The spiritual aspects of fasting are emphasised to the extent that the physical and cultural aspects can go unnoticed
The month-long fasting period of Ramadan started at dawn on Wednesday 10 July and will end at dusk either 29 or 30 days after according to the lunar calendar.
One of the “five pillars” of Islam, fasting is a cornerstone of Islamic religious practice. Muslims believe that fasting is more than simply abstaining from food and drink. It also includes abstaining from falsehood in speech and action and any ignorant or indecent acts. In principle it therefore encourages good behaviour and inculcates a sense of fraternity and solidarity; everyone who fasts experiences something of the feelings of their more needy brothers and sisters.
In many Muslim countries, charitable organisations such as the Red Crescent organise the provision of food for the poor and needy and, in association with local councils, set up tents for the serving of iftar, the evening meal that breaks the fast. Sahur, the pre-dawn large breakfast, would have provided sustenance to make it through the long, day without food and drink.
In contrast to the hustle and bustle of our working day we often grab a quick snack at our desks or at a restaurant alone or accompanied, the observance of iftar brings groups of people together around the fast-breaking meal table. In shops, offices or on building sites – anywhere and everywhere – people gather round to share either a substantial or simple repast, or congregate in restaurants. There is a feeling of companionship and conviviality that differentiates Ramadan from the everyday self-absorption that afflicts most of us in these individualistic times.
Fasting is not confined to Islam. Judaism and Christianity also observe the practice. It is written that Jesus fasted for the same 40-day period as Moses before embarking on the Prophetic mission that was to lead to his death and, according to Christian belief, his resurrection. This period is commemorated during Lent, the 40 days before Easter, and some Christians fast but most just commit themselves to abstaining from something they especially like such as chocolate, meat, smoking or alcohol.
Contrary to Muslim countries, fasting isn’t a particularly prominent feature on the annual calendar of Christian countries. Rampant secularisation may be partially responsible for this. It is certainly not a part of either the culture or practice in modern “Christian” societies. Visitors to, or foreigners from, Christian countries who settle into Muslim countries may find this period in the Muslim calendar a little anachronistic and may not be sure how to react or behave, but it does matter, as being sensitive to local customs and culture is very important. Stopping to take some time to reflect on what fasting means in a Muslim society, or among Muslims in our communities here in the UK, would contribute greatly to one’s cultural and spiritual education.
Apart from the symbolism and supposedly spiritual and social benefits of fasting, it is also worth considering what other beneficial effects fasting might have. Many rules applied in religion actually have sound medical and social benefits.
According to a paper by research student Will Carroll :
In a time where obesity is the up-and-coming modern medical condition, even in children, the potential benefits of fasting for short periods would appear to be worth thinking about. The combination of the moral, social and spiritual, as well as the physical advantages to be obtained from fasting go beyond mere religious instruction. More and more of us live to eat rather than eat to live, and increasingly suffer the physical and spiritual consequences of our greed. It may just be that fasting could be a fast track to getting better, physically and spiritually, Muslim or not.
Image from: http://www.timeanddate.com/holidays/us/ramadan-begins
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