The concept of fasting is traditionally associated with the Holy Month of Ramadan in the Islamic world; yet, fasting has been observed as a custom in different cultures, some preceding the monotheistic religions.
This notion presented in the Quran, which states: “O you who have believed, decreed upon you is fasting as it was decreed upon those before you that you may become righteous.”
The Oldest Commandment
Pope Shenouda III, the late Pope of Alexandria and the Patriarch of the See of Saint Mark, stated, in his book The Spirituality of Fasting, that fasting is the oldest commandment known to humanity.
The first commandment God asked Adam to follow was to refrain from eating the fruit off a particular tree, which, Shenouda III interprets as setting boundaries for the body, and demanding control over their will.
Shenouda III views that, by abstaining from food, people rise above their bodily and physical needs, and that, to him, is the wisdom behind fasting.
He further notes that fasting existed since the earliest religious traditions, including the pagans, as well as in Buddhism and Brahmanism. For these religions, fasting took on the purpose of conquering physical needs to allow the soul to transcend the body, as a type of physical and spiritual training.
In Buddhism, for example, nirvana can only be reached through fasting and asceticism.
Fasting in Ancient Egypt
Fasting in Ancient Egypt was among the fundamental tenets of the religious beliefs, as discussed by Waseem al-Sisi, professor of Egyptology, speaking to Raseef22.
He notes that Ancient Egyptians used to fast for 30 days a year. The purpose of fasting for them was to uphold the moral law, through training the human spirit to exercise self control.
This law relied on the concept of restraint. They believed that people had to restrain themselves from various activities, such as stealing and killing, as well as abstaining from food and drink for a certain period.
Fasting would begin at dawn and last until sunset, and throughout the days of the fast, they would abstain from sex, even after sunset.
Since the pharaohs believed that the human body was made from the earth, they thus believed that they should eat from the plants of the earth, to create a balance. As such, they would break their fast on foods such as fūl (fava beans) and bessāra (a stew of beans and coriander).
Religious vs Human Custom
According to Ahmed Ghoneim, professor of Islamic Studies at the American University, in his book Falsafat-ul-Siyām (The Philosophy of Fasting), fasting is considered a universal custom, appearing centuries before the emergence of the Abrahamic religions.
The contexts and differences in time, place, environment, and culture all had a major influence on the philosophy of fasting, which he finds to mean purification and spirituality.
In the Hellenistic religious philosophies of Ancient Greece, it was used to communicate with the spirits, and receive the blessings in prophecies and dreams.
In the Incan Empire in Peru, fasting was a way to atone for sins after confessing to a priest.
Fasting has at times been associated with celebratory or mournful occasions. For example, it is customary for the bride and groom to fast before the wedding among the Taita people in East Africa, or the Santhal people in West Bengal. It was also observed in this context among Orthodox Jews.
In China, Korea, and certain parts of Africa, fasting is observed for calamitous occasions and crises, such as when a tornado hits the land, according to Ghoneim.
As for the forms of fasting, these vary between partial and full abstention from food, or certain types of food, or drink, or both. Fasting also involves abstention from other pleasures, such as sex.
Fasting dates back for hundreds of years, and is observed in different cultures for a variety of reasons.
Fasting in the Abrahamic Religions
In his book Studies in the Jewish and Christian Religions, Saud al-Khalaf, a professor at the Faculty of Daawa at the Islamic University of Madinah, states that fasting was also observed in Judaism, and though the occasions for fasting differ, the rituals are similar to those dictated by Islam.
In Judaism, fasting begins before the sunrise and ends after the sunset. During this time, they abstain from eating, drinking, and intercourse. There are several days on which they fast, to mark landmark events in Jewish history, including Yom Kippur, which is considered the most important occasion.
They also fast to commemorate Tisha B’Av (the ninth of the Jewish month of Av), which marks a series of tragedies in Jewish history, including the Babylonian invasion and destruction of the First Temple.
As for Christians, fasting includes abstaining from food and drink until midday, after which they consume only basic foods, in some denominations.
Some sects fast from day to night, and observe the fast every Wednesday, in remembrance of the betrayal of Christ, and Fridays, in remembrance of His crucifixion and death.
In Orthodox denominations, Christians fast during the Advent (43 days before Christmas), as well as other days throughout the year.
The most important occasion for fasting in Christianity is Lent, which for Catholics is considered the 40 days before Easter, though in certain Orthodox denominations, this number expands to 55 days.
Abdel Maseeh Baseet, a priest in the Church of the Virgin Mary in Egypt, explains to Raseef22 that the church has been observing fasting since the first century CE, involving abstinence from animal and dairy products.
The purpose of fasting is to elevate the spirit closer to God and to submit to prayer in times of hardship faced by the church. It is a season of compassion with the poor.
In Islam, the purpose of fasting is to train oneself to control temptations and desires. Fasting was imposed on Muslims during the month of Ramadan, the month in which the Quran was revealed to the Prophet. Muslims began observing the fast during the second year of the Islamic Hijri calendar (2 AH).
Fasting begins at dawn and lasts until sunset, and involves the complete abstinence from food, drink, and intercourse during those hours.
In his book on fasting, Sheikh Salman Ouda explains that fasting in Islam is divided into two categories: the obligatory, which comes in different forms, such as fasting for Ramadan, or for a particular reason, such as the fasts for atonement.
The second category is the avowed fast, which a person commits to of their own volition, without it being obligatory or ordained.
Moreover, there is voluntary fasting, and this is wide-ranging, and can include fasting in commemoration of Ashura or fasting on Mondays and Thursdays, as well as the fast of Arafa and Shawal 6.
In the customs of Muslim societies, Ramadan is considered an occasion of humility before God, an opportunity for social bonds, such as giving food to the poor and to neighbors. It also marks a season for people and families to reconnect over Iftars, Suhoors, and prayers.