Fasting in Abrahamic Traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam
By Dr A. Khan
Chicago, IL

There are a number of common traditions in the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They all believe in one God, offer daily payers and weekly congregational prayers, give alms, visit the holy city of Jerusalem, accept Abraham (pbuh) as one of the Major Prophets, and keep fasts. Although the form and protocols of fasting vary greatly among Jews, Christians, and Muslims, but one thing is common: they all seek spiritual enlightenment by following the commandments of God.


Fasting In Judaism

According to Jewish Encyclopedia , the Day of Atonement is the only fast-day prescribed by the Mosaic Law:

...In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and you shall not do any work ... For on that day he shall provide atonement for you to cleanse you from all your sins before the L-RD. - Leviticus 16:29-30.

Yom Kippur , like Shabbat, is a day when one refrains from work. Leviticus 23:32 describes Yom Kippur as a Shabbat Shabbaton - a Sabbath of complete rest. The other fasts in the Jewish calendar were established after the Captivity in commemoration of the various sad events that had befallen on the Jewish nation during that period. These were the fast of the fourth month (Tammuz), of the fifth month (Ab), of the seventh month (Tishri), and of the tenth month (Ṭebet). According to some rabbis of the Talmud, these fasts were obligatory only when the nation was under oppression, but not in peace time. In the Book of Esther an additional fast is recorded, which is commonly observed, in commemoration of the fast of Esther, on the thirteenth of Adar, although some used to fast three days—the first and second Mondays and the Thursday following Purim.

Over time, many other fasts were incorporated in memory of certain troubles that befell on the Jewish people, but these were not regarded as obligatory, and eventually they found little acceptance among the followers. Besides fixed fast-days, the Synagogue frequently imposed a fast-day upon the community when great calamities threatened the Jewish people. All Jewish fasts begin at sunrise and end with the appearance of the first stars of the evening, except those of the Day of Atonement and the Ninth of Ab, which last "from even till even."


Fasting in Christianity

In Christianity , fasting practices have undergone many changes over the centuries, and vary among denominations. The most significant Biblical stories concerning fasting are Prophet Isa’s (pbuh, Jesus’s) forty day fast in the wilderness, and Prophet Moses’s (pbuh) forty day fast atop Mount Sinai. In present day Christian traditions, there are no compulsory or required acts of fasting; however, some Christians voluntary undergo some form of a forty day fast in order to deepen their faith and feel closer to God.

In the early years of Christian church , there used to be a much stronger emphasis on fasting; Wednesdays and Fridays were considered days of fasting. By the middle ages fasting had assumed a major significance. On the Church proclaimed fasting days, priests and nuns used to keep a fast spanning twenty-four hours. In the medieval Christian Church every Friday was considered a fast day and it commemorated the death of Jesus.

According to the New Bible Dictionary, Fasting "generally means going without all food and drink for a period." However, in modern fasting by the Catholic Church, for example, it can refer to abstaining from certain types of food for a period or limiting the number or size of meals over a certain period of time.

Historically, in Judeo-Christian traditions, the only Fast explicitly commanded in the Old Testament Law was on the Day of Atonement.  This is described in Leviticus 16:29-34.  The term there indicating a fast is translated as "humble your souls" in the New American Standard Bible.  The same Hebrew words are used in conjunction with fasting in Psalm 35:13, and the parallelism of the poetry indicates that the phrase conveys the same concept as fasting. (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Volume 2, edited by Frank E. Gaebelein; the section on Leviticus written by R. Laird Harris). After the Exile, four other annual fasts were observed. The Exile would refer to both the Exile of the northern kingdom (Israel) by the Assyrians and the exile of the southern kingdom (Judah) by the Babylonians.  See Zechariah 8:19). Esther 9:31 indicates the establishment of an additional fast associated with the feast of Purim which celebrated the deliverance of the Jews from genocide while in exile in Persia.

Some fasts were voluntary and entered into individually (see II Samuel 12:22) or corporately (see Judges 20:26). Fasting was associated with grieving (II Samuel 23:12-13), penitence (I Samuel 7:6), expressing humility and dependence on God (Ezra 8:21), self-punishment (phrase "to afflict the soul" in Psalm 35:13 {King James Version}), appealing for God's provision (II Samuel 12:16-23).  Fasting could also be vicarious as in Esther 4:15-17.

Fasting perhaps was misconstrued as a means of manipulating God, so the prophet Isaiah made clear that fasting "without right conduct... was in vain" (See Isaiah 58 for this very spirited appeal by the prophet for proper fasting). The Day of Atonement is the only annual fast referred to in the New Testament.

In Jesus' parable in Luke 18:9-14, he makes reference to a Pharisee who fasted twice a week.  It was common for adherents to that sect to fast every Monday and Thursday. Jesus is only recorded to have fasted in his 40 days in the wilderness before his public ministry (Matthew 4:1-4).  Moses (Exodus 34:28) and Elijah (I Kings 19:8) both also participated in 40 day fasts. The disciples appear to have only participated in the one obligatory fast and not any voluntary fasts while Jesus was on earth with them (See Luke 5:33-35). In Acts 13:2-3 and 14:23 church leaders fasted before selecting missionaries and elders.

Voluntary fasting in the Old Testament expressed a mournful, urgent seeking of God in distressing circumstances. King David fasted for his dying infant son in II Samuel 12:16-18.
There was fasting by Jews when threatened with genocide in Esther 4:3, 16. The inhabitants of the Assyrian city of Nineveh fasted as an act of repentance in Jonah 3:6-10 (note these were non-Jews). Fasting is what Jehovah asks for as part of the repentance he seeks from the sinful kingdom of Judah in Joel 2:12-13. Jesus’ teaching on fasting in the Sermon on the Mount was primarily designed to warn his disciples against the sin of hypocrisy .  (See Matthew 6:16-18). These seem, along with what is mentioned in Isaiah 58, to be the main teachings on proper fasting in the Judeo-Christian theology.  It should be noted that the emphasis is on justice and attitude with very little concern on the details of not eating or dietary restrictions.


Additional examples of fasting involve the Apostle Paul who fasted after his conversion in Acts 9:9, and the Apostle Paul's words in Colossians 2:16-17, emphasizing the voluntary nature of fasting in the Church, treating matters of food and drink as personal matters not to come under the judgment of others in the church.

In the Roman Catholic tradition , "Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are obligatory days of fasting and abstinence for Catholics. In addition, Fridays during Lent are obligatory days of abstinence." Moreover, Fasting is encouraged as a preparation for all feast days.

Reflecting on the Christian tradition of fasting, Gene Anderson, a missionary with Kids Alive International in Taitung, Taiwan , makes the following observations:

1. Evangelical churches tend to emphasize the voluntary and private nature of fasting, recognizing it as a valuable spiritual exercise, but placing it lower in importance compared to prayer and Bible study.
2. The Charismatic and Pentecostal portions of the Protestant church put a much greater emphasis on fasting.
3. For Roman Catholics, fasting is not equated with a total lack of food consumption.  What passes for fasting is often the consumption of one regular meal and two smaller meals on a given fast day.  Sometimes it also refers to refraining from the consumption of meats.
4. I have at least twice given up a meal on Good Friday in order to fast and pray.  I have also fasted when praying to God in a matter of great urgency.
5. In some Evangelical churches, the emphasis on fasting includes setting aside the time that would be spent preparing and consuming food and using that time for prayer.  Also, the money that is saved by skipping a meal is often made into a charitable offering.

Fasting in Islam

Fasting (Siyam or Sawm) is one of the five pillars of faith in Islam. Prophet Mohammed (Pbuh) said:

(The superstructure) of Islam is raised on five pillars: Tawhid , the oneness of Allah (Monotheism), Salah , the establishment of worship prayers, Zakat , the payment of poor due, Sawm, the fast of Ramadan , and Hajj - the pilgrimage to Makkah ( Sahih Bukhari and Muslim ).


Fasting is an act of obedience and submission to Allah's commandments through the highest degree of commitment, sincerity, and faithfulness. In Islam, fasting is a meaningful practice with a specific purpose. It has its own set of protocols and structure.

Purpose of Fasting : The main purpose of fasting is to attain Taqwa (God consciousness) and evoke Allah's pleasure through self-restraint, self-discipline, and self-purification.

"O you who have believed, decreed upon you is fasting as it was decreed upon those before you that you may become righteous." ( Al-Qur'an 2:183)

Taqwa is a very comprehensive Qur'anic term implying both love and fear of Allah. It means keeping the believer conscious of his Creator at all times and in all places.

Types of Fasts : Muslims keep two types of fasts: 1. The obligatory fasts of the month of Ramadan, (2) Voluntary fasts.

The observance of the fast in the month of Ramadan is an obligatory duty on every adult, sane, able, man and woman. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. Obligatory fasting commences with the beginning of the month of Ramadan with the sighting of the new moon, and ends at the end of the month. Allah revealed the Qur'an (the book of guidance for mankind) in the month of Ramadan, and commanded Muslims to fast in this month.

The month of Ramadan in which was revealed the Qur'an, a guidance for mankind, and clear proofs of the guidance, and the Criterion (of right and wrong). And whosoever of you is present, let him fast the month, and whosoever of you is sick or on a journey, (let him fast the same) number of other days. Allah desires for you ease; He desires not hardship for you; and (He desires) that you should complete the period, and that you should magnify Allah for having guided you, and that peradventure you may be thankful." ( Al-Qur'an 2:185)

Requirements of Fasting : There are two major requirements for fasting: (1) Niyyah or intention to fast, (2) Methodology of fast. The Niyyah can be made before dawn on each day of fasting at the time of the Suhur (light pre-dawn meal) as follows: I intend to observe fast for today. The methodology of fast involves abstinence from three primal physical needs of human beings --food, drink, and sexual relationship --from dawn (approximately one and half hours before sunrise) to sunset ( Iftar time ) with the prerequisite intention of fasting. Iftar is an Arabic term meaning breaking the fast immediately after the sunset. There are, however, no restrictions in fulfilling these physical needs during the night (non-fasting) hours.

Exemption from Fasting : People in the following categories are exempted from the obligatory fasting of Ramadan: (1) Children under the age of puberty, (2) Insane or mentally challenged people, (3) The elderly and chronically ill, (4) Women during menstruation, (5) Women during pregnancy and lactation, (6) Sick people with recoverable illness. (7) People under stress, and (8) Travelers.

Voluntary Fasts : The protocols and methodology of all voluntary fasts involve the same structure and standards as for fasting in Ramadan. Since voluntary fasts are optional (Nafl), they can be observed as one wishes.

The practice of fasting influences Muslims in a positive way. Fasting enhances the feeling of inner peace and provides tranquility of mind. It teaches patience and perseverance. Personal hostilities and aggressions are also curbed. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), the last of the prophets of Allah, regarded fasting as a blessing for both body and soul, and advised the Muslims to exercise moderation. Many recent scientific studies have revealed that fasting cleanses the body and improves health.

Fasting is a one of many common traditions among the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In this day and age, where emphasis is being placed by certain quarters to highlight the differences in faiths in order to force people apart, it has become incumbent on the believers of Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to strive to use common traditions like fasting to attain spiritual enlightenment, and enhance understanding of each other’s faiths and traditions, so that people can coexist in peace and harmony.



Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.