A Collection of Ramadan Articles: Nutrition, History and Guidance
The Islamic Holy month of Ramadan starts after sunset tonight so at the Drawing Board, we thought we’d compile a few articles we have written for clients over the years about this special time. Enjoy!
Food For Heaven: Nutrition Tips to Get the Most Out of Your Ramadan Fast (2012)
The Islamic holy month of Ramadan is upon us: a time when Muslims all over the world engage in the practice of fasting and activities that deepen their spirituality. With 1.7 billion Muslims in the world, and therefore almost 2 out of 7 people on earth fasting simultaneously, it is most certainly a topic that needs to be addressed. Firstly, most religions or spiritual practices all over the world include some form or practice of fasting in order to achieve a higher level of consciousness and depth of gratitude to the world around us. Whether or not you are Muslim, you may be thinking of taking part in (at least part of) Ramadan in order to test the waters, try a fast, or engage in spiritual awakening. In this article, we will cover what Islamic fasting actually entails, nutrition tips to keep you healthy, and recommendations to strengthen your body in order to get the most out of this special month.
What is Ramadan?
Ramadan is the 9th month in the Islamic lunar calendar. Because the lunar calendar is approximately 11 days shorter than the Gregorian or solar calendar, it is possible to fast Ramadan every single day of the year over a 34 year period. During this month, Muslims are called on to abstain from food, drink and other physical needs in order to purify the soul, focus their attention on God, and practice submission.
How do Muslims fast?
Abstinence from food and drink occurs from the very beginning of dawn until the sun sets for the duration of the month, which is usually 29 to 30 days long. Each morning a meal is eaten before dawn (suhoor) and each night an iftar meal (break fast) is had after the sun goes down. Fasting also includes abstaining from sexual intercourse, as well as evil thoughts, words and deeds. Fasting is not merely nutritional but a complete commitment of the mind, body and soul.
The nutritional benefits of fasting
Though Muslims require no other reason than the Pleasure of God in order to commit to fasting, there have been countless studies examining the effects of caloric restriction in increasing longevity and lifespan. Dramatic reductions in food over longer periods of time have shown again and again to increase the length of life in mice, rats and worms, and there is some evidence that this applies to human beings also. Other benefits include neuro-protection, increased insulin sensitivity, stronger resistance to stress, as well as powerful effects on blood lipid levels. Fasting also induces the secretion of growth hormone in the average person, which can contribute to anti-aging and healing. Fasting also induces autophagy which is the process by which cells recycle waste material, eliminate or downgrade wasteful processes and repair themselves. This is surprisingly important in that it is required to maintain lean muscle mass, particularly of skeletal muscles. Detoxification occurs at the cellular level because the body is not expending energy at the eternal behest of the digestive organs. Because of its protective processes induced on the cellular level, many also theorize that fasting helps the body to repair damaged genetic markers that could otherwise develop into cancer. Ultimately, fasting reduces oxidative stress and inflammation in the body as well, leading to a positive effect on every single disease known to mankind.
Nutrition for Heaven
All of that being said, there are ways to optimize your fast so that you can not only achieve greater spiritual awareness, but also maximize on the health benefits of fasting. For Muslims, the most important part of Ramadan is the opportunity for salvation. These are some suggestions to make the process easier, and make you more likely to commit to fasting with not only the body, but the heart and soul as well.
Suhoor: The morning meal before dawn is surprisingly important. Not only is it recommended by the Prophet Muhammad as a way to achieve blessings, but it is also sound nutritional advice to help support you throughout the rest of the day sans food and drink! But eating is not only the most important thing; rather, what you eat can make a world of difference! In the tradition of the Prophet, it is recommended to consume a small meal of mainly dates. The wisdom of this cannot be overemphasized for a single nutritional ingredient contained in dates that will make ALL fasts significantly easier: fiber. Dates contain fiber that slows down the release of glucose into the bloodstream, thereby slowing down the secretion of insulin and limiting reactive hypoglycemia… or those blood sugar “crashes” that make us want to stuff our mouths with food when they should only be filled with prayer. Other excellent foods to accompany dates or in lieu of, would be oatmeal with added flax seed or hemp hearts, homemade trail mix, a whole grain bread egg sandwich with a handful of spinach, or a green smoothie loaded with berries, protein powder and chia seeds. Protein is another key ingredient to slow down the secretion of insulin and sustain us throughout the fasting day. It also contributes to the retention of lean muscle mass and helps up that fat-burning potential that fasting already stimulates! Avoid caffeinated beverages as they will not only unnecessary stimulate you, but they also leach water from the body! Opt to down several large glasses of water, and avoid tea and coffee!
Iftar: How you approach the sunset fast-breaking meal of iftar can dramatically affect the quality of your fast, AND your focus and concentration for spiritual activities after, such as increased prayers and Quranic recitation. Most people make the mistake of gourging themselves on food as soon as the sun hits the horizon, no holds barred, thinking that they can’t control themselves. If you haven’t consumed anything all day, taking the time to eat slowly and properly is comparatively a breeze. This moment is really a reflection of your self-control and your growth throughout the fasting month. According to the tradition of the Prophet, it is common to break the fast with a date or some milk. I usually consume a date because of a dairy allergy, and follow it with lots of water. It is a common misconception that “filling up with water” is a bad idea during Ramadan. First of all, it is estimated that a human being can only live 3 to 5 days without consuming any water. Compare this to up to 8 weeks with no food (as long as water is consumed!) It is MUCH more important to replenish your dehydrated cells than it is to stuff your face with pizza and Timbits! Also part of the tradition of the Prophet is to consume a few dates with water or milk, then retreat to pray the sunset prayer before consuming a larger meal. Most people I know cram as much food in their faces as possible (usually greasy samosas or spaghetti) before they are too full to even get up to make ablutions to pray. This is not a good plan.
Meals for iftar that follow the sunset prayer should include high quality proteins, fiber, vegetables for vitamins and minerals, and healthy fats! Too often at communal iftars, do I see people loading up on white rice that is fried in canola oils, or downing loads of desserts after a fried chicken meal. Ramadan is a time for self-dissolvance spiritually, but it is pretty hard to get into a deeper state of prayer and meditation if you are suffering from indigestion and inflammation. Opt for cleaner meals such as lentils on brown rice, or a fish and quinoa salad to maximize your nutritional intake and minimize digestive upset.
Key switches to make that will alter your entire Ramadan include:
-brown whole grain rice instead of white rice (The added fiber slows down the secretion of blood sugar and insulin, balancing your blood sugar levels and providing you with a slow release of continual energy. White rice is like white sugar – you get a spike of activity and a complete crash afterwards)
-controlled portions instead of buffet-style (It is part of the Sunnah (tradition) of the Prophet to control the amount of food you are eating. It is not necessary to fill yourself until your pants are bursting, and in fact, it is not recommended in Islam. This sort of discomfort makes kneeling in prayer an arduous task when it should be something to enjoy.)
-raw salad instead of cooked potatoes (Eating too many starches is also a common error during this month and can lead to excessive caloric intake and weight gain despite fasting throughout the day! Up your non-starchy veggie intake with a raw salad or green smoothie to accompany your meal: they are loaded with nutrients and additional fiber, plus they contain elements to help the natural detoxification process during fasting)
– wait until after nighttime prayers to consume fruit, if at all (Many people make the classic food-combining mistake of eating fruit right after a heavy meal. Fruit and meat, for example, require opposing pH levels of digestive juices to be broken down. If you put them in the same stomach, the opposing secretions will neutralize one another and digestion is halted making for a very uncomfortable night. Most people use fruit as a dessert and so place it on top of meat inside their stomachs: this leads to putrefaction, gas and bloating.)
– skip dessert (The same thing goes for sweets. As a general rule of thumb, sweets and meats should never meet in the same stomach! Do yourself and your blood sugar levels a favour and skip dessert which is usually devoid of any nutritional value and will make the following day of fasting more difficult.)
Water: I simply cannot say enough about consuming adequate amounts of water. It is best to simply avoid all other forms of liquid and just focus on increasing your water intake before the morning call to prayer. I often recommend that people have a 3L glass jug that they fill with spring water and aim to consume most of it before the night is over. Once again, it is MUCH more vital and time-sensitive than your intake of food, especially if you are fasting in the hot summer months! The average person can lose 1.5L of water in a hour of continuous sweating!
Supplements: There are some natural supplements that can make a world of difference in helping you stay nutritionally balanced so that you have enough energy and drive to focus on the more important religious aspects of this special month. A few of my recommendations are as follows:
1) High quality multivitamin: And no, this is not Centrum or anything else you buy at the pharmacy. Do yourself a favour and go to a health food store and invest in a high-quality vitamin that is naturally sourced. Most pharmaceutical multis are synthetic or cheap and a general waste of money. A multivitamin will insure that your nutritional bare minimums are being met irrelevant of what you are eating! Take one at suhoor and 2 at iftar for maximal absorption and benefits!
2) Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids: Taking healthy fats is just as important as avoiding the bad ones! Plus healthy fats help to slow down the absorption of glucose into the blood, stimulate the secretion of bile and control the transit time of food in your gut! It is very easy to become deficient in these essential fatty acids while fasting, so take with iftar for best results! I recommend an Omega 3 fish oil from sardines and anchovies for the highest concentration of brain-benefiting EPA and DHA…and go to borage seed oil for your inflammation-busting Gamma-Linoleic Acid!
3) Probiotics: These healthy bacterial helpers can soothe any digestive upset and keep your immune system strong while you are fasting during the day! They also help you break down your food and absorb the nutrients found within! I recommend one after taraweeh prayers at the mosque!
4) Liver Support: I suggest adding a milk thistle or N-A-C supplement to upregulate levels of the beneficial phase II liver enzyme, glutathione. Glutathione is required in large quantities when the body is detoxifying in order to neutralize free radicals and excess toxins that may be travelling to the liver throughout the day of fasting. Take it at the same time as the probiotics for maximum detox results! In the end, you’ll have a more purified body which can translate into greater clarity of thought and deed, as well as a more conscious emotional state!
5) Bowel support: You may want to consider taking something to keep your bowels moving if you are the type of person who gets constipated while fasting. This is most commonly because of dehydration during the day. A simple, non-irritating natural laxative is Magnesium Citrate which stimulate peristalsis (relaxation and contraction of intestinal muscles), draws water into the bowel, and relaxes skeletal muscles that may be tight from excess toxin secretion.
6) Nutritional support: This includes greens powders, protein powders and fiber supplements to boost your nutrient intake!
Exercise: A lot of people think that fasting is a dangerous time and that any “unnecessary” physical exertion will make their fast more difficult or possibly put them in danger. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Studies on Muslim athletes during Ramadan showed no effects on performance, as well as better lipid levels in those who train WHILE fasting, rather than just fasting on its own. When you train in a fasting state, glycogen breakdown is blunted, resulting in more effective muscle energy production and increased fat burning. Training while fasting also resulted in better metabolic adaptations which leads to higher quality training and endurance later on in training circuits, improved protein synthesis and repair, and a much higher anabolic response to post-workout feeding. This means that what you eat after you’ve trained on an empty stomach will be delivered more effectively for the replacement of liver and muscle glycogen and muscle recovery will be far improved as well.
The best time to exercise is right before the sunset prayer and iftar meal. Try going for a half hour walk or jog, tidy up the basement, haul out the garbage, or go for a short swim. The activity will mobilize fat cells to be burned, and the immediate replenishment of food at iftar time will protect your lean muscle from being catabolized!
Whether you are a Muslim looking to get the most out of your Ramadan this year, or you are simply curious about experimenting with different spiritual practices in fasting, the above recommendations can help just about anyone achieve a better state of consciousness and awareness within their own body and soul. It is my wish that this information finds you willing and receptive, and serves to help us all become better, more grateful people during this blessed month of Ramadan!
The First Ramadan: An Historical Account (2013)
The history of fasting goes back as far as human civilization, with various societies and religious groups partaking in some version of fasting all across the globe. Recent scientific research has shown that intermittent caloric restriction is one of the few practices that can contribute directly to increasing the longevity of life.(1) Fasting is one of the five pillars of the Islamic religion and acts as a cornerstone of faith for devout believers in Allah and His Last Messenger, Muhammad (pbuh). But what did the very first Ramadan look like ? When did it become obligatory for Muslims to fast the entire month ? And, how many Ramadans did the Prophet himself fast? Ramadan became obligatory on the second Monday in the month of Sha’ban in the second year of theHijra from Mecca to Madinah. Prior to this, the day of Ashura had been made obligatory. According to Aishah (may Allah be pleased with her), while fasting Ashura had been made mandatory in Madinah, it soon became optional after the month of Ramadan was made fard (obligatory).(2) The revelation about Ramadan’s status came from Ayat 185 of Surah Al-Baqarah in which Allah (swt) says,
The month of Ramadhan (is that) in which was revealed the Qur’an, a guidance for the people and clear proofs of guidance and criterion. So whoever sights the (new moon of the) month, let him fast it…(3)
Pre-Islamic Arabs were known to fast, particularly on the day of Ashura in celebration of Allah saving Moses (pbuh) and his companions from the pursuit of Pharaoh. They also used fasting as an act of penitence or in preparation for some other religious rites such as mourning or initiation. Some had the added feature of including a vow of silence, which was referenced by Allah in regards to Maryam.(4)
Many early Makkans called the Prophet a Sabian because his rituals took on a similar appearance to theirs, particulary prayers and fasting. Harranians were a group of Sabians from an area between Syria and Iraq who used to fast an entire month according to the state of the moon. It is thought that they introduced the Ramadan-style of fasting to the Arabian peninsula where it would be taken up and adapted by Muslims. It should be noted that the Qur’an cites the Sabians as “People of the Book” and believers in monotheism. When fasting was made obligatory for Muslims, it took on similar appearances to previous methods which limited food, water and sexual intercourse. The latter stipulation comes from a narration by Abu Huraira who reported that a person had been with his wife during Ramadan and as he was unable to free a slave or fast two consecutive months, the Prophet ordered him to feed sixty people.(5)
Over the nine years that the Prophet would fast Ramadan, a deeper understanding as to the benefits of the fast for the believers would arise. Fasting became known as a “shield” for those who practiced it and the smell emanating from the mouth of a fasting person was declared as better in the sight of Allah than musk.(6) Additionally, Muslims celebrated the special day Laylat-ul-Qadr (The Night of Power) as one of the holiest days in the Islamic tradition. In the Qur’an, it is cited as being better than a thousand nights, however, scholars still dispute as to whether this surah was revealed in the time of Mecca or Madinah.(7) Ultimately, the day is celebrated to mark when the Qur’an was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in the Cave of Hira. This days falls sometime in the last ten days of Ramadan (8) and has traditionally been a night of extra prayers, continuous Qur’anic recitation, and the seeking of forgiveness of all sins. (9)
For early muslims, Ramadan was the ultimate representation of Allah’s Mercy – a month when the gates of Paradise are opened, the gates of Hell are closed and the devils are chained- and few missed the opportunity to raise their level of self-control and devotion to Allah by abstaining from the temptations of this world.(10)
(1)How Intermittent Fasting Might Help You Live a Longer and Healthier Life, Scientific American, Volume 308, Issue 1.
(2)Sahih Muslim, Book 6:2499, Book 35:2502/3, Also appeared through the transmission of Abdullah b.Umar, Book 35 : 2504, Bukhari Book 31:116 and Jabir b. Samura Book 35:2514
(3)Sahih International Qur’an Translation
(4)Sahih International Qur’an Translation, Surah 19:26
(5)Sahih Muslim Book 6 : 2457, Book 35:2459
(6)Sahih Bukhari Book 31:118
(7)Sahih International Qur’an Translation, Surah 97
(8)Sahih Muslim, Book 6: 2618
(9)Sahih Muslim, Volume 3, Book 31 : 125
(10)Sahih Bukhari Book 31:123
Master Your Emotions This Ramadan (2015)
Ramadan is upon us and, as the holiest month in the Islamic calendar, it is often a time for spiritual reflection and growth. Ramadan can also be a challenge, particularly for those in more northern climates (where the days are exceptionally long) or in hotter climates (where the lack of food and water can be difficult in the heat). Perhaps one of the best opportunities we have during the month of Ramadan is a decluttering of the self and practice in mastering our emotions. Just as abstaining from food, drink and intercourse during the daylight hours are prescribed for Muslims, so too are abstaining from poor talk, bad language, anger and laziness. For some, fasting can dull excessive emotions and for others, it can heighten them. In both cases, we want to be able to adopt the path of moderation. This means sharpening our abilities to harness and use positive emotions like compassion, love, mercy, and gratitude. It also means dealing appropriately with jealously, hatred, negativity, rage and self-defeat.
- Recognize that we are emotional beings. Some psychologists argue that all emotions are variations of either love or fear. Since emotions dominate our thoughts and behaviours, they are central to our understanding and practice of our Islam. Allah created us with emotions and ultimately, if mastered appropriately, they are for our own benefit. Like everything given to us by Allah, emotions can enhance our lives while still carrying the potential for abuse – the choice is ours and the guidance for balance comes from Islam. Islam does not require us to suppress our emotions, but rather to funnel them into positive endeavours and seek knowledge or professional help when needed. Our actions towards ourselves are just as important as those towards others, with dignity, self-respect and self-protection being both a right and a duty. The Qur’an states, And make not your own hands contribute to your destruction; but do good; for Allah loves those who do good.” (Al-Baqara 2:195) Finally, the worst emotion a Muslim can submit to is despair. When we are overcome by our poor actions and conduct, we lose sight of Allah’s Mercy, forgetting that it is infinite each time we turn to Him. The Qur’an states, And for those who fear Allah, He always prepares a way out, and He provides for him from sources he never could imagine. And if anyone puts his trust in Allah, sufficient is Allah for him. For Allah will surely accomplish His purpose: verily, for all things has Allah appointed a due proportion.( At-Talaq 65:2-3)
- Recognize what an emotion is. A lot of studies show that emotions can be caused by specific neurotransmitters and hormonal fluctuations, and on one level this is true. However, explaining how an emotion happens is not the same as explaining what that emotion means to us, personally and culturally. At its most basic level, an emotion is a behavioural action and an individual’s intention behind that action. The emotion itself is the behavior; therefore, a good look at our intentions can help us examine our behaviours. In Islam, this means a purification of our niyyah. Stopping and thinking about why we are feeling a certain way can help interrupt a typical emotional reaction to outside situations. In turn, this helps us to think about the intentions behind an emotion and will help focus and change future actions.
- Interrupt Automatic Negative Thoughts. The idea that we can change our behavior by changing our intention (niyyah) might seem difficult at first, particularly when you are fasting. Many people suffer from something called “Automatic Negative Thoughts” which sneak into our ways of thinking and being without much self-analysis. However, their effects can be dramatic on our intentions, our action and our emotions as a result – often perpetuating more negativity. The main categories of ANT are: overgeneralization, black-and-white thinking, future-telling, reading people, labeling, negative mental filters, ‘should’ statements, personalizing everything and emotional reasoning. The three psychological techniques for overcoming ANT are: Immediate Reply (ask yourself if whatever you thought is true), Opposition Statement (negate the effect of bad thoughts by replacing them with positive ones), and Look-Around Strategy (shift the focus of your mind by stopping to look and ask questions about your surroundings – in nature, this can be particularly good for reflecting on God’s Creations).
- Remember Allah. As Muslims, one of the best ways to apply the appropriate interruptions to negative thoughts is by remembering Allah. The reward for dhikr, prayer and other acts of worship is increased during Ramadan so take advantage of this opportunity to master your emotions by submitting them to Allah. If you despair of Allah’s Mercy, open your Qur’an and read one juz (or more) daily. The reward is immense and you will feel yourself taken care of by the words of Allah, revealed for your benefit and guidance.
- Protect Your Fast. At the very least, mastering your emotions with some of the above techniques will protect your fast and garner its acceptance by Allah. Ideally, cultivating a strong intention to do all actions for the Love and Sake of Allah will help us move out of fear-based negativity and into love-based positivity.
What Does Forgiveness Mean? (2015)
With the month of Ramadan coming to a close in mid-July, there is still time to reflect on what the mercy of the month means, particularly in terms of forgiveness. This is something discussed regularly during Ramadan – that it is a month to be absolved of one’s sins and a time to turn back to Allah – however, few people pause to reflect on exactly what forgiveness means. In this article, we will discuss forgiveness from Allah, forgiveness of others and the self, and finally, forgiveness as a way of letting go of the illusion of this world.
The concept of forgiveness is expressed directly as a number of different terms in the Qur’an including: ‘afw, ‘safhu,‘ghafara and tawwab. Al-‘Afuw is a name of Allah that appears in the Qu’ran five times and refers to “release”, “healing”, “restoration” and “remission”. It implies the restoration of our honour and dignity after we have dishonoured ourselves through sin and signifies release from the burden of punishment. It often appears with the name Al-Ghafoor, meaning The Most Forgiving. While this appears in the Qur’an more than seventy times, it has slightly different connotations, meaning “to cover”, “to conceal”, “to hide” and “to excuse”. Safhu refers to the turning away from a sin or misdeed and implies ignoring. Lastly, At-Tawwab is another name of Allah meaning The Accepter of Repentance and is mentioned almost a dozen times in the Qur’an. The term tawwab means “oft-returning” and carries with it a sense of continuous repentance to Allah. As we will perpetually sin, the key in Islam is to always turn back to Allah and try to be better for the next time. To receive forgiveness from Allah, we have to recognize our offense and admit it before God, make the commitment to not reoffend and actively ask for forgiveness.
What is incredible is that there is no end to Allah’s Mercy towards us, no matter how numerous and terrible our mistakes become. The Prophet Muhammad (saw) narrated that Allah said: “O son of Adam, were your sins to reach the clouds of the sky and were you then to ask forgiveness of Me, I would forgive you” (Al-Tirmidhi). And yet, despite this incredible generosity from the One who Created us, we rarely show forgiveness to one another and ourselves. Again and again, there is evidence in Islam that the strongest servants of Allah are not only those who can control their anger, but also those who have a seemingly limitless capacity to forgive others. When we cleanse ourselves of negative energy and vain criticisms of others, we can release anger and purify our hearts. When this is done for the sake of Allah, we have achieved the highest level of our spiritual conditions.
Ultimately, it is important to realize that this is a perpetual process of forgiving others, forgiving the self and of seeking forgiveness from Allah. It is not a state to be achieved once and for all, but a continuous activity which recognizes that spiritual homeostasis is momentary, fleeting and must always be sought. With this inner struggle comes a deeper recognition of the illusions of this world. If we hold onto the whims and desires of our egos, we remain tethered to the phenomenal world, invested too deeply in earthly existence which perpetuates a forgetting about our higher purpose: to worship Allah, to love Him and be loved by Him.