by Husam Ahmed Shafeeq
No congregational prayers. No community Iftars. No get-togethers with family and friends. Ramadan this year is going to be different for Muslims around the globe. For over a month under lockdown, people have forgone many of their social rituals and traditions. But thanks to the universal nature of Islam, Muslims had no difficulty in observing their religious obligations even confined in their homes. Similarly, the basic purpose of Ramadan, being self-purification, can surely be achieved without social meetings and gatherings. But the greatest concern and the most asked question is regarding the very essence of this blessed month. Is it not dangerous to fast during the COVID-19 crisis?
Given that remaining healthy has become the frontline in fighting the virus, proper nutrition and maintaining natural circadian rhythms are advised by experts to defend COVID-19. Here, proper nutrition is what casts a shadow on the most important practice to be carried out this month. Some have already started advocating a ‘no fasting’ in the current situation. But analyzing the facts, we have enough reason to believe that fasting will not be dangerous even in these circumstances.
Sacrifice or blessing?
Islam comprises injunctions that are essential and at the same time adequate for the well-being of man. Take for instance the Islamic commandment to eat and drink and not to exceed. This teaching is necessary as well as sufficient for a person to remain healthy. Obeying this injunction, a person forgoes whatever he forgoes for his own benefit. But on the contrary, a person fasting sacrifices for the sake of God even the beneficial things which are otherwise lawful to him. Hence, fasting is held in such high esteem in Islam that God says that He Himself will be the reward for it.
But does this in any way mean that fasting deteriorates our health? In Islam, all our possessions including our physical body are a trust given to us by God. To value them and to take good care of them is a religious responsibility of a Muslim. Hence, it would be against the very basic principle of Islam to cast ourselves into ruin with our own hands. Therefore, a careful study of the effects of fasting on our physical as well as mental health proves that it is not all about forsaking and suffering, but is a blessing in disguise.
Boosting immunity alongside spirituality
“Now is not the time to try fasting”, says Alissa Rumsey, an intuitive eating counselor. The proponents of ‘no fasting’ have been warning that fasting during a pandemic would possibly make a person more vulnerable to the disease. But there are no studies which further establish this point. The Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine in Oxford negated the existence of any evidence to suggest an adverse effect from fasting on healthy individuals. On the contrary, the opposite seems to be true.
Alongside fulfilling the central purpose of stimulating the moral and spiritual faculties of man, fasting comes with many physical benefits as well which enhances the functioning of the human body in numerous ways. Recent research conducted by scientists at the University of South California found that fasting for three consecutive days can regenerate the entire immune system. The researchers say fasting triggers the production of brand new white blood cells which are a key component of our immune system. Although this study led by Professor Valter Longo suggests a 72 hour prolonged fasting, newer data shows that you might not have to starve yourself that long to hit the goal. In a paper published in New England Journal of Medicine in December last year, Rafael de Cabo and Professor Mark Mattson suggest that eating in a 6 hour period while fasting for as long as 18 hours a day can decrease the incidence of diseases along with increased stress resistance and longevity.
So, does fasting boost our immunity? That is still hard to answer as our immune system is not ‘one thing’ that we can easily measure. It is a complex system with different components. But studies definitely prove fasting to increase our overall resistance to diseases.
Cells ‘eating themselves’
Autophagy, literally meaning ‘self-eating’ is a biological process in which cells break down their own components and use them for energy. This process has become a subject of increased interest since Yoshinori Ohsumi, a Japanese cell biologist was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2016 for his outstanding research into the field. Autophagy is a vital process that maintains cellular balance and is deeply connected with the manner of development of a number of diseases. This crucial ‘self-eating’ process is also said to protect against infectious, autoimmune, and inflammatory diseases. Scientists have found that fasting for 12 to 24 hours triggers autophagy allowing cells to start the repair and renewal process.
Not even water!
Most studies in favor of intermittent fasting don’t mention abstaining from drinking water as in Islamic fasting. Moreover, there have been recent claims about constantly moisturizing the throat and respiratory tract to defend the Coronavirus which have forced many people to reconsider the observance of their religious obligation in the given situation.
Although the World Health Organization (WHO) and health experts advise people to drink plenty of fluids to keep their throat moist, they categorically reject any chance of water intake preventing a person from contracting the new disease. Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University said while medical professionals typically recommend keeping up fluid intake when sick, drinking more water will not keep anyone from catching the virus. “It makes one feel better, but there is no clear indication that it directly protects against complications,” Dr. Schaffner confirmed.
Moreover, there has been some research on the benefits of dry fasting; the type of fasting in which even fluid intake is restricted. In a 2012 study in Nutrition Research, scientists measured the proinflammatory cytokines of 50 healthy adults one week before Ramadan, at the end of the third week of Ramadan and one month after Ramadan. Pro-inflammatory cytokines are involved in the body’s inflammatory responses, which is one way the body fights infection. But too much inflammation can lead to various diseases, especially when there is no infection or injury to fight. The study found that pro-inflammatory cytokines were lowest during Ramadan which suggests reduced inflammation while fasting. This helps the body to prevent many inflammatory diseases.
However, for safe fasting, it is essential to keep a balance of your nutrition during the non-fasting hours. Usually, people feel compelled to binge after they break their fast. This can have severe consequences and is also against the Holy prophet’s command to “leave one-third of the stomach empty”. It is also essential for the sick people to abstain from fasting as Islam prohibits them from doing so.
In the light of the prevailing situation, the worldwide head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba) advised, “In the current circumstances, everyone should assess their own conditions and their health and seek a decision based on their own conscience as to how they need to take care of their health.” Hence, it is incumbent upon a Muslim to truthfully and in a righteous manner decide whether to fast or not to fast.
The author is a missionary of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and is currently serving in Kerala