That is what fasting does to your spirit and your system. With Ramadan here, a most welcome month among almost two billion Muslims worldwide, we fast, meditate and contemplate.
It has been known to man since the beginning of time, long before established religions. What did pre-historic man do when he felt sick? Instinctively he refrained from eating, thereby clearing the system from poisonous toxins. That was the first method of cure.
Man also found other reasons to fast — to mourn the dead or to appease the gods — it just came naturally, as natural as eating, sleeping, laughing, or crying.
Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and other Eastern religions adopted fasting mainly for a spiritual healing process, for penance and communion with God.
During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims abandon worldly pleasures, abstaining from food and drink from sunrise to sunset is not the only sacrifice. Abstaining from all evils, falsehoods and indecency is essential, inspiring tolerance, patience and brotherhood amongst all mankind. The Holy Quran tells Muslims that fasting was prescribed for, “those who came before them”, meaning all Christians and Jews.
Philosophers, scientists, and physicians have all resorted to fasting as a healing process.
Do we not fast before surgery which requires anesthesia in order to avoid the possibility of regurgitating food products and aspirating them, which would be fatal.
In modern times the most renowned human fasting for political purposes, is India’s leader Mahatma Gandhi, who effectively invented what is now known as the “hunger strike”. Distressed by the partition of India and the civil war between Muslims and Hindus, Gandhi resolved to fast until the fighting stopped.
“By doing so, he became the conscience of all mankind,” said Albert Einstein.
Following in his footsteps were many modern freedom fighters, leading them is the inspirational, Martin Luther King Jr.
Fasting is a multi-dimensional experience in which total body transformation occurs. While fasting methods may differ, they all perform the same function: the cleansing of toxins from our bodies, producing a wide range of metabolic changes and experiences. “Our bodies breathe naturally, rid of the poisonous elements we consume daily.”
We feel pangs of hunger or thirst, but we may not be conscious of a sense of heightened awareness and relaxation of body, mind and emotions, oblivious to the disappearance of certain pains and worries. We develop a positive attitude towards the present and the future.
How much do we pay a psychiatrist to help us develop a positive attitude towards anything?
Fasting does the job, and it is free.
Unless you experience it personally, it is hard to describe its cool, crisp, heady effects, its many marvels, its sense of peace and tranquility. How come we feel kinder towards our fellowman, more benevolent towards the needy, more generous towards the hungry?
All the positive qualities of humanity seem to rise to the surface, giving life its true meaning. Making others happy should be the essence of living, while denying the self.
Do we ever practise that?
Penitence, purification, sacrifice, and mourning have all been reasons for fasting in many forms of worship. This union with God is brought about by the elevation of the spiritual state and powers which many prophets have enjoyed — Moses, Elijah, Daniel, Jesus and the holy prophet of Islam, Mohamed.
The toxins released as a result of fasting benefit the colon, kidney, bladder, lungs, sinuses, and has even been beneficial in relieving conditions such as colds, diabetes, flu, fever, bronchitis, fatigue, headaches, back pain, constipation, mental illness, allergies, asthma, obesity, insomnia, skin problems, even cancer.
A Norwegian study in 1994 showed that a seven-day fast of patients with rheumatoid arthritis resulted in a significant improvement in the patients’ ability to grip, in a reduction of pain and swelling and an improved general functional ability. If you have experienced rheumatoid arthritis, an auto-immune disease, you would understand how valuable such a relief would be. The bad news of that study is that the benefits were lost when the patients fell back to unhealthy eating habits. Maybe it is even better news; warning for the rest of us, who try but do not always succeed in maintaining healthy eating habits.
In all fairness we must draw attention to several medical dissensions. Side effects of severe fasting may result in malnutrition, anemia and other health hazards, which afflicted Gandhi. Juice fasting, practised by European clinics is considered less harsh than water and herbal teas.
Prolonged fasting (39-40 days) is not recommended. It results in loss of water, potassium, sodium and the destruction of lean vital tissues needed for healthy living. Fortunately, you break your fast during Ramadan at sunset, and no serious side effects are incurred. It must also be mentioned that children are prohibited from fasting, for good reasons.
Fasting adds rather than subtracts from the joy of this holy month which is not dissimilar to Christmas in its spirit of peace, kindness, giving and forgiving and goodwill to all. The gatherings of family and friends sharing special meals occur throughout the month and certain foods that only show up during Ramadan are delectable savoury treats.
There is this impulse to indulge at Iftar or breakfast and that rather than fasting can produce adverse results.
Food is an allergy, even an addiction, like any other which produces toxicity. We need to give our stomachs a much needed rest.
Enjoy, but do not indulge.
“Fasting is the truest prayer. It crucifies the flesh and to that extent sets the soul free.”
Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly