Learning to Fast with Optimal Benefit
FASTING (Arabic ṣawm) has been used, in various forms, as a spiritual practice for thousands of years at least. It has been trod as a pathway to God through the ages; abstention from food and drink is woven into the fabric of Islamic practice, as well of the prophetic religions before Islam:
O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you as it has been prescribed for those [who have believed] before you, so that you might remain conscious of God. [Surat Al-Baqarah, 2:183]
Sawm was engaged in often by Prophet Muhammad—especially on Mondays and Thursdays and/or during the “white nights” (full moon nights) of lunar months—but without making this practice mandatory for his followers. However, these one-day and three day fasts are recommended for those who desire to reap the benefits of spiritual clarity and closeness to their Lord.
What is mandated for Muslims, as a community, is for its individuals as one body to fast yearly during the designated month of Ramadan, beginning with a new moon and terminating with the next new moon. The fasting schedule is from dawn to dusk, meaning that we abstain during the daylight hours from food, drink and marital intimacies; but all of these are open to us from dusk (the disappearance of the sun below the horizon) to dawn (the appearance of the sun’s rays above the horizon) —meaning the non-daylight hours. This joint community undertaking exempts those who are medically at risk of harm, as well as those developmentally not accountable (mentally challenged or very young). It should be mentioned that physical adherence to the fasting regime is of no merit with Allah if one does not behave righteously:
Abu Hurairah reported that the Prophet said,
Whoever does not give up forged speech and evil actions, Allah is not in need of his leaving his food and drink (i.e. Allah will not accept his fasting.) (Bukhari)
No doubt human beings noticed early on, when food was scarce or not to be found, that a spiritual sensitivity was induced on an empty stomach. As long as one had water to lubricate the body’s functions, especially the elimination-of-waste function, an otherwise healthy human could go without food –with spiritual benefit and without physical harm– for the proverbial 40 days or more.
The Ramadan method of fasting is a gentle clearing and cleansing of the physical body —if properly conducted—in that one is not asked to abstain from food and drink for 30 days straight. During the Ramadan fast one abstains during the time of day when one would normally take in sustenance. To balance this daytime abstinence, the faster is expected to take in sufficient nutrition between the periods of daylight fasting.
Fasting is an intentional pause in the normal routine pattern of providing for the body’s needs. Throughout the 29 or 30 days of Ramadan each year, during the daytime only, Muslims learn to deal with an unfulfilled desire for food and drink at their habitual times. For some this turns out to become an intense craving if they have become accustomed to stimulants (caffeine, nicotine, salt, spices, refined sugars, and others) to keep them going since these, too, must be withheld during the day, with the result that “withdrawal symptoms” kick in.
If one wants to ensure a meaningful Ramadan experience of closeness to Allah, then s/he might want to gradually wean oneself off of dependency on these stimulant substances before the arrival of Ramadan: It is during the days of the preceding lunar month (Sha’ban), when one can more comfortably substitute something more beneficial to the body so as to replace the stimulant one is wanting to give up. Thereby one can more easily transit into the Ramadan routine, fully prepared.
And by the way, if you need further motivation, consider this. If a substance does not offer any particular nutritional benefits, does it belong in the body in the first place! The stresses of modern living often push us to opt for the ubiquitous substitutes for true nutrition. In fact, it seems that most, rich or poor, in the affluent society around us are reaching for a quick fix to their energy deficit—thanks to aggressive advertising and peer pressure. Should this even be considered compatible with an Islamic lifestyle?
When the stomach and gastro-intestinal tract are given some weeks designated for an annual “scheduled maintenance,” they have an opportune chance to “reboot,” repair and generally to engage in a Spring Cleaning effort. On the Ramadan program this is done in incremental steps, with daily relief in terms of a well-calculated feeding schedule–a blessed window of night time opportunity to be shared with rest and worship.
Prayer and Fasting
Recall that personal supplication is a mandatory and worshipful component of our five-times-daily salah (ritual Prayer). Keep in mind, too, that the best time to feel connected with Allah is during the night when one would normally be sleeping through the night. Thus the voluntary night time prayers—after one has gotten up from sleep— to heighten closeness to Allah. It was Prophet Muhammad’s habit to rouse himself from his bed and spend a part of the night in communication with his Lord. During Ramadan the Muslim community engages in a communal version of this extra activity, in addition to an individual’s own program of Quran reading/recitation and private salah.
During Ramadan nights the Tarawih Prayer, performed after Isha—the last of the day’s five salahs—is especially rewarding. It is highly recommended for all Muslims—after breaking the day’s fast (preferably as a community)—to join the community in performing salah behind an imam—if at all possible. To use modern terminology, Ramadan is a time of Fasting and Prayer “on steroids.”
However, it should be noted that neither intense prayer nor repeated days of fasting were invented by Islam or its final prophet. Both prayer and fasting are associated with pleasing God; indeed, they are a platform on which to supplicate God for one’s needs and requests. The celebrated king of Bani Isra’il, David, (11-10th century BCE)—known especially for his elevated praise of God in the Psalms (Arabic, zabûr)—was lauded by Prophet Muhammad for his practice of both prayer and fasting:
Abd Allah bin ‘Amr bin Al’As said,
Allah’s Apostle said to me: “The most beloved fasting to Allah was the fasting of David, who used to fast on alternate days. And the most beloved prayer to Allah was the prayer of David, who used to sleep (the first) half of the night and pray for one-third of it and (again) to sleep for a sixth of it.” (Bukhari)
The Gospel narratives of Jesus in the New Testament, similarly, portray Jesus as a pious and righteous man of prayer and fasting:
Then the Spirit led Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the Devil. After spending forty days and nights without food, Jesus was hungry. Then the Devil came to him and said, … Jesus answered, “Go away, Satan! The scripture says, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him!'” Then the Devil left Jesus; and angels came and helped him. (Bible, Gospel of Matthew 4:1-3…10-11)
At that time Jesus went up a hill to pray and spent the whole night there praying to God. When day came, he… (Bible, Gospel of Luke 6:12)
Abraham, too, was a man of prayer:
[Abraham said:] All praise if for God [alone] who has granted me, despite [my] old age, [my sons] Ishmael and Isaac. Indeed, my Lord is the Hearer of prayer. My Lord! Make me steadfast in [observing] the Prayer—and also my children, our Lord. And do accept my supplication. [Surah Ibrahim, 14:40]
As we approach the month of Ramadan, we do well to prepare ourselves by understanding the physiology[i] of fasting at work in our bodies and how we can relieve ourselves of the headaches, brain fog and incapacitation that many face in our world today–due to living in bodies full of toxins, which are simply waiting to make their exit at the earliest opportunity of “plant shutdown.” The greater one’s backlog of un-cleared bodily waste, the greater the physical discomfort one is likely to experience when beginning and going through his/her Ramadan fast. When our bodies are clean, and free of withdrawal symptoms, that is when our spiritual sensitivities are open and equipped to becoming fully cultivated.
First, let us consider the issue of overeating, a special temptation to all—not only to Muslims—in the modern West, where food is plentiful and where overly-processed food materials, notably refined sugar, refined salt and overheated oils (fried foods), have become a ‘normal’ part of many individual’s daily fare—both in traditional recipes and in common conventional cooking. Such inferior ingredients invite one to fill up on low-nutrient foodstuffs, and then to come back for more—especially after a day of abstaining from food and drink altogether. Withdrawal symptoms are often mistaken for ‘hunger’; on the contrary, true hunger is a subtle sensation in the mouth and throat, not the discomfort of the stomach in house-cleaning mode.
Even the best of high-nutrient foods, when they overload the gastric system beyond its capacity to digest and assimilate, will putrefy in the gastro-intestinal tract and feed disease—rather than fulfilling its intended task of nourishing the body, repairing worn-out tissues and eliminating its routine toxic waste products. When a backlog of waste products is accumulated, and they reach an advanced stage of putrefaction (gas, bloating, various bowel irregularities), then the first stage of disease development has been established. As Muslims—who respect our bodies as the intricately designed instruments of our earthly deeds—we need to give them the proper raw materials for them to thrive. Our bodies have ‘rights’ over us.
Just as we regularly ritually ‘clean’ the outer body, in a spiritually meaningful symbolism—in preparation to stand before our beloved Lord for our five-times-daily Prayer (salah) —so too, must we monitor our internal physical cleansing process to ensure its normal and intended disease-free operation. A clean internal physical body enables not only abounding physical health, but also the opening of spiritual vistas, as witnessed by mankind’s history of fasting for spiritual enlightenment.
The Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad show us that he was anything but a glutton, in fact often having very little to eat. It is not Islamic to deny ourselves good things, especially in a time of plenty, but we must understand the body’s needs, limitations and its refreshment through fasting, if we are to benefit optimally from Ramadan.
Over a century ago, Hereward Carrington (“The Theory and Physiology of Fasting,” p. 149) quotes several of his predecessors who wrote about fasting as a means for gaining or restoring superior physical health—which of course impacts also mental and spiritual wellness:
“All disease originates in the digestive tract…”
“Every disease that afflicts mankind is a constitutional possibility developed into disease by more or less habitual eating in excess of the supply of gastric juice.” (Edward Hooker Dewey, The True Science of Living, 1895, p. 171)
“Sickness and acute attacks of illness bear the same [effect-cause] relation to diet that drunkenness bears to drink.” (Emmet Densmore, How Nature Cures, 1892, p. vii)
Carrington’s observations on the priority of internal cleanliness are as pertinent today as when he penned his book in 1908:
“The elaborate precautions at present in vogue would be largely unnecessary if the internal antiseptic condition of the body were [in] better [condition]…” (p.150)
A further ‘word to wise’ for those who live in hot climates—or fast a Ramadan which occurs during hot days of their year—it is to be noted that as for the same “excess of food that can be tolerated under the tonic and antiseptic influence of cold weather, [it] engenders disease during [hot weather].”[ii]
Regarding a general clean-up of one’s health condition: While individuals may be born with structural weaknesses—wherein lie their weakest links—it should be noted that these weaknesses, even if known, cannot be strengthened apart from strengthening the health of the body as a whole. That is, “abnormality is incited in the weak parts; hence gradually from the original weakness there is a summing-up as a bronchial or nasal catarrh, or other acute or chronic local or general disease.” (Carrington, p. 154)
For Carrington and his cohorts, fasting was the safest and most efficient means for restoring health. The benefits of Ramadan fasting, if conducted properly, build one’s spiritual well-being upon his/her physical well-being.
What application can we Ramadan fasters make of the above knowledge of the body’s self-purifying and self-healing efforts undertaken as part of the natural function of the human physiology when food and drink are deliberately withheld from the digestive tract during their normal intake times?
(1) The aim of Ramadan fasting is primarily spiritual but many of us, if we honestly assess our past Ramadan experiences, may admit that we have reached a mere fraction of the potential benefits of spiritual development. Unfortunately, in the modern world the spiritual feel of Allah’s presence may be largely masked, or outright blocked, in polluted and unhealthy physical bodies. Certainly, there may be non-physical, mental or spiritual reasons for a believer to miss the spiritual benefits of Ramadan, but wouldn’t it be prudent to remove the most obvious physical barriers as a matter of course?
(2) If, in past Ramadan fasts, one has experienced headaches, brain-fog, cravings, fatigue—and even savage withdrawal symptoms, then one should seek to discover the reason. If in doubt, of course, about a medical condition that would keep one from safely undergoing a daytime fast, consult your doctor.
If stimulants are a regular part of your daily intake—such as caffeine, nicotine, table salt, table sugar, fried fats, alcohol (God forbid!)—then one should wean him- or herself off of them now and deliberately go through the withdrawal process before the upcoming Ramadan begins. The run-up to Ramadan is your ‘golden opportunity’ to rid your taste buds and nervous system of harmful habits and addictions.
If you feel you cannot function without your morning cup of coffee, for instance, then find a replacement non-caffeinated hot drink now. Don’t assume that you can—or successfully will—quit “cold turkey” on the first day of Ramadan. Why suffer even one day of withdrawal symptoms during Ramadan and miss that day’s blessings?! Remove, now, all barriers to a spiritual awareness and awakening—an experience to be enhanced during the prolonged period of renewed daily fasting.
Remember: You want to optimize your physical fitness for the blessings of fasting – prayer – meditation to be had during the extraordinary opportunity of the holy season of Ramadan. Banish the handicap and enslavement of your physical demons—now— in the run-up to the Holy Month. You may want to free yourself of those unholy bodily alliances (addictions or dependencies) altogether this Ramadan. In their place, increase your dependence on Allah.
(3) In the run-up to Ramadan, limit the quantity of your food and drink intake during the day. Eat and drink only the most nutritional substances. Pure, unsweetened, un-preserved vegetable and fruit juices and concentrates are increasingly available. If in doubt about particulars, stick to fresh fruits and vegetables, locally grown if possible, and get into the habit of obtaining non-GMO and organic produce whenever you can manage it. If pesticide-free produce is not within your reach, then use a Veggie Wash.[iii]
Gluten-containing grains are being found to be allergens for more and more people. Avoid wheat[iv] —as well as barley, rye, kamut and spelt— if in doubt as to your status. Organic, grass-pastured meat, eggs and dairy products will give the best nutritional benefit and allow one to minimize quantity of food intake, thus minimizing the work required by the digestive system.
Chew thoroughly, unrushed, allowing the digestive juices in the mouth to fully do their job before you allow the food to be swallowed and passed along to further stages of digestion and assimilation in your body. Enjoy the process or chewing, with full attention to tasting.
As always, keep up your needed water quantities, emphasizing early morning and late afternoon intake, as you approach Ramadan. Ditch sodas and any other sweetened, colored or preserved drinks. And if you are going to miss them, then take the time to make your own “soda” substitutes at home by adding minimum amounts of lemon juice, ginger juice, cranberry concentrate, etc. to clean, filtered water or coconut water.[v]
Lighten your midday meal. Let your proteins and carbohydrates be digested early or late in the day as you near Ramadan. Move heavier meals to the beginning or end of the day. At midday put salads and other raw vegetables in their place, as preparation for the full day-time abstinence of food and drink, which will be required once Ramadan has arrived.
(4) Once you are actually into Ramadan and you are fasting dawn-to-dusk, prepare yourself—that when it is time to break your fast, you will eat slowly, until satisfied—and not one bite more. Honor the needs of your body and respect its right to be nourished but not to be overloaded—no matter the especially delicious food that is presented to you at iftar [fast-breaking] time.
Miqdam bin Ma’dikarib said:
I heard the Messenger of Allah saying: “The son of Adam fills no vessel worse than his stomach. It is sufficient for him to eat what will support his back. But if he must [fill his stomach], then only a third [of its capacity] is for food, a third for drink and a third left [empty] for easy breathing.” (Tirmidhi)
At iftar time, do not fall into old expectations and habits. Consciously monitor yourself: Do not tolerate having “eyes bigger than your stomach.” Pay attention to, and look for, the “Last Bite.”[vi] The Last Bite has been taken when the body has been supplied with the full amount of needed food—as much as can be digested in your limited stomach space, as much as can be assimilated into the blood stream. If you eat slowly and monitor the sensations felt in your GI system, you will learn to recognize the Last Bite.
To go beyond the Last Bite is to put your system into overload. Learn to recognize the dividing line between just-enough and more-than-enough; finding this dividing line may take special focus and patience at the beginning. Be overly-conservative in your food portions; better to go back for a second helping, if warranted. Once you recognize the Last Bite, then submit yourself to this boundary line. Stop your intake at that point. If you must forego your anticipated, favorite Ramadan treats, then do so. (Better to save them for later in the evening, and see if they still appeal to you.)
Your digestive system should have finished its work from iftar —do not delay iftar— before it takes on duties again for suhur. Liquids and liquefied foods (soups, stews, porridge, pure juices and smoothies) present the body with a lighter load for digestion. Virgin olive oil, fish, avocado, natural and unprocessed butter-cheese-cream, seeds- nuts and their oils—all of these are “good fats,” which digest slowly and are good for suhur since they continue to produce energy and a sense of fullness long into the day.
An ideal Ramadan fast assumes a fully healthy body as a starting point. Consider whether a preparatory detoxification process might be wise for you before Ramadan so as to lighten the Spring Cleaning side benefits of fasting.
The primary purpose of the Ramadan series of relatively gentle daily fasts—broken each evening and re-opened anew with each dawning of day—is the spiritual awakening, renewal, re-dedication and deepening of commitment to Allah, to one’s true life purpose, incorporating inner purification and self-becoming. Ramadan involves gratitude, worship, receiving into one’s soul—one’s innermost self and being—the Guidance sent down to Prophet Muhammad. In fact, that Guidance contains spiritual ‘meals’ ready for our partaking and ingestion, meant to enlighten and nourish, meant to bring us increasingly closer to our Creator, Maintainer, Lord.
Be sure not to miss the full benefits of the Holy Month of Ramadan. Ensure that you are physically fit to embark upon the Ramadan program of fasting and to reap ever increasingly its spiritual blessings.
[i] This material is taken from “The Theory and Physiology of Fasting,” Chapter V of Hereward Carrington, Vitality, Fasting and Nutrition: A Physiological Study of the Curative Power of Fasting, Together with a New Theory of the Relation of Food to Human Vitality, 1908; reprint by Kessinger Publishing, n.d.
[ii] Charles Edward Page, How to Feed the Baby, 1882, p. 47; quoted in Carrington, p. 152
[vi] Hakim Archuletta: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rmYBMd7wBRU
Dr. Linda Thayer has three university degrees in linguistic science (BA, MA, PhD), with a minor in anthropology. She believes that her fellow Muslims need to be current with the thinking and findings of modern Biblical Studies in order to meet Christians halfway in understanding the prophetic mission and personal nature of Jesus. To this end, she writes of the historical phenomenon of the Jesus movement from an interfaith perspective that dovetails with the Quran and ahâdîth.
Article provided by Al Jumuah Magazine, a monthly Muslim lifestyle publication, which addresses the religious concerns of Muslim families across the world.
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Topics: Diet, Fasting, Health, Interfaith, Ramadan, Soul (Nafs), Spiritual