Understanding fasting and Ramadan
 By: Ustadz Esmael Ebrahim  
 Source: PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER, page A14, September 24, 2006  
Online: http://newsinfo.inq7.net/inquirerheadlines/regions/view_article.php?article_id=22721
 

WITH the sighting of the new moon at dawn yesterday, the Da’rul Ifta, the “House of Opinion” of the Islamic religious leaders of the country, declared the start of the Filipino Muslims’ holy month of Ramadan today.

In the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, once the new moon is sighted, the Grand Mufti will formally announce over radio the beginning of Ramadan. Texting, as in the past few years, is widely used as a medium to spread the news.

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. During Ramadan, until the next moon is sighted 29-30 days later, Muslims will observe fasting, which means abstaining completely from foods, drinks, intimate intercourse, and smoking from the break of the dawn till sunset.

Why fast?

But why do Muslims fast and what does Ramadan mean?

Fasting in Ramadan is one of the five pillars upon which the structure of Islam is built. The others are the declaration of one’s belief in the Oneness of Allah and in the message of Muhammad, regular attendance to prayer, payment of Zakah, and pilgrimage.

If we examine these five pillars, taking into account the fact that Islam aims to improve the quality of human life, we find that the first of these five pillars is concerned with beliefs that influence man’s conduct.

The second, which is the prayer, aims at providing a constant reminder to man of his relationship with Allah. The third is a social obligation which reduces the gap between the rich and the poor, while the fifth, i.e. pilgrimage, has a universal aspect which unites the nation of Islam.

Spiritual joy

Ramadan is a very important month for believers. It is a time full of spiritual joy and satisfaction, a time when a good deed is rewarded with more blessings and spiritual relief. Fasting brings happiness and other worldly benefits to believers.

A Muslim fasting is also the means by which he displays his gratefulness to his Creator. Fasting makes all people share in the feelings of hunger and thirst. In normal circumstances, people with decent income may go from one year’s end to another without experiencing hunger which a poor person may feel every day of his life. Such an experience helps draw the rich nearer to the poor.

Ramadan is also a month of self-regulation and self training, with the hope that this will last beyond the end of the period. If the lessons learned during Ramadan, whether in terms of dietary intake or righteousness, are carried on after, the effects will be long lasting.

Moreover, the type of food taken during Ramadan does not have any selective criteria of crash diets, such as those which are protein-only or fruit-only type diets. Everything that is permissible is taken in moderate quantities.

Timing

The difference between Ramadan fasting and total fasting is the timing of the food. During Ramadan, we basically miss lunch and take an early breakfast and do not eat until dusk. Abstinence from water for 8-10 hours is not necessarily bad for health; in fact, it causes concentration of all fluids within the body, producing slight dehydration. The body has its own water conservation mechanism; in fact, it has been shown that slight dehydration and water conservation, at least in plant life, improve their longevity.

The physiological effect of fasting includes lowering of blood sugar, cholesterol level, and systolic blood pressure. In fact, Ramadan fasting would be an ideal recommendation for the treatment of mild to moderate, stable, non-insulin diabetes, obesity, and essential hypertension.

In 1994, the first International Congress on “Health and Ramadan” was held in Casablanca. It entered 50 extensive studies on the medical ethics of fasting. While improvement in many medical conditions was noted, in no way did fasting worsen any patients’ health or their baseline medical condition.

On the other hand, patients who are suffering from diseases, whether diabetes or coronary artery disease, kidney stones, etc., are exempt from fasting and should not be allowed to fast.

Psychological effects

There are psychological effects of fasting as well. There is peace and tranquility for those who fast during the month of Ramadan. Personal hostility is at a minimum, and the crime rate decreases.

This psychological improvement could be related to better stabilization of blood glucose during fasting as hypoglycemia after eating, aggravates behavior changes.

There is a beneficial effect of extra prayer at night. It not only helps with better utilization of food but also in energy output. There are 10 extra calories output for each unit of the prayer. Again, we do not do prayers for exercise, but a mild movement of the joints with extra calorie utilization is a better form of exercise.

Similarly, the recitation of the Koran not only produces a tranquility of heart and mind, but improves the memory.

Fasting during the month of Ramadan is compulsory upon every Muslim, male or female, who are mentally and physically fit, and are of full age, the age of puberty and direction, which is normally about 14 years of age.

Exemptions

Those exempted are children below the age of puberty and discretion; the insane; those who are too old and feeble; the sick, but they may postpone the fast to a later date and make up for it, a day for a day; those who are traveling; expectant women and women nursing their children, but they must make up for the fast at a delayed time, a day for a day; and women during the period of menstruation (of a maximum of 10 days) or of confinement (a maximum of 40 days).

They are not allowed to fast even if they can and want to. They must postpone the fast till recovery and then make up for it, a day for a day.

As a result of fasting, Muslims develop a unique and balanced personality by exercising the different dimensions of a person’s existence. However, all these benefits, may it be physical, psychological, social and spiritual come as a blessing of God to the entire humanity because Islam is the religion where it combines both physical movements and spiritual exercise for assuring the success of Muslim in this life and in the life hereafter.

(Editor’s Note: The author is a member of the Da’rul Ifta, the House of Opinion which renders rulings on what is only allowed in Islam. He is also the managing director of the Muslim Mindanao Halal Certification Board Inc.)