The month of Ramadan is one which Muslims around the world wait for with great anticipation, relishing the opportunity to fast and perform other virtuous acts seeking God’s pleasure throughout the month. However, Ramadan has also become the month of festivities. The act of breaking one’s fast in the company of others is certainly one of the most joyous daily occasions throughout the month. Delicacies (usually of the deep fried variety) are prepared to be enjoyed for iftar.
The effect of such atypical dietary behaviour on the human body has become a frequent talking point. When one considers the prospect of undergoing a prolonged period of starvation followed by a binge on oily fritters, common sense should prevail in suggesting that such eating behaviour is extremely unhealthy. Yet in gatherings throughout the country, calorie-laden fritters and the like become staple foods.
Muslim doctors and Imams try to raise awareness about the importance of maintaining a healthy diet during Ramadan on an annual basis. This is exemplified by a pamphlet produced by ‘Communities in Action’ in conjunction with the NHS in an attempt to educate lay Muslim on the physiological changes that occur during fasting, and suggests ways in which Muslims can stay healthy during Ramadan.
Whilst the guide provides some useful insights, particularly on some of the side effects of fasting and how to counter them, I can’t help but feel that the guide is simply a repackaged version of the same message put forward by Imams and doctors over the years. Given the fact that this message has had minimal impact on the Muslim community in Britain (deep fried oily foods still feature in mosques and homes throughout the country in Ramadan), I wonder what the impact of this pamphlet and similar ones will be in promoting healthy behaviour.
What the pamphlet does quite succinctly is typify two fundamental flaws in the way that Muslims generally give health advice during Ramadan, the first of which is the bias towards giving dietary advice to Muslims of South Asian origin. This can be seen throughout the guide, from the public health statistics quoted in the beginning of the guide (quoting figures solely from the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities), to the suggested dietary modifications. The dietary suggestions in particular seem to focus on South Asian foodstuffs, mentioning sweets to avoid such as Balushahi and Rasgulla, with suggested alternatives including Rasmallai and Barfee. Unfortunately the overall message this depicts is that the South Asian diet is synonymous with a Muslim diet and I wonder whether this is the right message to be giving out particularly when engaging with organisations such as the NHS. I can imagine how Muslims of African and Arab descent, or perhaps even new converts, might be intrigued at the prospect of a guide advising them how to eat healthily during the holy month, only to be confronted by foods and suggestions that are completely alien to them.
A greater problem with the manner in which Muslim leaders try to promote healthy behaviour in Ramadan is to focus on food. The reason this is problematic is that it inadvertently reinforces the idea that one of the most important aspects of Ramadan (if not the most significant) is the consumption of food, when in reality the purpose of Ramadan is to rekindle and strengthen one’s relationship with God, as He tells the Muslims:
O you who believe, Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may attain taqwa.
Perhaps the best form of health advice therefore should be to encourage Muslims to focus on improving their relationship with God, for in doing so they are less likely to be thinking about food. The month of Ramadan should in fact be seen as an excellent opportunity to encourage Muslims to eat less since overeating is the prime cause of the global obesity epidemic. Given that one of the key routes to improving one’s relationship with God lies in following the ways of His noble Prophet, doctors and Imams should run a campaign where they encourage Muslims to emulate the Prophetic method of eating. This might centre on emphasising his attitude towards food for example:
The children of Adam ﬁll no vessel worse than their stomach. Sufﬁcient for him is a few morsels to keep his back straight. If he must eat more, then a third should be for his food, a third for his drink, and a third left for air.
In this recorded saying of the Prophet, peace be upon him, the importance of eating in a minimalist fashion is clearly highlighted as overeating is likely to make an individual lazy, which may in turn hamper their worship of God.The overarching message to Muslims during Ramadan should be to actively work towards creating a strong relationship between themselves and God through the performance of specific forms of worship and other righteous actions. The Prophetic method of eating is one which facilitates such behaviour and should thus be adopted during the month with a view to sustaining that behaviour even after Ramadan is over.
Muslim Imams and community leaders must take a lead role in promoting such behaviour, starting with themselves in making the necessary modifications to their diet. Only when they have implemented the Prophetic method of eating in their own lives can they educate others within the Muslim community on physical and spiritual well-being.