Fasting & Ramadan Reflections

How Faith Influences Health on the Health Benefits of Fasting

by Khalil Marcus Lambert, Ph.D.

In his famous book, How to Eat to Live, the leader of the Nation of Islam (a conduit through which many African-Americans were introduced to Islam) emphatically states: “There is no way for us to learn the right way to eat in order to live a long life, except through the guidance and teachings of Allah.”

Although Elijah Muhammad’s Islamic creed diverted from traditional mainstream Islam, he understood well that the key to addressing the complete spiritual and mental vitality of his people was by placing an emphasis on their physical well-being, which he addressed through ancestral eating habits and social vices; undoubtedly a wholesome approach borrowed from the Qur’an and example of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ (peace be upon him).

The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ placed great emphasis on physical matters in developing spiritual matters. In a famous hadith (saying of the Prophet) ((Sahih Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 12, Number 724)) , the Messenger of Allah ﷺ observes a man praying the ritual salah (prayer) and says to the man, “Go back, for you have not prayed.” After the man’s return, the Prophet ﷺ says to him repeatedly, “Go back, for you have not prayed.” Because the man was not implementing the true mechanics of the prayer to the best of his ability, he was likely depriving himself of its complete spiritual and emotional benefit.

Arguably every religious ritual or habit put into practice by the Prophet ﷺ holds a deep spiritual benefit that is only uncovered through regular or meticulous application.  However, many traditions have obvious physical and emotional benefits as well.  Within the Islamic tradition are directives that uplift the whole life of the individual.  Fasting is the perfect example.

Routine, periodic fasting has been shown to have a number of positive effects:

  1. detoxification;
  2. contracted stomach (and satisfaction with less food);
  3. lower blood sugar and cholesterol;
  4. and even evidence for combating cancer. ((Lee, C., et al. (2012). Fasting Cycles Retard Growth of Tumors and Sensitize a Range of Cancer Cell Types to Chemotherapy. Science Translational Medicine, 4(124).)) 

During a fast, energy is diverted away from the digestive system to concentrate on metabolic and immune functions.  Master regulator hormones called glucocorticoids are released to aid the body in breaking down fat cells and forming glucose molecules for energy. Side effects of this can be the release of toxins trapped in fat cells and maintenance of normal blood pressure. ((Kerndt PR, Naughton JL, Driscoll CE, Loxterkamp DA. Fasting: the history, pathophysiology and complications. West J Med. 1982 Nov;137(5):379-99.))

Elijah Muhammad notes, “Fasting is a greater cure of our ills, both mental and physical, than all of the drugs of the earth combined into one bottle or a billion bottles.” These were wise words to many African American families predisposed to poor health conditions.

What many Muslims have not truly appreciated are the Islamic and faith-based practices that influence our body’s health.  Many researchers have studied the effects of Ramadan, prayer, and other religious influences on individual health, yet population-based studies have been confounded by profound cultural and ethnic diversity.  Thus, it is difficult to draw conclusions about health associations from a population with so many contributing variables.  Still, intriguing questions remain about the overall health benefits of Islamic mandates.

For example, what are the health implications of the prohibition of alcohol, pork, sex before marriage, etc. on the Muslim community? How has the non-reductionist, holistic perspective on healing affected the health of Muslim populations? Can common characteristics be observed in the (epi)genetic profiles of Muslims? ((Epigenetics are changes in gene expression that are not caused by changes in the DNA sequence. Epigenetics changes are a result of chemical modifications to chromosomes instead of DNA mutations.))

A 2008 study in the American Journal of Cardiology found an association with members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as Mormons, and heart health.  Mormons who typically fast at least once a month for a 24-hour period had a lower prevalence of coronary artery disease. ((Horne, B. D., et al. (2012). Relation of Routine, Periodic Fasting to Risk of Diabetes Mellitus, and Coronary Artery Disease in Patients Undergoing Coronary Angiography. The American journal of cardiology, 109(11), 1558-1562.)) Interestingly, Prophet Muhammad ﷺ encouraged his followers to “fast three days a month as the reward of good deeds is multiplied ten times, which is equal to one year of fasting.” ((Sahih Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 31, Number 197)) Many Muslims even follow a more regular prophetic regime of fasting on Mondays and Thursdays.

How faith-based practices coincide with physical well-being is no coincidence.  What may seem like a novel concept is actually very intentional in Islam.  The Qur’an commands: “O you who have believed, eat from the good things which We have provided for you and be grateful to Allah if it is [indeed] Him that you worship. ” ((Qur’an 2:172))

How can one reach their full spiritual maturity in a poor physical and mental condition? The healthier you feel in mind and body, the easier it is for you to grow in iman (faith).  Being healthy is Islamic, and Islam is wholesome health.

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  • Thanks for this post! It is always fascinating to learn of the hidden wisdom/scientific benefits of practicing the sunnah (traditions/practices of the prophet (S).

  • Very good article! I would live to learn more about the spiritual and physical health benefits of avoiding the other prohibitions such as alcohol other than the obvious.

  • AsA – thank you for the informational and inspirational highlights! this year i’ve grown in my spiritual maturity and it is largely in part due to my increase in healthy physical activity. i now have a heightened awareness of the relationship between physical and spiritual health. alhamdulillah! thanks again and looking forward to reading more from you here.

    also, thanks for providing that critical historical context of elijah mohammed and connecting it with qur’an and sunnah.

  • ASA

    May we continue to receive ALLAH’S MERCY through Ramadan and beyond. Press forward in the race toward all that is good. You have truly been blessed in your efforts Dr. Lambert and we look forward to your advancenemt in the field of medicine through ALLAH’S DEEN.
    “PEACE is not the absence of war, but the presence of ALLAH” . As we study Imam Mohamed, and follow the life of prophet Muhammad, inahaALLAH we will meet ALLAH.

    Uncle Saleem

  • The article mentions a very key side point, which I think is a very thought-provoking one. Usually medical studies assess the effect of a substance or behaviour on an *individual’s* health. This is including large studies involving hundreds or even thousands of people, the object is to detect the effect on a person’s health.

    But many things in health confer perhaps minor or negligible benefits or harm on an individual level but if everyone (or a critical mass in a population) were to do it the entire population benefits or is harmed significantly. Because individuals interact, and behaviour effects, infection agents, and/or substances are propagated between us whether through natural fate and transport, or cultural/man-made mediation.

    Yet I think things that have this population level effect is a very difficult to explain or be made accepted in the West because of the strong emphasis on *individual* rights combined with a fairly weak emphasis on *societal* well-being that is affected by individual behaviour. Related to this is the weak value placed on spiritual or religious values being the most efficient motivation for the individual to modulate behaviour in consideration of societal well-being as well as their own, even if it means sacrificing an individual benefit or pleasure (i.e. “restraint”, as in “God prescribes to you fasting, in order that you learn restraint”). (the East has its different problems related to a tendency for the opposite bias).

    Really the best way, as is obvious, is the middle way.

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