A Common Form of Worship: Fasting

Regardless of how far back we go in time or how far away we travel in space, the reality of religion has existed in every unit of time and space where man has lived. For the need to believe is one of man's basic characteristics and creating a value system and tying it to a source of faith is a psychological and social necessity for man. This quality which separates man from other creatures is natural or, in other words, he is born with it. Scientific research on human history shows that religion appeared together with man and that there cannot be a society without religion or an individual without belief.

Just as religion is an undeniable reality in human history, worship is an inseparable part of religion and one of its basic elements. There is this meaning in the etymological structure of the word religion. In Arabic the word "deen" (religion) etymologically expresses a mutual relationship with command and dominance on the one side and obedience and submission on the other side. The most obvious manifestation of the servant's obedience and submission is worship. The word "religion" in Western languages carries the meaning both of a tie to God and of making certain behavior carefully in an orderly and periodical way.

This meaning which is found in the etymological structure of the word religion comprises one of the basic elements in the definition of religion. One of the basic elements in the formation of religion is a mental factor or faith which means mentally accepting the existence of a power on high and being loyal to it; another element is worship or a behavioral factor that means carefully performing some behavior towards the power on high which has been mentally accepted and emotionally bonded to.

Whether it is true or false or whether it is national or universal, there is worship and religious life in all religions. For man gains inner peace by performing certain behavior towards the higher power whose existence he has accepted and by presenting his respect and demonstrating his servanthood. Presenting his requests and expectations, he finds hope for the realization of what he has asked for.

Although worship differs partially from religion to religion, it is the same in regard to fundamental characteristics, and certain forms are shared in worship in all religions. Worship is usually in the form of words or physical movements or the sacrifice and offering of things possessed or self-restraint from certain things.

Worship made with physical motions is usually comprised of basic forms like opening the hands, folding the hands, standing up, bending over and bowing down. In addition, there is recitation, supplication and prayer. The most perfect form of worship that best expresses servanthood before a higher power and includes all the mentioned forms is salat. Together with some of these forms being found in other religions, not any religion includes all these forms in one act of worship. In salat, however, all forms expressing respect and servanthood, neediness and supplication are found. In Christianity there is standing up, recitation and bowing, but there is no bending over and bowing one's forehead to the ground.

Another form of worship found in all religions is, by harnessing desires and depriving the ego of some things it wants, to make sacrifice for divine approval or, in other words, fasting. Defined as continuing one or more days during a certain part of the day or the whole day, and refraining from eating, drinking and sexual desires, fasting exists in all religions because the Holy Quran states, "Hey believers! Just as fasting was mandatory for those before you, it is also mandatory for you..." (Al-Baqara 2/183). There is fasting in all religions because science and research show this.

Fasting is practiced in various religions in different ways. Some perceive it as abstinence from certain kinds of food and they abstain from some food on certain days of the week and year. For some fasting encompasses the whole day, not just part of it. There are forms of fasting that include abstinence from food and drink constantly throughout the day and for up to forty of fifty days a year. As is the case with Christian priests, nuns and monks, there is abstinence from marriage throughout a lifetime.

The fundamental goal of Buddhism is salvation or reaching Nirvana. The only obstacle to Nirvana is desire. Salvation is obtained only by abandoning desires and the foremost path to this is fasting. In Jainism fasting lasts for a period of 40 days and the rules are quite heavy.

There is fasting in Hinduism in the form of not taking in certain foods. Fasting is made during certain months and days of the year in order to train the ego.

There is also fasting in Judaism. There is this statement regarding the subject in the Bible: "They said to Jesus: John the Baptist's followers frequently fast and pray; the Pharisees' disciples do, too" (Luke, 5/33). In Judaism the mandatory fast is one day a year; the fast of Yom Kippur (day of repentance) lasts approximately 25 hours. Beginning at sunset, it continues until sunset the next day. In addition to this mandatory fast, there is also the tradition of fasting on days of suffering and days commemorating dark pages in Jewish history as a sign of mourning. In this respect, fasting is done on the days Jerusalem was invaded and destroyed by the Babylonians and the Romans and on the days the Temple was destroyed. These fasts continue from dawn to dusk when the first star can be seen. Smoking cigarettes does not break a fast in Judaism.

In Christianity fasting is accepted as a form of repentance like prayer and charity. There are two types of fast. One is full fasting when food and drink are completely abstained from for a short period of time, usually limited to one day or a portion of one day. The other type is abstinence from certain foods or dieting. This is the general type of fasting practiced in Christianity. Fasting is done on Wednesday and Friday, the day accepted as the time when Jesus (pbuh) was crucified, during a forty day period between the New Year and Easter; some foods are abstained from on these days. According to the Bible, although Jesus (pbuh) fasted for forty days in the desert (Matthew 4/2, Luke 4/2), the practice is applied differently in Christianity; on Sunday, which is considered to be the day of Jesus' resurrection, fasting is not made as a sign of mourning. Jesus emphasized that worship, including fasting, should not be done ostentatiously: "When you fast, do not frown like the hypocrites, because they frown so people will know that they are fasting. Truly I say to you: They received their recompense. But when you fast, rub oil on your head and wash your face, so that the hidden Father, not people, can see your fast and He will pay you recompense" (Matthew 6/16-18).

As on other subjects, Jesus tried to make the Jews avoid hypocrisy and ostentation and give importance to the profound meaning of worship, not just its shape. His statements regarding fasting show this.

As can be seen, there is fasting in all religions; however, there are differences in duration and content. There are different practices of fasting from a part of a day up to years and from abstaining from certain foods to not eating anything at all.

Islam's balance between the material-spiritual and worldly-other worldly and avoidance of every kind of extreme are reflected in fasting as well. Fasting in Islam is neither like the total abstinence of Hinduism nor the avoidance of certain foods in Christianity. It is not like the mandatory 25 hour fast in Judaism nor fasting for a part of a day or dieting like in Christianity.

Just as Islamic salat is the most perfect among forms of worship among other religions, fasting in Islam, being neither very long nor very short and being neither total abstinence nor only dieting, is the most serious, measured and best fast in regard to form and content.

According to the Old Testament, when Moses went up to Mount Sinai to get divine commandments, he fasted for forty days, neither eating nor drinking water (Old Testament, Exodus 34/28). Jesus fasted for forty days in the desert before he began propagation activities (Matthew 4/2). However, today this practice does not exist in either Judaism or Christianity. The Islamic ummah, however, accepts the fulfillment of commands and traveling the path of the prophets as a fundamental religious principle.

Written for


There are no comments to this article. Click here to write the first comment.