Fasting in Religion

Abstaining from the Material to Focus on the Spiritual

Ramadan in the Quran

Faris Algosaibi / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Fasting is a practice found in many cultures both ancient and modern. The practice involves abstaining from food or from food and water, and the faster might also abstain from other things such as sex.

The Purposes of Fasting

There are multiple reasons for a person to fast. The first is purification. Contamination comes from exposure to toxic influences. Spiritually speaking, such things certainly do not need to be medically poisonous. Purification involves stripping away the outer layers of the self until you get to a more simple and pure state. Abstaining from food or certain types of food is one way of doing this.

The second reason is a focus on spirituality. Many cultures see an obsession with the physical world as a detriment to spirituality. By removing some of the draws of the physical world, one can return to a more focused, spiritual life. Such fasting is generally coupled with increased prayer.

The third is a show of humility. Humans need a certain amount of sustenance to survive, but many of us eat well beyond that basic level. Fasting helps remind the faster of the hardships faced by the less fortunate and can encourage them to better appreciate what they have, including regular access to food. For this reason, fasting is also sometimes paired with alms-giving.

The Practice of Fasting

Different cultures approach fasting in different manners as well. Some prohibit certain foods. For Jews and Muslims, pork is always forbidden, for example. In this case, it is because it is seen as unclean. For Catholics, traditionally meat could not be eaten on Friday or various other specified days (although that is no longer required by the church). This is not because meat is unclean but because it is a luxury: fasting forces believers to eat a little more modestly.

Other people for either medical or spiritual reasons abstain from eating many foods over several days to cleanse the body. These fasts generally allow a variety of drinks but heavily limit foods in order to flush the body out.

Political activists often sometimes go on hunger strikes, which generally involves refusing food but not water. The body can live for an extended period of time without food. Refusing water, however, quickly becomes deadly.

Some groups abstain from both food and water during part of the day but are allowed to replenish at other times of the day. This includes the Baha'i during Ala and Muslims during Ramadan, both of whom fast during the day but are allowed to eat and drink at night.

Holidays and Timing

The timing of fasts varies greatly between groups and sometimes according to purpose.

For the Baha'i and Muslims, fasting is associated with a particular span of time in the year. In eastern religions, the time of the full moon is often a time of fasting. For others, fasting is tied to specific holidays. Catholics and some other Christians fast during Lent, the forty days before Easter, for example. Jews fast on various holidays, most prominently Yom Kippur.

Some fast before embarking on particular actions. Purification rites are a part of many ordination rituals, and fasting might be included in it. Someone going on a spiritual quest might prepare with fasting, as might one petitioning God (or ​another spiritual being) for a particular favor.

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Your Citation
Beyer, Catherine. "Fasting in Religion." Learn Religions, Aug. 26, 2020, Beyer, Catherine. (2020, August 26). Fasting in Religion. Retrieved from Beyer, Catherine. "Fasting in Religion." Learn Religions. (accessed June 2, 2023).