Fasting: The Physical Dimension
Allah (SWT) Almighty has constructed the universe upon a certain balance (al-mizan) and has likewise ordered this balance upon humanity. The great religion of Islam offers perfect guidance for every branch of our lives and among them is our health. The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) said that a strong believer is better than a weak one. But Islam does not atop there. It offers a program of action for everything that it prescribes. The primary objectives of Salah, Zakah and Siyam are to bring us closer to Allah (SWT) and inculcate taqwa (piety and self restraint) within us. But the fact is that when Islam is taken as a unitary whole and its entire program implemented, each of its pillars reinforces the other and serves multiple purposes. Our purpose here is to examine the physical dimension of siyam (fasting) not as the primary aim, but as an inevitable byproduct when one enters into Islam whole-heartedly as Allah’s (SWT) commands.
Of all the injunctions of Islam, fasting is the one with the most obvious physical benefits. The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) stated that every act has a charity and the charity of our health is the fast. Those believers who recognize that sadaqah (charity) of their wealth does not diminish it in the least also recognize that fasting, when practiced properly, rather than diminishing our health actually promotes it.
The primary purpose of fasting is the inculcation of discipline and self-restraint, especially in appetite. Gluttony (overeating) and its natural consequence of obesity are a major cause of disease and illness in this country. It is for this reason that the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) has instructed us “to eat for one intestine, as opposed to the non-Believers, who eat for seven intestines.” It is estimated that about 80 million Americans are unnecessarily overweight, and millions are spent each year in futile attempts to lose weight and develop healthier diets. Obesity has been linked with a variety of major illness, including heart disease, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, gout, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and osteoarthritis. Statistics have shown that obese people generally live shorter. And since obesity is in large part a discipline problem, the Islamic program of fasting as a means of curbing one’s appetite and developing self-restraint is an ideal solution, at least to reduce the scope of the problem if not eliminate it altogether.
But in my view, the greatest physical benefit of siyam is its role in the reduction of stress. A sound mind is the key to good health, and mental stress has been identified as the probable cause, or at the least an aggravating factor, in most illnesses. Numerous scientific studies have established the role of stress in medical illness. One such study found a higher rate of heart disease in people with the stressful ‘type A personality.’ These people are competitive, hostile and easily driven to frustration and anger. Another study found that stressful life events, especially the death of a spouse, are associated with high mortality. The profound effect of fasting in Ramadan in generating inner peace. contentment and tranquillity, the refraining from quarreling and abuse as well as the genuine feelings of brotherhood and good-will in this month are bound to have their physical effects on the body. How many Muslims can vouch that they feel much better and healthier during Ramadan and have more energy and enthusiasm? The long list of strategic Muslim victories achieved in Ramadan bears testimony to the promotion of health and physical energy by fasting.
Finally, fasting serves a detoxifying and purifying function. The old saying goes ‘you are what you eat’, and this is certainly true from a scientific point of view. The ill effects of hormones and preservatives found in modern foods have been documented. It is estimated that the average adult American carries five -to-10 pounds of toxic chemicals in his body. In addition, we have developed an appetite for many harmful substances, including nicotine, caffeine and excessive salts, which lead to hypertension, heart disease, our diets include excessive refined sugars, which lead to dental cavities and exacerbate diabetes. The fasting state mobilizes the body’s fuel and energy stores and increases es the excretion of waste products, this has a purifying effect. The Islamic principles of moderation, self-restraint and avoidance of harm can go a long way in overcoming these pitfalls.
Certainly, some can argue that the effects are nowhere to be seen in those who fast. But it cannot be the fault of the deen of Allah (SWT) if Muslims do not practice this institution properly and ignore its spirit and purpose. Fasting during the day and stuffing ourselves in the night is hardly in keeping with the spirit of siyam and will not lead to its physical or spiritual benefits Rather, we are instructed to eat with moderation, with a purpose, and to eat of the good and pure things which Allah (SWT) has made lawful. And if these wholesome principles are properly practiced, then their physical effects are assured the reward from Allah (SWT).