During this month of Ramadan, Muslims refrain from all food and liquids every day between sunrise and sunset. In doing so, they remember and act in solidarity with the Prophet Muhammad, who practiced intermittent fasting for a similar length of time during the period in which he was receiving the revelations which would become the holy scripture, the Qur’an.
In fact, intermittent fasting, which has suddenly become all the rage among nutritionists, has been advocated by most religions for thousands of years! The Prophet Muhammad lived about 1,500 years ago, but the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament of Judaism and Christianity, respectively, also mention fasting practices numerous times. This makes religious fasting at least 4,000 years old!
The Spring season is when the three Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—each observe holy periods of fasting that share many similarities.
Passover, which began Friday night, commemorates the exodus of the Israelites from their time of enslavement in Egypt. It is observed by abstaining from eating or even owning leavened food products for 7 days, in solidarity with the Israelites who fled in such a hurry that they didn’t have time for their bread to rise. Passover is also celebrated with a special meal called the Seder, which involves other foods that each have their own symbolic meaning corresponding to the time of the exodus.
For Christians, the period of Lent ended on Thursday. Lent commemorates the 40 days that Jesus spent fasting and praying in the desert, while withstanding temptations from the devil. Accordingly, as an act of solidarity and attempt to reflect upon and emulate the life of Jesus, Christians are asked to give up something important to them—oftentimes a favorite food or type of food like meat—during the 40-day period known as Lent, which ends just before Good Friday, the day commemorating Jesus’ crucifixion and death. Lent also usually involves increased efforts to pray, attend Church, and perform good deeds, all meant to help deepen contemplation of Jesus and faith.
Finally, Ramadan is a month-long period, which began on April 2nd, in which Muslims fast from dawn to sunset every day, abstaining during that time from all food and liquids, as well as from things like sexual activities or smoking. Similar to Lent, Ramadan commemorates the time during which Muhammad retreated into solitude to fast and pray. Also during this time is when the words of the Qur’an began to be revealed to him. It is therefore considered a very holy time of the year for Muslims and, again like Lent, is marked by an increased effort to perform other holy deeds like prayer and charity.
The followers of many different faiths fast to commemorate deeply significant events in the lives of their prophets and ancestors. Fasting is also conducted by many of the religious faithful across the world outside of the particular prescribed holidays as a method of self-discipline or because it helps with cultivating a spiritual state.
Fasting is a staple of the Indian religious landscape and has been for millennia. It is a way of life in Hinduism, as every week there are certain specified days of fasting, in addition to more special days and weeks on the calendar—Hindus fast on Janmashtami, the day lord Krishna was born, for instance.
My grandmother as well as many other folks in her generation used to eat only one meal a day per religious belief of following a version of “Sanyasa” (renunciation) while staying at home. She believed in gently withdrawing from the worldly pleasures and spending time in spiritual pursuits. Fasting was seen as a way to conquer the desires and gain mastery over the senses.
The Buddha fasted intermittently, preaching moderation in all things including the consumption of food, and these guidelines persist in modern day Buddhism. Many Jains will practice a form of fasting in which they give up a few of their favorite items each year as a way of preparing for end of life. And Jainism is thought to be at least 5,000 years old!
All religions promoted fasting as a means of cleansing the body, mind, and soul. Scientists and nutritionists are now documenting the physical health benefits of fasting, but these along with the mental and spiritual benefits of fasting have been known to religions for millennia.
So too has modern science only recently caught up to another discovery that has been known to the world’s religions for millennia: the relation between gut health and brain health.
The 2016 Nobel Prize winner in medicine, Yoshinori Ohsumi, has expanded our scientific understanding of autophagy, the process whereby our bodies heal by cleansing out damaged cells. Fasting is one way of facilitating this process. But the scriptures across religions reveal a deep understanding of this principle as well as its corresponding effect on cleansing the mind. Fasting purifies the body, and in doing so also purifies the mind.
“Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.”
—Hebrew Bible (Genesis 1:29), Jewish text
“Moses was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments.”
—Hebrew Bible (Exodus 34:28), Jewish text
“Then Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
—The New Testament (John 6:35), Christian text
“But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.”
—The New Testament (Corinthians 8:8), Christian text
“He has only forbidden to you dead animals, blood, the flesh of swine, and that which has been dedicated to other than Allah. But whoever is forced [by necessity], neither desiring [it] nor transgressing [its limit], there is no sin upon him. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.”
—The Qur’an (2:173), Islamic scripture
“There is not a single being, wandering in the chain of lives in endless and beginning less samsara, that has not been your mother or your sister. An individual, born as a dog, may afterward become your father. Each and every being is like an actor playing on the stage of life. One’s flesh and the flesh of others is the same flesh. Therefore the Enlightened Ones eat no meat.”
“Verily, I say, fasting is the supreme remedy and the most great healing for the disease of self and passion.”
—Baha’u’llah, Baha’i prophet
“Fasting is essentially a period of meditation and prayer, of spiritual recuperation, during which the believer must strive to make the necessary readjustments in his inner life, and to refresh and reinvigorate the spiritual forces latent in his soul. Its significance and purpose are, therefore, fundamentally spiritual in character. Fasting is symbolic, and a reminder of abstinence from selfish and carnal desires.”
—Shogi Effenci, Baha’i leader
“Fasting can help to curb animal passion, only if it is undertaken with a view to self-restraint […] That is to say, fasting is futile unless it is accompanied by an incessant longing for self-restraint.”
—Mahatma Gandhi, acknowledged by Indians as Father of the Nation
“The goal of fasting is inner unity. This means hearing, but not with the ear; hearing, but not with the understanding; hearing with the spirit, with your whole being […] Hence it demands the emptiness of all the faculties. And when the faculties are empty, then the whole being listens. There is then a direct grasp of what is right there before you that can never be heard with the ear or understood with the mind.”
—The Book of Chuang Tzu, Daoist text
“When fasting, [Confucius] thought it necessary to have his clothes brightly clean and made of linen cloth. When fasting, he thought it necessary to change his food, and also to change the place where he commonly sat in the apartment.”
—The Analects (10:7), Confucian text
Science, Psychology, Philosophy
“From a comparativist perspective, the truth is that it does not matter what the dietary rules are, as long as there are dietary rules. Put a bit differently, what the dietary codes are about is not the content of the codes themselves, but their functions […] In short, eating regulations not only help shape and maintain a very particular religious identity; they also form and police a very particular community. They help make a world.”
—Jeffrey J. Kripal, Historian of Religion