Utility of Fasting:
Religious and Health Perspectives
Dr. S. Zafar Mahmood
President, Interfaith Coalition for Peace
Ladies and Genltemen,
Welcoming you to this interfaith gathering I wish to draw your kind attention to Ch 2 verses 183 – 185 and 187 of the Holy Quran:
O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may learn self-restraint and you may ward off evil and may guard against it.
Fasting is prescribed for a month i.e. the holy month of Ramadan. But if anybody is ill or is on a journey he may partly skip fasting. Temporary exemption is also available for women for specific reasons. But the prescribed number of days of fasting should be made up later. Those who cannot do so should feed the indigent.
Ramadan is the month of during which was sent down the Qur’an , as a guide to mankind and has clear signs for guidance and judgment between right and wrong.
God says in the Quran – Eat and drink, until the white thread of dawn appears distinct from the black thread; then complete the fast till the night appears; do not indulge in intimate activity with spouse during the fasting hours but at night it is lawful even during the month of Ramadan. While fasting a person is also required to remain God-conscious and should observe utmost morality in all areas, all the time
The Night of Power and Predestination (i.e. Lailat-ul-Qadr) falls in the month of Ramadan. It is described in the Quran as “a night better than a thousand months”. It is a night of great mystical significance, when the Archangel Gabriel and all the angels descend upon Earth. No one knows exactly on which specific night this happens, though it is commonly thought to occur in the last 10 nights of Ramadan.
During Ramadan which is the ninth of the twelve months in the Islamic lunar calendar, Muslims begin the day with a meal just before sunrise to sustain them for the rigours of the day ahead. They then welcome sunset by breaking the fast with a simple meal. At night, they perform special prayers known as tarawih in the mosque. This allows the faithful to hear the Holy Quran from beginning to end.
A lunar year is about 11 days shorter than a typical Gregorian year. As a result, dates of events in the Islamic lunar year “move forward” about 11 days every year.
Quran also prescribes secondary and tertiary mode of expiation that is repentance and making up for wrong doings. For unintentional killing two continuous months of fasting is prescribed, that too when one cannot free a slave or does not have means to pay the indemnity. For breaking of oath fasting is prescribed for three days. Incidentally, for intentional killing (not for self defense) capital punishment is the penalty.
The Spiritual and Moral Benefits of fasting:
- Fasting brings a person closer to God
- One develops a sense of love for the scripture, as this month brings along with it an opportunity towards a special dedication, and also a love towards its recitation, understanding and remembrance.
- Special punctuality in the five obligatory prayers helps one develop a habit of offering one’s prayers regularly and punctually.
- The fasting person learns to obey every command of God, the “Supreme Commander”, both publicly and privately.
- One specially and consciously refrains from even unintended evil deeds while one is fasting.
- One is prepared for radical changes in one’s life, as the advent of this month brings similar changes to one’s daily schedule.
- One develops a sense of unity and brotherhood with the kith & kin, neighbors and friends all over the world by sharing the same spiritual experience (i.e., of fasting)
- Equality and uniformity is observed, as both black and white wealthy and poor, master and servant, act according to the will of God.
- The wealthy realize the essence of the word hunger, and thus become more dutiful towards the rights of the poor, the orphans, the widows and the needy. Thus, one is more mindful of giving charity and bringing about other pious deeds that can alleviate the miseries of the poor. It is believed that any good deed, if done during month of Ramada, rings extra reward. Hence people like to paythe obligatory charity known as Zakat, i.e. fortieth portion of one’s wealth, during Ramadan only.
- One develops the habit of eating moderately and avoiding wastage of food.
- God forgives the previous sins of the fasting men and women when they seek His forgiveness.
- Owing to a fasting person’s pious acts, fellow-people love him and thus the foundation of a solid and healthy brotherhood is laid down.
The Physical Benefits:
- It is easier to undergo physical labour
- Animal instincts and lower passions are conquered
- Laziness is warded off, and one becomes active.
- One is prepared to face any future hardships and adverse conditions.
- Physical and mental endurance is increased.
- One achieves spiritual, bodily and mental gratification on completing one’s fasts.
- After a month-long devotion towards fasting, and accomplishment of acts of piety , one feels real delight when one celebrates the well-deserved festival of Id-ul-Fitr.
FASTING, AN OLD RELIGIOUS PRACTICE
Fasting is as old as the human race. All the major religious in the world, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, expect their followers to fast in some form of another. It is believed that fasting has always been the same in all the major religions in the world but changes happened as time passed by and new sects appeared in different religions.
It would not be out of place to mention here that there is a general impression that Islam was founded 1400 years ago by Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him). But that is not the truth. In fact, with Prophet Mohammad the last phase of human race has set in. One can also call it as the last edition of Islamic values. As understood by Islam, with the termination of this last phase the world will come to an end. Adam was the first man and the first messenger of Islam. He and Eve were the engines of the procreation of the humanity. After gaps of every few hundred or a few thousand years Allah kept on appointing messengers from out of the men living in a given phase of human history and in a given part of the world. Thus, no phase of history nor any part of the world was left out. God says in the Holy Quran that only some of these messengers have been named in this book. Likewise only some of the revealed book find mention by name. As per authentic researches the messengers number about 1,24,000 and the revealed book 115. God enjoins upon the believers to equally respect all these messengers and books (Holy Quran 2:285). The messengers who find mention by name in the Holy Quran are around twenty five and include Abraham, David, Solomon, Moses, Christ and Mohammad. The books so mentioned include Psalms, Old Testament, New Testament and Quran. I have gone through the Holy Quran, its meanings and interpretations about twenty times. I have also read the holy book of other religions. Particularly after eading the Vedanta I have firm conviction that it is one of the revealed books referred to in the Quran. Similarly, I feel that Lord Rama, Lord Krishna and Lord Mahavir are among the messengers whom the believers have been told to revere just like Mohammad. Also, it is prudent to respect by heart all the great men held in high esteem by every religious denomination. God exhorts, “Lakum deenukum wa liya deen” meaning to them their religion, to you yours’.
In Hinduism too there is great emphasis on the importance of fasting. On one specific day in the year the women observe complete fast the whole day as a mark of respect and love for the husband. The braking of this fast in the evening is a family celebration. Some Hindus fast on certain days of their lunar months as Purnima (full moon) and Ekadasi (the 11th day of the fortnight). Navaratri is a festival when people fast for nine days. Hindus in West Bengal fast on Ashtami, the eighth day of the festival of Durga Puja. Besides, people select various days of the week for restricted eating during the day. This is certainly a cause of physical as well as spiritual atonement.
Although the number of occasions on which fasting is practiced has tended to diminish over the centuries in different religions, most branches of Judaism still observe a Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) fast in the all.
The fasting mentioned in the Torah or books of Moses is the forth-day fast of Moses (Exodus 34:28) “And he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. “From the fast of Moses, of Elijah (1 Kings 19:8), and of Jesus (Matthew 4:2), we can see that on certain occasions a fast of forty days was required. Bible fasting includes more than just not eating and drinking, however, Isaiah 58 is the great fasting chapter of the Bible. From this we see that fasting includes avoiding certain pleasures on the one had, and doing acts of charity and justice on the other. That is, there are some other pleasures besides food and drink that must be avoided. Also, the central meaning of the fast has much to do with feeling for the hunger of the hungry and doing something to alleviate it.
So we find fasting a basic, though unlegislated, practice throughout the Bible, from Moses to Peter and Paul (Acts 10:30; 14:23; 27:33; and 1 Corinthians 7:5). In summary, we can say that Biblical fasting is the complete abstention from eating and drinking and some other pleasures during the daylight hours of the days of the ninth month of the lunar calendar. It includes acts of charity, aims and justice, and the especial avoidance of anger and quarreling.
Before I conclude I wish to draw the attention of my audience to chapter 3 verse 64 of the holy Quran. Here God asks the believers to call upon the followers of all the religions to unite for the sake of Truth. Let us hold together in discipline pursuing the mission of righteousness for humanity. Let us seek mutual help and friendship and stand firm in constancy and patient perseverance.