Aug 6, 2012

Fasting Isn't Just For Islam

By Saadia Faruqi

The month of Ramadan is upon me, and so far it's been going well. Yes, most days I'm tired and hungry and a bit snappy with my kids. But overwhelmingly the feeling is one of happiness - the feeling that comes with being grateful for a wonderful opportunity. During my interfaith work I'm asked by several people every year why I and other Muslims fast so completely - no food or drink for the entire day every day for a whole month has got to take its toll, they think. My response: not really.


Yes fasting is difficult, which is why only healthy Muslim adults are supposed to fast. That way, your health is not compromised and the only thing making it tough for you is a lack of willpower. If you understand that fasting is a way to gain nearness to God by sacrificing something dear, then fasting becomes a great spiritual exercise.

Many people of other faith traditions look as fasting as a purely Islamic thing. They sometimes feel as if it is something "those Muslims" do that is slightly strange or eccentric, like praying five times a day or not eating pork. So I thought I'd pop that bubble today and find some examples of non-Islamic fasting traditions that may surprise some. I found that the Bible prescribes fasting  in several places, for instance in the book of Daniel where this great prophet is described as routinely doing water fasts as well as some other types of fasting from meat and wine (Daniel 10:3). King Daniel also said in Psalm 35:13 that "I humble myself through fasting." Similarly Prophets Moses and Elijah fasted for more than one period of forty days (Deut 9:9; I Kings 19:8) as a mark of love and respect for God. As a result, Jews observe fasting during certain holy days, most notably Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Further, in the New Testament, Jesus fasted for forty days according to Matthew 4:2 and Paul observed an absolute fast for three days after he met Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:9) and the early Christians often prayed and fasted during difficult times.

Some might say, times are different now, what's fasting got to do with today? Consider this, in the last few centuries, devout leaders such as John Wesley, Martin Luther and John Calvin continued the fasting traditions of biblical times as a means of achieving nearness to God. Many Christians  today still fast during Lent and Advent, although those are usually not absolute fasts. In fact, several non-Muslim guests during this year's interfaith iftars at my mosque gave some interesting examples of how they interpret fasting. What I found especially eye-opening was that there seems to be a renewed interest in the observance of fasting in the last few years, with conservative Christian groups calling for national days of fasting such as The Great American Fast and The National Day of Prayer and Fasting. And for those who may not know how or why to fast, there are now complete online fasting guides by organizations such as Campus Crusade for Christ and Higher Vision Church to guide the public towards God. Seems like Muslims aren't the only ones who are realizing the benefits of fasting. Welcome to the club!
Saadia Faruqi is the interfaith liaison for the  women's group of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and editor of Interfaith Houston. The views expressed in this post are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ahmadiyya Community or Interfaith Houston.

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