Ramadan and Eating Disorders

Sun setting over field

*This blog was written anonymously. Please keep in mind that this is one person’s story and everyone’s recovery story will be unique.  

The month of Ramadan is a holy month for Muslims, followers of Islam. This was determined when the Prophet Muhammed stated that the gates of heaven are opened and the gates of hell are closed during the month of Ramadan, and is known as “The Night of Power.” Each day throughout Ramadan, Muslims do not drink or eat anything from sunrise to sunset and are expected to avoid impure thoughts, bad behaviors, and to pray extra. Within this month, Muslims typically spend time reciting the Quran, attending mosques, and engaging in good deeds. It is a time to practice self-restraint, self-reflection, and cleanse one’s soul and gain empathy for those who are suffering in the world that are less fortunate. Each year, Ramadan changes, so unlike Christmas or some other holidays that have destined days, Ramadan is based on the cycle of the lunar calendar. This year, Ramadan began on the night of Sunday, May 5, which means the days can be as long as 15 hours, for example, before the sun sets. When the sun sets, Muslims break fast with a grand feast, known as “iftar.”

Growing up in a Muslim household, my family and I would be a part of a community of Muslim individuals of all ages who would participate in fasting every year. I remember attending a gathering once during Ramadan, and observed children as young as 8, and elderly as old as 80, fast without any complaints or issues. I felt encircled by strong individuals and had so much admiration and respect for them. Ramadan reminded me about testing one’s abilities and strengths; how we, as humans, do not need food and water to do work and to function. The first time I fasted after reaching puberty (which determined my readiness to fast), I felt infinite. My classmates were amazed at my ability to fast all day. I thought I was superior than my peers, believing I didn’t need the same basic necessities as everyone else.

My father would work throughout the day when he fasted, my mother would spend all day cooking when she fasted, and my sister and I would go to school when we fasted. When it was time to break fast, we all would sit together in front of a table full of food, and wait for the right time when the sun would set. We sat in front of food at least 10 minutes before, and it was challenging for me… It felt torturous since I was so hungry, and had to be faced with food that I was unable to eat. My mother told us that we would receive more praise from God if we challenged ourselves further sitting in front of food. Once we broke fast, we delved in right away with very little talking. We plated our own food and were encouraged to take more of everything; we all would finish within 10 minutes – feeling as if we ate multiple meals in one sitting. If that is how we felt, in our family, this meant we were successful with iftar. It was justified – we fasted for an entire day! Though I felt sick afterward, I kept that to myself because being and feeling sick was the opposite of what Ramadan’s purpose is.

Initially, when I fasted, it was empowering and I felt in control of so much. I was strong, physically and mentally. However, after fasting for a few years during Ramadan, I began dreading the Ramadan season. Throughout Ramadan, my performance in school was lacking, my menstrual cycle was irregular often times, my body and mind were always fatigued, and my mood and motivation for anything was poor. I wondered if this was the norm, however, after speaking with my mother and father, I found out I was apparently not doing “Ramadan” correctly; they maintained their motivation and strength for fasting.

I learned from the Quran that fasting during Ramadan has some exceptions – for children, elderly, pregnant women, women during their menstrual periods, and the ill. I already have observed children and elderly fast, so why did they continue to participate? Also, what qualifies as “ill?” When I asked my parents, they told me “ill” are those who have cancer, diabetes, or were told by their doctors to not engage in Ramadan and fasting. Yet, my father, who has Type II diabetes, continues to maintain his fast throughout Ramadan every year, despite his “illness.” Why? After all, he is the exception, according to the Quran, right? I learned that if he didn’t participate in Ramadan, the Muslim community would judge him; he would be seen as weak for not fasting because of his “illness,” and if he fasts, with an illness, others would respect his ability to put his faith first over everything else.

So, what else falls under being “ill?” Physical illnesses were the typical answers I received when I asked my fellow Muslim friends and family. What about individuals with depression? Anxiety? An eating disorder? As much as Ramadan and fasting is an admirable aspect to observe and see others engage in, it can be so harmful to those who are diagnosed or have a predisposition to a mental health disorder. Working with the eating disordered population for almost four years, I have been able to make connections and relate eating disorders and my experience during Ramadan.

Being a Muslim person with mental health disorders, I knew if I continued to fast, I would impair my body and my health significantly. I had such difficulty with being the only one in my family that declined to fast, and I was certainly ashamed in myself for it. I thought something was wrong with me since everyone else in my family seemed unfazed by fasting… It took me years to learn what I am about to tell you all, so please hear me out. If Islam means a lot to you, and you are struggling with an eating disorder and/or other mental health disorders – fasting and participating in Ramadan is not the only way to show faith to the religion.

For someone who follows the Islamic practice and is recovering with an eating disorder, or currently has an eating disorder, Ramadan may be a challenging time for you. It may trigger a relapse, and your eating disorder may skew your mindset away from fasting for faith to fasting for your eating disorder. Ramadan impacts a spectrum of eating disorders – anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder…the list goes on, so engaging in fasting for Ramadan may be harmful for you, your growth, and your health. It is a month about avoiding food and water for a period of time during the day and then encourages you to feast towards the end of the night.

It is really difficult and challenging when so many Muslims participate in Ramadan and fast to show their faith to the religion. Be compassionate towards yourself and know that participating in Ramadan does not only mean you must fast. Remember, Ramadan is a time for self-reflection and cleansing your soul with good… It is a time for you to be good with and for yourself. My family has accepted that fasting would do more harm to me than to not fast, and now I participate and help by being present with my family, attending and engaging with them in iftar– and continue to observe and practice my faith the same exact way. I practice good deeds to the community, I avoid bad behaviors, and continue to self-reflect and cleanse my soul. I learned that fasting is one way to do this, however, it is not the only way.

To my Muslim friends this Ramadan, I hope my experience helps you with yours. Ramadan Mubarak (have a blessed Ramadan)!

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