By Nawar Fakhry Ezzi
03 July, 2014
Survival instincts, such as hunger and thirst could be the driving force behind the actions of many humans and animals. Therefore, if we abstain from food and drink by choice, we give our brains the power to control the urges of our body instead of the other way around. This ability differentiates us from animals and demonstrates that we are in control and responsible for our own actions. This is why fasting has been one of the oldest religious observances, which is still practiced today by Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Christians and Muslims. In addition to practicing self-restraint, fasting has been practiced to reconnect with God, purify the heart, repent from sins, and to empathize with the poor who live in constant deprivation. In Islam, fasting is also a link to those who came before us as is mentioned in the following verse: “O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may learn (self-restraint)” (2:183).
In this way, fasting emphasizes the lineage of prophets we believe in, which was sealed by Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). It also demonstrates the bond we have with others, especially Christians and Jews. In addition to Ramadan, we are encouraged to fast on different days during the year, which include "Ashura", the tenth day of the first Hijra month. This day is fasted in sympathy with the celebration of Prophet Moses (peace be upon him) of Yom Kippur or the "Day of Atonement". Even the Arabic and Hebrew roots of the word "fasting", "Sawm/Tzom", are very similar because both languages are Semitic.
We are all part of the Abrahamic religions who believe in Abraham (peace be upon him), the "Father of Prophets". The following verse is one of many verses in which God commands us to believe in all prophets including Abraham (pbuh): “Say: we believe in Allah and (in) that which had been revealed to us, and (in) that which was revealed to Abraham, Ismael, Isaac, Jacob, and the tribes, and (in) that which was given to Moses and Jesus, and (in) that which was given to the prophets from their Lord, we do not make any distinction between any of them, and to Him do we submit” (2:136). It is interesting that the last word of this verse is (Muslims) in Arabic, which is used in this context to refer to all those who believe in this declaration and submit to God. According to the contemporary Muslim philosopher, Dr. Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas, Muslims are the only people who are not described after the founder of their religion, such as Buddhists, or by their ethnic description as in the case of Hindus, which indicates exclusivity. Rather, we are described as "Muslims", which means surrendering and submitting to God, implying the possibility of more inclusiveness of others than many people think.
This does not mean that we are assimilated in the previous religious traditions to the point of losing our own identity. On the contrary, although Islam grew from the same source, it established its own roots and grew into a different religious tradition with its own unique approach to performing rituals and observances. For example, prayer is common to all three monotheistic religions, but Muslims face towards the Holy Kaaba. Even the fasting on "Ashura" follows the Islamic way of fasting from sunrise to sunset rather than the Jewish sunset-to-sunset fasting on "Yom Kippur". In addition, Muslims are instructed to fast a day before as well in order to show our support to Prophet Moses (pbuh) while asserting our own identity.
Unfortunately, all these similarities have been marginalized while the differences have been magnified, especially after the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, colonization, and the rise of fundamentalism in all three religions. The participation of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah, with King Juan Carlos I of Spain in the "Conference on Dialogue" in Spain, after King Abdullah’s initiative of interfaith and intercultural dialogue in 2008 in Makkah, was very symbolic because Spain is the place where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived in considerable harmony under the Umayyad rule in Andalusia. Rabbi David Rosen asserts that the Jewish civilization flourished during these years by saying: “During this period, some of the greatest works of Jewish philosophy, grammar, law, philology, and lexicography were written, in parallel with great advances in these fields in the Islamic world. Jewish poetry in Hebrew found a renaissance during this period as well and its meters, styles and contents parallel those of its Muslim Arabic counterpart”.
Fasting is one of the pillars of Islam, which not only draws us closer to God and helps us practice self-restraint, but also connects us to the lineage of prophets we believe in. Fasting can be a way to remind us of the bond we have with those who came before us and with those with whom we still share the world.