Swiss Muslim Academic Dr. Tariq Ramadan states: “The philosophy of fasting calls upon us to know ourselves, to master ourselves, and to discipline ourselves; the better to free ourselves. To fast is to identify our dependencies, and free ourselves from them.”
The Arabic word for fasting (Sawm) has a two-fold meaning as described in Qur’an and Hadith. The primary meaning of sawm is to hold back, to refrain, to abstain – the deeper mystical meaning is to rise beyond, to move past former limits. The Hebrew word for fasting (Tsom) has a similar double meaning.
So sawm/tsom (fasting) fulfills its two meanings; restrain or abstain, pertains to the restraint engendered by the fast; to rise beyond pertains to the self-improvement results, God bestows upon those who fast with sincerity and knowledge. Thus a fast is both a holding back and a lifting up. The body-mind and its appetites are self-disciplined, and through this self-discipline; a subtle but profound spiritual awakening begins.
By observing our religious duties of sawm/tsom humans are provided the means by which to alter our personal reality, in order to shape what we ourselves can become. By holding back the body-mind, the soul-mind attains moments of self-perception, and the spirit awakens and begins to unfold itself. And our generation really needs these life-saving activities.
In an ordinary year, almost one-third of Americans who die will die from smoking, overeating and drinking, and physical inactivity. The lack of self-restraint so evident in much of modern life leads us first to pleasure-seeking, and then increasingly to self-induced suffering.
Millions of people spend billions of dollars on pills, diet books, and gym memberships but still lack the self-discipline to control themselves. In America, young people are leading the way in increasing self-indulgence. In the majority of states (30 out of 50), the percentage of overweight or obese children is at or above 30%. We have largely lost the spiritual value of self-restraint that is so important in the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim traditions. That self-restraint was practiced every year by voluntary community fasting.
Why should people restrict their culinary pleasures in general and more outrageous, why should we afflict ourselves by fasting? Isn’t being happy the most important thing in life? Isn't eating one of the most accessible pleasures we have? Why should religions restrict our pleasures? Why should the Torah decree a day of fasting? (Leviticus 16:29, 23:27).
For twenty-four hours on Yom Kippur, Jews (in good health) are supposed to afflict their souls by abstaining from eating or drinking anything; because what we do not eat maybe even more important than what we do eat. All animals eat, but only humans choose to not eat some foods that are both nutritious and tasty. Some people do not eat meat for religious/ethical reasons.
Hindus do not eat beef and Jews and Muslims do not eat pork for religious/spiritual reasons. And on Yom Kippur - the Day of Atonement, Jews do not eat or drink anything at all for twenty-four hours. Every year for the entire month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from first light until sundown, abstaining from food, drink, and marital relations.
The Qur'an (2:183) says "Oh you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may (learn) self-restraint." What self-restraint discipline are Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism trying to teach us by decreeing the importance of communal fasting? What spiritual benefits occur when we fast?
First of all, fasting teaches compassion. It is easy to talk about the world's problem of hunger. We can feel sorry that millions of people go to bed hungry each day. But not until one can actually feel it in one's own body is the impact truly there. Compassion based on empathy is much stronger and more consistent than compassion based on pity. This feeling must lead to action. Fasting is never an end in itself; that's why it has so many different outcomes.
But all the other outcomes are of no real moral value if compassion is not enlarged and extended through fasting. As the prophet Isaiah said, "The truth is that at the same time you fast, you pursue your own interests and oppress your workers. Your fasting makes you violent, and you quarrel and fight. The kind of fasting I want is this: remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor" (Isaiah 58:3-7)
And as Prophet Muhammad said, "Whoever does not give up deceitful speech and evil actions, Allah is not in need of his leaving eating his food and drink." (Bukhari Vol.3, 31, #127)
This is why feeding the hungry and giving charity are so important during Yom Kippur and Ramadan. As Anas related: “The Prophet was asked, ‘Which type of charity is best?’ He responded, ‘Charity done during Ramadan.’” (Tirmidhi, #663)
Charity (Sadaqah in Arabic, Tsadakah in Hebrew) is very important in Islam and Judaism; and even more so during Ramadan and Yom Kippur. Sadaqah/Tsadakah is a voluntary charity that is given above and beyond what is required from the obligation of the Biblical tithe and the Qur’anic zakāt.
Second, fasting is an exercise in willpower. Most people think they can't fast because it's too hard. But actually, the discomfort of hunger pangs is relatively minor. A headache, muscle pains from too much exercise, and most certainly a toothache, are all more severe than the pains hunger produces. The reason it is so hard to fast is that it is so easy to stop. The food is all around, and in easy reach; all you have to do is take a bite. Thus the key to fasting is the willpower to decide again and again not to eat.
Our society has increasingly become one of self-indulgence. We lack self-discipline. Fasting goes in direct opposition to our increasing "softness" in life. When people exercise their willpower and fast, they are affirming their self-control and celebrating mastery over themselves. We need continually to prove that we can do it because we are aware of our frequent failures to be self-disciplined. As the Qur'an (2:183) says, "Oh you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may (learn) self-restraint."
The third outcome of fasting is a positive struggle against our dependencies. We live in a consumer society. We are constantly bombarded by advertising telling us that we must have this or that to be healthy, happy, popular, or wise. By fasting, we assert that we need not be totally dependent on external things, even such essentials as food. If our most basic need for food and drink can be suspended for twenty-four hours, how much more our needs for all the non-essentials?
In our overheated consumer society, it is necessary periodically to turn off the constant pressure to consume, and to remind ourselves forcibly that "Man does not live by bread alone." (Torah-Deuteronomy 8:3. Gospel-Luke 4:4 & Mathew 4:4)
Fourth, fasting serves as a penance. Though self-inflicted pain may alleviate some guilt, it is much better to reduce one's guilt by offsetting acts of righteousness to others. Though we occasionally hear people echo values from the past that suffering can help one grow, or that an existence unalloyed with pain would lack certain qualities of greatness, many today seem to think that the primary goal in life is " to always be happy and free of all discomfort."
The satisfaction one derives from the self-induced pain of fasting provides insight into a better way of reacting to the externally caused suffering we have to experience anyway. Taking a pill is not always the best way to alleviate pain especially if by doing so we allay the symptoms without reaching the root cause.
The fifth outcome of fasting for Jews is the performance of a mitzvah (a Jewish responsibility), which is, after all, the one fundamental reason for fasting on Yom Kippur. We do not do mitzvoth in order to benefit ourselves, but because our duty to God as Jews requires that we do them. Fasting is a very personal mitzvah, with primarily personal consequences. Fasting on Yom Kippur is a personal offering to the God of Israel from each member of the family of Israel.
For over 120 generations Jews have fasted on this day. A personal act of fasting is part of the Jewish people's covenant with God. The principal reason to fast is to fulfill a mitzvah. The outcome of your fast can be one or more forms of self-fulfillment. But simply knowing that you have done one of your duties as an adult Jew is the most basic and primary outcome of all.
Abu Huraira related Prophet Muhammad said: Allah said: “There are two occasions of joy for one who fasts: one when he (or she) breaks the fast; and the other when he (or she) will meet Allah.” (Muslim).