Fasting: A tradition of major religionsWritten by Dr Mohamed Azam Mohamed Adil
Ramadhan al-Kareem! As we enter one of the most important months in the Islamic calendar, Muslims all over the world begin their annual religious obligation of abstaining from food, drink, and sexual intercourse from dawn to dusk for a whole month.
Fasting is viewed as a method to control one's desires so as to have a greater focus on devoting oneself to God. The Quran reads: "Fasting is prescribed on you as it was prescribed on those before you, that you may learn piety and righteousness." (2:183).
In Islam, fasting is a gateway to the spiritual world and a means to gain closeness to God. Fasting allows us the opportunity to glorify Allah SWT, and to thank Him for His countless favours. As we go along with our modern lives, it is often the case that we take His many favours for granted.
Fasting is an important ritual because while performing it, Muslims simultaneously attempt to perfect their manners according to the Islamic code as well as keeping their behaviour and ego in check.
Interestingly, fasting is a universal religious practice, and not limited to the Islamic tradition. Almost all major religions prescribe some form of fasting for their adherent.
For instance, in Christianity, both the Old and New Testament teach the value of fasting in the form of abstaining from food and drink in order to increase focus in prayer and seek God's approval. The Bible provides many examples of pious people who fasted, and received wisdom or revelation from God through it.
In Judaism, another Abrahamic faith, one form of fasting spans two full days beginning from the sunset a day before, to sunset the following day. Tisha B'Av, which means 'the ninth of Av', is an annual fasting day that commemorates a number of disasters that happened in Jewish history.
This includes the destruction of both the Solomon's Temple by the Neo-Babylonian Empire, and the second temple by the Roman Empire in Jerusalem.
The day is often regarded as the worst day in the Jewish calendar and is believed to be a day that is destined for tragedy. Tisha B'Av falls in the month of July or August in the Gregorian calendar.
Yom Kippur is another day of fasting mentioned in the Torah (Leviticus 23:26-32). Known as the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur is considered the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. The central themes for this special day are atonement and repentance.
Jewish people traditionally observe this holy day by fasting and praying at the synagogue. At the end of Yom Kippur, Jews are encouraged to be in a spiritual position of hope that they have been forgiven by YHWH.
In Buddhism, there are several forms of fasting. The Buddha is known to have practised extreme forms of fasting which led to his emaciation before experiencing his great awakening. Different forms of fasting are practised in accordance with numerous Buddhist traditions.
Buddhist monastics, for instance, often follow the Pratimoksa codes, which follows specific rules outlined in the various Vinayas (text outlining the monastic discipline), in which one must not eat after the noon meal.
In Hinduism, fasting is not obligatory. However, it is a supererogatory act that aims to purify the body and mind, and acquire divine grace.
There are different forms of fasting, ranging from more or less strict, and varies depending on personal, familial and community beliefs.
In some cases, fasting involves the abstention of only one meal of the day. In this tradition, it is said that fasting does not necessarily mean that the body has to suffer.
Sometimes, it is sufficient to eliminate certain types of food and replace them with more nutritious meals. Meat eaters, for example, may settle for a strictly vegetarian dish.
Vegetarians, on the other hand, often eliminate rice, wheat, barley, and lentils by replacing them with potatoes. Hence, these restrictions or fasting can be a way of varying the daily diet as well as trying out new food. In turn, a day of fasting can even offer the expectation of enjoying newfound treats.
The primary reason for fasting in Islam is to achieve piety. Piety is one of the most emphasised virtues in the Quran and Sunnah. Taqwa (piety) occurs in more than 158 verses in the Quran, and even hundreds more in hadiths.
In fact, piety is the total sum of all Islamic values and virtues. If one has piety, one has achieved a great deal. Piety here means being in a state of consciousness toward God. Being pious means to live by His commands and to avoid His prohibitions.
Hence, fasting teaches us sincerity and helps us learn to live by the principles of our faith for the sake of God and Him alone, especially when such practice can be performed unnoticed by other human beings. This is the very purpose and essence of piety.
Additionally, throughout the fasting period, we learn to say 'no' to things that are otherwise permissible or even good. When one learns to say 'no' to that which is generally permissible, then it follows that one can be stronger to avoid the prohibitions. This is the spirit of piety.
Fasting also teaches empathy and sympathy. Fasting provides us with a small taste — to some extent — of the pain and suffering of the poor and destitute. It removes selfishness from us.
When Muslims fast together during the month of Ramadan, a sense of unity can be felt. This sense of unity ultimately emanates from the spiritual proximity with God that one achieves while fasting, just as it also cultivates a sense of togetherness among them.
Unity, peace, harmony, brotherhood, and sisterhood are among the fruits of piety and fasting.
Dr Mohamed Azam Mohamed Adil is Deputy CEO, International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia;
Published in: New Straits Times on Saturday, 17 April 2021
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