Fasting Has Abrahamic Roots – Ustadh Ali Ataie

Ustadh Ali Ataie gives a short history of fasting in Judaism and Islam, its importance and significance, and how it relates to fasting in Islam.

Allah Most High says in the Sura al Baqara 2:183:

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا كُتِبَ عَلَيْكُمُ الصِّيَامُ كَمَا كُتِبَ عَلَى الَّذِينَ مِن قَبْلِكُمْ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُونَ

“Fasting has been prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that perchance they may have taqwa.”

There is a axiom among that Ulama that says: “A thing is known by its objective.” And the objective of fasting is to gain taqwa. Therefore, fasting is a highly exalted thing.

We become conscious of Allah Most High when fasting. This means, in part, that we become conscious of our fellow creatures. This increases empathy. When we fast we experience what it is like not to have food. People live like this on a daily basis.

When we increase in empathy we increase in compassion. When we increase in compassion we become more like the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace.

Fasting Is Not a Muslim Invention

Fasting does not come out of thin air. It is not something the Muslims invented. It has deeply Abrahamic roots. In fact the word for fasting in Hebrew and Aramaic, the language of Musa and Isa, peace be upon them, is also sawm. It is pronounced exactly the same. It is an exact cognate of the Arabic word.

This word is mentioned several times in the Old Testament. For example, David writes in Psalm 35-13: “I humbled my soul with fasting.”

Not only that, the Prophet’s typology, Allah bless him and give him peace, is also found in the Books of Ahl al Kitab. We know the events of Laylat al Qadr. In proto-Isaiah 29:12 we read: “And the book is delivered to him that is not learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I am not learned.”

The Fasts of Musa and Isa

When the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, went to Madina and saw the Jews fasting during Yawm Ashura, he asked: “Why are you doing this?” They said: “To commemorate the exodus of Musa [peace be upon him].” The Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, said: “We have greater claim on Musa [peace be upon him].”

Back then, the Day of Ashura corresponded exactly with the tenth day of the first month of the Jewish calendar: Assara bi Tishri, also known as Yom Kippur – the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. After the Christian era the Jews began to use a leap month every three or four years to better align their calendar with the Gregorian. While Muslims continue to fast on the true, authentic Yom al Kippur.

In Matthew 4:2, we read that Isa, peace be upon him, fasted for forty days and forty nights. In this he followed the example of Musa, peace be upon him.

Anoint Your Face When Fasting

In Matthew 6:6-18, Isa, peace be upon him, said:

Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face;

that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.

When Isa, peace be upon him, says: “Your Father in heaven,” this has nothing to do with being the literal father of anyone. When Isa, peace be upon him, taught his disciples to pray in Matthew 6:9, in the Syriac language, he said: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name.” The meaning is Rabb, sustainer, cherisher.

Note that in the passage above Isa, peace be upon him says that when you fast, do it in secret, and your Lord will reward you for it.

This reminds us of the hadith qudsi of the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace: “Allah Most High says: Every act of the son of Adam is for him, except for fasting, which is for me. And I will reward my servant.”

Ustadh Ali is a graduate of the Badr Arabic Language Institute in Hadramawt, Yemen and studied at the prestigious Dar al-Mustafa under some of the most eminent scholars in the world. He holds a Masters’ Degree in Biblical Studies from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, (the first Muslim seminarian in the 143 year history of the school to do so), and is working on a PhD in Islamic Biblical Hermeneutics.

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