FASTING in Persia. See also FESTIVALS.

i. Among Zoroastrians, Manicheans, and Bahais.

ii. In Sunni and Shiʿite Islam.



Both individually and communally, fasting is typically a religious exercise—employed by devotees as means of supplication to the will of God, preparation for rites of devotion, worship of divinity, purification of the body so that spiritual issues can be better comprehended, penitence for transgressions against religious codes, and mourning for deceased persons. Underlying all these functions of fasting is a desire to create appropriate psycho-physical conditions, often ascetic ones, that facilitate a nexus between the practitioner and his or her deity, thereby enhancing spiritual needs while curtailing corporeal desires. Many fasts among Persians and other peoples occur during daylight hours, to test participants’ commitment to the endeavor at an active time. Success in surmounting the physical hardships imposed by a fast, and the spiritual benefits believed to have been accrued through this rite, frequently are celebrated through a festival at the culmination of the fasting period.

In Zoroastrianismor Mazdaism, however, fasting has been implicitly rejected throughout the faith’s history. Zoroastrian doctrine perceives no disjunction between spirit and matter along lines of good and evil; rather, it regards both as essential for achieving piety and both as susceptible to unrighteousness. Hence, Zoroastrians believe that the body should function as a means by which the soul can fight evil and regard any action that physically weakens the body as sinful. Moreover, sex is viewed as essential for procreation which brings more believers into the world. Standard or Young Avestan texts such as the Vidēvdād (Avesta, ed. Geldner, 3.33, 4.48, 7.70) emphasized that eating was essential for life, claimed consumption of meat enhanced spiritual perception, and suggested hunger and thirst caused much suffering. Pahlavi commentaries continued this anti-ascetic theme, stressing the notion of moderation or paymān between gluttony and privation in partaking of food, drink, and sex. Piety was said to result from not fretting about moderate consumption, and deviation from this mean was equated with concupiscence (Dēnkard, ed. Madan, pp. 267, 295). Given the Zoroastrian dislike for abstinence, it is likely that the Pahlavi term rōzag “the day of fast, fasting” derives from its Manichaean Middle Persian counterpart. Although a few Parsis in India have now assimilated from Hindus the notion of fasting as a means of expressing grief over death, most contemporary Zoroastrians still abhor this practice as enfeebling the body and thus reducing the soul’s ability to combat evil (Mistree, p. 19). One high priest or dastūr recently even went so far as to counsel laity that the only permissible fast is that of abstaining from sin (Dhalla, p. 187).

In Manicheism, fasting was probably introduced by Mani himself. While there is considerable evidence of the Manichean fasts (surveyed in Henning, pp. 146-64), exact details remain sketchy. Manichean doctrine proposed that a portion of the spirit or light of Zurvan, the father of greatness or high god, had become trapped in matter created by Ahriman the source of evil and corporeality. Fasting served as a means of limiting the transfer of this good, but entrapped, spirit through a series of evil corporeal incarnations. An important tenet, that pertaining to the so-called seal (Manichean Middle Persian muhr) of the mouth, urged strict control over consumption. The clergy (the elect) or dēndārān (bearers of religion) were required to abstain from consuming meat at all times and from any type of sexual activity. They also were expected to fast on Mondays. In general, Manichean clerics fasted during the daylight hours, eating one meal of vegetables and fruits after sunset. The laity or niyōšāgān (hearers) fasted each Sunday until sunset. Unlike clerics, they could eat meat (believed to contain much trapped spirit), although this practice was discouraged. Five (sometimes perhaps seven) fasts of two-day durations were observed by the community each year; these particular fasts seem to have been correlated with yimki or prayer periods. The most important communal fast took place during the thirty days preceding the vernal equinox, and culminated in the Bēma festival with confession of sins. This prolonged daytime fast included the fourth and fifth yimki, with the final prayer period commemorating Mani’s demise while in the custody of Sasanian authorities (Boyce, p.12).

In Babism/Bahaism, fasting developed from Muslim observances. The Bāb’s stipulations required fasting during the month of ʿAlā (sunset 1 March to sunset 20 March). Devotees between the ages of eleven and forty-two years were expected to abstain from all food, liquid, and sex between dawn and dusk, focusing instead on the divine. Children were supposed to fast from dawn until noon for the first eleven days only, an acknowledgment of the arduousness of the task (Walbridge, pp. 69-70). Bahāʾ-Allāh modified these stipulations, extending the fast to everyone between fifteen and seventy years old, while providing exemptions for pregnant, breast feeding, and menstruating women, and for men and women who are ill or required to engage in manual labor or need to travel for at least two hours on foot or at least nine hours via transportation during the period of the fast (al-Ketāb al-aqdas, paragraph 10). Smoking is also banned during the fast, as it is deemed to be an act of consumption. The Baha’i fast concludes just before the vernal equinox that marks the Persian new year festival or Nowrūz on 21March. This fast is regarded as a spiritual obligation necessary for expunging sin. Its efficacy is considered valid only if the rite has been dedicated to God, and then performed with true devotion and recitation of prescribed prayers (Walbridge, pp. 46, 58, 70-71).


Bibliography (for cited works not given in detail, see “Short References”):

M. Artz, Justice and Mercy, New York, 1963.

M. Boyce, A Reader in Manichaean Middle Persian and Parthian, Acta Iranica 9, Leiden, 1975.

M. N. Dhalla, Zoroastrian Civilization from the Earliest Times to the Downfall of the Last Zoroastrian Empire 651 A.D., New York, 1922.

W. B. Henning, “The Manichaean Fasts,” JRAS, 1945, pp. 146-64; repr. in Selected Papers, Acta Iranica 15, Leiden, 1977, pp. 205-23.

Mardān-farrox ī Ohrmazddādān, Škand-gumānīg wīzār, ed. and trans. J. de Menasce as Škand-Gumanīk Vičār, Fribourg, 1945.

K. P. Mistree, Zoroastrianism: An Ethnic Perspective, Bombay, 1982.

J. Walbridge, Sacred Acts, Sacred Space, Sacred Time, Bahai Studies 1, Oxford, 1996.




Fasting (Ar. s áawmor ṣīām, Per. rūza) is mentioned in several verses in the Koran. The prescription for fasting in the month of Ramażān and several of its regulations are outlined in Koran 2:183-85 and 2:187, while other verses prescribe fasting as an alternative penance for certain offenses (4:92; 5:89, 95; 58:4) or as a substitute for specific pilgrimage rites (2:196). Together with the Hadith (e.g., Boḵārī, I, pp. 472-98; Ḥorr ʿĀmelī, X, pp. 1-556), these verses form the basis for the legal regulations governing Islamic fasting. Ṣāʾemūn and ṣāʾemāt (men and women who fast) are mentioned in the Koran (33:35) as two of many epithets of those who will be forgiven and rewarded by God. According to Koran 19:26, the Virgin Mary (Maryam) is told to take a vow of silence that is described as a fast: “And if you see anyone, say: I have made a vow of ṣawm to the Merciful One, and I will speak to no one on this day,” apparently in recognition of the Christian practice of observing silence when fasting (Berg, p. 94).

According to both Sunnite and Shiʿite jurisprudence (feqh, q.v.), fasting requires abstinence (emsāk) from the following actions: ingesting food or drink (whether by mouth or injection), sexual intercourse, and smoking. Shiʿites must also be careful not to attribute false statements to God, the Prophet, and the Imams, or being in a state of major ritual impurity (janāba) during the fasting hours. The fast is considered broken when the above acts are done intentionally; however, some Shiʿite scholars also specify that even unintentionally being in janāba during Ramażān invalidates the fast (e.g., Ḵomeynī, I, p. 282).

Fasting begins at dawn and continues until night (Koran 2:187). Sunnite feqh recommends that the faster hasten to break his fast as soon as the sun has set, while according to a well-known opinion in Shiʿite feqh, the faster must wait until all redness disappears from the eastern half of the sky (Ḥellī, I, p. 61). It is preferable that the meal breaking the fast (foṭūr or efṭār) begin with an odd number of dates in accordance with the Sunna, and that the pre-fast meal (soḥūr) be taken as late as possible in the second half of the night (Jazīrī, I, p. 577).

Sunnite and Shiʿite feqh recognize several types of fasting: Ramażān, kaffāra (compensation), qażā (making up), eʿtekāf (seclusion in the mosque), and manḏūr (vowed fasts). For each, the faster must make a special formulation of his intention (nīya). Fasting in the month of Ramażān is one of the pillars of Islam and is obligatory on Muslims who are mature (bāleḡ), sane (ʿāqel), and physically able.

Kaffāra fasts are imposed when one is unable to pay the compensation normally required in cases of accidental killing (Koran 4:92), breaking an oath (Koran 5:89), hunting during pilgrimage (Koran 5:95), and resuming a marriage dissolved by pronouncing the ẓehār formula (Koran 58:4), combining the major (ḥajj) and minor (ʿomra), or prematurely shaving the head during the pilgrimage (Koran 2:196). Kaffāra is required for intentionally breaking a Ramażān fast and consists of either freeing a slave, feeding sixty needy people, or fasting for two consecutive months. Shafiʿites impose kaffāra only when the fast is broken by sexual intercourse; Hanafites and Shiʿites include ingesting food or drink; and Shiʿites add remaining in janāba. Shiʿite feqh also requires that those who break the fast with a prohibited substance (such as alcohol) must undertake all three of the Ramażān kaffārāt (Maḡnīya, pp. 154-55).

Qażāʾ fasts are required from those who break an obligatory fast or who are excused from part of all of the Ramażān fast. The latter include travelers, those who are ill, pregnant or nursing women, women experiencing menstruation or post-partum bleeding, the elderly, and any others for whom fasting is a hardship or impossible. The number of days missed during a given Ramażān must be made up before the subsequent Ramażān; those unable to do so (e.g., the chronically ill and the elderly) may feed a needy person for each day missed (Koran 2:184).

Voluntary fasts may be undertaken when all obligatory fasts have been fulfilled. A specific nīya is not necessary, and if the fast is broken, it does not need to be made up. Certain days are recommended (mandūb) for fasting, such as three days of every month, particularly the “white days” (13, 14, and 15) and the two months preceding Ramażān (i.e., Rajab and Šaʿbān). Shiʿites add their particular sacred days, such as Ḡadīr (q.v.) and Mobāhala (Ḥellī, I, p. 208; Schmucker, p. 276) .

All types of Fasting are proscribed (ḥarām) for women experiencing menstruation or post-partum bleeding, and for all Muslims on the Feast of Breaking the Fast (ʿĪd al-feṭr) which marks the end of Ramażān; the Feast of Sacrifice (ʿĪd al-ażḥā); and the the three days after the ʿĪd al-ażḥā (ayyām al-tašrīk). In addition, a woman may not undertake a voluntary fast without the permission of her husband (Maḡnīya, pp. 160-61.)

Fasting is valued as a method of increasing self-restraint and willpower, as well as an experience which generates feelings of compassion for the poor (Ṭabbāra, pp. 165-67). The communal nature of the Ramażān fast very likely makes it the most widely observed pillar of Islam (Gardet, p. 127).



C. Berg, “Ṣawm,” in EI2 IX, pp. 94-95.

Moḥammad-Esmāʿīl Boḵārī, al-Jāmeʿ al-ṣaḥīhá, ed. M. L. Krehl and Th. W. Juynboll, Leiden, 1862, I, pp. 472-98.

L. Gardet, L’Islam: Religion et communauté, Paris, 1967, pp. 126-28.

Jaʿfar b. Ḥasan Moḥaqqeq Ḥellī, Šarāʾeʿ al-eslām fī masāʾel al-ḥalāl wa’l-ḥarām, ed. M. ʿAlī, Najaf, 1389/1969, I, pp. 61, 187-211.

Moḥammad Ḥorr ʿĀmelī, Tafṣīl wasāʾel al-šīʿa elā aḥkām al-šarīʿa X, Beirut, 1993, pp. 1-556.

ʿA.-R. Jazīrī, al-Feqh ʿala’l-maḏāheb al-arbaʿa, 7th ed., Beirut, 1406/1986, I, pp. 542-81.

Ayatollah Rūḥ-Allāh Ḵomeynī, Taḥrīr al-wasīla I, 3rd ed., Beirut 1401/1981, pp. 278-305.

K. Lech, Geschichte des islamischen Kultus I: Das ramaḍān-Fasten, Wiesbaden, 1979.

M.-J. Maḡnīya, al-Feqh ʿala’l-maḏāheb al-ḵamsa, 5th ed., Beirut, 1977, pp. 149-65.

W. Schmucker, “Mubāhala,” in EI2 VII, pp. 276-77.

ʿA. ʿA.-F. Ṭabbāra, Rūḥ al-dīn al-eslāmī, tr. T. Shoucair as The Spirit of Islam,, Beirut, 1978, pp. 164-69.

K. Wagtendonk, Fasting in the Koran, Leiden, 1968.

(Denise Soufi)

Originally Published: December 15, 1999

Last Updated: January 24, 2012

This article is available in print.
Vol. IX, Fasc. 4, pp. 394-396