Medical Interpretation of Fasting

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Fasting Against Obesity, the Disease of the Era

First, I will inform you about obesity, and then I will compare numerous but generally ineffective current treatments with Islamic approaches.

The body mass index (BMI) is a heuristic proxy measured with a special method based on height and weight.

BMI is categorized as 24-29.9 overweight; 30 or more obesity and 40 or more morbidly obese. Those measures may present the material part of Ahsani Taqweem (Allah’s perfect creation).

Since the principal reason of this deviation from Ahsani Taqweem (Allah’s perfect creation) is overeating, I will elaborate on overeating habits and compare them with the Sunnah of Allah’s Messenger who is the concrete example of Ahsani Taqweem. Before this comparison I would like to remind you and important principle. Sincerity is the essence of worship. And the sincerity is worshipping only because it is ordered. If there is another reason or benefit behind the worship, it will be null and void. Benefits and wisdom may make them preferable but they cannot be the cause. An action or a behaviour which is done in a spirit of worship will be permanent and consistent.

The high degree of fat and low degree of fiber in the foods increase the risk of obesity. We know that for food, fire was scarcely used in the house of the Messenger of Allah but he did not completely avoid meat. You may think that they did not consume those because they did not have firewood or meat and fat. But we also know that even if he had those foods he did not keep them, he gave them away. Indeed there may be some medical and spiritual lessons in the fact that he could not sometimes find anything to eat. It may be Divine Reason that he got used to eating little by Divine guidance. The same case can be observed in the people who are inheritors of the Messenger of Allah in an effort to be an example for the era they live in (like our master Bediuzzaman Said Nursi).

The size of the portion of the food affects obesity. Not to eat till getting full is one of the principles of the Sunnah. It is narrated that Hazrat Abu Bakr ate only eleven morsels. It is possible that he did so to copy his master (the Prophet).

What should we understand from the word waste in the divine order “Eat and drink but waste not by extravagance.” What is the limit of wastefulness in eating?

Is the ideal eating amount the same for everyone? Does this amount change according to the age, sex, and type of work? Since the ideal amount of eating changes according to the needs, is there a certain measure according to which we can understand if we waste? The answer is obesity and overweight. The people who consider overweight as a problem have different reasons: Some have worries about their health, some care about their body shape. As believers we should regard overweight as a material sign warning us that we waste. Is it medically possible for the body to maintain itself with little food? Researches show that when we are hungry the metabolism slows down and the body lessens consumption of energy. Person can maintain a certain level of strength and body shape with little food.

We should listen to our prophet to understand the limit of waste: “Son of Adam does not fill anything eviler than his stomach. A few morsels enough to keep him erect will suffice him. But, if he insists on filling his stomach with the control of his nafs (desires), he should separate it into three: first for the food, second for the water, and the last part for breathing.”

The Messenger of Allah said, “Reinvigorate your hearts by laughing little and sharpen it by eating little. Because the heart becomes pure and fine with little food. Do not eat until fully satisfied so as not to put out the fire of spiritual knowledge and light of wisdom. Because spiritual knowledge is the road leading to Heaven.”

Eating little is the door leading us to spiritual knowledge (of Allah). Eating little also keeps us away from illicit and dubious foods and drinks. Hazrat Mavlana says: “Knowledge and wisdom comes from licit food, and it is the source of love and compassion. If a morsel of food causes you to fall into jealousy and a trap, if it engenders ignorance and heedlessness, you should consider it as illicit.” If we want to be useful both to ourselves and others and to be able to influence people we should try to keep away from illicit foods.

Why we cannot control ourselves even though we know the spiritual and material harms of overeating?

The variety of foods at a meal:

The decrease in appetite towards a certain food during eating is called “feeling of fullness peculiar to the food” If the variety of foods is much at a meal, the sense of taste is not suppressed enough which should decrease under normal circumstances and eating continues even though sense of fullness is present. When we look at the lives of the prophet and his companions we see that they did not even put various ingredients in a food let alone variety at a meal.

When your spirit prevails the body, your heart rules over the nafs, your reason dominates the stomach, and you seek pleasure for gratitude then you can eat delicious foods. (Abdul-Qadir Gilani)

The sense of taste is a doorkeeper, from the point of view of administering the stomach and body, it is a master and a ruler. If the gifts arriving at the palace or city and those given to the palace’s ruler are worth one hundred liras, only five liras’ worth is appropriate for the doorkeeper in the form of a tip. Thus, frugality and contentment are in conformity with Divine wisdom; they treat the sense of taste as a doorkeeper and give it its remuneration accordingly. As for wastefulness, since it is to act contrary to wisdom, it swiftly receives its punishment, upsets the stomach, and causes real appetite to be lost. Producing from the unnecessary variety of foods a false and artificial appetite, it causes indigestion and illness. (19th Flash)

For the heedless and those who have not progressed spiritually nor advanced in the way of thanks, it is like a doorkeeper. Wastefulness should not be indulged in nor the sense of taste’s price be raised from one to ten for the sake of giving it pleasure.

However, the sense of taste of those truly on the way of thanks, those seeking reality, and those who approach it with their hearts is like a supervisor and inspector in the kitchens of Divine mercy. Its duty is to recognize and weigh up the varieties of Divine bounties on the tiny scales present in it to the number of foods, and to send the body and stomach news of the food in the form of thanks. In this respect the sense of taste does not only look to the physical stomach, rather, since it looks also to the heart, spirit, and mind, it has a position and importance superior to the stomach. On condition it is not wasteful or extravagant, and is purely to carry out its duty of thanks and recognize and perceive the varieties of Divine bounty, and on condition it is licit and does not lead to degradation and begging, it can follow its pleasure. (19th Flash)

How should we use feeling of hunger which is more harmless then those impulses which stimulates appetite artificially and causes us to eat even though we are full? How should we understand fasting which is one of the imperatives of Islam in the context of overeating?

Getting hungry is a natural impulse for eating. While eating to satisfy feeling of hunger is a simple animal response, understanding through the hunger the Benefactor behind the benevolence, gratitude to Him and sympathizing with the hungry people and feelings of compassion for them is a high approach. Allah Almighty praises His servants who eat little to His angels: “Oh my angels! Look at that servant of mine; even though I made him addicted to eating, he abandons it for me. You bear witness that I will bestow a great status on him for the each morsel of food he abandoned for me. The Messenger of Allah said: “Do not kill your heart by eating and drinking much. Because your hearts are like wheat and the wheat withers because of heavy irrigation. Another hadith is: “Struggle with your nafs (desires and passions) through eating and drinking little. Because eating and drinking little give you as many merits as fighting with the unbelievers and there is no better merit than that in Allah’s sight.”

The real purpose of eating should not be getting completely full. For the fruits are samples; there is permission to taste them so as to seek the originals and become customers for them, but there is no permission to devour them like an animal. But the fortunate one tastes them and understands the matter; he postpones eating them and takes pleasure in waiting. (8th Word) For example, to love delicious foods and luscious fruits as the bounty of Allah Almighty, the All- Merciful and Compassionate One, is to love His Names of All-Merciful and Bestower of Bounties, and, moreover, it takes on the meaning of thanks. This love is to seek gain contentedly within the sphere of the licit, which shows that it is not only for the sake of the instinctual soul but is in the name of the All-Merciful One. It is to eat thoughtfully and with gratitude. (32th Word). A guest cannot waste foods and other things in a way in contrast with the permission and approval of the landlord (Mesnevi-i Nuriye)

How can a person stop himself from eating while among such great foods and under the pressure of his appetite? Fasting is the best cure for today’s people. Because it can make us stop our nafs while our fridges are full of foods.

One instance of wisdom in fasting in Ramadan with respect to training the instinctual soul is as follows: The instinctual soul wants to be free and independent, and considers itself to be thus. According to the dictates of its nature, it even desires an imaginary dominicality and to act as it pleases. It does not want to admit that it is being sustained and trained through innumerable bounties. Especially if it possesses wealth and power in this world, and if heedlessness also encourages it, it will devour Allah’s bounties like a usurping, thieving animal.

Thus, in the month of Ramadan, the instinctual soul of everyone, from the richest to the poorest, may understand that it does not own itself, but is totally owned; that it is not free, but is a slave. It understands that if it receives no command, it is unable to do the simplest and easiest thing; it cannot even stretch out its hand towards water. Its imaginary dominicality is therefore shattered; it performs its worship and begins to offer thanks, its true duty. (29th Letter)

Thanks to medical researches various benefits of hunger have been found. According to the results of animal studies, hunger has good effects on the mechanisms decreasing the level of aging in the heart, on protecting the brain against the damages resulting from circulation deficiency, on regulating the blood sugar and on eating habits and losing weight. Apart from these, good effects on cellular level are also observed medically. We can find some information on this point in Risale-i Nur: “The Sustainer’s guarantee is a reality; none die of hunger. For that All-Wise One of Glory stores up some of the sustenance He sends to the bodies of living creatures as fat, as reserves. In fact, He stores up a part of the sustenance He sends to each cell, in the cell, like a reserve stock to be spent when no sustenance comes from outside. They die before this store is finished. That is to say, such death is not from lack of sustenance; they rather die from a habit acquired through wrong choice and due to illness arising from desire for the wrong things and the giving up of habit.” (12th Flash) Fasting is the quranic cure for material and spiritual obesity and for restricting desires in an era when people race towards waste.

We are designated for the Hereafter not for this world, when we desire the world it is for the hereafter.