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Fasting: A ritual of remembrance for many spiritual practices – University of Miami: News@theU

Nearly all religious traditions observe some type of fasting.
Nearly all religious traditions observe some type of fasting.
While some religions practice fasting as a form of repentance and others utilize it as a method to aid contemplative practices like meditation and prayer, there is general agreement that abstention from food (and sometimes water) can help a practitioner to think more clearly and more mindfully about the spiritual purpose in their lives, according to Catherine Newell, associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Miami. 
“Across history and religions, fasting can mean anything from complete abstention from solid food for days at a time to periods of avoiding certain foods or only eating during certain times of day,” Newell explained. “There is no single form of fasting as a spiritual practice; rather, fasting seems to be a ubiquitous practice across traditions with each iteration of fasting taking on a meaning unique to that faith.” 
Nearly all religious texts either mention an individual undertaking a contemplative, repentant, or sacrificial fast, or proscribe fasting during various periods—daily, weekly, or seasonally, she said. 
Seasonal fasts include Ramadan, which began the evening of April 2 and is observed as the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and Lent in various denominations of Christianity, which began March 2 and encompasses the 40 days leading to Easter. In other religions, fasting is related to a specific day of the year and as a form of repentance, such as Yom Kippur in Judaism. While in others, fasting is personal and undertaken for the purpose of spiritual growth or awakening, as in some Hindu practices. And in still other traditions, fasting is considered part of a daily ritual meant to aid meditative practices, such as in some forms of Buddhism, Newell noted. 
The form the fast takes—short with no food or longer with food restrictions—depends on the religion. Some religions suggest short but intense fasts, while others proscribe longer periods of fasting. And some religions make space in the calendar for both. In either case, the goal for observances like Ramadan is an individual’s spiritual growth as well as building community, according to Newell.
Nebil Husayn, an assistant professor in the department and a specialist in the field of Islamic studies, pointed out that fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam and is ordained in the Koran, the Muslim holy book. 
“The Quran ties fasting to the idea of seeking god consciousness. It’s an opportunity for Muslims to transcend daily life and remember that our existence is a precious opportunity. Part of the way that we show our gratefulness for that is to recognize our need for food and drink and thanking God when we satiate ourselves,” Husayn affirmed. “Fasting does that and demonstrates how much we are in need of a benefactor or other resources to survive.” 
He emphasized that fasting reorients a person into remembering that they are in need, that they are mortal, and that they have physical needs. 
“So, when you break that fast, when you end up having food or drink, there is immediately a gratefulness that you can now get those nutrients and you can satiate yourself, your hunger, or thirst,” he added. 
Abdulrahman Bindamnan, a 2020 graduate of psychology and religious studies and former president of Muslim Students at the University of Miami (MSUM), acknowledged that fasting can be challenging for students attempting to maintain normal study and life routines. During his time as head of MSUM, he estimated the population of Muslims at the University to be in the hundreds. 
“For observant Muslims, our normal schedule is turned upside down during the month of Ramadan and getting enough sleep becomes a challenge,” he said. Some Muslims choose to stay up all night until dawn time to eat the “suhur,” the prefast meal, then pray and sleep during the day, he added. 
“Some observant Muslims may struggle focusing because the circadian rhythms are all affected,” Bindamnan said, referring to the physical, mental, and emotional changes that happen within a 24-hour cycle. The body’s natural process is geared to respond to light and dark. 
Husayn pointed out that the dates to celebrate Ramadan move in 10-day increments because the holiday links to the Islamic lunar calendar and so this year, for the first time in many, the 30 consecutive days of fasting fall entirely within the academic calendar. 
Despite the challenges, Bindamnan highlighted that observant Muslims strive to persist because of the values that Ramadan bestows and the righteous virtues that it cultivates.
“Fasting trains the self to augment compassion, self-control, self-discipline, and thankfulness to the creator,” he said, adding that “it imparts sympathy to the poor to whom hunger is nothing but a common experience and reminds humans that food and water are God’s properties, for which we shall be grateful.” 
Husayn emphasized the ancient roots of the practice and suggested that fasting is essentially a ritual of remembrance. 
“Fasting demands us to remember that even if we are wealthy and can avoid feeling the real-life hunger or thirst that others do, that if we are humans, we are eventually going to feel need.
“The act of fasting is a humbling one, and then there is the culture of breaking the fast with family, with community members, and with the poor—so that when you’re fasting you may remember that there are people who don’t have a choice,” Husayn explained.
Newell noted that all religions allow exceptions for the practice of fasting.
“Most rules about religious fasts come with restrictions on who should fast and what form that fast should take,” Newell said. “Often, the very old and the very young, the sick or injured, those who do heavy labor, and those who are pregnant or nursing are either advised not to join in the fast or adapt the fasting period to their personal health needs. 
“The bottom line is that fasting—whether it’s for half a day or over the course of many weeks—is a spiritual exercise that enriches religious communities around the world,” Newell added.
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