Fasting is a demonstration of a conscious decision to give up something mundane — eating, drinking or other mundane activities — to concentrate on the spiritual part of life.
The most important fast day for Jews is Yom Kippur, a 24-hour fast of no food or water on the 10th day of the New Year. Tradition has G-d opening the Book of Life on the first day of the year, followed by a period of self contemplation, concluding with a fast on the day that G-d closes the Book for the following year.
The first fast mentioned in Muslim Scriptures — the Quran — is Ashura, from the Semitic word for “10,” coinciding with Yom Kippur. This occurs on the 10th day of the month of Muharram. This fast is no longer mandatory.
There are also additional Jewish fast days that remember the destruction of the Temple, the impending massacre of Persian Jews only averted by the Shah’s marriage to the Jewish Esther, and fasting between the Passover and Feast of Weeks.
Christians also fast throughout the year. Lent — the 40 days before Easter — is observed by many Christians. Many Catholics give up something every Friday as a fast, often giving up meat.
For Muslims, the mandatory fast is for the month of Ramadan. From daybreak to sundown, Muslims do not eat or drink anything, but devote their lives to contemplating and revering the principles of their religion.
This may sound extreme, but Muslims, like Jews and Christians, do put survival of the individual above religious commandments.
For Ramadan, the fast is only for daylight hours, and it is waived for the very young, the old and those whose health would be harmed.
For those who have to violate the fast for reasons of health, there are provisions for absolving them of the requirement or for making it up later. There are also exceptions in fasting for those who must begin travel during the night.
The Muslim calendar is based on the phases of the moon and not adjusted to the solar year. Each year, the calendar is moved back 11 days, so that in 2012, Ramadan will begin in July, and eventually in December.
This poses problems for Muslims living in the far north or south, where the hours of daylight can be extremely long when the sun reaches its solstice. Many Muslims base the length of days in these places on the length of days closer to the equator, such as Mecca.
The Fast of Ramadan required of all Muslims is stated in Sura 2, verses 182-187, of the Quran. Paraphrasing, it reads, “You should fast in the month of Ramadan … if you are not sick … until night, when the white thread cannot be distinguished from the dark thread, and then until morning when the opposite is true.”
Ramadan is important in Islam as it contains many days that have special meaning. The 27th is the Night of Determination, when Allah sent angels to messengers to reveal the Quran. Muhammad is the Last Messenger.
Other days in Ramadan are also important, including birth and death days of important Muslims, as well as anniversaries of important events like the occupation of Mecca.
This version has been updated from the print edition.