By Dr. Shahid Athar M.D.
At the onset of Ramadan, Muslims all over the world start fasting from dawn to dusk daily for 30 days as ordained in Quran.
"O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you just as it was prescribed for those before you. Perhaps you would attain piety!" (Quran 2:183)
But why do we need to fast? It is our experience that temptations and ways of the world tend to spoil our purity and austerity. Thus we indulge in food all of the time, snacking and nibbling the whole day, heading to obesity. We drink too much coffee, or tea, or carbonated drinks. Some sexaholics cannot stay away from sex unless they do it at least once or more a day. When we argue, we leave our decency aside and resort to vulgar talk and even physical fighting.
Now when one is fasting, he or she cannot do all of that. When he looks at the mouth watering food, he cannot even taste it and he has to give up snacking and nibbling as well as smoking cigarettes if he does. No constant coffee, tea or Coke drinking either. Sexual passions have to be curtailed and when he is provoked to fight, he says " I am fasting that I cannot respond to your provocation". To achieve God consciousness or God nearness, a better word, we are advised to do additional prayer and read the Quran.
Medical benefits of Ramadan
Muslims do not fast because of medical benefits which are of a secondary nature. Fasting has been used by patients for weight management, to rest the digestive tract and for lowering lipids. There are many adverse effects of total fasting as well as of crash diets. Islamic fasting is different from such diet plans because in Ramadan fasting, there is no malnutrition or inadequate calorie intake. The calorie intake of Muslims during Ramadan is at or slightly below the nutritional requirement guidelines. In addition, the fasting in Ramadan is voluntarily taken and is not a prescribed imposition from the physician.
Ramadan is a month of self-regulation and self training, with the hope that this training will last beyond the end of Ramadan. If the lessons learned during Ramadan, whether in terms of dietary intake or righteousness, are carried on after Ramadan, there effects will be long lasting. Moreover, the type of food taken during Ramadan does not have any selective criteria of crash diets such as those which are protein only or fruit only type diets. Everything that is permissible is taken in moderate quantities.
The difference between Ramadan and total fasting is the timing of the food; during Ramadan, we basically miss lunch and take an early breakfast and do not eat until dusk. Abstinence from water for 8 to 10 hours is not necessarily bad for health and in fact, it causes concentration of all fluids within the body, producing slight dehydration. The body has its own water conservation mechanism; in fact, it has been shown that slight dehydration and water conservation, at least in plant life, improve their longevity.
The physiological effect of fasting includes lowering of blood sugar, lowering of cholesterol and lowering of the systolic blood pressure. In fact, Ramadan fasting would be an ideal recommendation for the treatment of mild to moderate, stable, non-insulin diabetes, obesity, and essential hypertension. In 1994 the first International Congress on "Health and Ramadan", held in Casablanca, entered 50 extensive studies on the medical ethics of fasting. While improvement in many medical conditions was noted; however, in no way did fasting worsen any patients' health or their baseline medical condition. On the other hand, patients who are suffering from severe diseases, whether type I diabetes or coronary artery disease, kidney stones, etc., are exempt from fasting and should not be allowed to fast.
There are psychological effects of fasting as well. There is a peace and tranquility for those who fast during the month of Ramadan. Personal hostility is at a minimum, and the crime rate decreases. Muslims take advice from the Prophet who said, "If one slanders you or aggresses against you, say I am fasting."
This psychological improvement could be related to better stabilization of blood glucose during fasting as hypoglycemia after eating, aggravates behavior changes. There is a beneficial effect of extra prayer at night. This not only helps with better utilization of food but also helps in energy output. There are 10 extra calories output for each unit of the prayer. Again, we do not do prayers for exercise, but a mild movement of the joints with extra calorie utilization is a better form of exercise. Similarly, recitation of the Quran not only produces a tranquility of heart and mind, but improves the memory.
One of the odd nights in the last 10 days of Ramadan is called the night of power when angels descend down, and take the prayer of worship to God for acceptance.
Fasting is a special act of worship which is only between humans and God since no one else knows for sure if this person is actually fasting. Thus God says in a hadith qudsi that "Fasting is for Me and I only will reward it". In another hadith, the Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) has said "If one does not give up falsehoods in words and actions, God has no need of him giving up food and drink".
Of the health benefits of fasting Ramadan are:
- Giving rest to the digestive system. Ramadan is the period of rest for the digestive system, which is responsible for the metabolism process of food. Consequently, the liver also takes rest as it is the main factory of food metabolism. To achieve this benefit, Moslems should adhere to the tradition (sunnah) of the Prophet by abstaining from having too much food after breakfast. The Prophet (PBUH) said;"The son-of-Adam never fills a bowl worse than his belly. Some bites are enough for man to prop his physique. Had he wished otherwise, then one third for his food, and one third for his drink, and one third for his breath." It is of benefit to the body that the break of fasting starts with some dates (as indicated in the Prophetic tradition). Dates are rich in Glucose and Fructose, which have a great caloric benefit specially for the brain, and are useful in raising the level of sugar gradually in blood, thus reducing the feeling of hunger and the need for large quantities of food.
- Moderate loss of weight. During fasting, the consumption of sugars decreases, and so does the level of sugar in blood. This makes the body rely on providing the needed calories for metabolism by burning sugar stored in the body. Glycogen stored in the liver, and fats in tissues are decomposed and transferred into calories and energy needed by the body. This results in moderate shortage of body weight. Therefore, fasting is considered of great value for overweight persons and stable non-insulin diabetes.
- Decrease of cholesterol level in blood. Several studies proved that cholesterol level in blood during fasting, as well as the rate of precipitating on the walls of arteries have decreased. This in turn reduces the chances of cardiac and cerebrovascular accidents, and prevents the raise of hypertension. Shortage of fats in blood helps reduce stones of gall and choledocus. The Prophet (PBUH) said; "Fast! You will be healthy."
- Rest of renal system. Some studies revealed that abstaining from drinking water for about 10-12 hours is not necessarily bad; it is rather useful in many cases. Concentration of liquids in the body causes moderate dehydration that the body can tolerate, as there is a sufficient liquid reserve, and as long as man has no complaint of renal lithiasis, both kidneys get rest of the process of waste disposing. The prophetic tradition mandates that Suhur (a meal before the dawn) be delayed and Fotoor (the breakfast meal) be expedited, thus reducing the time period of dehydration as much as possible. Shortage of liquids leads in turn to moderate decrease of blood pressure that the normal man can tolerate and be of use to those complaining of hypertension.
- Educational and psychological benefits. Fasting Ramadan is useful as it has a restraining power over the soul's whimsies, and an urge to abandon bad habits, specially when the smoker is obliged to abstain from smoking even if for a temporary period, on the hope such abandon will be permanent. This is also applied to drinking too much coffee and tea. The psychological benefits are numerous. The fasting person feels complacent, attains mental and psychological rest, refrains from all that disturbs the integrity of his fasting, and maintains the proper behaviour controls, that all reflect positively on the general community. The Prophet said; "Fasting is restraining. When anyone of you is fasting, he should refrain from obscene language or any acts of ignorance. And if anyone slanders him or quarrels with him, he should say; 'I am fasting, I am fasting.'" Several studies revealed that crime rate in Islamic countries decreases during Ramadan .
Harvest the Benefits of Ramadan
By Ali Al-Timimi
In the month of Ramadan it is very important that we spent a few moments to understand some of the wisdoms and lessons that we can learn from this month of fasting. Unfortunately, many Muslims come in to this month and they are as a companion of the Prophet, peace be upon him, said: "Let it not be that the day that you fast and the day that you break fast be equal." Meaning, one's behaviour, attitude and outlook are the same whether one fasts or not, i.e. fasting has no effect upon that person. This is why we need to reflect on some of these lessons.
LESSON 1: Gaining Taqwa (piety)
God legislated fasting for gaining Taqwa, "O you who believe, fasting has been prescribed upon you as it has been prescribed upon those before you, so that you may attain Taqwa." (meaning of Soraatul Baqarah (2):183) Taqwa in this case means to make a shield between oneself and God's anger and Hellfire. So we should ask ourselves, when we break our fasts, 'Has this fasting day made us fear God more? Has it resulted that we want to protect ourselves from the hellfire or not?
LESSON 2: Drawing closer to God
This is achieved by reciting and reflecting on the Quran during night and day, attending the taraaweeh prayers, remembering God, sitting in circles of knowledge and, for those who can, making `umrah. Also for those who can, making I`tikaaf (seclusion) in the last ten nights of Ramadan, so as to leave all worldly pursuits and seclude oneself in a masjid just thinking of God, so as to bring oneself closer to God . When one sins, one feels distant from God. That is why one might find it heard to read the Quran and come to the masjid. However, the obedient worshipper feels closer to God and wants to worship God more, because he is not shy from his sins.
LESSON 3:Acquiring patience and strong will
God has mentioned patience more than seventy times in the Quran and has commanded patience in more than sixteen ways in His Book. So when one fasts, and gives up one's food and drink, and one's marital sexual relations for those hours, one learns restraint and patience. This Ummah needs man and women that are strong willed, who can stand upon the Sunnah and the Book of God and not waver in front of the enemies of God. We do not need emotional people, who just raise slogans and shout, but when the time comes to stand upon something firm, they cannot do so, they waver.
LESSON 4: Striving for Ihsaan (righteousness and sincerity) and staying away from riyaa' (showing off)
Ihsaan means to worship God as if one seeks Him, and even though one does not see Him, He sees all. Hasan al-Basree said, "By God, in the last twenty years, I have not said a word or taken something with my hand or refrained to take something with my hand or stepped forth or stepped back, except that I have thought before I have done any action, 'Does God love this action? Is God pleased with this action?' So when one is fasting, one should gain this quality of watching oneself and also staying away from riyaa' (showing off). That is why God said in a hadeeth qudsee, "Fasting is for Me and I reward it." (al-Bukhaaree) God singles out fasting from all other types of worship saying, "Fasting is for Me", because no one knows whether you are fasting or not, except God. For example, when one is praying or giving charity or making tawaaf, one can be seen by the people, so one might do the action seeking the praise of the people. Sufyaan ath-Thawree used to spend the nights and the days crying and the people used to ask him, "Why do you cry, is it due to the fear of God? He said, 'No.' They said, "Is it due to the fear of the Hellfire?" He said, 'No. It is not the fear of Hellfire that makes me cry, what makes me cry is that I have been worshipping God all these years and doing scholarly teaching, and I am not certain that my intentions are purely for God.'"
LESSON 5: Refinement of manners, especially those related to truthfulness and discharging trusts.
The Prophet (may God send His blessing and peace upon him) said, "Whoever does not abandon falsehood in word and action, then God has no need that he should leave his food and drink." (al-Bukhaaree) What we learn from this, is that we must pay attention to the purification of our manners. The Prophet (may God send His blessing and peace upon him) said, "was sent to perfect good manners." (Maalik) So we must check ourselves, are we following the behaviour of the Prophet (may God send His blessing and peace upon him)? For example: Do we give salaam to those we don't know and those we do know? Do we follow the manners of Islam, by telling the truth and only telling the truth? Are we sincere? Are we merciful to the creation?
LESSON 6: Recognizing that one can change for the better
The Prophet (may God send His blessing and peace upon him) said, "Every son of Adam sins and the best of the sinners are those who repent." (Ibn Maajah) God provides many opportunities to repent to Him and seek His forgiveness. If one was disobedient they can become obedient.
LESSON 7: Being more charitable
Ibn `Abaas said, "The Prophet (may God send His blessing and peace upon him) was the most charitable amongst the people, and he used to be more so in the month of Ramadan when Jibreel used to meet him on every night of Ramadan till the end of the month." (al-Bukhaaree) The Prophet (may God send His blessing and peace upon him) said, "He who gives food for a fasting person to break his fast, he will receive the same reward as him, without nothing being reduced from the fasting person's reward." (at-Tirmidhee)
LESSON 8: Sensing the unity of the Muslims
The Prophet (may God send His blessing and peace upon him) said, ".Those of you who will live after me will see many differences. Then you must cling to my Sunnah and the Sunnah of the rightly guided khaleefahs. Hold fast to it and stick to it." (Aboo Daawood) In this month we sense that there is a possibility for unity, because we all fast together, we break-fast together, we all worship God together, and we pray Salaatul-`Eid together. Therefore we sense that the unity of possible. It is possible for Muslims to be a single body, but this will only be achieved when obedience is only to God and His Messenger.
LESSON 9: Learning discipline
The Prophet (ma God send His blessing and peace upon him) made us adhere to discipline and strictness, strictness that does not lead to fanaticism or going outside the bounds that God has laid down. One cannot knowingly break the fast before the sunset, as this will not be accepted by God. Muslims should learn to be very strict in their lives, because they are people of an important message, which they mold their lives around.
LESSON 10: Teaching the young to worship God
It was the practice of the people of Madina that during the fast of `Aashooraa (which is now a recommended fast of one day) to get their children to fast with them. When the children would cry of hunger and thirst, their parents would distract their attention by giving them some sort of toy to play with. The children would break their fast with their parents. (as mentioned in al-Bukhaaree). So the young should be brought to the Masjid and they should pray with their parents, so that they are able to get into the habit of becoming worshippers of God. If one does not encourage children to fast when they are young, they will find it very difficult to fast for thirty days at the age of puberty. This is why the Prophet (May God send His blessing and peace upon him) said, "Command your children to pray at the age of seven and beat them at the age of ten (if they do not pray." (Haakim)
LESSON 11: Caring for one's health
Fasting has many medical benefits and it teaches Muslims to take care of their health and too build strong bodies. The Prophet (May God send His blessing and peace upon him) said, "A strong believer is better and is more beloved to God than a weak believer, and there is good in everyone." (Muslim)