Monday, September 8, 2008

Ramadhan: A Universal Perspective for All


“O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may (learn) self restraint.” (Al-Qur`an, 2:184)

Fasting is an ancient practice that occurs in almost all the known religions though in different forms and with different meanings, meanings, rules and purposes.

Buddhists practice some periods of fasting, usually on full-moon days and other holidays. Depending on the Buddhist tradition, fasting usually means abstaining from solid food, with some liquids permitted. Theravadin and Tendai Buddhist monks fast as a means of freeing the mind. Some Tibetan Buddhist monks fast to aid yogic feats, like generating inner heat.

Jesus fasted 40 days before starting his mission. It is possible that he fasted on the Day of Atonement, which was an established tradition in Judaism. By the 4th century, there was no sign of 40 days of fasting in Christianity. There are traditions of fasting which differ greatly according to the country in which Christians live. The fast in Rome is different from the fast in Alexandria. Some abstain from meat, while others from fish and birds. Some will not eat fruits and eggs; some just fast on white bread. Some will abstain from all the above. Certain days had been made for fasting in later centuries to commemorate some events, such as the life of Jesus. There was a fast for three days in English law. During the time of Edward VI, James I, and the Elizabethan period, meat was prohibited during the fast, and James justified that saying:

“The fishing industry and maritime commerce must become encouraged and it must be profitable.”

Catholics fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and abstain from meat on all Fridays in Lent. For many centuries, Catholics were forbidden to eat meat on all Fridays. Since the mid-1960s, abstaining from meat on Fridays outside of Lent has been a matter of local discretion. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, two small meals and one regular meal are allowed; meat is forbidden. On Fridays in Lent, no meat is allowed. For the optional Friday fast, some people substitute a different penance or special prayer instead of fasting. The Lenten fast prepares the soul for a great feast by practicing austerity. The Good Friday fast commemorates the day Christ suffered.

For the Eastern Orthodox, there are several fast periods, including Lent, Apostles' Fast, Dormition 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.” In general, meat, dairy products, and eggs are prohibited. Fish is prohibited on some fast days and allowed on others.

Hindus commonly fast on New Moon days and during festivals such as Shivaratri, Saraswati Puja, and Durga Puja (also known as Navaratri). Women in North India also fast on the day of Karva Chauth. Fasting may involve 24 hours of complete abstinence from any food or drink, but is more often an elimination of solid foods, with an occasional drink of milk or water. It is believed to enhance concentration during meditation or worship, purify the system, and is sometimes considered a sacrifice.

Jews’ Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is their best-known fast day. The Jewish calendar has six other fast days as well, including Tisha B'Av, the day on which the destruction of the Jewish Temple took place. On Yom Kippur and Tisha B'Av, eating and drinking are forbidden for a 25-hour period, from sundown to sundown. On the other fast days, eating and drinking are forbidden only from sunrise to sundown. Atonement for sins and/or special requests to God.

For Mormons, the first Sunday of each month is a fast day. Individuals, families, or wards may hold other fasts at will. After the fast, church members participate in a "fast and testimony meeting." The fast is believed to result in closeness to God. 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.

The Evangelical Protestant fast is done at the discretion of individuals, churches, organizations, or communities. Though some 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 haas become increasingly popular in recent years, with people fasting for spiritual nourishment, solidarity with impoverished people, a counterbalance to modern consumer culture, or to petition God for special needs.

Fasting is not a major part of the tradition for Mainline Protestants, but fasts can be held at the discretion of communities, churches, other groups, and individuals.


Unlike in some other religions, fasting in Islam is not a symbol of sadness, mourning, atonement for the sins, a reminder of disasters, or an exercise in self - mortification. Muslims perceive Islam as a triumph over the forces of evil. The month of fasting in Islam is a month of worship Muslims welcome each year with energy and happiness, and are saddened only when the month departs. Fasting has nothing to do with mourning. Fasting is for the living.

Islam does not teach fasting as an exercise in self-denial and punishment of the body and soul, as was commonly taught in medieval Europe. The laws that govern fasting are not extremely unbearable, the restrictions are not enforced 24 hours every day. Consider, for example, the sahuur (the meal before the commencement of the fast). The faster is allowed to delay and eat sahuur until he or she is certain that there are just a few minutes before morning prayer. Similarly, when it is time to break fast, the rule is to break as soon as the sun sets, with no delay. Besides, sleeping and resting during the day are all allowed. Working is not stopped and businesses are not closed down for the fast. In Judaism, working during the period of fast is prohibited. God said: “...God intends every facility for you. He does not want to put you to difficulties....” (Al-Qur`an, 2:185)

Fasting is not for any special classes of people as in some other religions. For the Brahmin class in the Hindu religion, fasting is mandatory only for the high priests. In the some Latin religions, it is only women who must fast and there are no exceptions.

4. In Judaism, the faster eats only after the break and there is no more food. The Arabs, before Islam, would not eat after sleeping. Islam, on the other hand, threw away all these human imposed restrictions. God said: “...And eat and drink, until the white thread of dawn appears to you distinct from it's black thread...” (Al-Qur`an, 2:187)

The person who makes a mistake in fasting is not punished, and the one who forgets and eats is forgiven.

Fasting in some other religions is based on a solar calendar, like the Gregorian calendar. This demands vast knowledge of calculation and astronomy in the making of a calendar. Besides, the months are fixed in a specific season, they do not rotate or change. Fasting in Islam is based on the lunar calendar and is tied to the sightings of hilal, the crescent, or new moon. God (SWT) states: “They ask you concerning the new moons. Say: They are but signs to mark fixed periods of time....” (Al-Qur`an, 2:189) And the hadith: “Eat until you see the crescent and break not until you see the crescent. If it is cloudy calculate the period of the month.” (Muslim and others)

This enables Muslims in every corner of the earth, east and west, north and south, and all in between, in remote villages, on mountains, in conditions of illiteracy or literacy, in jungles or deserts to start and end the fast all at the same time, without difficulty.

Why the moon instead of the sun as the basis for starting and ending fast? There are several reasons:

The lunar year is about ten or eleven days less compared to the Gregorian. Thus, if Ramadan 1990 began on March 27th, Ramadan in 1991 would begin around March 16th. Consequently, in the course of 36 years, every Muslim would have fasted every day of the year, the short days of the year, the long days of the year, the hot days and the cold days of the year. Muslims in different regions of the world would have had total equality in the number of days they fasted, and would have had an equal amount of seasonal and climatic changes. They would have an equal amount of cold or mild weather Ramadans.

If the fast were based on the Gregorian calendar, the Muslims in hot summer climates would have Ramadan during hot weather every year, forever. Some Muslims would have fasted long days while others short days, because Gregorian calendar months are fixed and immobile.

There is another interesting reason; fruits, vegetables for using the lunar calendar and some food items come in certain seasons. Fasting based on the lunar system means we may miss certain fruits in certain seasons, but by the end of the circle a Muslim would have tasted and tried different fruits during Ramadan, whereas fasting based on the Gregorian calendar would have prohibited some fruits during Ramadan, forever. This is why Muslims did not change the month of Ramadan, nor did they distort it by increasing or decreasing days, nor did they change it to different months.

This is why when God prescribed fasting, He says: “O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may (learn) self restraint.” (Al-Qur`an, 2:184)


Fasting is an annual institution containing all conceivable attributes for human excellence. It is a training for the body and soul, a renewal of life, encouraging the spirit of selflessness.


God states: "O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you that you may (learn) self restraint." (Al-Qur`an, 2:183)

This verse indicates the first lesson or wisdom to be gained in fasting, is consciousness and fear of God. Fasting instills in the heart of the one who observes the fast the essence of consciousness of the Creator, moral courage both in secret and manifest, and guides the heart, the seat of emotions, from spoilage and moral indecency.

Behavior Modification

One of the most important things fasting affords the observer is helping him control or change his or her habits, the reason being human life is an embodiment of acquired habits. To change or control a habit is to wage a war on yourself. The fast is the training ground for the inevitable that will occur, the ‘accidents’ of life that never happen according to your plans or schedules. The believer who is observing his fast wages a war against the bad habits of his own soul.

How does the Ramadan fast help control one`s habits? Two of the most important habits are food and drink. An average person eats three meals a day, 21 meals a week. The way the fast is structured, with its basic and drastic alteration of eating habits, a faster takes light meals early in the morning and late in the evening.

If the believer can control these two habits, food and drink, it will undoubtedly be easy for him to control other habits, including the habits of smoking, drug abuse and illicit sex. Do you not see that, if you can control your tongue, hands and all other parts of your body, it will be easy for you to apply the same training for the rest of the year.

The believer who observes the fast learns to transcend idle talk and indecent acts.

Heath Care

It is a sentinel against disease, provided the faster follows the strict dietary rule: eat during fast breaking and avoiding over-eating.

God (SWT) states: "...Eat and drink, but waste not by excess, for God loves not wasters." (Al-Qur`an, 7:31)

A great deal of ailments originate from stomach indigestion. This is why the Messenger of God (saas) says: “The son of Adam will never fill a container with something worse and evil than his stomach. It will suffice him some morsels (food) that will keep him on his feet, otherwise, he should divide his stomach into three parts: one third for his food, the other for his drink and the other third for his breath.”

The stomach is the repository of harmful bacteria. Even in the age of sophisticated machines, you can hardly find a machine so fragile but yet so remarkably durable and efficient like the stomach. This is the machine that receives food particles, processes and refines them, and distributes the products to different parts of the body. This is a lifelong operation.

For the non-faster, the stomach will have no chance for rest. When the stomach is empty, as a result of fasting, it gets well-desired rest, to renew and rejuvenate its energy. With the fasting, the stomach is forced to go through a discharge whereby harmful residue are eliminated through perspiration as the body searches for food during fast.

During fast, the system of secretion is organized, and this in turn benefits the blood pressure, inhibiting hardening of the arteries. The heart and kidney functions are enhanced as the work load tapers off. The fast helps to correct the problem of obesity and diabetes. Doctors over the years have used fasting as a prescription for certain ailments.

An American physician published a report on fasting and its benefits saying: “It is mandatory on every person who is sick to restrain from food certain days in a year whether he be wealthy or poor because if bacteria can find food in abundance in the body, it will grow and multiply. But with fasting it becomes weak.''


Fasting helps in conditioning the heart, the soul, and the body on the virtues of patience, tenacity, and firmness in the face of adversity. Patience is the pinnacle of self-mastery, discipline and spiritual agility. Patience is to turn the phrase “I can't” into “I can.” With fasting, the difficult becomes easy. It is an inner and psychological demolition of things perceived by others as impossible.

Fasting helps in all these shades for the virtuous, patient person because if a believer can exercise patience - and forsake food and drink and the exhilaration we enjoy in them, marital association and the gratifying of other normal appetites for a whole day, for 29 to 30 days, as well as abstain from the vain and wicked habits of thinking and doing evil unto others no matter how small we think such evils are - the realization that the barrier between such habits and your consciousness of your Creator can easily be demolished and make you better in virtually every aspect of his life.

Social Outlook

Socially, fasting is an expression of solidarity with the poor, the family and the whole society. This is a period in which the rich can experience to some extent what it is to be poor and the pains the indigent suffers in normal living conditions. The process of disciplining resulting from Islamic fasting, instills in the rich the virtue of mercy, rahmah, which is very important in terms of social wellbeing and the proliferation of communal harmony.

“Those who are merciful to others, the Merciful will have mercy upon them,” the Messenger said.

Family Ties

Fasting strengthens family ties, especially in that the family is an endangered institution in western society. It helps the family gather together to break fast at iftar, and eat sahuur together at least twice a day for a month. The family members even does their prayers together.

Fasting enhances and energizes friendship, as Ramadan is known as the month of invitations and visitations. Friends, family members and neighbors extend invitations to each other to come to their homes to have Iftar together. During Ramadhan, the community gathers in mosques when they perform their congregational taraweeh prayers along or partake in other activities that may be held at that time.

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