Ramadan has come and gone for another year. Gone are the long daylight hours without food or drink, the clogged traffic as everyone rushes for home before the evening break-fast, the relaxed abundant meals breaking the fast with family and friends, the crowded mosques for tarawih prayers after the break-fast meal or the pre-suhur prayers in the early hours of the morning. The sound of a cannon-shot marking the evening break-fast time, or of the early morning drummer waking inhabitants of the houses on his beat to have their last meal before fasting begins, are silent now for another year. People have poured out into the streets to celebrate Eid al-Fitr in their new clothes, children clambering on adventurous swings and carnival rides: and the decorative evening lanterns have been put away till the next Ramadan.
Ramadan marks a high point of the Muslim year, when people spend more time praying, reciting the Qur’an, giving money to beggars or providing street break-fast meals for the poor, banking up religious merit in that month that will help sustain them through the year. It’s also a time when people spend more on food and the television channels are crowded with mouth-watering recipes as well as enticing soap operas to help people relax in the evening hours. This month of fasting is more about food and feasting than any other time of the year. Women work long hours to prepare the meals for extended family and friends, especially in the first and last weeks of Ramadan.
Why fast? Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam. The Qur’an teaches that the Qur’an was revealed in Ramadan: and that fasting is to help people acquire piety (Q al-Baqarah 183-5). Other reasons given for fasting include increasing self-control, learning patience and breaking bad habits and becoming more compassionate to those in need. A number of hadith attribute forgiveness of sins to those who fast with sincere faith.[i]
Anyone engaging with the Muslim community needs to seriously consider developing a robust theology and practice of fasting. The freedom of following the Messiah is the antithesis of legalistic practices or seeking to earn merit: and the Bible warns strongly against empty fasting without living out God’s imperative to justice and mercy in our lives (Isaiah 58:3-6).
However fasting, like prayer,[ii] is an assumed practice for followers of the Messiah. There are a number of different reasons for fasting, as well as different ways of observing it, and different lengths of fast. Fasting for twenty-four hours is common, and many people fast for longer, up to weeks at a time. Some people fast as individuals, and it is not unusual for congregations to set aside perhaps a month to fast together. Traditionally churches have fasted before Easter and Christmas, fasting for forty days just as the Messiah fasted over forty days in the desert before beginning his ministry. Some fast from food for twenty-four hours or more, but drink water, and sometimes other liquids. Many Orthodox will fast from food and water until midday or 3pm, but then break their fast only with a vegan meal, especially in the weeks leading up to Christmas and Easter. Some people choose to fast from a particular dietary indulgence (such as alcohol, or foods containing sugar), especially in the weeks before Easter.
So why fast? Fasting is usually coupled with prayer in the Bible, a way of expressing our prayer through our bodies.[iii] Like prayer, we learn about fasting primarily through practice rather than reading about it. However here is an initial overview of fasting in the Bible.
Fasting is used to express repentance. Fasting for repentance can be corporate (1 Samuel 7:6; 1 Kings 21:27; Nehemiah 9:1-2; Joel 1:13f, 2:12f; Jonah 3:5), or done by individuals (Daniel 9:3; Ezra 9:5; Nehemiah 1:4). Fasting is also a way of expressing grief or mourning, whether for something past (1 Samuel 31:13, 2 Samuel 1:11-12) or anticipated (Esther 4:3).
Fasting can also accompany intercession for others (2 Samuel 12:16; Psalm 35:13; Esther 4:16; Daniel 6:18). Fasting can be part of worshipping, and seeking God’s guidance (Judges 20:26; 2 Chronicles 20:1-30; Acts 13:2). And fasting demonstrates dependence on God, whether for protection (Ezra 8:21-23), or an acknowledgement that doing God’s will is our ultimate sustenance (John 4:32, 34), as we live not merely by bread but by God’s Word (Matthew 4:4; Deuteronomy 8:3). As part of that dependence, we fast when we are consecrating ourselves or others for ministry, and preparing ourselves to face temptation (Matthew 4:1-3; Acts 13:3, 14:23).
In Ramadan, how do we walk alongside our Muslim friends as they participate in fasting through the daylight hours for the whole month? Should we also fast? I suggest the answer depends on our motivation. Seeking to identify with the Muslim community in their intense religious observance that is designed to gain merit, and bank up religious piety, may not be the most helpful way to engage.
However as we have seen above, there is an important role in fasting in order to intercede and seek God’s mercy for a community. The 30 Days of Prayer is perhaps the biggest movement of prayer worldwide, one which has had a significant impact as it has grown over the last few decades. Many people choose to combine fasting with joining this prayer movement, for example by fasting on Fridays and then coming together with a group to share in prayer. Some spend the whole month fasting from food, but still drinking during the daylight hours. At times I’ve fasted from food and drink during daylight hours, and followed the Orthodox pattern breaking the fast in the evening with a vegan diet: this has been helpful when I’m using the month to pray for a particular crisis or region in the Muslim world.
How do we take this month, when people are so preoccupied with their own piety, to share our dependence on and joy in God’s Word? There are a few Bible passages on fasting, mostly cautionary in intent. However when we realise that Ramadan is about food as much as it is about fasting, we find the Bible replete with stories of food and hospitality – too many to even list here. One of my favourites is the feeding of the five thousand men (plus women and children), when this great crowd had fasted for a whole day because of their hunger to hear God’s word – and Jesus showed his power and God’s generous abundance in both satisfying them with God’s word, and feeding them physically. One church took the opportunity of the evening celebrations each Ramadan to welcome people walking on the street into a space for free drinks and conversation. Doing so, they found that their “presence and stories were welcomed with open arms,” as they made friends, following Jesus’ example in sharing both spiritual and physical sustenance during the evenings with their visitors.
[i] https://www.minhaj.org/english/tid/2954/Quranic-Verses-and-Hadith-on-the-Month-of-Ramadan-and-Fasting.html offers an example of some of the hadith on fasting.
[ii] Matthew 6:1-18. Giving alms, praying and fasting are all considered primary actions for those who follow Jesus, so primary that Jesus is concerned that it is done in a Kingdom way, not to gain merit before others.
[iii] See https://whenwomenspeak.net/uncategorized/what-do-people-do-when-they-pray/ for discussion of other dimensions of embodied prayer.
Featured image credits: https://www.pexels.com/photo/biryanni-dish-on-round-stainless-steel-tray-1161468/; https://www.pexels.com/photo/brown-desk-lamp-on-table-2233416/; https://unsplash.com/photos/Bc0gE_eI8EU.
(c) When Women Speak… June 2019
Moyra Dale spent over two decades in the Middle East (particularly Egypt, Jordan, and Syria) with her family working in education, specializing in Adult Literacy (Arabic) and teacher training. She is an ethnographer whose research has included exploring adult literacy in Egypt and the women’s mosque movement in Syria through women’s accounts and understanding of their own lives and realities. Currently based in Melbourne, Australia, she writes, teaches, trains, and supervises students in Islam and cross-cultural understanding, with a focus on Muslim women.
Moyra holds a PhD in Education (La Trobe University) and DTh (Melbourne School of Theology).