disciples would continue to fast “as those before them” though in the correct way and not as hyprocrites.

We are told in Matthew 9:14, Mark 2:18·20, Luke 5:33 and 18:12 that the Jews fasted either often or up to two days a week. The disciples of Jesusas and the early Christians also fasted. Yet, like the Jews, ritualism crept in even among them and during the second century AD, people fasted so that they may not be caught as exceptions. It was during the dark middle centuries that the eating of no meat on Wednesdays and Fridays, gave way to the Roman Catholic practice of eating fish on Fridays. Even Martin Luther goes on record complaining about the misuse of this form of fasting. Ritualism appears to have crystalised in the sixth century when fasting was made obligatory by the Didache (a manual of church order believed by some to have been compiled by the Apostles) and the Second Council of Orleans and it took the church nearly 1,000 years to disband the remaining remnants of this discipline. The Book of Common Prayer lists 16 observable days for vigils, fasts and remembrance: the Didache ordered fasts on Wednesdays and Fridays; Roman Catholics require that on Friday, no meal must be eaten; the Carmelite, Carthusian and Cistercian order regular fasting but among others it is virtually non-existent.

Again, the practice among some clergy to fast for a day, (first Sunday in Lent) missing up to three meals and yet to drink water is only a partial fast. The refraining from eating meat hardly accrues any benefits to one who is a vegetarian and such a one would have been deprived of the benefits of fasting owing to one’s inability to fast.

We observe that among domesticated animals, they totally abstain from food in order to restore their metabolism. This instinctive behaviour is caused by nature. It is also the practice to feed wild animals kept in captivity for six days a week. In fact, wild animals will often go without food for several days. It is strange therefore that nature should have required a period of sustained rest for the digestive system of other living things and that man should have forgotten such an important discipline.

In describing these various kinds of fasts of abstention of certain kinds of foods on the day of fasting as opposed to a total abstention of food and drink, we do not wish to ridicule such customs. Indeed, it is possible that God Almighty may have required a race of hunters whose diet was entirely composed of meat to abstain from meat for say one day a week and partake a vegetarian diet to restore vitamins, etc., for the health and its effect on the morals of such people. In such a case, the commandment would have indeed been a blessing for those people at that time. Although there were various days of fasting for the people before Islam, their observance was not of the kind prescribed by Islam.

According to Ibn-Hisham, the Quraish tribe of Mecca used to retire to Mount Hira for religious devotion and penance during the month of Ramadan, abstaining from sex etc., although this month was not regarded as a sacred month among the four pre-Islamic sacred months of Qa‘dah, Hijjah, Muharram and Rajab.

The word Ramadan is an Islamic name as prior to Islam it was known as Nataq (Fath-ul-Bayan). The word is derived from ramada. They say “ramada al-salimu”,that is the inside of the man fasting became very hot with thirst (Lane). The month is so named because firstly, fasting in this month produces heat and burning due to thirst; secondly, worship in this month burns away the traces of sin in man (Asakir and Mardawaih) and thirdly, the necessary warmth of love for the Creator and His Created beings is generated in the hearts of those who fast.

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