Fasting is the act of willingly abstaining from all food and in some cases drink, for a period of time. Depending on the tradition, fasting practices may forbid sexual intercourse, (or any sexual desire), masturbation, as well as refraining from eating certain types or groups of food (e.g. meat).
Fasting for religious and spiritual reasons has been a part of human custom since pre-history. It is mentioned in the Qur'an, in the Mahabharata, in the Upanishads, and in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testament.
Spiritual or religious fasting in various faiths
The Bahá’í faith
In the Bahá'í Faith, fasting is observed from sunrise to sunset during the Bahá’í month of `Ala' (between March 2nd through March 20th). Bahá'u'lláh established the guidelines in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. It is the complete abstaining from both food and drink (including abstaining from smoking). Observing the fast is an individual obligation, and is binding on all Bahá’ís who have reached the age of maturity (15 years).
Along with obligatory prayer, it is one of the greatest obligations of a Bahá'í. The Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith, Shoghi Effendi explains "It is essentially a period of meditation and prayer, of spiritual recuperation, during which the believer must strive to make the necessary readjustments in his inner life, and to refresh and reinvigorate the spiritual forces latent in his soul. Its significance and purpose are, therefore, fundamentally spiritual in character. Fasting is symbolic, and a reminder of abstinence from selfish and carnal desires."
Buddhist monks and nuns following the Vinaya rules commonly fast each day after the noon meal, though many orders today do not enforce this fast.
Fasting is a practice in several Christian denominations. Other Christian denominations do not practice it because they see it as a merely external observance.
Biblical accounts of fasting
* Moses fasted for forty days and forty nights while he was on the
mountain with God.
For Charismatic Christians fasting is undertaken at the leading of
God. Fasting is done in order to seek a closer intimacy with God, as
well as an act of petition. Some take up a regular fast of one or two
days a week as a spiritual observance. Holiness movements, such as John
Wesley, Charles Wesley, and George Whitefield started in the early days
of Methodism, often practice such regular fasts as part of their regimen.
Eastern Orthodox Church
For Orthodox Christians, fasting at various times refers to abstention from animal products, olive oil (or all oils, according to some Orthodox traditions), wine and spirits -- see Eastern Orthodoxy (Fasting). Fasting can take up a significant portion of the calendar year. The idea is not to suffer, but to use the experience to come closer to God, to realize one's excesses and for alms giving. Fasting without prayer and almsgiving (donating the money saved to a local charity, or directly to the poor, depending on circumstances) is considered useless or even spiritually harmful by many Orthodox Christians.
Latter-day Saints are encouraged to fast for twenty-four hours once a month (leaving out two meals), and the first Sunday of the month is usually designated a Fast Sunday; many Latter-day Saints who observe the monthly fast begin the Saturday before this day by not partaking of the Saturday evening meal. The money saved by not having to purchase and prepare meals is to be donated to the church as a fast offering, which is to be used to help people in need. Sunday worship meetings on Fast Sunday include opportunities for church members to publicly express thanks and to bear their testimony of faith.
Since fasting involves exercising control of the physical body, subjugating it to the mind, many Latter-day Saints consider fasting a way to focus on the spiritual, and use it in connection with prayer to make it more intense.
In Protestantism, the continental Reformers criticized fasting as a purely external observance that can never gain a person salvation. The Swiss Reformation of the "Third Reformer" Huldrych Zwingli began with an ostentatious public sausage-eating during Lent.
On the other hand, churches of the Anglican Communion and some American Protestant denominations, such as the United Methodist Church, affected by liturgical renewal movements encourage fasting as part of both Lent and Advent, two penitential seasons of the Liturgical Year.
Other Protestants consider fasting, usually accompanied by prayer, to be an important part of their personal spiritual experience, apart from any liturgical tradition.
For Roman Catholics, fasting is the reduction of one's intake of food to one full meal (which may contain meat) and two small meals (known liturgically as collations, taken in the morning and the evening). Eating solid food between meals is not permitted. Fasting is required of the faithful on specified days. Complete abstinence is the avoidance of meat for the entire day. Partial abstinence prescribes that meat be taken only once during the course of the day.
Traditional days of fasting and abstinence
* Every day of Lent, from Ash Wednesday through Good Friday
* Every Friday, unless it be a holy day of obligation
* Ember Wednesdays and Saturdays
Modern days of fast and abstinence
* Ash Wednesday (fast & abstinence)
The current regulations concerning Lenten fasting and abstinence for Catholics in the United States generally are as follows:
* Abstinence is to be observed by all Catholics 14 years old and older
on Ash Wednesday and on all Fridays of Lent.
For Catholics whose health or ability to work would be negatively affected by fasting and/or abstinence, the regulations above don't apply.
At one time Ash Wednesday and all the subsequent Fridays and Saturdays of Lent were days of "Fasting and Abstinence" whereas all the other weekdays of Lent were days of "Fasting without Abstinence". An exception to this rule was granted to the Bishops of Ireland (see Irish calendar) by the Vatican in 1918, when the obligation of fasting and abstaining on the Lenten Saturdays was transferred to the Wednesdays of Lent instead.
The fast is waived on March 17, St. Patrick's Day. If it should be a Friday, however, abstinence still applies. The Friday abstinence is waived in the United States on the day after Thanksgiving.
* The Bridegroom Fast - This fast was initiated by the leaders of the International House of Prayer, and is observed on the first Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of each month. Based on Matthew 9:15, its focus is intimacy with Christ, who is described in the Bible as the bridegroom of the Church. The fast is accompanied by services in Kansas City, which are freely accessibly by webcast. It is observed largely in charismatic circles.
Fasting is a very integral part of the Hindu religion. Individuals observe different kinds of fasts based on personal beliefs and local customs. Some are listed below-
* Some Hindus fast on certain days of the month such as Ekadasi (the
eleventh day of each lunar fortnight) or Purnima (full moon).
Methods of fasting also vary widely and cover a broad spectrum. If followed strictly, the person fasting does not partake any food or water from the previous day's sunset until 48 minutes after the following day's sunrise. Fasting can also mean limiting oneself to one meal during the day and/or abstaining from eating certain food types and/or eating only certain food-types.
In Islam, fasting starts from fajr (dawn), until maghrib (sunset in Sunni Islam; Astronomical Dusk in Shi'a Islam) is observed during the month of Ramadhan. Fasting in the month of Ramadhan is one of the Pillars of Islam in Sunni Islam and one of the Furoo-ad-Deen in Shi'a Islam, and thus one of the most important acts of Islamic worship. By fasting — whether during Ramadhan or other times — a Muslim draws closer to his Lord by abandoning the things he/she enjoys, such as food, drink and sexual intercourse. This makes the sincerity of his/her faith and his/her devotion to Allah (God) all the more evident. The believer knows that Allah will love him/her when he/she is ready to abandon worldly comforts for Allah’s sake.
Allah orders Muslims in the Qur'an that fasting was prescribed for those before them (i.e., the Jews and Christians) and that by fasting Muslim gains 'taqwa', which can be described as the care taken by a person to do everything Allah has commanded and to keep away from everything that He has forbidden. Fasting helps prevent many sins and is a shield with which the Muslim protects him/herself from jahannum (Hellfire).
Muslims believe that fasting is more than abstaining from food and drink. It also means to abstain from any falsehood in speech and action, from any ignorant and indecent speech, and from arguing and fighting. Therefore, fasting helps to develop good behavior.
Fasting also inculcates a sense of brotherhood and solidarity, as a Muslim feels and experiences what his needy and hungry brothers and sisters feel. Moreover, Ramadhan is a month of giving charity and sharing meals to break the fast together.
A Muslim is encouraged to read the entire Qur'an during Ramadhan and to perform extra salat (Prayers) at night, which, in Sunni Islam, are known as taraweeh. In almost every masjid in the world, taraweeh prayers are held every night of Ramadhan following isha. Thus Ramadhan becomes a blessed month of physical and spiritual renewal through fasting and worship.
Jains fast for a variety of time periods. In jainism fasting is seen as a must for purification of the soul. Jains may take boiled natural water while fasting or take no water at all (nirjala upvas). Many Jains abstain from food and water after sunset until next sunrise which is considered to be a kind of fasting.
Observant Jews fast on 7 days during the Jewish calendar. Five of these are considered minor fast days, and on these days fasting is observed from sunrise to sunset.
* The Fast of Gedaliah
On the two major fast days, Jews fast from sunset to sunset the next day. The first major fast day of the Jewish calendar is Yom Kippur. It is also known as the Day of Repentance, and is considered the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. The second major fast day is Tisha B'Av, a 25-hour fast that mourns the destruction of the first and second Jewish Temple, and other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people.
Fasting in Jewish practice means complete abstinence from all food and drink, including water. On the two major holidays it is also forbidden to engage in any sexual relations, wash or bathe, and even wear leather shoes. Partial or total exemptions apply in many cases for those who are ill, those for whom fasting would pose a medical risk, pregnant women, and nursing mothers. Fasting despite an exemption is prohibited, as endangering one's life is against a core principle of Judaism.
Aside from these official days of fasting, Jews may take upon themselves personal or communal fasts, often to seek repentance in the face of tragedy or some impending calamity.
Fasting is never permitted on Shabbat. If a public fast falls on the Sabbath, it is either delayed until Sunday, or observed on the Thursday before. The one exception is Yom Kippur, which, based on a verse in the Torah, is observed even if it falls on Shabbat.
A fast is also observed if the scrolls of the Torah are dropped. The length of the fast varies, and some Jews will reduce the length of the fast through tzedakah, or charitable acts.
People can also fast for medical reasons, and this has also been an accepted practice for many years.
One reason that people fast for medical reasons is for surgery or other procedures that require anesthetic. Because the presence of food in a person's system can cause complications when they are anesthetized, medical personnel strongly suggest that their patients fast for several hours before the procedure.
Another reason that people fast for medical reasons is for certain medical tests. People are often asked to fast so that a baseline can be established.
A longer fast for health reasons typically lasts a week or longer and includes some food intake, such as fruit or vegetable juices.
Recent studies on mice show that fasting on every other day while eating double the normal amount of food on non-fasting days led to better insulin control, neuronal resistance to injury, and health indicators similar to mice on calorie restricted diets. This may mean that alternate-day fasting is an alternative to caloric restriction for life extension. However, this result may not apply to human physiology.
People who feel they are near the end of their life sometimes consciously refuse food and/or water. The term in the medical literature is Patient refusal of nutrition and hydration. Contrary to popular impressions, published studies indicate that "within the context of adequate palliative care, the refusal of food and fluids does not contribute to suffering among the terminally ill", and might actually contribute to a comfortable passage from life: "At least for some persons, starvation does correlate with reported euphoria."
In homeopathic medicine, fasting is seen as a way of cleansing the body of toxins, dead or diseased tissues, and giving the gastro-intestinal system a rest. Such fasts are either water-only, or consist of fruit and vegetable juices. Some results have been achieved while including fasting in the treatment of some kinds of cancer, autoimmune diseases, and allergies.
Political fasting and hunger strikes
Political fasts (today more commonly known as the hunger strikes) seem to be an invention of Mohandas Gandhi. Some people see a difference between a hunger strike, a pure political act, and fasting, a political and religious act. By fasting, they intend to take some of the responsibility of the problem in question.
Hunger strikes have been used by personalities all over the world, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Lanza del Vasto (during the Algerian War, Vatican II and the struggle of the farmers of the Larzac plateau).
Today, hunger strikes are often used by refugees seeking political asylum.
A crossover between the religious fast and the political fast can be seen in 40 Hour Famine, an event run annually by the Christian relief organization World Vision Australia, in which participants fast for 40 hours to raise awareness of world hunger and funds for World Vision's relief efforts. Each year the 40 Hour Famine draws hundreds of thousands of participants throughout the Pacific Rim and beyond.
Physical effects of fasting
When food is not eaten, the body looks for other ways to find energy, such as drawing on glucose from the liver's stored glycogen and fatty acids from stored fat and eventually moving on to vital protein tissues. The body is fine relying on fatty acids but the brain and the nerves depend on glucose. Once the glucose is significantly used up, the body switches and begins to produce ketone bodies (acetoactate, hydroxy-butyrate, and acetone). Even though this transformation to an alternative form of energy has been made, some parts of the brain exclusively need glucose and protein is still needed to produce it. If body protein loss were to continue, death will ensue.
After approximately three days of fasting, feelings of hunger usually become infrequent or disappear altogether.