As a non-Muslim ally, you might be watching the current state of affairs with regards to how Muslims are treated in the West, in Western political rhetoric and while being massacred in their homelands, and you just might be wondering what you can do about it. Or at least you should be wondering that. It is entirely understandable that you might feel overwhelmed by the deluge of hatred being lobbed at Muslims these days and you might not even look to yourself as the source of the antidote to this hatred. But you are.

Here is a quick list (literally off the top of my head) of 20 things you can easily do to combat Islamophobia starting right now. You might look at some of these items and think you lack the capability to do some of these things but I am here to assuage some of your concerns. Firstly, you don’t have to do all 20 at once. Combatting Islamophobia is an ongoing and never-ending process. Islamophobia has been an issue since the time of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) himself, and it periodically rises and falls depending on a lot of converging factors. We happen to be at a time when Islamophobia is at a fever pitch, mainly because of geopolitical problems and hideous orange cheeto-puffs who think they can say whatever they want when running for the US presidency.

The second thing to bear in mind is that yes, you can do all of these things. There is no magic to becoming an activist. It isn’t something you study in University (although studying a lot of other things helps build the necessary mindset because: “knowledge = power” but that is beside the point). Anyone and everyone with a kernel of compassion in their heart can help do many of the things contained on this list and would go a long way to fulfilling your duties as a non-Muslim ally. Yes, you have duties.

If you are wondering how and why any of this applies to you, know this: Muslim or not, Islamophobia affects all of us. It divides our world. Its end logic is genocide. If you want any part of making this world a better place and preventing harm against a marginalized group (which, frankly, should be all of you out there), then this list is for you. Get on it.

Self

  1. Call it what it is. And know where it comes from. Some people are hesitant to use the word Islamophobia. Heck, I even attended a lecture recently by washed-up writing troll in which he declared that Islamophobia is a term created by all Muslims to apologize for Daesh. What?

Islamophobia is real. It affects Muslims every single day. There are a lot of definitions for it rolling around the ol’ internet but mainly it is “an unfounded hostility towards Muslims and therefore fear or dislike of all or most Muslims” as well as describing an attitude that addresses “the discriminations faced by Muslims that [can] not be explained by their race, class or immigration status.” Although, I would like to point out that the latter points often go hand-in-hand with fear of Muslims and ignorance of Islam.

This is going to sound really harsh but one has to remember that, sometimes, describing the facts is difficult to accept: part of knowing where Islamophobia comes from is recognizing that it is a cultural problem. Islamophobia dominates in white, Western culture. There are a lot of reasons for this, some of which I will list now:

  • As hard as this is going to be for Westerners to accept, we are way more isolated than other cultural groups. We tend to be withdrawn and get most of our information about other cultures from mass media rather than actually interacting with them. Add to this fact that the mass media is far from impartial about Muslims (in particular) and the air is rife with possibilities for Islamophobia. Misinformation and a lack of information are some of the largest contributing factors to a prejudiced worldview. Simply recognizing this fact is crucial to moving forward.
  • Islamophobia does not have its origins in white, Western culture (after all, the first Islamophobes tended to be members of whichever dominant culture Muslims found themselves in), however, it is fairly common to this culture because (believe it or not) white, Western culture tends to define itself on what it thinks it is not. And historically, because of close proximity and the legacy of colonialism, the “others” against which white, Western cultures have defined themselves are, not surprisingly, Muslim cultures.

Why is it important to recognize in which cultural contexts Islamophobia typically dwells? Well, if we know where something flourishes, we can better address it. If you are a white, Western, non-Muslim, the chances are much higher that Islamophobia is part of your subtextual daily narrative, particularly if you consume mass media in any way (which is most of us). It might even be an intrinsic part of how you define yourself without your realizing this to be the case. Learning that and recognizing it is critical to challenging that narrative and then abolishing it entirely. It is also important to recognize how certain cultural contexts will create negative associations with groups we perceive as “Others” at an unconscious level in our minds.

  1. Look inward at your implicit bias. Implicit Islamophobia is a type of prejudice that results from subtle cognitive processes which operate at a level below that of conscious awareness. The bias refers to stereotypes and an overall ethos (set of attitudes subscribed to) that initiate behavioural patterns and thereby effect how we understand others, our actions towards them and decisions about them. There are quite a few common stereotypes associated with Muslims through overt messaging or more subtextual associations in media and writing that affect our unconscious biases towards them. Some of these associations are internalized by Muslims as well and can affect how they think of themselves and one another. Recognizing that these associations exist and might be operating at the level of implicit bias is just the beginning of your journey in cleansing one’s self of these harmful associations.

According to the research on racial implicit bias compiled by the Open Society Foundation, it was shown that negative associations can affect people’s decisions and their behavior toward people of other demographics than themselves. Implicit bias also affects how people act with people of another race. In spite of their conscious feelings, white people with high levels of implicit racial bias show less warmth and welcoming behavior toward black people, as an example.

  1. Do a de-bias cleanse periodically. Yes, this is an actual thing and it represents the ultimate responsibility taken by an individual seeking to live in a way that reduces their harm on others. You can consider signing up for this 7-day online cleanse which provide you with daily tasks to de-bias yourself. Other important steps include:
  • Raising awareness of implicit Islamophobia
  • Identifying and acknowledging differences between you and Muslims and knowing that those differences are OK
  • Checking your thought processes and decisions for bias
  • Identify distractions and sources of stress in your environment. These tend to force reversion back to stereotypical associations in our mind and therefore habitually harmful behaviours.
  • Institute feedback mechanisms. Get your friends to tell you how you are doing. It’s a thing and will likely inspire them to begin this process in themselves.
  1. Educate your children. Prejudice starts young and begins with the messages we are taught in adolescence. If these messages of prejudice are consistent growing up, the possibility of growing up Islamophobic is very high. Educating your children includes teaching them about Islam and Muslims directly (yes, you can do this! There are many resources out there!), visiting a mosque as a family, getting to know your Muslim neighbours, attending Ramadan fast-breaking meals (iftar), and much more. Educating your children about Islam also means a less-direct approach by which you limit the negative messaging around Islam from coming into your home. This means scrutinizing what media your children are consuming and replacing it with more diverse educational options. If you think that is too much work, take one look at the state of our world right now and recognize what could have been prevented if even a few more parents did this.
  2. Visit a mosque and speak to people there. Don’t be shy. Mosques are typically inviting places – albeit they can a bit disorganized. Recognize that most Muslims are forbidden from proselytizing and trying to convert people so you don’t have to worry about any uncomfortable conversations or ulterior motives in people being excited that you have appeared. Introduce yourself to people inside, let them know why you are there, maybe watch a prayer in action. You will be shocked at the response when people thank you for taking the time to learn about Islam and Muslims. And you might just learn something and make some new friends to boot. A mosque is more aptly called a “masjid” or “Jamia” in Arabic – meaning a place to gather together to submit oneself. This doesn’t only mean a place that Muslims put their faces on the ground to pray – often mosques are community centers which house language classes, knowledge courses, counselling services and much more. If you live with a mosque in your community, you are more than welcome to join in the community activities provided therein.
  3. Join an interfaith coalition. There are a great many of them and they are always looking for more participants. If you do not belong to an identifiable religious group or you consider yourself an atheist, fear not. You are still welcome. Approach organizers and find out how you can contribute to the conversation and, most importantly, learn from members of other faith groups. You can take that knowledge back to your family and your communities as well.
  4. Become friends with Muslims. This is easier than people realize. First of all, you might already be friends with a Muslim and not even realize it. Not everyone is “visibly” Muslim as the media would have us believe. Second of all, visiting mosques and joining interfaith coalitions is a sure-fire way to meet them. The next step is initiating friendship – not so that you can have your token Muslim friend that you reference every time someone mentions anything about Islam or says something Islamophobic, but simply to branch out, know someone from a community and way of life different than yours. Muslims are just like regular people because they are people. Some Muslims may be more approachable and socially adept – others, not so much. Regardless, taking the initiative to get to know others and forge lasting bonds goes a long way to bridging false differences and divided communities.
  5. Visit a Muslim country. Who doesn’t love traveling?! Of course, you want to pick one of the few that is not on fire right now, but visiting a Muslim country is one of the quickest ways to learn a whole lot about Islam and Muslims and to see that they are just living their lives like the rest of the world. Speaking in generalizations, you are bound to get some delicious food and incredible hospitality along the way. Plus, hearing the call-to-prayer five times a day is beautiful and a totally unique experience. Morocco, Egypt, Indonesia and many others are on the list of those filled with wanderlust so be sure to get them on your list too!

Preventative

  1. Interrupt Islamophobia every single time you encounter it. This is the principle behind the recent anti-discrimination #makeitawkward campaign. Every time you hear someone uttering falsehoods about Muslims, or generalizing about Islam: speak up. Every time you are watching a film or television show with others and Muslims are depicted in a harmful light: speak up. It doesn’t require explanation. It doesn’t require follow-up. A simple “That kind of harmful stereotyping is unacceptable here” will do. It takes practice to be assertive but once people realize that being prejudiced around you is not allowed, they might think twice about doing it altogether.
  2. Start a conversation circle in your community. Do you know people who are scared of Muslims or hate them? Why not take a tiny bit of initiative and start a discussion group? There are surely organizations in your community that would be willing to join forces and support such an initiative but really it doesn’t take much more than getting some people around a table to have a conversation. The power of this kind of initiative is in its simplicity. Making safe space for people to be real about their concerns and simultaneously un-learn harmful behaviours is a crucial way forward.
  3. Meet with local Muslim leaders to find out what they need. Yes, you can do this all on your own. It will likely help you to understand how interrupting Islamophobia can best be done and how to initiate conversation circles to exact actual change. By backing those actions up with knowledge of what marginalized people need from their mouths directly is extremely powerful. Start by asking at the mosque and keeping your eye on local media stories to find out who the important Muslim leaders are in your community.
  4. Spread the word on social media. Don’t be afraid to share positive stories about Muslims on your social media accounts, even if you don’t have a single Muslim friend or ally on your page to back you up. You do not have a single need to respond to haters so let them fill the comments sections how they want – for every ten haters your posts attract, there are likely double that amount of sensible people, watching in the shadows, learning from the information you put out there and changing their worldviews as a result.
  5. Talk with family and friends. Painful conversations need to be had around familial prejudices that you will no longer stand for. Be direct and unemotional letting your family members and friends know that you will not stand for Islamophobia in your midst. Or ask them to explain their Islamophobic jokes because you don’t understand why they are funny. Be compassionate and patient. With time, love and kindness will conquer anyone – it is just a matter of being consistent with your message. Interrupt prejudice every time it arises and don’t be afraid of being the only person standing for compassion and justice in a room full of your peers.
  6. If you’re a business owner, hire Muslims. Diversify your staff. Give others the opportunity to learn about Muslims through proximity to their coworkers. Just make sure you educate yourself first on typical Muslim etiquette and holidays, and if there is anything you are unsure of, just ask them. Most Muslims with culturally-sensitive employers would have nothing but respect for someone who took the time to learn what makes them comfortable in their working environments.
  7. If you’re a journalist, share good news about Muslims. Take the time to find the positive stories (and there are plenty) that have Muslims at their heart. Use these narratives as a way to counter the overwhelming deluge of Muslim stereotypes found in mainstream media today. At the very least, use measured and mindful language when writing about negative stories that might involve Muslims and be aware of double standards employed against them when they are not even involved. A case in point is the fact that the term terrorist is only associated with acts of violence perpetuated by Muslims, whether or not that individual acted alone or was mentally unstable. In the cases of white violence, mental illness excuses pervade. Changing those narratives subtly by vocabulary shifts has a bigger impact than can be measured.
  8. Don’t be afraid to plan ways to educate others about Islam. Do you belong to a church group or youth organization? Do you sit on the board of a community league? Why not take your social position within specific organizations as an opportunity to advocate for some knowledge about Islam to be disseminated. This could mean bringing in a Muslim lecturer to talk about Islam generally; it could be facilitating interfaith dialogue; it could be joining forces with Muslim organizations to get advocacy work done. Whatever you decide to do, you can take seemingly small, simple opportunities to make a world of difference.

Reactive

  1. Stay calm and step in when it is safe to do so. When something terrible happens to Muslims in your community or a Muslim in front of you, the first step is to remain calm. Do not panic. Someone hurling insults at a hijabi on the train might become violent but they are less likely to do so if other people step in. You do not even need to address such a person. Simply sit down next to the Muslim person and engage them in conversation as though you have known them your entire life. They know why you are helping them and they appreciate it. Stay with them until their attacker stops and leaves.

If a Muslim is being physically attacked, start hollering and get others to do so too. Get someone to call 911 immediately in the meantime. Get someone else to take pictures of an attacker. Get the group to lay into them to stop violence against their victim. If you are alone and witnessing an attack, stepping in while screaming and swinging will usually send someone running. Being witnessed has the power to send an attacker running alone.

  1. File a report. This is crucial for agencies that are trying to track data on Islamophobic incidences. In Alberta, you can file a report with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council Islamophobia hotline at 1-800-607-3312. They will then refer you to either mental health professionals, legal counseling or law enforcement agencies to take appropriate further action.
  2. Contact the police. Although many agencies such as AMPAC will forward some incidents to police for charges to be laid or further investigation, you can always take it upon yourself to also file a police report of a specific incident you witnessed or came upon. Anti-Muslim graffiti, hate flyers and other such issues qualify as Hate Crimes under the Canadian criminal code (not “free speech” here!) and should be prosecuted as such.
  3. Thank other allies and join forces in denouncing hatred. Once you start on this journey, you will find that you are not alone. A great many other allies from all walks of life are taking a stand against Islamophobia and other forms of discrimination. When those individuals and groups do so, take the time to thank them for their efforts and note that they do not go unnoticed. Solidarity against hatred is the way of the future and allies are a crucial part of dismantling the systems which allow for it to continue.

nakitaNakita Valerio is an academic, activist and writer in the community. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta.  Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and the Vice President of External Affairs with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.

This article was written by Rachael Heffernan, writer and researcher for The Drawing Board.

In an age of diversity and, unfortunately, hideous bigotry, it’s understandable that most of us are concerned with making sure the people around us are safe people. Are they racist? Homophobic? Sexist? Islamophobic? Judeophobic? Ageist? Sizeist? There are a lot of forms of discrimination to look out for.

Sadly, in many cases in our efforts to make sure we aren’t subject to stereotypes and generalizations we lump people into categories. Religious people aren’t safe for queer folk. Queer folk aren’t safe for religious people. White people aren’t safe for people of colour. Jews aren’t safe for Muslims, skinny minnies aren’t safe for the fat-bulous – the list goes on and on.

These are obviously problematic, and I don’t think it needs saying that stereotypes of all kinds are violent. They are pervasive though, and recently I’ve noticed a trend in some of my communities to simultaneously want to bring an end to bigotry while absolutely abhorring belief in God.

Of all the things to abhor in this world, that seems like a strange one. It’s like abhorring yoga, or a passion for decorating, or cooking with coconut oil – except it’s actually worse than those because abhorring belief in God leads to the alienation of religious (and non-religious, believe it or not) people the world over. Any kind of alienation causes more trauma than it prevents and it’s ultimately hugely problematic for anyone who believes in the beauty of diversity and wants peace. How can a person say ‘Ramadan Mubarak,’ and then unsubscribe to someone’s feed because they talk about God too much? That’s like going out to celebrate Chinese New Year and then getting angry that everyone keeps speaking Chinese.

So what’s the problem? What stereotype is causing that discomfort? Is it the idea that religious belief leads to violence and discrimination? Proselytization? Judgement? Ignorance?

Obviously each of these is problematic. Each is based on bigoted stereotypes.

Every day, every one of us has choices. The choices I make may not be the right choices for you, but that doesn’t mean they’re not the right choices for me. It is our duty to be nonviolent people, and that includes abstaining from discrimination in all its forms. In addressing violence, it is important that we do not become violent ourselves.

Eid Mubarak, everyone.

Recently there have been a string of terrorist attacks across the globe in places like Lebanon, Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad and Saudi Arabia. The latter country saw three attacks in one day at the end of the holiest month in the Islamic calendar (Ramadan), the most recent of which was a suicide bombing right outside the Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) mosque in Medinah. While many have used the occasion to point out how un-Islamic ISIS must be for such an attack, the reality is that Muslims already knew this long ago. And it’s not only ISIS which has it out for us. Only the day before, a bunch of Islamophobic incidences and violence acts against Muslims occurred in the USA and Canada, and the combination has left Muslims around the globe reeling.

As a Muslim, each successive attack has left me at a greater loss for words and full of a deeper, more infinite sorrow. Elsewhere, I have written:

This Ramadan, my heart bled for Orlando, Lebanon and Istanbul. It continued bleeding for Dhaka. And now for Baghdad.

All along, there has been a constant consciousness of the chaos and destruction in Syria and Iraq, in Yemen, in Palestine. Of injustice and violence in Burma, China and many other places around the Muslim world.

Hate crimes against Muslims in the West are on the rise.

The prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said that there will come a time when holding onto the religion of Islam will be like holding a hot coal.

I cannot say if that time is now but I will remain holding it, my hands burning, heart bleeding until there is nothing left of me.

They are killing us. What more can we do? There must be more we can do.

This was before the attack in Medina happened. When the news broke, I could barely process it. I still fail to. One scholar has simply stated, “There are no red lines anymore.” Although the loss of life in all cases has been deeply troubling and tragic (particularly in Iraq where it has been so massive and where the international community has utterly failed), there is something I haven’t been able to properly put my finger on about a group attacking the mosque of our beloved Prophet Muhammad. It feels much more personal than ever before.

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that victims elsewhere are not necessarily Muslim or that they could be from minority Christian or Jewish groups, just as perpetrators may identify with any and all of us too. We have been the oppressors too, after all. Rigid labels are rarely (if ever) productive or illuminating, however, at this particularly point in history, it is hard not to notice that far-right militant, hate-fuelled Buddhists, white supremacists, atheists, secularists, Christians and Jews all share a common scapegoat in us. I have a hard time identifying myself with an “us” and them with a “them”. I’m uncomfortable with how these attacks have made my own categories more rigid.

Where other attacks might be analyzed as arising from political or social issues that only tangentially refer to religion or use religion conveniently, an attack on one of the most sacred places in Islam truly feels to me like an attack on every single believing Muslim. What was deeply wrong and evil before has reached a level that defies description for those of us that subscribe to a Muslim identity.

And it doesn’t matter where this is all coming from. As I said, similar attacks are happening from many sides via all kinds of perpetrators in numerous areas of the world. As a junior historian, I am deeply uncomfortable with comparing these incidences but I simultaneously cannot look away from them. That our Deen contains prophecies that echo our current moment makes it all the more unnerving.

How can Muslims today feel calm? How can they feel safe?

There are many suggestions from more learned scholars of our Deen for how to do this, so I won’t go into those here, but instead I would like to talk about the other side of things: what others can do to make Muslims feel safe.

When I saw the news that a Muslim man was shot and stabbed on his way to the Houston mosque for sunrise prayers, I immediately thought of a distant acquaintance of mine who also lived there. I thought to send him a message to see if he was alright and warn him to “be careful.” It turns out that it was that very friend who had fallen victim.

It is difficult to describe the sickened feeling that enters your stomach when you realize that someone you know was shot as a possible hate crime. Though police now say it was an attempted robbery, that sickened feeling lingers all the same, rearing its ugly head every time a hijabi appears on the news for being spit on or being called a sand n****r on the train, every time someone spins gravel at you while you cross the street, every time someone tells you how uncomfortable you make them (or just mutters it under their breath).

In the current divided political climate, how helpful is it to tell our friends to “be careful”?
After reflecting, I have to say, not very.

In fact, it might be counterproductive to what they need. Instead of telling them to “be careful” (thereby putting the onus on them to remain safe), you can simply make them feel safe as a non-Muslim ally by checking in with them, letting them know that you love them, and even though you can’t necessarily imagine it, you have an idea of how hard it must be right now and how down-trodden they might be feeling about international events.

An archaeologist friend of mine fills this role flawlessly. Every single time there is a terrorist attack and the news breaks, there is a message from her in my inbox within seconds. Sometimes she expresses dismay without even needing to contextualize it (“I can’t believe it.”) Sometimes it’s just the name of a place. Other times she simply asks if I am alright.

There is always a discussion and space held for me to just feel what I need to feel. After Orlando, when it felt inappropriate for Muslims to express how unsafe they were feeling from the Islamophobic backlash, she listened while I worked through my anger and frustrations with the self-declared daesh shooter, my own community (and its relationship to the LGBTQ community) and the rest of the world. She listened while I went on a hellfire-laden rant (even without her necessarily believing in hellfire) about the Baghdad and Medina perpetrators, praying for God’s curse on their heads.

I don’t know what these exchanges mean.

I just know that if there is a her and there is a me, and both of us can reject hatred and embrace love, and both of us can deeply mourn the loss of life, sobbing at our desks at work or over the dishes in the sink, then there is something comforting in that. Something comforting in the fact that in a world that has gone mad, there are still people who reject madness and who will openly stand with you while they do it.

I am told this is the majority of people and, to keep going emotionally some days, I have to believe that. But I definitely wonder.

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!

RAMADAN-WALLPAPERS-5__1600x1000The 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

ProductiveMuslim-Aiming-for-Awesome-Ramadan-Series-From-Planning-for-Ramadan-to-Planning-for-Entire-Year-600Master 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.

  1. 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)
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

ramadan-feastWhat 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.