Fasting in Islam, Christianity and Judaism

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Tue, 2021-04-13
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Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, is starting today. Muslims are not supposed to eat, drink or smoke between sunrise and sunset. In Islam fasting is feasting, Yamina Mermer writes in Kevin Corn (ed), “Fasting and Feasting in Three Traditions: Judaism Christianity Islam,”  University of Minneapolis, 2006. This is in particular noticeable in Muslim majority countries as Egypt. The fasting is broken with a rich meal at sunset in the family. Friends might be invited. Due to the covid-19 pandemic this will surely be less than in previous years.


Fasting is found in all three Abrahamic religions. The oldest of the three is Judaism. Judaism knows personal fasting as penance for sin. A well-known example is the fasting of King David for his sexual relationship with Bathsheba, a married wife to a military officer. Collective fasting for repentance is during the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur as instructed in Leviticus 23. The Day of Atonement is a twenty-four hour fast, with total abstinence from food and drink. Jewish worshippers spend the entire day in prayer.


Fasting is thus not just a ritual. Jews, Christians and Muslims agree to this. But how fasting is carried out differs from tradition to tradition.


In Christianity fasting is in particular important in Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Coptic Orthodox fasting means adhering to a vegan diet, abstaining from meat, eggs, diary and other animal products with the exception of fish that can be consumed during advent and a few other feasts but not during lent. Fasting is observed during each feast as well as on Wednesdays and Fridays with the exception of the 7 weeks between Easter and Pentecost because this is a period of joy during which the resurrection of Jesus Christ is celebrated. The Coptic calendar counts 210 fasting days out of the 365 days per year. Not all Copts observe all fasting days. The most important fasting period during which most Copts fast is the Holy Week, the week between Palm Sunday and Easter. This year Muslims are starting their fasting today. Coptic Christians are already fasting since Coptic Easter is this year on May 2.


In the West fasting is mostly practiced by Catholics. In Protestantism it has largely disappeared. But fasting in the West has changed. Fasting is preceded by three days of feasting. This is probably related to a fest in honor of the Roman god Saturn. People were eating and drinking and people were dressed in disguise. Fasting is today abstinence from particular food or things, for example deciding to use one’s car less. The purpose of fasting is a better dealing with yourself, other people, nature and God. Fasting prepares for the feast of the Resurrection, the belief that God is stronger than death.


Also in Islam fasting intends to bring people closer to God. Fasting is not only broken daily with a meal but also with prayer.


In all religions we find people who do not fast. The late Dr. Mahmoud Khayal [Maḥmūd Khayyāl], for example, no longer believed in Islam and drank alcohol but during Ramadan he would abstain from alcohol, in his own words to ‘clean his body.’ But whether we fast or do not fast we should respect those who do fast. In Egypt this means that one should during Ramadan not eat or drink in public. What one is doing at home is one’s own business.


This is a moment of the year to congratulate our friends who are fast.


Wishing all readers of Arab-West Report who are fasting a blessed period of fasting.



April 13, 2021


Cornelis Hulsman, Editor-in-Chief Arab-West Report