My attitude towards the Baha’i fast has recently changed. Had you asked me a few years ago what words came to mind when I thought of the fast I would have said “endurance, sacrifice and obedience.” In the past, the month of February was spent mentally psyching myself in preparation for the fast. I likened it to running a marathon, whereby I needed to be mentally ready, picturing myself at the finish line.
There are numerous ways to approach the fast:
- As an act of love and a bounty.
We, verily, have commanded all to observe the Fast in these days as a bounty on Our part, but the people remain unaware, except for those who have attained unto the purpose of God as revealed in His laws and have comprehended His wisdom that pervadeth all things visible and invisible. Say: By God! His Law is a fortress unto you, could ye but understand. Verily, He hath no purpose therein save to benefit the souls of His servants, but, alas, the generality of mankind remain heedless thereof.1
Say: Observe ye the commandments of God for love of His beauty, and be not of those who follow in the ways of the abject and foolish.2
- Something to be endured through sacrifice
Even though outwardly the Fast is difficult and toilsome, yet inwardly it is bounty and tranquillity.3
- In remembrance of those less fortunate
All praise be unto God, Who hath revealed the law of obligatory prayer as a reminder to His servants, and enjoined on them the Fast that those possessed of means may become apprised of the woes and sufferings of the destitute.4
- As a means to alter our state of consciousness
Obligatory prayer and fasting produce awareness and awakening in man, and are conducive to his protection and preservation from tests.5
- An opportunity to get healthy
Research has discovered fasting to have potential benefits for anti-aging, cancer, cognitive function, inflammation, hypertension, and the metabolic syndrome.6
At various stages in my life I have entered the fast using one, or a combination, of these legitimate approaches. It is only recently that I have discovered that the first approach, seeing the Fast solely as an act of love and a bounty, yields the greatest results for me. This approach allows me to no longer see the fast as something to be lovingly endured or suffered through; but rather as a joyous time, something to look forward to, an opportunity to draw closer to this awe-inspiring, Unknowable Essence we call God. When you deeply love someone and they ask something of you, the mere fact that you can fulfill their desire brings you profound joy.
In today’s modern world, fasting is no longer practiced solely in religion, but it is seen as a means to better one’s health or to optimize one’s mental state. The physical benefits to fasting are acknowledged in scientific literature, but to abstain from food and drink in and of itself has no spiritual effect. Abdu’l-Baha tells us:
Fasting is a symbol. Fasting signifies abstinence from lust. Physical fasting is a symbol of that abstinence, and is a reminder; that is, just as a person abstains from physical appetites, he is to abstain from self-appetites and self-desires. But mere abstention from food has no effect on the spirit. It is only a symbol, a reminder. Otherwise it is of no importance. Fasting for this purpose does not mean entire abstinence from food. The golden rule as to food is, do not take too much or too little. Moderation is necessary. There is a sect in India who practice extreme abstinence, and gradually reduce their food until they exist on almost nothing. But their intelligence suffers. A man is not fit to do service for God with brain or body if he is weakened by lack of food. He cannot see clearly.7
In the Baha’i Faith fasting is a law. However, this should not demean the spirit in which we approach the fast and confuse it with our current notion of law as force and compulsion. Baha’u’llah has made fasting a personal obligation, freed from institutional enforcement:
I ask of Thee by Thy Self and by him who hath fasted out of love for Thee and for Thy good-pleasure – and not out of self and desire, nor out of fear of Thy wrath…8
It is important to note that fasting is not a law by which to parade our good works and piety to others, nor a yardstick to judge others’ sincerity. It is rather a law designed out of love, where every hour of it hath been gifted with a special virtue.
Thou hast endowed every hour of these days with a special virtue, inscrutable to all except Thee, whose knowledge embraceth all created things.9
It is no coincidence that the month of fasting falls on the Baha’i month of Ala, meaning Loftiness. The dictionary defines Loftiness as “exalted in rank, dignity, or character; eminent.” Let us then see the fast as an opportunity to convert an act that is base and physical into something lofty that will draw us closer unto God.
- Baha’u’llah, The Importance of Obligatory Prayer and Fasting, From the Writings of Baha’u’llah, compiled by the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice, 2000, para. XIV [↩]
- Ibid. para. I [↩]
- Ibid. para. XVI [↩]
- Ibid. para. II [↩]
- Abdu’l-Baha, The Importance of Obligatory Prayer and Fasting, From the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, compiled by the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice, 2000, para. VII [↩]
- Valter D. Longo and Mark P. Matterson, Fasting: Molecular Mechanisms and Clinical Applications, Cell Metab. 2014 Feb 4; 19(2), pp. 181-192 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3946160/ [↩]
- Abdu’l-Baha, quoted in Baha’u’llah and the New Era, p. 184 [↩]
- Baha’u’llah, The Importance of Obligatory Prayer and Fasting, Prayers by Baha’u’llah for the fast, compiled by the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice, 2000, para. I [↩]
- Baha’u’llah, Prayers and Meditations by Baha’u’llah, US Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1987, p. 143 [↩]