Reasons People Of Faith Fast

The Sultan Mosque in Singapore JAY SAKASHITA PHOTO

The Sultan Mosque in Singapore JAY SAKASHITA PHOTO

If variety is the spice of life, religion is its dessert. Indulged in the right amount and enjoyed with others at the appropriate time, religion can be a nice complement to an already fulfilling life. Feasting on it as if it were the sole offering on a buffet line, however, or using it for unrestrained self-gratification harms the spirit and body. Too much dessert is not good. Indeed, “desserts” spelled backwards is “stressed.”

The lifestyle and practices of those different from us become intolerable and distasteful when we overindulge in our own faith. Fortunately, religions have built-in practices that restore the balance between the pursuit of salvation or enlightenment for one’s own sake, and compassion and forgiveness for the sake of others. Fasting is one such practice.

There are good reasons to fast, including health benefits. The body is good at cleansing itself of unhealthy substances. The liver, lungs, colon, kidneys, lymph glands and even our skin get rid of impurities. But the body has trouble ridding itself of toxins when it is consistently fed poor food. Fasting helps the body remove the buildup of waste products in our bodies.

For people of faith, fasting not only cleanses the body, but rejuvenates the spirit. One of the best-known religious fasts is Ramadan.

Ramadan, which began last week, is a sacred month in Islam. Many significant events occurred during this month in the history of Islam, but none more important than the first revelation from God through the angel Gabriel to Muhammad, whom Muslims believe was the last and greatest of all the prophets. Ramadan is the month that revealed the Quran.

Ramadan is actually the name of the ninth month in the Muslim calendar, and because Muslims follow a lunar calendar, Ramadan arrives roughly 11 days earlier each year (solar year = 365 1/4 days; lunar year = 354 days). This means Ramadan moves through the seasons and can occur in the winter, fall, summer and spring. This year Ramadan began June 28; last year it started on July 9.

During Ramadan, Muslims are not allowed to eat anything, drink anything, smoke anything, fight anything, or have sex for the entire month — during daylight hours. This can be particularly trying when Ramadan falls in the summer months and the days are long. Not all Muslims, however, are required to observe Ramadan with a fast. The young, the elderly, the sick, pregnant women, and women who have their menses are exempt. A Muslim friend jokingly said, “It’s basically just men, then.”

Complete abstinence from sunrise to sunset is difficult. Yet at a time when Muslims may feel most weak and vulnerable, knowing that millions of other Muslims are fasting at the same time provides a strong sense of community to rely on for support and encouragement.

Fasting requires self-discipline. During Ramadan, Muslims are to purify their spirit, reflect on their shortcomings, and resist the tendency to speak ill of others, or to gossip or argue. Controlling the self also fosters compassion for others, as Ramadan provides Muslims with a yearly glimpse of how those less fortunate in the world live and feel. As a result, Muslims not only deny themselves during Ramadan, but give of themselves in the form of charity to the poor. The body may be denied food, but the spirit is nourished.

At the conclusion of Ramadan, Muslims gather with friends and family to celebrate a three-day festival known as Eid al-Fitr (Festival of Breaking the Fast), where special prayers are offered and food and gifts are exchanged.

For the poor and less fortunate of all faiths in different parts of the world, however, a fast continues, albeit an involuntarily one. For these people, they do what they can to live, whether socially acceptable or not, whether sanctioned by their faith or not.

Ideally, fasting promotes self-control and compassion for others. In contrast, when one indulges in religion to such an extent that one is full of one’s own faith, it becomes easy to dismiss the downtrodden and those who follow a different path. Ironically, those who gorge on such religious fare end up consumed by their religious beliefs. For these, a fast from their faith might be a good idea.