Monday, May 1, 2017

Ramadan: The Battle of Fasting for God or Eating Disorders?

By Malak Saddy, RDN, LD
As an apprehensive and self-conscious youth, Ramadan posed a bit of an inconvenience for me as I tried to manage my daily life, as well as a platform to advertise my variance to the community in which I lived. I knew I was different and unique, my name, Malak, stuck out like a wrong note in a serenade of Lisas and Megans. My frizzy, curly, unruly, brown hair and garlicky packed lunch of hummus and pita all screamed I was different.  Add to that, once a year for a month, I would go sit and hide myself in the school library during lunch, patiently waiting for the bell to ring to join my friends again. I would sit quietly away from the cafeteria aromas and constant questions of why I wasn’t eating. It was a part of my life that I practiced and celebrated with all my being. As I grew older and continued practicing Ramadan I became more confident and vulnerable. I didn’t shield myself in the school library. I began to embrace the holy month and with that I was bombarded with questions and statements of, “How much weight do you lose?” “You can’t have water?!” “That’s a great diet, I bet you get so skinny at the end of the month.” I would cringe at these comments and respond that Ramadan wasn’t about weight loss or dieting, it was about being grateful for all the blessings that one has in life like health, food, water, and shelter, as well as friends and family that cared for you.
That special time for Muslims around the world is soon approaching. For those who have an eating disorder, Ramadan can pose a whole set of difficulties and internal battles such as fasting for my eating disorder or for God? It is during this month that so many eating disorders go under the radar.
Since the Muslim calendar is lunar, the times and dates of Ramadan change and this year it begins at the end of May. It is a month of fasting and spirituality, for all able bodied, and sound minded Muslims. According to tradition, it is the month of mercy and forgiveness. During this holy month, Muslims must fast daily from predawn to sunset. Depending on the moons sighting the number of days Muslims fast varies from 29 to 30 days. This time of year, while we are fasting between 18 to 19 hours in various parts of the Northern hemisphere, Muslims in the Southern hemisphere are fulfilling their religious duties during short winter days which last about 10 to11 hours.
Fasting does not only entail abstaining from all food and drink, but also from any bad behaviors and habits, and sexual intimacy during the fast. It is a month of divine and physical cleansing, with extra special prayers and supplications. A time of hiatus from our daily material lives. A month of reflection and contemplation. A practice of willpower, empathy, humanitarian servitude, and patience. A month of training for the body and soul, to seek redemption and to continue the journey of righteousness throughout the year.
The barrier we may face as clinicians when treating a Muslim client is that culturally many refer to “illness” as physical diseases like cancer or diabetes and disregard eating disorders, depression, and anxiety. These beliefs encourage the feelings of continued shame, guilt, and comparison. These are some of the hurdles that our clients must overcome empowering them into recovery.
As a clinician when the subject of not fasting has been discussed, I have been met with both acceptance and rejection by both clients and families. There are multiple aspects and guidelines that you can reflect to those who come into your practice debating that necessity. When counseling clients, I have found the following to be helpful in reflecting back to them:
  1. Contacting a local mosque and involve an Imam who is well versed in mental health and social issues and who can explain to the client that fasting is only for those healthy individuals.
  2. He/she can participate in the of holy month without fasting, but rather through other acts of worship as well. Perhaps they can connect with their faith and God through abstaining from using social media, serving the community, restraining from anger, doing good deeds, or preforming charities to those in need.
  3. In the Quran, the Book of Islam, God (Allah in Arabic) revealed, “Fast the prescribed number of days; except if any of you is ill or on a journey, let him fast a similar number of days later. For those who cannot endure it for medical reasons, there is a ransom: the feeding of the one poor person for each missed day” [chapter 2 verse 183].
  4. It also states in the Quran that one can pay Fidyah, in which a donation of food or money is used to help those in need. When one is not able to fast, paying this compensation still deems one practicing Islam and participating in Ramadan.
In my years of practice, I have learned in general that when approaching the topic of religion and culture with a client, to always treat this with sensitivity, respect, and compassion, for culture and religion are integral parts of the human frame work. Begin to have the conversation with your client before Ramadan starts and gain a better understanding of what the holiday means to them. By approaching the topic with knowledge and alternatives it can lead to a more supportive and recovery minded discussion.
Malak, in her own words, has offered, “should anyone have a Muslim client and would like to speak to me further to contact me via email. I would love to help out in anyway that I can.” Malak can be reached by emailing

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