Fasting is not unique to the Muslims.
It has been practiced for centuries in connection with religious
ceremonies by Christians, Jews, Confucianists, Hindus, Taoists, and
Jains. God mentions this fact in the Quran:
“O you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you as it was
prescribed for those before you, that you may develop
God-consciousness.” (Quran 2:183)
Some Native American societies fasted to avert catastrophe or to
serve as penance for sin. Native North Americans held tribal fasts
to avert threatening disasters. The Native Americans of Mexico and
the Incas of Peru observed penitential fasts to appease their gods.
Past nations of the Old World, such as the Assyrians and the
Babylonians, observed fasting as a form of penance. Jews observe
fasting as a form of penitence and purification annually on the Day
of Atonement or Yom Kippur. On this day neither food nor drink is
Early Christians associated fasting with penitence and purification.
During the first two centuries of its existence, the Christian
church established fasting as a voluntary preparation for receiving
the sacraments of Holy Communion and baptism and for the ordination
of priests. Later, these fasts were made obligatory, as others days
were subsequently added. In the 6th century, the Lenten fast was
expanded to 40 days, on each of which only one meal was permitted.
After the Reformation, fasting was retained by most Protestant
churches and was made optional in some cases. Stricter Protestants,
however, condemned not only the festivals of the church, but its
traditional fasts as well.
In the Roman Catholic Church, fasting may involve partial abstinence
from food and drink or total abstinence. The Roman Catholic days of
fasting are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. In the United States,
fasting is observed mostly by Episcopalians and Lutherans among
Protestants, by Orthodox and Conservative Jews, and by Roman
Fasting took another form in the West: the hunger strike, a form of
fasting, which in modern times has become a political weapon after
being popularized by Mohandas Gandhi, leader of the struggle for
India’s freedom, who undertook fasts to compel his followers to obey
his precept of nonviolence.
Islam is the only religion that has retained the outward and
spiritual dimensions of fasting throughout centuries. Selfish
motives and desires of the base self alienate a man from his
Creator. The most unruly human emotions are pride, avarice,
gluttony, lust, envy, and anger. These emotions by their nature are
not easy to control, thus a person must strive hard to discipline
them. Muslims fast to purify their soul, it puts a bridle on the
most uncontrolled, savage human emotions. People have gone to two
extremes with regard to them. Some let these emotions steer their
life which lead to barbarism among the ancients, and crass
materialism of consumer cultures in modern times. Others tried to
deprive themselves completely of these human traits, which in turn
led to monasticism.
The fourth Pillar of Islam, the Fast of Ramadan, occurs once each
year during the 9th lunar month, the month of Ramadan, the ninth
month of the Islamic calendar in which:
“…the Quran was sent down as a guidance for the people.” (Quran
God in His infinite mercy has exempt the ill, travelers, and others
who are unable from fasting Ramadan.
Fasting helps Muslims develop self-control, gain a better
understanding of God’s gifts and greater compassion towards the
deprived. Fasting in Islam involves abstaining from all bodily
pleasures between dawn and sunset. Not only is food forbidden, but
also any sexual activity. All things which are regarded as
prohibited is even more so in this month, due to its sacredness..
Each and every moment during the fast, a person suppresses their
passions and desires in loving obedience to God. This consciousness
of duty and the spirit of patience helps in strengthening our faith.
Fasting helps a person gain self-control. A person who abstains from
permissible things like food and drink is likely to feel conscious
of his sins. A heightened sense of spirituality helps break the
habits of lying, staring with lust at the opposite sex, gossiping,
and wasting time. Staying hungry and thirsty for just a day’s
portion makes one feel the misery of the 800 million who go hungry
or the one in ten households in the US, for example, that are living
with hunger or are at risk of hunger. After all, why would anyone
care about starvation if one has never felt its pangs oneself? One
can see why Ramadan is also a month of charity and giving.
At dusk, the fast is broken with a light meal popularly referred to
as iftaar. Families and friends share a special late evening meal
together, often including special foods and sweets served only at
this time of the year. Many go to the mosque for the evening prayer,
followed by special pra yers recited only during Ramadan. Some will
recite the entire Quran as a special act of piety, and public
recitations of the Quran can be heard throughout the evening.
Families rise before dawn to take their first meal of the day, which
sustains them until sunset. Near the end of Ramadan Muslims
commemorate the “Night of Power” when the Quran was revealed. The
month of Ramadan ends with one of the two major Islamic
celebrations, the Feast of the Breaking of the Fast, called Eid al-Fitr.
On this day, Muslims joyfully celebrate the completion of Ramadan
and customarily distribute gifts to children. Muslims are also
obliged to help the poor join in the spirit of relaxation and
enjoyment by distributing zakat-ul-fitr, a special and obligatory
act of charity in the form of staple foodstuff, in order that all
may enjoy the general euphoria of the day.