Religious fasting is as old as religion itself. Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Orthodox religions and many others use fasting as a method of purification, personal discipline and orientation towards their god.
Fasts can take a variety of forms; they can be partial or total, and can vary in frequency and duration. Here is a brief look at some religions that practise fasting.
Muslims are obliged to fast from before sunrise to sunset during the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, Ramadan. During the holy month, Muslims abstain from food, liquids, smoking and sexual intercourse during daylight hours. This time of abstinence is designed to heighten spiritual awareness, rid the ‘self’ of vices and encourage charitable deeds. Some Muslims fast voluntarily on extra days throughout the year.
During Lent, many branches of Christianity prescribe limiting food intake and giving up a particular vice. This period falls 40 days before Easter. Ash Wednesday (beginning of Lent) and Good Friday (Christ’s crucifixion) are traditional fast days. Practising Catholics abstain from meat and limit food in-take on these days. Some inter-denominational Christians voluntarily fast intermittently throughout Lent, notably on Fridays. Fasting in Christianity teaches self control, atonement and empathy with the poor.
There are four ‘fasting seasons’ in the Eastern Orthodox Church: Nativity Fast, Great Lent, Apostles' Fast and Dormition Fast. During these periods, followers refrain from drinking alcohol and from eating meat, fish and olive oil. There are additional fasts every Wednesday and Friday throughout the year, although some of these days are ‘fast-free’. In Coptic Orthodoxy, fish is specifically prohibited on certain days and allowed on others. Some followers abstain completely from food and drink on certain dates in the year.
Observant Jews fast for six days of the year, traditionally abstaining from food and all liquids. During Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and Tisha B’Av, believers fast for a full 25 hours. The other four fasts lasts 12 hours. These fasts commemorate past events and are used to ask for forgiveness of sins as well as blessings.
Many Buddhists limit their food intake as part of their everyday religious practise. The Buddha encouraged nuns and monks not to eat after midday until the following morning, a practice that is still widely held. Some monks fast for between 18 and 36 days, drinking only water, as a means of reaching spiritual enlightenment. Buddhists, in general, often fast during festivals or on full moon days.
The type of fasting practised in Hinduism depends on a number of variables: ethnic background, tradition, personal beliefs, geographical location and choice of personal deity. The type of fast practised can range from total abstinence from food and/ or liquid for 12 to 24 hours to the general limiting of food intake. Fasting is common during religious festivals such as the nine days of Navaratri in April and October.