'Siyaam': The Arabic word for fasting is also connected to silence

The term also exists in other forms outside the month of Ramadan

Siyaam, the Arabic word for fasting, is also connected to silence. Photo: The National
Powered by automated translation

The month of Ramadan is a significant time for Muslims. It’s considered one of the holiest months of the year where Muslims mark the revelation of the Quran by engaging in acts of self-reflection, self-control, gratitude and also compassion for the needy and less fortunate.

One of the fundamental acts through which Muslims practise these values during Ramadan is by fasting.

This week’s Arabic word of the week, siyaam, means fasting. It is a fundamental act of worship for Muslims during the holy month, where one abstains from food, drink and desire from dawn until sunset while also engaging in acts of devotion and seeking forgiveness for one's sins. Siyaam is also a practice that teaches self-discipline and empathy, with an aim to create a stronger spiritual connection to God.

While fasting is observed during Ramadan for Muslims, the concept exists in various forms in other religions, too. It is known as lent in Christianity, and lasts for 40 days leading up to Easter. There are also various forms of fasting in Judaism, Ta'anit being one of them.

The word siyaam is derived from samaa – the verb is derived from the three Arabic letters, Sad, Alif and Meem. It simply means to hold and to leave things. In its various forms, which include siyaam or soum, the world appears in the Quran 14 times.

The concept of the meaning of samaa applies in various ways in the Arabic language.

Within the Islamic context, the word is siyaam and is used strictly to mean fasting from food, drink and desire during the month of Ramadan. He who fasts is known as sa’ayim, while she who fasts is known as sa’ayima.

Also from samaa comes the word soum, which means to fast from speech or to be silent. It is another version or concept of silence.

In Islam, prophet Zechariah took a fast from speaking for three days as a form of divine indication as instructed to him from God on the coming pregnancy of his wife, who was to give birth to their son, Yahya (John the Baptist). His fasting from speech was not an act of worship, but seen as a sign and an act of thanks.

From soum comes the word samat, which means instant and complete silence and samataa, which means someone who falls silent.

Other ways the word samaa is used outside of the concept of fasting is through the notion of holding back and then letting go. For example, when the sun is in the middle of the sky just before its descent to set, or the moments after a strong gush of wind stops blowing.

Across its meanings and various contexts, there is a common thread that appears in the concept of siyaam – it is a moment or state of holding back and letting go. These two meanings might seem opposing, however, when one fasts, they are holding back by forcing themselves not to eat or drink and they let go by accepting this act of worship and in a theoretical sense tether away their sins from the past year.

Updated: March 29, 2024, 6:02 PM