To many, the word fast or fasting is a strange one; growing up I could never see the lexical relationship between refraining from indulging in a packet of crisps and doing something quickly. Of course, with the passage of time one comes to appreciate that fasting has less to do with being an adjective and rather more a term denoting a meritorious act prescribed in the shari’ah.
In common usage, the English term fasting usually signifies an act of willing abstention from food and drink for a given period. While an unwilling act of abstention isn’t generally deemed fasting, one may eat and drink and still be considered fasting (albeit in a limited capacity). For Muslims the idea of a partial fast is understandably strange – what would be the point? Although it is certainly the case that Islamic law prescribes complete abstention, the idea behind a partial fast remains the restriction of dietary intake as a means of purification as well as the expression of a willingness to sacrifice (some) corporeal enjoyment for the sake of God. Given the Christian history of Europe, the partial fast as practiced amongst Christians has become predominant, and along with analogous traditions from other faiths practised in the West the idea that springs to most minds is giving up something you enjoy for a short while.
This is obviously quite unlike the sawm, a pillar of faith and a term that signifies abstinence from specific things for a specified period. Linguistically, that is besides the legal definition aforementioned, the word sawm is agreed to mean imsak, which can mean to either seize or grasp something, or hold back. Interestingly, both expressions include the idea of grasping or clutching something, and coupled with the legal definition it can certainly imply clutching onto the nafs, holding it back and seizing control of one’s self. In any case, the idea of grasping or clutching is probably where the English translation for sawm has come from.
Fasting originates from the Middle English word fasten (in Old English: fæstan), and from the number of connotations the verb conveys (where used without an object – in Arabic grammar known as a fi’l lazim) it notably means to take a firm hold or seize, such as ‘fasten on a belief’. This shared intension (in logic, any property or quality connoted by a word) necessitates that fasting is a good substitute for sawm, but as with all shar’ii definitions, that is (Islamic) legal descriptions, a simple linguistic substitute into a secondary language rarely suffices.
In the shari’ah, sawm precludes both sexual intercourse (and acts that incite sexual arousal) and the consumption of food and drink. This abstention (or holding back) extends, very importantly and in the spirit of the sawm, to all things blameworthy by law, and not just food and drink, with God very much expecting that the act of imsak be coupled with righteous conduct. Interestingly, this idea seems to be universal – a quick purview of others who practice some sort of fast illustrates this. For example, the Old Testament asserts:
“Why have we fasted,” they say… “Why have we humbled ourselves and You (God) have not noticed?” Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loosen the chains of injustice…to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe them…
The biblical verses above clearly denote that fasting, at least also for the Jews and Christians, is just as much about upright deeds as it is abstinence from food. In this way, we find that the King of Nineveh, upon receiving Jonah’s warning of impending doom, issued the following proclamation,
By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.
The great Prophet King David said, “Yet when they were ill, I put on sackcloth and humbled myself with fasting.” Hence were his fast to lack acts of the heart such as humility, and even where he may have abandoned food and drink, his fast would have proved futile. Similarly, we read in the New Testament that Jesus exhorted his followers to fast sincerely for the sake of God (and not for pretentious displays), saying,
When you fast, do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
It is in the completion of the shari’ah of the Most High as explicated by His final messenger that we find these sentiments come together. He, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, said,
Whoever does not leave off false speech and acting by it; then God is not in need of him abandoning his food and drink.
The honourable Companion and second caliph, Umar b. al-Khattab, touching on such sentiment asserted that fasting does not merely mean to keep away from food and drink but also deceit, falsehood, imprudence and taking vows in the name of God.
Whilst there has been a recent and very secular interest in fasting due to the major health benefits achieved from caloric restriction, for the godly it is the heart that essentially fasts, with the limbs following thereafter. The Prophet said, “whosoever fasts during Ramadan out of faith (imaan) and seeking recompense, his (or her) past sins shall be forgiven.” Thus the notion of faith-based abstinence, where faith or imaan refers to the station that embodies acts of faith and avoidance of iniquity as well as affirmation of the life to come and the recompense that follows the accounting, is key to the Divine’s acceptance of our ritual worship.
In conclusion, we must acknowledge that even a cursory glance proves it is markedly clear that all (both Muslims and non-Muslims alike) who observe the idea of a fast consider it to extend beyond food and drink, and refraining from food actually makes up a rather narrow facet of what it means to truly fast. If fasting is the citadel, as the shari’ah suggests, in which the nafs is restrained from food, drink and sexual desires, and a safe haven from which piety is meant to emanate, then the spirit of the fast is indeed the moat of righteousness that defensively encircles it.