By Basma Mostafa
Since time immemorial, fasting has been an integral part of human life. During our early hunter-gatherer days, whenever there was little or no food available, many humans were left with no choice other than to unwillingly abstain from food. As civilizations began to develop and the health benefits of fasting were discovered, fasting began to develop as a practice because of its deep benefits to the human body and spirit.
Scripture aside, it has been reported that the earliest form of therapeutic fasting goes all the way back to Greece and the Near East. It has been recorded that all peoples of all religions, ethnicities, races, and locations of residence practiced either partial or complete abstinence from food for one reason or another.
Fasting Fuels Physical and Mental Health
The phenomenon of experiencing a loss of appetite whenever illness strikes is as old as humanity itself and can even be noticed in almost all animals. It is a natural reaction that the body adopts in order to rest, restore its balance, heal, and conserve energy when it is most needed. Inspired by the body’s response to disease, many great philosophers, thinkers, and healers throughout the history of mankind used fasting for the well-being of the human body.
There is no period in human history when people did not use fasting for healing the body and renewing its energy. The practice has been used as a form of therapy since at least the 5th century BC, when Greek physician Hippocrates of Kos (470 BC– 370 BC), one of the three fathers of modern medicine, wrote that “to eat when you are sick, is to feed your illness.”
Greek philosopher Pythagoras (570 – 495 BC) was also an ardent supporter of using fasting as a treatment for many illnesses; he regularly went on a water-only fast for 40 days because he believed the practice boosted his mental perception and creativity. He also required that his students do the same before joining his class.
Plato (427-347 BC), disciple of Greek philosopher Socrates, believed that there was “true” and “false” medicine; the latter only gives the “phantom of health,” while the former really improves an individual’s health and included treatments by fasting and diet adjustments as well as exposure to air and sun.
Philip Paracelsus (1493-1541), a Swiss German philosopher and physician and one of the three fathers of Western medicine, said that “fasting is the greatest remedy – the physician within.” Fasting is one of the most ancient and widespread healing traditions in the world and throughout the centuries, its devotees have promoted its physical benefits.
Fasting in Early Religions and Belief Systems
Almost all religions and spiritual groups throughout the history of mankind have utilized fasting in one form or another as a part of ceremonies and rites. Fasting was originally one of a number of rites wherein physical activities were reduced or stopped so that an individual could enter a state that symbolically resembled death. Primitive humans were required to fast before going to war or as part of coming-of-age ritual.
In some primitive religious ceremonies, fasts were also used to induce fertility of both the land and the human body for reproduction or to avert catastrophes such as famine. Some early religions dictated that priests prepared themselves to approach the deities through fasting, after which the gods could reveal their divine teachings in dreams and visions.
Other cultures adhered to one form or another of fasting to assuage an angered deity or to aid a deity who was believed to have died, such as a god of vegetation. As civilizations began to develop, people of different religions began observing fasts as a form of self-control and to seek penance for their sins. Fasting is also used to break the habits of gluttony.
Followers of Judaism have several annual fast days such as Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, to purify themselves. Roman Catholics and Eastern orthodoxy observe a 40-day fast during Lent, the period when Christ fasted 40 days in the desert. Muslims stay off food and drink from sunrise to sunset during the holy month of Ramadan as a form of atonement; they are also encouraged to fast on Mondays and Thursdays of every week.
Furthermore, Buddhists are often only allowed to eat in the morning and then fast from noon until the following morning. They also observe water-only fasts for days or weeks on end. Followers of Jainism, an ancient religion from India, also observed extended periods of fasting according to certain prescribed rules and practiced certain types of meditation so that they could get into a trance-like state that would lead to dissociation from the world and reaching a transcendent state.
It seems that in all cultures, religions, and belief systems, humans practiced fasting in one form or another. Abstinence from food and drink has been promoted and widely practiced since the dawn of humanity by a myriad of physicians as well as dedicated followers of many religions.