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Fasting

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Fasting

    Fasting is a common practice in many religions. It generally refers to the voluntary abstention from eating for a period of time. Islamic tradition encourages numerous days of fasting. The most important fast, during the month of Ramadan, is one of the Five Pillars of Islam (obligations required of all healthy adult Muslims) and lasts an entire month. Other fasts include Ashura, a day-long fast similar to the Jewish Day of Atonement, and a six-day fast during Shawwal, the month after Ramadan. Expiatory fasting, or kaffarah, is fasting that atones for sins or for neglecting one's duties. Some Muslims also choose three additional fast days each month or fast on Mondays and Thursdays.

    The Qur'an instructs all Muslims to participate in the great fast of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. During this period, Muslims abstain from food and drink each day from dawn to sunset. The month is an occasion for spiritual reflection, prayer, and discipline. Muslims at this time thank Allah for their blessings and for forgiving their sins. The great fast is also a special time to respond to the needs of the poor.

    During Ramadan, Muslims awaken before sunrise to eat their first meal of the day. They do not eat or drink again until after sunset. At dusk, Muslims eat a light meal. Later in the evening, families often gather together to share a larger meal.

    Muslim countries have developed a variety of local customs connected to Ramadan. In many parts of the Islamic world, the fast is a festive time. Communities often decorate their streets with lights and ornaments. In some areas, Muslims serve special foods that are not eaten any other time of the year. During the last ten nights of the month, Muslims commemorate the Night of Power, when Muhammad received God's revelation. At the end of Ramadan, Muslims hold a great celebration, the Festival of the Breaking of the Fast (Eid al-Fitr). In some countries, this three-day celebration is a national holiday. Family members and friends gather to exchange gifts and eat heartily.

    Islamic law excuses certain people from the Ramadan fast. Those exempted include children younger than adolescents, the sick, the elderly, travelers, and women who are pregnant, nursing, or who have just given birth. As they have done for centuries, Muslim legal authorities still issue judgments on the subject of fasting. Many of their rulings concern issues related to modern life, such as whether receiving inoculations or intravenous medication breaks the fast.

    Muslim societies strongly encourage participation in the Ramadan fast. In countries ruled by Islamic law, breaking this fast can result in punishment. These penalties differ from country to country and have included verbal reproaches, floggings, and fines. See also Dietary Rules; Food and Feasts; Pillars of Islam; Ramadan.

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