ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, October 08, 2006
Vol. 41 - No 19

Fasting or feasting?

By Ayesha Inoon

Ramadan — the Holy Month of Muslims — is here again, and despite its acknowledged spiritual significance, for some it may seem that the emphasis is on….food. From five-star hotels to fast food restaurants, a wide variety of iftar (the fast-breaking meal at sunset) buffets with every imaginable delicacy is on offer. Caterers advertise their services for ‘iftar functions’ and dinners. The general impression seems to be that of 'feasting' rather than fasting.

A Pakistani vendor drops Samosas into a basket in preparation for Iftar (fast breaking) during Ramadan in Islamabad. Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and any sexual activities from dawn to dusk during Ramadan. AFP

Many admit that this over-indulgence during Ramadan leads to adverse health effects such as weight gain and high cholesterol. “I often end up gaining weight by the end of the month,” says Ms. Hassan, a housewife. “We have got used to eating rich foods — with too much sugar, ghee and milk in everything — during Ramadan. I also get invited to a lot of iftar parties.”

Yet, is this the way that Islam advocates? Is the true purpose of Ramadan — to diminish carnal desires and increase faith and spirituality — lost amidst these festivities?

The Quran says, 'O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may learn self-restraint' (2: 183). The prescribed institution of fasting is a unique moral and spiritual characteristic of Islam. The fast in the month of Ramadan which requires Muslims to refrain from food, drink and sexual relations from first light until sundown is firstly an act of worship which brings rewards from Allah.

“Ramadan is like a crash course, an intensive training session for one month in attaining piety and closeness to Allah. This piety must stay with us throughout the year, not only during this month,” says Dr. Mareena Thaha Reffai, eye surgeon and founder president of the Al-Muslimaath, an organisation for Muslim women. “It is a pity that for those who do not understand the deep spiritual meaning of Ramadan, it just passes in eating, drinking and idling.”

A Muslim's duties during this month are not merely the abstinence from food, drink and sexual relations during the day. They are also prayer, recitation and understanding of the Holy Quran, the giving of charity known as 'Zakath', and complete avoidance of any wrongdoing.

Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) has said, “If a person does not avoid false talk and false conduct during the fast, Allah does not care if he abstains from his food and drink”. Backbiting, slander and lies are also said to invalidate the fast. If confronted with an argument while fasting, the fasting person is advised to simply say, “I am fasting” and refrain from confrontation.

Studies have shown that it is easier for a person to exercise his will-power in this manner while fasting, rather than when satiated. It trains the mind and body to face the trials and tribulations of life with patience and constancy. Thus, fasting is meant to be an exhilarating and humbling experience, bringing you closer to God and giving spiritual strength enough to last the rest of the year.

“Many people who fast get nothing from their fast except hunger and thirst,” said the Prophet (PBUH). To not understand the true meaning of Ramadan, to refrain from food and drink all day simply to indulge afterwards, neglect prayers and commit wrongful acts during this month is to lose the essence of fasting and its rewards.

“People tend to overeat because they mistakenly think that we are going hungry during this month,” says Dr. Reffai. She points out that it is merely a change of timing, but one still gets three meals a day — the iftar, dinner and suhoor (pre-dawn meal). Therefore if you eat just as on other days after breaking fast, there will be no unnecessary weight gain or other ill-effects. “In any case, the Prophet (PBUH) has recommended that a Muslim should never eat to his fill — he should eat so that one third of his stomach is food, one third water and the rest remains empty.”

Of course, there are many Muslims who do understand the spiritual heights they can reach during Ramadan, and change their lifestyles accordingly during that month. “It’s not just about having good things to eat,” says Seema, a teacher, “You are naturally inclined to do more good deeds and engage in prayer during this month. Also, it is difficult to really overeat after breaking fast — I feel that I am full after the dates and a snack — and then look forward to joining my family for prayers."

Eid-Ul-Fitr or the Festival at the end of the month, which is a celebration of the fasting is also a time of special spiritual significance. The whole community — men and women, young and old — gathers in an open space for the special congregational prayers, strengthening brotherhood in Islam.

It is a time for visiting relatives and exchanging gifts — a day of rejoicing for the joy of successfully completing the important task of fasting.

Whomsoever attains Ramadan and does not take advantage of this month is cursed, said Prophet Muhammed (PBUH). It is a call for Muslims to not let the month pass by without making use of the truly special opportunities to grow, learn, better themselves, and gain closeness to God through piety.

Sensible eating

It is important to continue to have a balanced diet during Ramadan. Avoid fried foods since they can cause indigestion, heart-burn, and weight problems, says Noor Iqbal, Consultant Dietician and Nutritionist at the Nawaloka Hospital.

Grilled and baked foods are a better option, especially during suhoor, when one is more inclined to eat fried food. While the traditional kanji for iftar is a good idea, she recommends that it should be made fibre rich with red-rice or whole wheat and vegetables.

She also advises that one goes slow during iftar instead of eating too much at once. It is said that the Prophet (PBUH) broke his fast with a few dates and water. Some people choose to break their fast this way, attend to prayers and then have a meal.

This gives the digestive system time to adjust. The iron in dates is absorbed better on an empty stomach rather than when taken with other food, says Ms. Iqbal.

As much water or fruit juices as possible should be taken between iftar and bedtime so that the body may adjust fluid levels in time. "Perhaps one glass of Faluda is alright — but more should be avoided due to the high sugar content," she says.

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Copyright 2006 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.