Changes During Ramadan
Ramadan drastically changes everything about our lives. Our sleep-wake patterns, our eating patterns, our priorities, the time we spend on worship, how we spend money, how we spend time with friends and family etc. We take huge chunks of our time and dedicate it to prayer, recitation of the Qur’an, and doing all sorts of good deeds including spending time and money to help and feed the needy, fix or better our relationships with friends and family and make dua to the Almighty.
More importantly, Ramadan is a time when our mind is completely focused on our thoughts and actions. We become very conscious of our needs and how we meet them. We make a conscious decision to abstain from food and water for an extended period of time and guard that state religiously. At the same time, we are also very careful about not crossing boundaries in not just our actions and words, but also our thoughts.
Yes! It’s true. We have this concentrated focus on the self and controlling desires, thoughts, speech and action because we are on a mission to reap rewards from the Almighty. We don’t want to jeopardize our good deeds with anything that would even remotely take away from it. We put in a lot of time, effort and money into adding good deeds for this exact same purpose.
So, the question is… Why did Allah, the Self-Sufficient, the one who doesn’t need any of this from us, ask us to go through such a rigorous month?
When we study about the things that Allah asked us to do, and about those things he asked us to stay away from, the forms of worship that Allah has ordained us to perform, we realise that they all have a purpose. And although they are a way to show our gratitude to Allah, a way to praise him, a way to show our obedience to him etc., they are more about the do’s and don’ts that would lead us to a better life. Even if we remove the spiritual factor out of it, and just look at these do’s and don’ts from a lifestyle perspective, we can see that they improve our overall life, reduce stress, bring us financial stability, prevent several bad habits, keep us from falling into avoidable personal disasters etc. In essence, ibadah to Allah is akin to living the best life possible. The modern world is catching up. Although they cover it up with their own jargon, we can see that most of the things that Muslims were ordained to do in the Quran and through the teachings of the Prophet (SAW) are being promoted in several different ways. For example, meditation is promoted to increase focus and mental health, eating only when hungry and avoiding eating until full is promoted for better health all together, and there is widespread realization that an interest-based economy can only lead to disaster, and an increased emphasis on the importance of community for mental health. In this light, how does Ramadan and fasting help us improve our lives?
Ramadan can be defined as a safe training ground that Allah has provided for us to develop the skills that are necessary to live our lives in the best way possible. Allah says in the ayah about Ramadan that “Allah loves ease for you and does not love hardship for you..”. I am sure we can all agree that Ramadan is a month like no other, the things we can accomplish in Ramadan, even fasting, is a lot more difficult for the rest of the year. Allah has kept Shaytan (evil temptations) chained away to give us the time to train our minds and bodies to defend themselves. It is like a yearly intensive training program that helps us to restore, relearn and rebuild what the previous year depleted and recalibrate ourselves for the coming year.
While we can take each of the special components of Ramadan and list out the different ways that it can train us to be better human beings and live better lives, I would like to focus on the act of fasting itself and how it can benefit us in the long run.
While we are only asked to fast during Ramadan as an essential practice, we can see that the Prophet (SAW) has promoted fasting throughout the year like Mondays and Thursdays during the week, the middle 3 days of the lunar month, during the month of Sha’aban, 6 days in the month of Shawwal etc. Fasting is also prescribed as a solution to young people who cannot afford to marry and as compensation for those who did certain misdeeds. So how does fasting help us?
In the past few decades, there has been an explosion of research that states that fasting is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle. The most popular theory is that deprivation of food has been our greatest motivation to improve our situation and thereby results in creativity and innovation to fulfil that purpose. Our ancestors had scarcity of food and it was their need for food that led to the progress of mankind. While these theories have some truth to it, we could essentially say that the health and strength that our ancestors used to enjoy was essentially due to their habit of eating less and only when needed.
Fasting is defined by modern science as the act of depriving oneself of food for extended periods of time which can be anywhere between part of a day to several days at a time. The most popular fasting trend today is intermittent fasting which is restricting eating to a time frame with the rest of the time spent in a state of fasting. There are several ways this can be done. While this can be an interesting read and probably something to look into, this article will focus on the benefits that can be reaped from taking up fasting.
Research has shown that being in a state of fasting for more than 12 hours can result in fast metabolism and therefore help in weight loss. It can also regulate metabolism which means we can make better use of nutrients in the food we eat. It also helps to regulate blood glucose and blood pressure levels, increase cardiovascular health etc. Fasting can also result in elimination of accumulated toxins, cleansing the body and boosting immunity. Fasting also promotes autophagy which is the cleaning up of dead cells by other cells which results in better performance at the cellular level or in other words, autophagy is a means of weeding out worn-out components which protects brain cells and slows the advancement of disease. Fasting also increases brain health by promoting neurogenesis which in turn improves memory, learning and cognition which helps in obtaining better mental clarity and better cognitive performance. This is probably the reason why despite the many health issues we face, Ramadan is a time when we are revitalized, we feel healthy and more energetic as well as remain more focused and can think better, stay up longer and all together accomplish more.
Benefits of Fasting for Mental Health
Fasting not only requires focus and conscious effort in maintaining the state of fast, it also requires self-restraint and resilience. It can be seen that while our brain is working on self-restraint and focus for the purpose of fasting, it spills over to other functions that require the same needs from our brain. I believe this is the most important aspect of fasting. I am sure that most of us have experienced this first hand. Within the same 24-hour period that we have during other months, during Ramadan, we are able to accomplish so much more. This is because we are more focused and this helps us zoom in on our priorities. This could also be because of other benefits of fasting which include improved mood, reduced stress and lowered depression and anxiety symptoms which would in turn improve one’s ability to focus better on other areas of life.
Fasting requires willpower or in other words, discipline and rigor which is essentially a test of restraint and resilience and if we practise it enough times, it becomes a part of us. When the Prophet (SAW) asked the Sahaba who were unable to get married to fast, the Prophet (SAW) was essentially giving them a tool to develop restraint. When we restrain ourselves from our baser needs such as food, it is easier for us to inhibit ourselves in other ways. This is essentially why, when we fast during Ramadan, we can keep ourselves from giving into other bad behaviours. When we call upon our mental reserves for will power and resilience, it gets strengthened because we are essentially feeding oxygen to the parts of the brain that help us to achieve these goals. And when we practise this over and over again, these qualities gain enough energy to develop as part of our character. So, when the Qur’an prescribes fasting as compensation for misdeeds, it is essentially to train the body and mind of the believer to develop the characteristics necessary to keep them from repeating these misdeeds. Not only that, we are developing in ourselves the ability to overcome any difficulty that we face in life.
In today’s world, we are fed the hype that we need to get all our needs met. What this worldview does is that when we cannot get whatever we want, we get depressed and give up on life. The only way we can overcome the effects of such thinking is through boosting our mental strength and developing resilience so that we are able to not just overcome the problems that we face in life, but succeed despite them or even because of them. Taking up fasting as a regular habit could help us reap its rewards in improving our lives both physically, mentally and spiritually.
Researcher & Activist,
I am here to share my first experience of fasting in Ramadan. I am a social work professional working in child rights and child protection for 3-4 years. When I was asked this question, it took me back to 2019. I fasted for the entire month of Ramadan that year. Prior to that I used to fast for a few days or maximum one week as a sign of solidarity. 2019 was different for me. There are many reasons – one of the most important reasons would be the children with whom I had worked. Right after my graduation, I started my job in a state home as a child protection officer. It shelters children in need of protection or children in conflict with law. All of them came from very poor socio-economic backgrounds. They all had come through adverse childhood experiences and had traumas, which led them to end up in a state home. It was our task to reintegrate them into society and help them lead a dignified life. They were mostly adolescents, who had difficulties in emotional behavior. It was quite a challenge. That’s when Ramadan came by. About 95% of these children were Muslim and they were all determined to fast during the month of Ramadan. It took us by surprise. It lifted my spirits as well. So I decided to join my kids. I used to wake up in the morning before sunrise, eat porridge or dates with some water and start my journey in the local train to the office. 20-25 would come to the office and keep their fast, pray and as the day ended, we would all sit together and break our fast. Eventually, the fasting during Ramadan time was not just a religious symbol or cultural practice but it was more than that for each of us in our personal journeys and our journeys in serving society. Since then, I always look forward to Ramadan. It was a chance for me to listen to each part of my body and mind, what they wanted to communicate to me, and what my soul wanted to direct me to towards and bring about an alignment between them. It led me to understand the message that the world is trying to convey and thus fulfil the purpose of this life. – Aswathy Sajith
I started Ramadan fasting in my 2nd standard. Ramagundam where I stay is home to many Muslims as well. In my childhood, my classmates told me that Ramadan is a very great thing. I started praying with them, or I used to sit with them when they prayed. Again when I joined my PG in Hyderabad, I resumed this practice. Not only me, many friends of mine also followed this. When we break the fast, I don’t feel hungry. I feel it’s good for health to fast sometimes. The mind also gets relaxed. Usually, if I am in the university or in Delhi, it is very comfortable for me to fast or offer prayer. Even among my relatives, we have a culture of observing Moharram. There are many dargahs also. We light incense, the maulana makes dua for us. Every Friday, till today, my aunt goes to that dargah. We do ‘kandoor’ at the time of Moharram; in our area, Moharram is different. It is quite unique in our place compared to Delhi or Hyderabad. I feel Ramadan also helps the poor. Lent or Good Friday is also there among Christians. Even Buddhists fast on Buddha Poornima or Ambedkar Jayanti, like some of my relatives. – Daya Aruna