The View From Fez

Fasting: The Challenges Facing Muslims This Ramadan

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During the month-long fast, Muslims refrain from eating, drinking and sex between daybreak and sunset. While this is a challenge for people everywhere, in certain parts of the world the length of the day causes a real problem. 

The reason there are different lengths of fasting is simple. The Islamic calendar is based on the lunar cycle and thus 11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar. Because of this it moves back 11 days every year.

According to twenty-six year old Fez local, Fatima Zohra, nobody alive now can remember a Ramadan where the days were so long. “When I grew up Ramadan was in winter and fasting was not a the big problem it is today.”

The longer days at this time of year have the added burden of intense heat and biggest health problem for most people is not being able to drink water. “People become dehydrated and cannot concentrate,’ explains Fez shopkeeper Omar.” Late afternoon is not a good time to take a taxi,” he says with a wry smile then whispers, “of course many people do drink a little water, but not in public.”

Meanwhile, far to the north…

Mikael Sundin, a board member of the Association of Muslims in Umeå in the north of Sweden, said living so far north presents particular challenges.

In northern Sweden and Finland, sunrise today (July 21st) was at 3.09am and sunset will be at 11.34pm. If Muslims were expected to fast according to the local times they would fast for 20h 24m – which would leave them just over three and a half hours to eat, sleep and prepare for another 20 plus hours of fasting. It is little wonder that most people decide to fast according to the length of the day in Mecca, which is a mere 13 hours.

“It’s even more extreme here that it is in Stockholm. But most Muslims up here are following the official times,” he said.

In many Muslim countries, the fast is often broken in the evening with long and elaborate meals. But with some Swedish Muslims experiencing only a few hours of darkness, this becomes harder to do.

However the conservative Imam, Mahmoud Khalfi, at a Stockholm Mosque is adamant that the principles of fasting at Ramadan were clear:

“There is still day and night, so Muslims should follow the rule that you fast during the hours of daylight. Sometimes Ramadan falls in the winter, and then the hours of daylight are very short.”

Back in 2005, the month of fasting stretched from October to November, when daylight hours were shorter. But by the time Ramada is observed in 2015 it will begin on the 18th of June, when many parts of Sweden, Finland and Norway don’t get dark at all.

In those circumstances, the argument for following the average 13 hour patterns of Mecca begin to sound sensible.

Health implications

Nutritionists warn that lengthy fasting is ill-advised and may even be dangerous and that the main risk is lack of concentration as dehydration sets in. Studies have shown that migraines are three times more common during Ramadan, affecting an estimated 90 million Muslims.

Although in many Muslim countries work hours are reduced during Ramadan, other countries are not so lenient and health and safety risks are a genuine problem. Tackling the issue is an ethical dilema setting freedom of religious expression against the protection of health.

Some years ago in Italy, fasting ethics became a flashpoint  when Muslim agriculture workers were threatened with suspension if they refused to drink liquids during the hotter parts of the day.

Dr Muhammad Alabdooni, the chairman of the Dutch Moroccan Physicians Association, maintains there is no scientific proof that Islamic fasting is physiologically beneficial, but says it may benefit psychological health:

“Positive aspects of fasting in Ramadan are related to relaxation that happens due to worship, which increases in the holy month. These worship practices give a feeling of psychological and physical relaxation.”

On the other hand, Dr Alabdooni explains that fasting has some negative effects on health, but he doesn’t consider these very serious.

“Effects of fasting on a healthy person are limited. Negative effects are inconveniences, especially in the early days of Ramadan, such as headaches, nausea, sleeplessness, etc.”

Dr Alabdooni says this is the prevailing opinion of the medical profession, at least in the Netherlands. He admits that no scientific study has been conducted to date on the effects of Ramadan fasting on healthy people:

“Studies have focused on sick people, particularly on chronic-disease patients. There are a lot of studies in this area, but they haven’t given any attention to the effects on healthy bodies.”

Dr Albdooni explains the risks associated with the sort of fasting people practice nowadays – abstaining totally from food and drink during daylight hours, and then eating a wide range of food after sunset. Most people who come to him with questions admit to eating excessively in short bursts during Ramadan.

“Many people agree with me when I say fasting these days produces results that are not intended by Ramadan fasting. They recognise that they eat large amounts of sugar and fat after breaking their fast, and this leads to them putting on more weight instead of losing it, the effect fasting is expected to achieve.”

Dr Alabdooni remains non-committal about the doctors who appear on Arab TV channels during Ramadan to talk about the health benefits of fasting, preferring to let them decide for themselves what they say. However, he does believe the medical and religious professions should be strictly separated:

“Doctors are not religious scholars or preachers, they should always be aware of the limits of their profession”.

Olympic fasting

Spare a thought for the 3,000 Muslim athletes who are about to compete in the London Olympics where the long summer days will mean not easting or drinking for about 18 hours a day, beginning at 3am and breaking the fast after 9pm.

Some athletes, such as Britain’s long-distance runner Mo Farah, have sensibly postponed their fasting until after the Olympics. Others have opted to “offset” their fast. Rower Mohamed Sbihi is doing this by providing food for almost two thousand impoverished people in Morocco.

The Moroccan swimmer Sara El-Bekri is also another Muslim athlete who has opted for not fasting during this Ramadan. “Our physical ability is undoubtedly impaired,” the African champion at 50- and 100-meter breaststroke said. “We are split between the desire to respect one of the five pillars of our religion and the need to arrive in London in the best possible physical condition to compete at the Olympics.”

Islamic scholars advised Palestinian judo champion, Maher Abu Remeleh, that he should not fast as he is representing his nation and not himself and that he should fast after he returns home.

The Olympic National Committee refused a request made by the Islamic Human Rights Commission 6 years ago to reschedule the games in accordance with Ramadan on the grounds that it is a secular sports organisation and that fasting was a personal choice made by the athletes individually.

Sport scientist Ronald Maughan of Loughborough University in Britain, who chaired the IOC working group, said, “Some individual Muslim athletes say they perform better during Ramadan even if they are fasting because they’re more intensely focused and because it’s a very spiritual time for them.”

Non-fasting Muslims

While there have always been Muslims who for personal reasons do not fast during Ramadan, they usually abstain from eating, smoking and drinking in public. In Morocco, where fast-breaking is still a criminal offence, a group of Moroccan activists have re-launched a campaign calling for the right to break the fast publicly during Ramadan. The campaign as part of a larger initiative that aims at widening the range of personal freedoms in the country.

Mouvement Masayminch’ or ‘We Won’t Fast in Ramadan’ Movement, launched by a group that calls itself Moroccan Free Thinkers, has been repeatedly launched in different forms for since 2008 and calls for the cancellation of a law that criminalizes the public fast-breaking during daytime in Ramadan.

The movement made social networks as its main podium. “Eat and drink any time, place, or way you choose. Greetings to all irreligionists across the globe,” said the introduction to the movement’s Facebook page.

According to the organisers of the campaign, the main purpose of creating a Facebook page is not discussing religious matters but rather allowing people who adopt the same line of thought and call for the same sort of personal freedoms to get to know each other regardless of what their ideological views are.

They also issued a statement addressing strict Muslims and listing a series of anti-Islamic activities that happen in the country and which, they argued, are much more serious than their demand to break the fast during Ramadan.

“We call upon all pious Muslims to look around and see the sins committed everywhere. There are bars, houses for prostitutes, drugs, and usury banks. We ask them to take their battle there before fighting us.”

Members of Moroccan Free Thinkers denied allegations that they aim to be insensitive towards Muslims or to dissuade them from fasting.

“Pious Muslims fast because they believe in what they are doing and nothing can talk them into doing otherwise,” they argued.

The movement chose ‘Happy Nation’ to be its official song owing to the way it expresses the main ideas they embrace like co-existence, accepting the other, and glorifying humanity.

‘We Won’t Fast in Ramadan’ Movement is seen by many as provocative in a generally conservative society that considers Islamic teachings part and parcel of its national identity and the movement has been slammed by a wide range of Moroccans, who reject what they regard as the infiltration of decadent Western values.

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