Millions of Muslims around the world fast during the month of Ramadan. I didn’t know much – if anything – about this holy month of the year. This year, I decided to learn more about it by immersing myself in this experience by fasting and researching on this topic.
The month of Ramadan is based on the lunar calendar, which differs from the calendar we use here in the West. The calendar we use – the Gregorian calendar – is based on the sun instead of the moon. And because these two calendars differ, the month of Ramadan changes every year with respect to the Gregorian calendar. In fact, Ramadan occurs in 33-year cycles and so every year this holy month advances by 11 days.
Islāmic fasting is quite strict compared to other religions. No food or drink is allowed from the break of dawn until sunset. There was some conflicting information on the fasting time period. Some sources claimed that the fast occurs between sunrise and sunset; however that is not correct. Furthermore, one has to abstain from smoking or sex during the daylight hours of this month as well. These rules do not apply to someone traveling, ill or on a menstrual cycle but any missed days should be made up before next year.
When I first decided to fast for the month, I started to read some literature on the effects on fasting. I was quite skeptical that no food or drink during daylight hours can have any positive benefits on the body. Nevertheless, in the Qur’an (Surah 2:184) it states: “And it is better for you that you fast, if you only knew.” During Muhammad’s time, science wasn’t as advanced as it is today. We are now able to analyze blood for every molecule and run statistical analyses on the results to see whether there are differences between a fasting and a non-fasting group of people.
My first thought was that some papers must have been written on this subject; so I did a quick search. A great paper I came across was called “The impact of religious fasting on human health.” This paper uses a meta-analysis – which means that the authors combined different studies on fasting into one to increase the statistical power. If you are interested, I encourage you to read it as well.
The paper mentions that “while religious fasts are partaken primarily for spiritual purposes, they also have the potential to greatly affect one’s physical health.” Tests on fasting animals concluded that fasting can prevent cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, cancers and diabetes while decreasing heart rate and blood pressure. Do we notice the same results in humans? However, note that these animals were allowed to drink water during their fast.
One effect that is uncontested among all studies is that your body mass index drops. I lost around 10 pounds during this month. Since my body went into full starvation mode, my muscles disintegrated and were turned into food to survive. Most studies concluded that LDL cholesterol either drops or remains unchanged while HDL cholesterol increases. LDL is considered bad cholesterol while HDL is considered as good cholesterol. All studies concluded that glucose levels either drop or remain unchanged. However, since these results have too many confounding variables, such as fasting time which is based on where you live, smoking and dietary differences, it is hard to draw conclusions from these papers.
As for my personal experience, I found it to be quite difficult. It took great discipline to abstain from food or drink during daylight hours – especially in the summertime (17 hours). Temperatures in Vancouver do not come nearly as high as they do in a country like Saudi Arabia, but, without any water it is not a pleasant experience. And since I lead an active lifestyle, I was not able to be as active as I normally would. Instead, I would try to take as many naps as possible just to pass the time. Weak, tired and unambitious I was looking forward to break my fast each night.
I also noticed how everybody felt guilty for eating and drinking around me. The fast was my choice but I appreciated the respectful comments. This also gave me a chance to teach myself and others a little about this Islāmic practice. To appreciate the necessity of food and water – which are so easily come by in today’s society – I highly encourage others to fast at least once in their lifetime. Overall it has made me a stronger person; just not physically.