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Heart and Soul: Fasting Has Spiritual and Physical Benefits across Faiths


By Matthew Brown

July 26 2013

Muslim women wait for sundown to break their fast at an Iftar dinner during the month of Ramadan at the Utah Islamic Centre in Sandy, Utah, July 19, 2013.

Ravi Kiran Parmar spent last Friday in the kitchen of her suburban Salt Lake County home preparing food from her native India for nearly 300 people.

She fixed pots of rice, chicken Tikka Masala and an Indian cheese dish, piles of Naan flatbread and individual-sized containers of an ice cream called Kulfi. And she served it at precisely 8:55 p.m. — sundown — on Friday night, July 19, to a group of Muslims who had been fasting since dawn.

Members of the Utah Islamic Centre, tucked away in the corner of an unassuming strip mall just off I-15 in Sandy, are observing the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, during which believers go without food, drink, tobacco and sexual relations during daylight hours. They broke their fast last Friday — Islam's holy day — beginning with the traditional eating of dates, along with fruit and a yogurt dish prepared by Parmar, as the call to prayer sounded throughout the facility.

But Parmar, who will also fast for two days of the 30-day ritual, isn’t Muslim. She’s Hindu, and she's part of a growing number of non-Muslims who are participating in Ramadan throughout the United States. Their reasons vary from curiosity to physical health benefits to spiritual growth — elements of fasting that are common to many faith traditions.

For the 56-year-old Parmar, fasting for two days is a show of friendship and gratitude for the Muslim friends that have blessed her from her childhood in India through the present day, as many of the valley's Muslims patronize her family's two convenience stores.

"I will fast on the 26th and 27th days of Ramadan," she says in a strong Indian accent. "I will read my Hindi Quran and my Hindi Bible and other religious books. I will pray to God that he will take care of my family and everyone else."

Spiritual Benefits

The practice of abstaining from food and drink for extended periods has cultural and religious roots that reach back centuries before the Prophet Muhammad made it one of the five pillars of Islam. Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity also have long traditions of fasting.

Religion scholars say the earliest references to fasting are in the Old Testament of the Bible, where the practice is associated with mourning or a sign of repentance. "You could say that eating is so central to human existence that not to eat is a way of saying something is wrong," said Joel Green, the associate dean for the Centre for Advanced Theological Studies at the Fuller Theological Seminary.

But Old Testament prophets chastised those who used fasting as an exhibition of piety. Jesus later urged his followers to consider their motives for fasting and examine whether they were merely participating in an external ritual or expressing a contrite heart, Green explained.

For early Protestants, fasting was one way they differentiated themselves from the Roman Catholic Church, which requires fasting during Lent and for centuries asked faithful to abstain from meat on Fridays. Many Protestant denominations view fasting as something to be done at one's personal discretion rather than at set times.

But a common aspect of fasting for all theistic religions is that it provides a way to feed one's spirit and become closer to God.

"We believe that the body is composed of both the physical body and the spiritual soul," said Imam Shuaiduddin of the Utah Islamic Centre. "The point (of Ramadan) is that, hopefully, if we deprive our body of physical food for a few hours we can strengthen our spiritual side."

But he said the practice requires more than just going without. "The Prophet Muhammad said there are many people who get nothing out of fasting but hunger," Shuaiduddin said. "They may have gone without from dawn until sunset, but they still went about committing sin, lying, backbiting, and cheating."

The imam said he counsels his congregation to focus on correcting one's behaviour during Ramadan. For his own part, Shahabuddin said he increases his reading of the Quran, Islam's holy book, and finds an increased intensity in his prayers during Ramadan.

Donald Whitney, an associate professor of biblical spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of the best-selling book "Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life," said the hunger pains felt throughout a fast should serve as reminders to pray and ponder the larger, spiritual purpose of the fast.

"It shouldn't be endurance contest where if you tough it out God will be impressed and give you what you are asking for," Whitney said. "That’s a works-based orientation to the gospel that evangelicals would reject."

Physical Benefits

Today, fasting is receiving interest on the secular front as a practice that can yield health benefits. One of the latest trends is intermittent or alternate fasting, which ranges from periodic multi-day fasts to skipping a meal or two on certain days of the week as a way to cut calories and cleanse the body of toxins.

"There are individual claims of it causing improvement for all kinds of different medical problems … but it hasn't been investigated scientifically," said Dr. Benjamin Horne, director of cardiovascular and genetic epidemiology at the Intermountain Heart Institute. "For example, no one can name the toxins they claim are flushed out" of the body through fasting.

But Horne has headed up several studies on the positive effect fasting can have on the risks of heart disease and diabetes.

He studied members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who observe a monthly "fast Sunday" during which they skip two meals and give an offering that goes toward helping the needy in their congregations.

Horne said that Utah's below-average incidence of heart disease was long attributed to the Mormon proscription of alcohol and tobacco. But when smoking declined nationwide and Utah still ranked at the bottom in heart disease, researchers at the institute began investigating other factors. They found that regular fasting stood out as they measured the dietary risks of heart disease.

"We adjusted for smoking, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and other risk factors and found a significant difference between those of the LDS Church and people of other faiths in their coronary disease risk, with the LDS people having about a 19 percent lower risk" of heart disease, Horne said.

Further studies explored the biological mechanisms behind those benefits, showing that fasting also benefited people with diabetes — a finding that went against the conventional wisdom that diabetics shouldn't participate in fasting.

But the research also found fasting increased levels of cholesterol and growth hormone, said Horne, which inhibits insulin and forces the body to consume fat cells for fuel instead of glucose.

Horne said research out of Iran has also found that the cholesterol levels of observant Muslims improved during Ramadan.

There are health risks to fasting, and most faith traditions allow exceptions for pregnant or breastfeeding women, young children or those susceptible to migraine headaches. Horne said dehydration, which is a strong risk factor for stroke, is the most common risk of fasting.

Spiritual Solidarity

Parmar, whose Hindu tradition involves a nine-day fast once a year, said her participation in Ramadan is all about her spiritual health. She feels none of the animosity toward Muslims that many Hindus in her homeland feel.

An upstairs room of her home honours the Hindu, Sikh, Islamic and Christian traditions. The bright orange and yellow walls complement the four shrines that include statues, holy books and other important symbols of each respective faith. In the centre of the room is a large throw pillow on which she can kneel for morning prayers.

"All religions have good, and it is wrong to use religion against other people," she said, crediting her parents for teaching her to respect and embrace the good in different cultures and traditions.

Parmar said she was 10 years old the first time she fasted during Ramadan. She did it to support a Muslim friend. Today, she supports her friends at the Utah Islamic Centre, including Romana Qazi, who helped her prepare the food for the Iftar dinner and who owns a Halal Indian restaurant, Zabiha Grill, in Salt Lake City.

This kind of solidarity is not an unusual motive for those who join Ramadan fasts in the United States, according to published reports on the growing number of non-Muslims choosing to participate in what can be a challenging experience.

In his Ramadan Reflections blog, Imam Khalid Latif reflected on why someone would want to go without food or drink during their workday if they are not Muslim:

"The primary conclusion that my mind takes me to is that Muslims enjoy fasting, and those who see us fast observe that enjoyment and want to try it out. It might seem like a simplistic notion, but when you really break it down, if I see you doing something and can see that you love doing it, it's going to incline me towards doing it as well."