National Edition

Heart and soul: Fasting has spiritual and physical benefits across faiths

Published: Friday, July 26 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

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

Allison Pond, Deseret News

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 Center, 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 Center 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 Shuaib-udDin of the Utah Islamic Center. "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," Shuaid-udDin said. "They may have gone without from dawn until sunset, but they still went about committing sin, lying, backbiting, cheating."

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