Muslims all over the world begin fasting, from dawn until dusk, for 30 days as ordained in the Qur’an (2:183).
”O, you who believe. Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you so that you can learn Taqwa.”
The Arabic word, Taqwa, is translated in many ways, including God-consciousness, God-fearing, piety, and self-restraint. Thus, to acquire these traits, we have been commanded to fast (abstain from food, water, sexual intimacy, and negative speech) daily from dawn to dusk for one month.
Fasting is a special act of worship that is between a human and God only, since no one else can know for sure whether or not we are actually fasting. God says, in Hadith Qudsi, “Fasting is for Me and I only will reward it.” In another Hadith, Prophet Mohammad (SAW) has said, “If one does not give up falsehoods in words and actions, God has no need of him giving up food and drink.”
But how exactly do we benefit from fasting?
It is our experience that the temptations and ways of the world tend to spoil our purity and austerity. We indulge in eating all of the time, snacking, and nibbling the whole day as we head toward obesity. We drink too much coffee, tea, and carbonated drinks. Some people are sexaholics who cannot abstain from having sex once, or even more times, a day. When we argue, we abandon all decency and resort to vulgar speech – perhaps even physical fighting.
When we are fasting, we cannot do all of this. While around mouth-watering food, we cannot even taste it; therefore, we must give up snacking and nibbling. We also must give up smoking cigarettes, if we smoke. No constant coffee, tea, or coke drinking either.
Sexual passions must be curtailed, and when provoked to fight, we must respond, “I am fasting so I cannot respond to your provocation.”
To achieve greater God-consciousness and God-nearness, we are advised to perform additional prayers and read the Qur’an during Ramadan.
Medical Benefits of Ramadan. Muslims do not fast because of the medical benefits of fasting; they are simply of a secondary nature. They include weight management, giving rest to the digestive tract, and lowering lipids.
Complete fasting as well as crash diets can have many adverse effects. Islamic fasting differs from the complete fast and crash diet plans because it does not impose malnutrition or inadequate caloric intake on the body. The caloric intake during Ramadan remains at or slightly below nutritional requirement guidelines.
Ramadan is a month of self-regulation and training that carries the hope that its benefits, whether they relate to dietary intake or the development of righteousness, will last long beyond its end. This is unlike the benefits of most diets; moreover, the types of food eaten during Ramadan are not limited to particular types such as proteins or fruit only. Anything permissible can be eaten during Ramadan in moderate quantities.
The basic difference between days when Muslims are fasting and when they are not fasting is the timing of our meals; during Ramadan, we have an early breakfast and then we do not eat or drink again until dusk (basically, we skip lunch).
Abstaining from fluids for 12 to 15 hours or so is not necessarily bad for the health; in fact, it causes a concentration of all the fluids within the body, producing slight dehydration. However, the body has its own water conservation mechanism, and in plants, it has been shown that slight dehydration and water conservation improve longevity.
The physiological effects of fasting include a lowering of blood sugar, cholesterol levels, and 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, in no way did fasting worsen the health or baseline medical condition of patients. On the other hand, patients suffering from severe diseases such as type I diabetes, coronary artery disease and kidney stones are exempted from fasting, and should not be allowed to fast.
There is a physical benefit from increased prayer at night as well. It not only facilitates better utilization of our food, but it also increases energy output. An extra 10 calories are expended for each unit of prayer. Again, we do not perform our prayers for the exercise; however, a mild movement of the joints accompanied by additional caloric utilization is beneficial.
Psychological Benefits. There are also psychological effects of fasting. Those who fast during the month of Ramadan gain peace and tranquility. Hostility is at a minimum, and the crime rate actually decreases.
Muslims take advice from the Prophet (SAW) who said, “If one slanders you or aggresses against you, say I am fasting.”
The psychological improvements we experience during the Ramadan fast may be related to stabilization of blood glucose during fasting, as hypoglycemia following eating often aggravates behavioral changes.
Similarly, increased recitation of the Qur’an during Ramadan not only produces greater tranquility of heart and mind, but it improves the memory. And on the Night of Power, occurring on an odd night during the last 10 nights, the angels descend to earth and carry the prayers of worshippers to God for His acceptance.
By Shahid Athar