I “discovered” fasting at the age of 40. The number 40 has great significance throughout all the holy books. It represents transition or change; the concept of renewal; a new beginning and apparently has the power to lift a spiritual state. I felt rather special and “chosen” by this sudden change and decided to embrace the new me. The old me, who grew up in a very religious home, would be dragged out of bed to eat sehri at 3 am, go out during the day with friends to a pizza palace (that's all we had back then) to have lunch, and then come home on time for iftar and act famished. I don't have any memory of my younger self holding a fast properly, except one year, when my mother declared a monetary reward for completing all 30 fasts. Cheating to win an award was too low, even for me, so I completed the fasts with my eye on the prize. The experience left no mark in me. I left home at the age of 19 and moved to the states. Ramadan would disappear from my life for the next 20 years.
My father was a deeply religious man. I was very fond of him. My parents always encouraged us to fast, but I would make up excuses – “I get headaches when I am hungry” or “I can't study when I fast (as if).” To each argument, their response was - God will make it easy for you. My mother would say, “When you fast, you get more energy to do things. This is how Allah's Rahmat works.” I would roll my eyes and think that it was just her ploy to get me to fast. After all, everyone knew that food gave us energy and hunger made us weak.
When my father passed away in 2015, I decided to observe the next Ramadan to honor his memories. I held all 30 fasts effortlessly and realised that my mother was right all along. I felt revived and rejuvenated! By now, I had developed the understanding that the benefits of such rituals across the belief systems had scientific explanations. I dug deep into the topic of fasting.
Fasting is actually extremely beneficial for the body and mind. If you fast on a healthy diet, then you will feel a boost of energy during the day. This is because, when we fast, our body goes through two processes – it stimulates autophagy (the normal physiological process in the body that destructs old cells) and secretion of human growth hormone. By stimulating autophagy, we are clearing out all our old, junky proteins and cellular parts. At the same time, the growth hormones tell our body to start producing some new snazzy parts. We are really giving our bodies the complete renovation. I got a jaw dropping, first-hand evidence of this “renovation”, when I first completed a 3 day water fast (that's right, you don't eat or drink anything but water for three days!) and the unsightly mole that I have had under my right eye for the longest time, disappeared on its own! My body was consuming itself to sustain and decided to “eat” my mole at one of her meals! It was no surprise that fasting was being used in many places to prevent and even reverse many types of diseases including type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer's and even many forms of cancer.
Whether you fast for health or for religion, your mind and body will yield the same benefits. But since the majority of us associate fasting with an Islamic ritual, I cannot but talk a little bit about the food choices we make during this holy month. Although the traditional iftar menu is mostly vegetarian, we compensate for that “sacrifice” by loading up on twice as much kabab, biriyani, and rolls at dinner time. It is somewhat presumed that the meat that is sold in the markets in a Muslim majority country would all be halal - derived from animals and/or poultry that have been prepared according to Islamic law. But do we even know what the Islamic law is? According to Islam, if the life of an animal must end for human survival, then its life should only be taken in the name of God. The operative words here are 'must' and 'survival'. Not desire, appetite, craving, or ritual, but survival. If you have been stuck in a jungle for days and weeks, and all you have are poison berries on the trees and wild deers grazing the land, then yes, you are indeed allowed to kill the deers for your *survival*. But there is more. For that meat to be *halal*, the animals must be well treated before being killed; they must not see other animals being killed in front of them; the knife must not be sharpened in the animal's presence; the animal must not be in an uncomfortable position and several other rules which one must follow when processing meat. Can you think of any factory or meat market in Bangladesh that can adhere to these rules?I didn't think so.
Many of us are under the impression that it is our duty as Muslims to eat meat, and since our prophet (pbuh) and his disciples ate meat, suggesting vegetarianism or veganism to a Muslim would be considered un-Islamic. Vegetarianism is actually completely *halal* and even encouraged in Islam. In the old days most Muslims used to eat meat, if they were wealthy, like middle class—once a week on Friday. So traditionally Muslims were semi-vegetarians. The Prophet was, technically, in that category. He was not a regular meat-eater. Most of his meals did not have meat in them. And the proof of that is clearly in the Muwatta (the earliest written collection of hadith comprising the subjects of Islamic law)—when Sayyidina Umar says, 'Beware of meat, because it has an addiction like the addiction of wine.'
Human body in its natural and healthy state will never crave food that it's not meant to consume. Cravings for sugar, meat, cheese, fried food, processed food, are indicative of parasites, deficiencies, and other imbalances in the body. Fasting, if done one a vegan diet, fixes these imbalances and teaches our body to desire (not crave) the healthy foods. Sustain that for a while and you will become the master of your own stomach. And that my friend is truly Allah's Rahmat!