Millions of devoted Muslims across the world have been fasting from dawn to dusk for the blessings of Almighty Allah during the month of Ramadan. It is one of the five pillars of Islam and takes place during the ninth month of the Islamic lunar year and the only one mentioned by name in the Holy Qur’an. ‘Before Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) and his companions were forced to flee Makkah and settle in Medina, Muslims practised only non-compulsory fasts. It was not until the year 2 AH (623 A.D.) that a series of verses in Surah 2 (al Baqarah) verses 183 to 187 required Muslims to fast throughout the month of Ramadan and laid down the basic rules of this rite.’
What is Ramadan?Ramadan originally meant “great heat,” from the pre-Islamic solar calendar. This month was sacred in the pre-Islamic Arabic tradition and was a month of truce. The month of Ramadan is regarded as a month of deep piety and devotion, a month of abstinence, a time of solidarity and sharing, a month of healing, a month of mercy, a month of selflessness and charity, and above all a “vision of the heart” to reflect oneself, and to make a constant effort to fight one’s weaknesses and passions, to constantly improve, to become a true human being. For fasting to be “accepted” and “validated” by Allah, it must have to be practised with seriousness and absolute devotion and not in a mechanical way.
What is fasting?
In Islam, fasting is the practice of abstaining from food, drink, smoking and sexual activities during the period between sunrise and sunset. It is also an exercise of devotion to willingly renounce oneself from all bodily appetites in order to form spiritual discipline and self-control to follow the teachings of Islam by refraining from violence, anger, envy, greed, lust, angry or sarcastic retorts, and gossips. ‘The purpose of Islamic fasting is to adopt self-control over worldly desires; to surrender to Allah and develop self-discipline and spiritual awareness; to purify the body, heart, soul, and mind; and to improve patience and empathise with those who are living in hunger and poverty.’
Children generally do not participate in fasting until they reach puberty, and there are exemptions for those who are sick, travelling, pregnant, or menstruating. People who are not able to perform their fasting are required to make charitable contributions to feed one person for each day they missed fasting.
What happens to one’s body during fasting?
According to the Ramadan Health Guide of UK (nhs) there have been some physiological changes that occur in the body in response to fasting depend on the length of the continuous fast. Technically “the body enters into a fasting state eight hours or so after the last meal, when the gut finishes absorption of nutrients from the food. In the normal state, body glucose, which is stored in the liver and muscles, is the body’s main source of energy. During a fast, this store of glucose is used up first to provide energy. Later in the fast, once the stores of glucose run out, fat becomes the next store source of energy for the body. Small quantities of glucose are also ‘manufactured’ through other mechanisms in the liver. Only with a prolonged fasting of many days to weeks does the body eventually turn to protein for energy. This is the technical description of what is commonly known as ‘starvation’, and it is clearly unhealthy. It involves protein being released from the breakdown of muscle, which is why people who starve look emaciated and become very weak.As the Ramadan fast only extends from dawn till dusk, there is ample opportunity to replenish energy stores at pre-dawn and dusk meals. This provides a progressive, gentle transition from using glucose to fat as the main source of energy, and prevents the breakdown of muscle for protein. The use of fat for energy aids weight loss, preserving the muscles, and in the long run reduces your cholesterol levels. In addition, weight loss results in better control of diabetes and reduces blood pressure. A detoxification process also seems to occur, as any toxin stored in the body’s fat are dissolved and removed from the body. After a few days of starting the fast, higher levels of certain hormones appear in the blood (endorphins), resulting in a better level of alertness and an overall feeling of general mental well-being.”
Benefits of fasting
Each year Ramadan appears with its immense blessings for mankind. Besides the narrative of the Holy Qur’an and prophet Muhammed (PBUH), many scholars, scientists, medical experts, nutritionists and doctors have been gradually becoming able to recognise the various benefits of fasting for the people. Fasting is not only a physical, but also a spiritual exercise that has enormous long- lasting benefits, including the followings:
Strengthens belief in Allah: Fasting enhances an intense bond between the believer and Allah. When someone fasts nobody knows how far truly it is being practised – it is only the person himself and Allah know it. Since this practice of praying is absolutely in between the believer and Allah, special reward would be bestowed upon the believer. Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) indicated that Allah, to Him be the power and glory, has said, “Every act of the son of Adam belongs to him, except the fasting which belongs to Me, and it is I who give its reward, for the fasting servant forsakes his food and desire for Me” (the Hadith Qudsi / Muslim).
Heightens consciousness of Allah: ‘Fasting helps one to become less preoccupied with bodily appetites, and gives the heart and the mind the freedom to reflect upon deeper spiritual matters, such as relationship with Allah and with fellow human beings. It enables a person to develop sustained consciousness of Allah. Fasting helps to attain Taqwa (righteousness). Taqwa is such a feeling by which a person learns to realise that he or she is always in front of Allah (SWT) which, in turn, helps him/her to abandon activities that are immoral or unjustifiable, and things that are prohibited by the creator.’
Brings healthy lifestyle: ‘The physical body is a gift from Allah; it is given to humans as an amanah (in trust) to take care of for a fixed period. A fasting person learns restraint, and only responds to hunger and thirst in the heightened level of consciousness and discipline. How much food is consumed and the choice of food has a direct impact on the physical and spiritual well-being of the person. The food that you consume affects your behaviour and personality. Wholesome, natural and healthy food assists the development of a good personality. Overeating has long been frowned upon in Islam as it is thought to increase worldly appetites and cause sluggishness, thereby ‘dulling’ the soul, hampering spiritual growth and increasing physical ailments. Thus, fasting helps a person to choose a healthier lifestyle by making small yet lasting changes to their daily diet.’
Detoxifies the body: Since ancient times, scientists from different faiths and backgrounds have long been argued that fasting could help metabolism renew itself, triggering a detoxification process in human body. Many chronic diseases have been linked to the toxic burden the human body carries and its inability to remove waste efficiently. The toxins can be in the form of nicotine and other harmful drugs, air pollutants, fats, or cholesterol. Fasting is a form of detoxification from overeating and from exposure to unwanted chemicals in food and our environment. To best benefit from this detoxification during Ramadan, it is important to follow a healthy life style avoiding over-sleep and over-eating. This month requires to give the stomach a break, and by doing so one can able to break down and expel the accumulated toxins from the body.
Lowers blood cholesterol and boost heart health: According to the American Diabetes Association (2014) scientists found that fasting is most effective in reducing the risk of diabetes and related metabolic problems. It may improve blood sugar control, which can guard against cardiovascular diseases and reduce cholesterol, as well as reduce the risks of heart attacks or stroke. If people continue to follow a healthy diet after Ramadan, this newly lowered cholesterol level should be easy to maintain. Another study conducted in 1997 demonstrated that fasting lowered bad ‘LDL’ cholesterol levels by 8 per cent, triglyceride by 30 per cent, and increased good ‘HDL’ levels by 14.3 per cent and thereby fasting is protecting our heart from cardiovascular diseases (Al Arabiya: 08 July, 2014). Fasting also improves significantly the condition of the liver by decreasing its fat.
Weight loss: Ramadan provides an ideal opportunity to lose weight. Weight loss is crucial for obese people as it helps in lowering the risk of heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. According to a study revealed in the medical journal of Public Health Nutrition (2012), people lose on an average of 1.24 Kg by the end of Ramadan. But the research shows most people regain the lost weight in only two weeks after ending the fast. When fasting, the human body starts burning calories more slowly. It switches from utilizing carbohydrates as its primary fuel to using fats, ensuring a constant source of energy for the body. Fasting also causes the stomach to gradually shrink. To achieve optimal results in losing weight and maintaining the good health, it is important to choose a ‘structured and consistent lifestyle with an effective diet plan’ that can be followed in the long term.
Greater nutrient absorption: ‘A combination of fasting during the day and eating late at night causes an increase in a hormone called adiponectin, which allows muscles to absorb more nutrients. Adiponectin also helps to guard against atherosclerosis and can improve the body’s insulin resistance. It is important to focus on a healthy diet during Ramadan to capitalize on the benefits of fasting. Muslims must also remember that establishing a healthy diet that can be maintained after the holy month can lead to numerous long-term health benefits throughout the body.’
Cancer curing effects of Fasting: In the article published in the Science Translational Medicine some researchers suggest that fasting-chemo combo plan "could extend the survival of advanced stage cancer patients by both retarding tumour progression and reducing side effects”. It might be able to help early-stage patients; too, they say (Katherine Harmon/2012). Fasting appears to protect normal cells from chemotherapy's toxic effects by rerouting energy from growing and reproducing to internal maintenance. According to Turkish nutritionist CerenKucukvardar “Fasting can also help the body fight conditions like oxidative stress, which can increase the possibility of cancer, slowing the speed of the spread of cancer cells.”
Regenerate immune system: Fasting improves the digestive system because the body could have a rare opportunity in a year-around to detoxify the internal organs as the spiritually-alleviating dieting forces the body to use fat reserves to keep operating in the absence of nutrition, killing harmful toxins stored in fat deposits in the process. “In our daily lives, because we consume so much food, our body spends a lot of time digesting them. During fasting, the digestive system works less, allowing the body to focus on other areas like strengthening the immune system and diminishing the levels of infections,” (CerenKucukvardar).
Effects of fasting on curing old age related diseases: Nobel Prize winner Dr. Yoshinori Ohsumi scientifically proved that autophagy can be induced by fasting. Autophagy is a mechanism involved in the cellular process which preserves the health of the cell, and the body. Disturbance in the process of autophagy is linked with the development of diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, cancer, neurological disorders, type-2 diabetes, and other disorders. When the body is fasting, it signals the brain that there is not enough food available and the body then seeks out stored foods. Autophagy is activated in this condition and the cells break down old and damaged proteins in the body. When insulin levels in the body are low, glucagon begins to work in the body, cleansing the body of dead and damaged cells and cell parts. Even the slightest amount of food is easy to stop the autophagy process. It requires complete abstinence from food for at least 12 hours, which is the typical duration of the Muslims’ fast. (Saudi Gazette: October 28, 2016).
Boosting brain function: Prof. Murat Alemdar of the Medical School of Sakarya University, Turkey has conducted extensive research on how fasting affects the activities of the human brain, and concluded that it offers major benefits for people to conduct a healthier life. He found fasting could lead to the release of the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is crucial to produce stem cells. These cells are the essential units of human metabolism working pretty much as the body’s repair department with their potential to regenerate and repair damaged tissue. They also produce new white blood cells, empowering the immune system against the body’s external enemies. “There are links between fasting and increasing levels of secretion in the BDNF activity, augmenting the production of brain stem cells, which will also help the centre of the nervous system function better.”
Compassion and charity: Paying a modest sum (zakat al-fitr) to those in need is religiously obligatory for fasting to be accepted before God. A 2.5% tax levied on personal wealth above a certain thresholdJakatal-mal (obligatory almsgiving) and Sadqa (charitable giving) traditionally have given during Ramadan underline the importance of distribution of wealth in creating a balanced society. Every donation, whatever small, is returned by God to the giver and this vision of Islam gives guarantee for the social prosperity of a community. ‘Giving is also spiritually enriching, and each sum granted by God and spent by the believer will give him a perpetual and uninterrupted divine reward which can be as much as 700 times the value of the gift, according to certain hadiths.’ It also purifies his assets in the spiritual perspective defended by the Islam.
Encourage Community spirit: Ramadan inspires Muslims to strengthen the bond of brotherhood ensuring the well-being of the community irrespective of rich, poor, intellectuals or labourers. It is a time of sharing, moving towards the other who is not from the same social milieu, origin or religion. It is also a bond of solidarity with the hungry, who must be helped to escape from their situation of destitution and misery. It is greatly encouraged that families, friends or neighbours invite each other to break their fast together. There are traditions of special prayers and deeper devotions at homes or at mosques together.
Fasting Balances the Body and Spirit: Since man is both body and spirit, the exclusive pursuit of body or spirit will destroy the equilibrium of the individual. The true interest of man requires harmony between body and soul. Fasting teaches us to strive for moral and spiritual attainment. Through the physical exercise of restraint, our efforts should be directed to purging ourselves of envy, falsehood, malevolence, pettiness, selfishness, greed, evil-speaking, and all that drives us off the path of enlightenment.Fasting teaches honesty, tolerance, endurance, moderation, humility, truthfulness, discipline, punctuality, dutifulness and all that makes a man into a “balanced individual.” Consciousness is an essential element of the soul which carries values and is nourished by ethics. Our five senses are continually solicited by the body’s natural. By abstaining from food, drink and pleasure, the Muslim faster thwarts the natural inclinations of his body. By refraining from speeches and superfluous initiatives, and other wrong doings, he practices disciplining of his mind and it intensiﬁes his spiritual exercises. Meditation, recollection, and charity are become his priorities. No matter how cranky or irritated a fasting person feels, he or she will never break the fast. Thus, fasting provides a thorough training of establishing a better society by possessing strong ethics.
A good time to quit smoking: Smoking is wasteful and seriously injurious to health. Allah has entrusted us with a healthy body, and it is an offence to knowingly and willingly harm it. Ramadan provides a great opportunity to amend many bad habits. “In the UK, the Ramadan fasting model has been used by health departments to reduce cigarette smoking.” During fasting the smokers are forced to abstain from tobacco and some regular smokers experience withdrawal symptoms such as mood swings, anxiety, headaches, nausea, fatigue etc. With the continuation of fasting the withdrawal symptoms have started gradually subside in time and thus help people to quit other bad habits as well.
A good time for Muslims to reflect: Ramadan has given an opportunity to think about the past and present actions, activities, roles, influence and visions on the various aspects of our life-style and find out the extent of successes and failures, weaknesses and strengths, rights and wrongs; to determine the future course of actions, roles and responsibilities in line with the Islamic principles and practices. Set the goal which is appropriate, realistic, beneficial and achievable for you. This is the best time to pick up on unproductive behaviour and negative thought patterns. Make a list of your weaknesses and bad habits, and then make a detailed plan of how to overcome it. Plan your day, your activities, and most importantly your relationship with Allah. Be flexible and make sure you are giving enough time to the things and people who really matter. Use this time to get your priorities right. For our successes, strengths and achievements we must express our gratitude and gratefulness to God. For our failures, inactions, inabilities and wrong doings we must accept the consequences and pray for forgiveness to God. “Repentance is a beautiful way of attaining success” (Qur’an 24:31). Many find new awareness of their lives as well as feelings of gratefulness. The practice of being grateful and humble provides inner peace and contentment. Gratefulness allows us to be appreciative of our current state.“Gratitude is the healthiest of all human emotions. The more you express gratitude for what you have, the more likely you will have even more to express gratitude for.”
The glory of Ramadan teaches us spiritual devotion, compassion, self-control, self-discipline, charity, empathy and healthy life-style. To reap and harvest the rewards of this Ramadan we have to utilise the lessons learned in our everyday life in order to gain and grow the fruits of joy and peace throughout the year. May Allah make us capable to practise the fast perfectly. Ameen!
The writer is a former editor of the Journal of the Institution of Engineers, Bangladesh