Although to some the concept of fasting may be mistaken as a mere abstinence from food or certain non-religious acts, the practice itself is one deeply rooted in spirituality. Regardless of which denomination of Islam one may choose to align themselves to, the holy month of Ramadan, and the act of fasting as a whole is seen as a period where Muslims are at the perfect vantage to draw closer to Allah. Many see the act as a means of testing their spirituality, repenting for past sins, inculcating a practice of restrain, or in a broader sense devoting their time in the path of Allah.
While fasting plays a fundamental role in Islamic tradition (serving as one of the five-pillars of the religion), the practice has been around well before the birth of Islam. Fasting is very much an ever present across all major religious persuasions, bar a select few that oppose any form of self-infliction (Sikhism being the most notable). These religions undertake the practice to varying lengths and intensities, from single day fasts allowing the consumption of water, to more pro-longed ones that allow food consumption but limit only specific foods.
Christianity (Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, and the Mormons)
In terms of numbers of adherents, Christianity is by far the world’s largest religion with an estimated 2.2 billion people (31%, although debatable how much of those are practicing Christians). The religion is split into countless denominations, the biggest of which is Roman Catholicism.
Although not a compulsion for Catholics, fasting is widely practiced amongst those more devout in their faith. The fast is based on references within the Old and New Testaments, highlighting a 40-day and 40-night fast undertaken by Jesus Christ (Nabi Isa) in the Judean Desert following his baptism. As such many Christian groups partake in a 40-day ‘partial’ fast known as Lent.
During this period, Catholics seek to limit their eating to a solitary full meal in the morning and two smaller meals in the evening. Food is not entirely shunned as with other religions, and water is allowed during the day. As part of the traditions of Lent, every Friday during the 40 days they will seek to abstain from eating meat in any form, a practice also observed on the first day of the holy period, known as Ash Wednesday. This is all seen as a period mourning in preparation for the commemoration of Christ/Isa’s crucifixion.
Followers of the Eastern Orthodox Church, amongst the oldest religious institutions in the world and the third largest sect of Christianity, undertake a more extensive degree of fasting. In addition to Lent they also have three other major fasts in the form of the Apostles Fast, the Dormition Fast (commemorating the death of the Virgin Mary), and the Nativity Fast (the Birth of Jesus), the latter of which lasting 40 days leading up to Christmas Eve.
Mormonism, a modern day form of Christianity with stricter ideologies, differs greatly from other branches of the religion. Unlike Eastern Orthodoxy, Protestantism and Catholicism, followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints seek total abstinence from food and drink. Members are encouraged to practice the act on the first Sunday of every month for two consecutive meals, known as Fast Sunday. Monies saved as a result are then donated to the church, which is further used to assist and feed the needy.
For Mormons, the act is seen as a period where they can grow closer to God, at the same time mastering the art of self-control.
The act of fasting is not as extensive amongst practitioners of Buddhism; rather it is largely observed by monks and nuns again as a method of self-control. They are compelled to avoid solid foods after noon each day, although Buddhists are keen to dismiss this practice as being akin to a fast.
For the layman, fasting is usually practiced once a month on Uposatha, or full-moon days. The fasting is part of a broader observance of the eight Precepts (rules), which includes the refraining of solid foods from noon until the next morning on such significant days.
According to Buddhist beliefs, amongst the most vital condition of a life of self-control is fasting. But the practice is kept short in accordance with a concept known as the ‘Middle Way’. This simply translates to avoiding any extremities on both ends of the spectrum, be it the temptations of gluttony, or prolonged periods of food-deprivation.
Not only is Hinduism renowned as the ‘oldest’ religion in the world, but it is also famed as one rich in cultural diversity, where devotees pray to any one of a number of deities. This is very much reflected on the way Hindus fast. Although a vital part of the religion, there a no real solid rules or guidelines as to how and when they should fast, making it somewhat flexible.
Each practicing individual chooses to devote themselves to a god to which they resonate most with. During religious festivals, particularly those in honour of the god with which they favour most, it is not uncommon for Hindu’s to undertake a fast. The individual is thus urged to not eat any animal products (eggs included), although dairy items are allowed.
An interesting practice is also taken up in certain parts of India by married women. On the day of Karva Chauth, which falls on the fourth day after a full moon during the Hindu month of Kartik, some women will choose to observe a fast between sunrise and moonrise. This is in honour of their husbands, with the hope that their efforts will lead to a long and prosperous life for their spouses. On the day women will absolve themselves from doing housework, will don traditional attire, and apply henna and cosmetics ahead of an accompanying festival that evening. The Karva Chauth fast is broken by the female gazing at the moon through a sieve, before looking at her husband. She is then allowed to break her fast.
Judaism is by far one of the strictest in its implementation of fasting, although for far shorter periods than other faiths. Jews fast as means of atonement for sins, as well as a means of commemorating historically significant events within the religions history. And the practice is expected of every Jewish person of bar and bat mitzvah, or those who are ‘of age’.
Followers of the faith are to abstain from eating or drinking for up to six days a year, compromising two major and 4 minor fasts. Easily the most important is the fast of Yom Kippur, considered the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. The second major fast occurs on the day of Tisha B’Av, in acknowledgement of the Jewish diaspora from the ancestral homeland of Israel, as well as the destruction of Jerusalem’s First (Solomon) and Second Temples by the Babylonians and Romans respectively. The two major fasts begin just prior to sunset, and runs through to sundown the following evening. During this time, a faster may not eat or drink, brush their teeth, take a bath, or even comb their hair.
In addition, Jews also fast on four other ‘minor’ days commemorating significant moments in Jewish history. They include the fast of the Tenth of Tevet, the Fast of Gedaliah, the fast of Esther, and the Fast of Tammuz. On these days, no food or drink is consumed between dawn and sunset.
Although relatively small compared to some of the other major religions (5 million followers), Jainism is one of the more intriguing religions when it comes to the concept of fasting. Within the largely Indian religion, devotees strive towards a life of nonviolence towards all living things, with the ultimate purpose of achieving liberation from a cycle of rebirth. In terms of fasting, the act of shunning food is not nearly enough. Instead they strive to reach a point where food is no longer craved at all. The belief is that any desire for food makes the fast pointless.
Jainism has numerous forms of fasting, each based on different time frames and limiting and permitting different things. Amongst them is the Chauvihar Upwas, in which no food or water may be consumed until sunrise the next day. With the Tivihar Upwas however, boiled water is allowed provided it is consumed before 12pm. The objective of these fasts are aimed at decreasing ones desire for ‘the physical world’, whilst simultaneously attaining spirituality through accompanying meditation.
Jainism is also includes a rather sombre practise known as Santhara, which means fasting until death. The act is deemed as different from suicide, due to the prolong period one has to endure before their demise. Hence it is not seen as a decision done in a fit of depression or other strong emotion, but rather one that is well thought out and considered. During this period the individual will spend their time reflecting on the life they have lived. Jains view those who conduct Santhara in the highest light, and their sacrifice is honoured after death.
It is evident that Muslims are not alone in viewing the fast as a deeply spiritual and integral aspect of the religion. Whilst this has provided just a brief understanding of the major religions that observe the practice, the number of faiths that undertake the fast could range well into the thousands. Their reasons, and the manner and length with which they do may differ, but fasting nonetheless plays a pivotal role within religion, regardless of the denomination. VOC (Mubeen Banderker)