Baha'is begin annual period of fasting

March 1, 2007
Baha'u'llah, Whose tomb near Acre, Israel, is shown here, established fasting as a law for his followers.

HAIFA, Israel — Venezuelan college student Oscar Ponte joined the Baha'i Faith last August and this month will observe its fasting period for the first time.

When he told his mother about it, she was alarmed. After all, he is a young man of slight build, and she was worried his health would suffer.

"But it's a privilege to do the fast!" he told her emphatically. "It's only once a year, and it's a commandment of God."

His mother apparently understood, and, according to Mr. Ponte, she smiled her assent.

Around the world, Baha'is age 15 to 70 begin their annual 19-day fast on 2 March, abstaining from food and drink from sunrise to sundown each day. They do it in obedience to a law established by Baha'u'llah, the founder of their faith. There are exemptions for people who are sick, pregnant women, nursing mothers and a few other categories.

"It's an evolution of the basic principle of fasting that has existed in previous religions," said Baharieh Rouhani Ma'ani, co-author of a book titled "Laws of the Kitab-i-Aqdas."

"Vestiges of the ordinance of fasting can be found in almost all living religions except Zoroastrianism, which affirmatively prohibits fasting," the book states.

Oscar Ponte of Venezuela describes the fast as a time to try to know God better. Slideshow
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Oscar Ponte of Venezuela describes the fast as a time to try to know God better.

Mrs. Ma'ani, who has taught classes about the laws of God, says she feels that Baha'u'llah has made the fast easier than in some of the other religions.

For example, Jews fast only one day, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, but they abstain from food and drink for more than 24 hours at a single stretch, she explained.

The Muslim tradition is similar to the Baha'i practice, except that each day Muslims fast from dawn to dusk – a longer period than from sunrise to sundown. Also, Muslims follow a lunar calendar, meaning that the fast sometimes falls during the summer when the days are long and can be very hot, Mrs. Ma'ani said.

The Baha'i fast always comes just before the equinox in March so in most of the world there are only about 12 hours of abstention. In the few places where the days are appreciably longer, believers can go by the clock and fast about 12 hours rather than exactly from sun-up to sundown.

"Baha'u'llah doesn't want us to suffer just for the sake of suffering," Mrs. Ma'ani said.

Fasting is symbolic – "a reminder of abstinence from selfish and carnal desires," according to the Baha'i writings.

"It is essentially a period of meditation and prayer, of spiritual recuperation, during which the believer must strive to make the necessary readjustments in his inner life, and to refresh and reinvigorate the spiritual forces latent in his soul," the writings say.

Additionally, Baha'u'llah said fasting helps people become better aware of the sufferings of the poor.

'Abdu'l-Baha, the son and appointed successor of Baha'u'llah, described how the Prophets of God – including Moses, Jesus and Baha'u'llah – all fasted. Thus, he said, the Baha'i period of fasting allows believers to get closer to the founders of the great religions by experiencing the same thing.

Duane L. Herrmann, compiler of a handbook about the Baha'i fast, notes that abstention from eating is not the real point. The point, he says, has to do with the "inner spirit of detachment, of which eating (is) merely a symbol or outward reflection."

As Mr. Ponte in Venezuela summed up his own newfound understanding, "During the fast, we make an effort to know God better."