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To most of us fasting is no longer an ordeal or a novelty; over the years I have fasted during the month of Ramadan, in various locations where the period of fasting varied from 12 to 18 hours between sun rises to sun sets. For me and those of my faith, Ramadan is the most holy month of the year. During this month at Layalat Al Qadr sometimes referred as “the night of decree or measure” the holy Quran was first revealed to our Prophet ; it is believed to have occurred on an odd-numbered night during the last 10 days of Ramadan, either the night of the 21st, 23rd, 25th, 27th or 29th.
Fasting to me is not ritualistic but it benefits me and I gain from it; I loose weight and shed my paunch, I read the Quran over and over again, assimilating and understanding it, I pray regularly at the mosque with the congregation and partake Iftar with them and I humbly offer charity to the needy. An aura and environment of spirituality and affinity engulfs me; I am at peace and harmony with all. Maybe I am an exception or may be not?
Our Prophets have fasted and left to us the word of God as ordained to them. Moses fasted for forty days and forty nights, twice back-to-back, without food or water; the first, immediately before he received the Ten Commandments inscribed on the tablets on the mountain from God. And the second, after coming down seeing the Israelites practicing idolatry, and breaking the tablets in anger. Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights while in the deserts, being tempted by Satan to turn stones into bread and eat them, among other temptations.
Nearer home we fast on auspicious days and occasions as part of our spirituality to propitiate the deities. These could be partial or absolute fasts lasting a single or a number of days with prayers, hymns and chants. Buddhists normally do not eat in the evening, “I, monks, do not eat a meal in the evening. Not eating a meal in the evening I, monks, am aware of good health and of being without illness and of buoyancy and strength and living in comfort. Come, do you too, monks, not eat a meal in the evening. Not eating a meal in the evening you too, monks, will be aware of good health and….. and living in comfort” Lord Budha. And further those who do not practice,” Fasting, daily rituals, and austere self-discipline – those who keep the practice of these, are rewarded with less than a shell.” (Guru Granth Sahib)
Mahatma Gandhi employed fasting as a tool in “Satyagraha”, in attempt to avoid elements of self and egoism. Gandhi developed very clear rules of fasting. In essence, fasts were an expression of “suffering love; it was his way of expressing his own deep sense of sorrow at the way those he loved had disappointed him. It was his way, as their Leader, for atoning for their misdeeds. It was his last attempt to stir deep spiritual feelings in others and to appeal to their moral sense. It was his way of bringing the quarreling parties together”, Bhikhu Parekh,, in his book in the Past Masters Series. Over the years his example continues to be emulated by many other notables
In Northern Ireland in 1981, Bobby Sands an Irish prisoner protesting for better rights in prison and had just been elected to the British Parliament, died after 66 days of not eating. His funeral was attended by 100,000 people and the strike ended only after 9 other men died. In all, ten men survived without food for 46 to 73 days taking only water and salt.
Ceasar Chavez undertook a number of spiritual fasts, including a 25 day fast in 1968 promoting the principle of nonviolence, and a fast of ‘thanksgiving and hope’ to prepare for pre-arranged civil disobedience by farm workers. Chávez regarded a spiritual fast as “a personal spiritual transformation”.
Fasting whether partial or absolute has over the years proven beneficial to individuals and their cause. Considering it as a ritual may be simplistic. The Prophets fasted to ascertain the will of the Almighty, the mortals fast in obedience of their scriptures and to propitiate the Almighty for worldly gains. The more concerned and caring amongst the mortals fast to evoke and highlight imbalances and deficiencies that lead to misery and injustice in the society. That fasting may not achieve its stated purpose totally but it certainly does not harm.
“Allah is with those who restrain themselves” Quran 16:128