By Rabia Ahmed –
The diversity of ritual
It may come as a rude shock to a few people that the followers of other faiths believed in fasting long before Islam made fasting compulsory for Muslims, and they still do. Ramzan is therefore a good time to widen our horizons; to dispel the image of Muslims being the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow and realize that titles such ‘Ashraf-ul-Makhlooqat’ must be earned and cannot be inherited. It is a great time, in other words, to study and understand both the dissimilarities and the similarities between Muslims and people of other faiths, since fasting Muslims are infused with some grains of introspection.
Let’s begin with the practice of fasting itself.
At the autumn and spring equinoxes (called Ostara by the pagans and Nauroze by the ancient Persians) it was traditional for the pagans, ancient Romans, Mayans and Germanic people to fast as a means of cleansing the body. Later the Christian Lent took place just prior to Easter, and Easter was calculated to coincide with the spring equinox. Some other fasting periods such as the Bahai fasts in March also coincide with the equinox.
Fasting is also used as a supplication, to seek fertility for the land he tills, as protection against natural disaster such as famine and draught. It is also a penance, seeking God’s forgiveness after committing a sin.
Most faiths differentiate between a partial, normal or absolute fast. The differences are in what can be eaten or drunk and the length of the fasting period. In the Bible, Daniel undertook a ‘partial fast’ when he ate no ‘pleasant food’, “No meat or wine came into my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, till three whole weeks were fulfilled.”
Jesus on the other hand undertook a ‘normal fast’ when, according to the Bible, he went into the wilderness and ate no food, surviving only on water.
In the ‘absolute fast’ nothing at all is consumed, not even water. This is the rarer fast and is mentioned only a few times in the Bible, such as when Moses undertook the absolute fast on the two separate occasions he was before God and neither ate nor drank.
Sometimes an absolute fast carries on for several days such as when Paul, during his Damascus Road experience, “Was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.” Even longer fasts have been documented (which are unlikely to occur without supernatural intervention) as when Elijah is said to have travelled across the desert for 40 days without food or water.
The absolute fast however is most similar to the Muslim fast where each fast begins at dawn and ends at dusk, repeated over one month, and is compulsory for all except for the very young, the very old, the sick or the pregnant.
Fasting in Christianity differs according to denomination. For hundreds of years Catholics were forbidden from eating meat on Fridays but in recent times the Friday rule has applied to Lent alone, other Fridays are left to the discretion of individuals. Eastern Orthodox Christians on the other hand are meant to fast almost every Wednesday and Friday, and they observe several fasting periods in addition to Lent.
Fasting is common amongst the Hindus as well, where the method and days depend on the region and the individual’s preferred deity. Wives seek long life and health for their husbands by fasting, sisters for their brothers. Devotees of Shiva eat just one meal a day on Mondays, those of Hanuman or Skanda fast on Tuesdays, of Vishnu on Thursdays. Most Hindus are allowed to eat starchy foods, milk products and fruit while fasting, but must not even touch animal products such as meat or eggs.
The monsoon and the Paryushana festival are a time of fasting for Jains, but a Jain may fast at any time in individual ways, especially if he or she feels some grave error has been committed. The span of the fasting period can be anything between a day, 30 days or more depending on the sect, they fast by limiting the intake of food and boiled water to just once a day, or by only having boiled water between sunrise and sunset.
The concept behind all Jain fasts is Ahimsa, or non-violence, a term familiar in yoga, and of great importance in other religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, it was also the principle behind Mohandas Gandhi’s hunger strikes against British rule in India. The crucial difference between Gandhi’s fasts and other fasts is of course that as a means of political activism, Gandhi’s hunger strike forced man to submit to man, while a person undertaking a religious fast submits to the will of God.
Sidharta, before he became the Buddha, indulged not in fasting but in strict austerity to help himself meditate and achieve nirvana, and this is what he had to say about it, “I took only a handful at a time of bean soup, lentil soup, vetch soup, or pea soup. My body became extremely emaciated, my limbs became like the jointed segments of vine or bamboo stems.”
Therefore Buddhist priests do not fast per se. Instead they practice a lifelong middle path ‘between asceticism and hedonism’ and maintain a disciplined regimen all year around rather than fasting on particular occasions, although on certain days they do not eat after the meal at noon.
The Sikh religion too does not promote fasting except on medical grounds, saying that it brings no spiritual benefit to a person. “Serve God, who alone is your saviour, instead of indulging in ritual,” says the Sikh holy scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib.
There are two major and four minor fasting days in the Jewish year. Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement, the most important day of the Jewish year, is a major day of fasting, prayer, introspection and self-judgment, and is according to Jonathan Sacks (a Jewish Rabbi and scholar), ”That rarest of phenomena, a Jewish festival without food.”
Both major fasts last just over twenty four hours from one sunset until the next, when three stars can be seen in the sky. These fasts are absolute. The faster may not eat food, drink, brush their teeth, comb their hair or take a bath. On this day all Jews except the very young, the very old and the frail must fast.
For the Muslims fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam, and constitutes more than refraining from food, it means self control in every way. Tariq Ramadan (an academic, writer, and a Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University) describes the Muslim fast as a philosophy that, ”Calls upon us to know, master, and discipline ourselves the better to free ourselves.” He says that, “To fast, is to identify our dependencies, and free ourselves from them.”
Fasting is a powerful spiritual tool for connecting with our Maker and His creation which includes all humanity. Whether Muslims realize these benefits to fasting, particularly the opportunity of developing empathy for their fellow beings, is debatable, so ritualistic and devoid of its true spirit the practice has become.
This Ramzan let us pray for wisdom and the ability to recognise God in the beautiful diversity of His creation which has been described thus in the Quran, “Among His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the variations in your languages and colours. Certainly, in that are signs for the worlds.“ (Surah al-Rum, verse 22)
The writer is a journalist based in Lahore. She tweets @RabiaAhmed4