An observance with universal appealFasting practiced by many faiths [Archives:2004/784/Culture]

October 25 2004

By Ramzi al-Absi
Yemen Times Staff

Fasting is associated with human history; it is as old as the human race. The fast was performed by the ancient Greeks when consulting oracles, by the American Indians to acquire their private totem, and by African shamans to make contact with spirits. Many Eastern religions use it to gain clarity of vision and mystical insight.
It is not however related to specific culture, nor is it a distinction between religions. All the main religions in the world promote and sanction fasting in some form or another.
It has been similar in Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and some other religions but changes were brought about as time passed by and by the appearance of new sects in different religions or by intervention of some kinds of power.
The basic motive of fasting is related to the spiritual aspect of humanity for it is connected to the God-human relation. Therefore the main purposes can be condensed in two principal points: self-control over the body and its desires and repentance for sins.

Fasting in different religions
Though fasting is nearly found in all religions, it is different from religion to another in terms of time, way of fasting and reasons as well, for each religion has set aside certain times in the year and some rules for regular fasting observances.
Depending on the Buddhist tradition, fasting usually means abstaining from solid food, with some liquids permitted. They practice some periods of fasting, usually on full-moon days and other holidays. Fasting for them is a means of freeing the mind. Some Tibetan Buddhist monks fast to aid yogic feats, like generating inner heat.
When Christianity became the main faith of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, the church's institutionalization led to stressing fasting. Therefore, the early church's two-day fast before Easter came in the 4th century to be a Lenten observance of a forty-day fast. By the 10th century Lenten was obligatory upon the Western church. The church of Rome added some fast days to their calendar during Middle Ages. The period from December 13 to Christmas was adopted later.
'Catholics fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday (the beginning and end of Lent), two small meals and one regular meal are allowed; meat is forbidden.' That's what has been decided by the Roman Catholic church in the 20th century. Besides, it required fast on Fridays in Lent (the period before Easter), no meat is allowed. Fasting was modified by several acts related to Vatican Council II.
They believe that fasting teaches control of fleshly desires, penance for sins, and solidarity with the poor. The Lenten fast prepares the soul for a great feast by practicing austerity. The Good Friday fast commemorates the day Christ suffered.
There are several fast periods in Eastern Orthodox of which meat, dairy products, and eggs are generally prohibited. Fish is prohibited on some fast days and allowed on others. Including Lent, the fast periods are called Apostles' Fast, and the Nativity Fast, and several one-day fasts. Every Wednesday and Friday is considered a fast day, except those that fall during designated “fast-free weeks”. Fast in their belief strengthens resistances to gluttony and helps open a person to God's grace.
Fasting in Hindu depends on the individual. It may involve 24 hours of complete abstinence from any food and drink, but is more often an elimination of solid foods, with an occasional drink of milk or water. It is commonly practiced on New moon days and during festivals such as Shivaratri, Saraswati Puja, and Durga Puja. Women in North India also fast on the day of Karva Chauth. Fasting is practiced to enhance concentration during meditation or worship; purification for the system; sometimes considered a sacrifice.
Jews are supposed to fast on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and Tisha B'Av, the day on which the destruction of the Jewish temple took place, eating and drinking are forbidden for a 25-hour period, from fast days as well on which eating and drinking are forbidden only from sunrise to sundown. They fast to signify mourning, to show repentance and remorse or to demonstrate serious concern before God.
Some references show that Jewish Christians followed the Jewish custom of fasting and prayer on Mondays and Thursdays until around the end of the first century when Wednesdays and Fridays were observed, probably in reaction against the Judaizers. However, such fasts were usually concluded by midafternoon and were not universally enforced. Also, from the second century on, two intensive fast days were observed in preparation for Easter.
In Mormonism, fasting means abstaining from food and drink for two consecutive meals and donating food or money to the needy. After the fast, church members participate in a “fast and testimony meeting.” For them, the families or wards may hold other fasts at will they aim at the closeness to God; concentration on God and religion. Individual or family fasts might be held to petition for a specific cause, such as healing for one who is sick or help with making a difficult decision.
Though some Protestant people abstain from food or drink entirely, others drink only water or juice, eat only certain foods skip certain meals or abstain from temptations, edible or not. Fasting is at the discretion of individuals, churches, organizations or spiritual nourishment, solidarity with impoverished people, a counterbalance to modern consumer culture, or to petition God for special needs.

Fasting in Islam
Fasting in Islam is as important as prayer. The obligatory fasting is the entire month of Ramadan. God ordered all Muslims more than 14 centuries years ago in the Holy Qura'an to fast this month. All Muslims, either in the past or in the future, are expected to fast this month in a very objective manner that follow specific rules and doesn't expect change or any human intervention. This divine order is consistent in terms of time and conditions.
Fasting in Islam means abstention from food and drink that's required of all able Muslims from dawn until sunset each day of the month of Ramadan, which is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar. It is a very important month because the Holy Qura'an was revealed by God to the latest Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) during it. Muslims were ordered to fast this month achieving one of their spiritual satisfaction and worship. The Islamic fasting doesn't only include not to eat, drink or smoke during the daylight hours but, for the married adults, it includes avoiding marital relations during the hours of fasting.
Sick Muslims, who can't fast, feed a pauper for every day of Ramadan or compensate by fasting other days of another month. Children are permitted to fast only when they are strong enough physically to tolerate fasting without difficulty.
Besides being a phase of worship, i.e. the fasting Muslims will be rewarded by Allah: their sins will be forgiven, they will enter heaven through al-Raian Door, a door of the heaven's doors, it has some other social and individual reflections. It allows one to have a sense of self-control and will-power. Muslims learn to control their natural urges and desires. It helps also the Muslim to feel sympathy for those who are less fortunate and underprivileged.
That's not everything about fasting in Islam, there are some other optional days to fast: six days in Shawal, the tenth month, excluding the first day (Eid); Day of Arafah, (Eid al-Ad'ha, while pilgrims being on Arafah mountain); Mondays and Thursdays, 13, 14 and 15 of each Sha'aban and whatever days a Muslim wants to fast provided that the intention is to fast for God sake.
The Prophet Mohammed stressed the rewards of fasting such days in many of his prophetic sayings.