In the Name of Allah the Beneficent the Merciful
"O, you who believe, fasting is compulsory for you, similar to the peoples prior to you, may you become pious." (The Holy Quran 2:183)
There are verses in the Torah and the Bible about fasting(1). There are contemporary Jews and Christians that fast some days in different variations during a year. They either abstain from meat, or abstain from eating altogether(2). The Holy Quran narrates the story of Zakaria’s (3) (PBUH) fasting and the fasting of Lady Maryam(4) Deuteronomy.
Looking at the pages of history we see fasting among the pagans too. For example, fasting had existed among the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, or even the pagan Hindus, each according to their own tradition.
The pagans fasted in order to attain to their gods’ satisfaction; when they committed a crime they fasted so that the anger of their gods get eased, or for their needs be granted. This kind of fasting can be regarded as a form of compensation or transactional exchange; the fasting person provides for the need and satisfaction of the deity so that in return his needs and satisfaction be granted.
In Islam, however, the logic of fasting is different. In Islam, fasting is not like a form of a transaction or compensation. For the status of the Creator is beyond being needy or impressionable; the Almighty is free from any imperfection or defection. Therefore, the result of creature’s obedience is aimed for himself, similar to the sins which their vice affects the sinners themselves, and this is what the Holy Quran emphasizes:
“Were you to do virtuous actions, your goodness will return to yourselves, and were you to do vice, you have done vice to yourselves.”(5)
The Holy Quran in regards to fasting points to the fact that the result of fasting is piety, and affirms the return of the effects of obedience to the performer. (6)
Few can doubt the result of piety. Every human being knows by his conscience that if he wants to move forward in the path of perfection the first thing he should do is to control his self against permissiveness, abstain from desires, and understand that worldly life is not the aim, and abstain from anything that hinders his approach to God. This piety can be reached only by means of fasting and abstaining from desires.
One of the most well-known methods of spiritual diets available to the people of all ages is the withdrawal from a desire that afflicts everyone, i.e. the desire of eating and drinking, as well as the sexual desire.
If the humans abstain from these for some time, gradually their resistance toward the sins will get fortified, and they will be able to master and control their will. They will not fall prey to every sin and will not lose perseverance in approaching God’s satisfaction. For, obviously, the person who obeys the call for abstaining from eating, drinking and sex will be more suitable for obeying God in avoiding sins.
(The above is a selection from "Al-Mizaan(7)" by Late Scholar Sayyed Muhammad Hussain Tabatabae'i, with minor changes)
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1. In the Dictionary of the holy Book it is found that: “fasting is found among every tribe and nation, during the times of hardship and sorrow in the course of of history. (Dictionary of the Holy Book p. 40)
The available Torah and Bible confirm the fact that fasting has been practiced among the Jews and Christians, as well as other peoples when facing sorrow.
Furthermore it is read in the Torah that Moses (PBUH) fasted for 40 days. (Deuteronomy, Chapter 9, No. 9)
The Jews fasted when they aimed for remorse and repentance. The Dictionary of the Holy Book says “the Jews, when they had the time for showing humbleness to God, fasted to confess to their sins and thereby attain his satisfaction.” It mentions “the Great fast of atonement” and other temporary fasts. (Dictionary of the Holy Book, p 428)
Bible also mentions that Jesus (PBUH) has fasted for 40 days. (Matthew, Chapter 4, verse 1) Also the Bible Luke mentions that the Apostles fasted too. (Bible Luke, Chapter 4, verse 33-35) The lives of the Apostles and the previous believers were full of abstinence and fasting. (Dictionary of the Holy Book, p 428)
2- Fasting among the Jews: the Jews have two forms of fasting, compulsory and recommended. The compulsory fasts include the Day of Atonement fast, the Gdrya fast, the ninth day Ab, etc, each according to events happened during the history of the Jews. The volunteer fasts include: the bride and groom fast in the first day of their mutual life. Fasting on Mondays and Thursdays; fasting in the death anniversary of their parents or religious figures or during natural disasters that usually is practiced communally. (Acquaintance to the Jewish, p. 72)
Fasting among the Christians: the most important Christian days for fasting, which all of them are volunteer fasting include: the Wednesday fast (the day in which conspiracy was planned for Jesus (PBUH)); the Friday fast (the day in which Jesus (PBUH) was crucified); the birthday fast that is 43 days until the birthday of Jesus Christ (PBUH); etc.
In the New Testament there is no indication for the time of fasting, and it is not made compulsory. But apparently fasting has been common among the students of Christ. (For example Matthew 18/21)
3. The Holy Quran, (3:41)
4. The Holy Quran, (19:26)
5. The Holy Quran, (17:7)
6. The Holy Quran, (2:183)
7. The interpretation of the Holy Quran, 2:183.