As a mental health counselor and a Shia Ismaili Muslim, I found it interesting that this year the month of Ramadan and Mental Health Awareness month overlapped. So I decided to put the two together! I am in no way claiming to be an expert on Islamic history or Ramadan. This is just my perspective, based on my knowledge and experience, on how Ramadan can be viewed as a time to enhance holistic wellness.
Ramadan is considered to be one of the holiest months for Muslims and is the 9th month of the Hijri or Muslim calendar. Many Westerners understand this month to be the month when Muslims around the world fast from sunrise to sunset without consuming any food or water. Ramadan is more than just the observance of a physical fast. Yes, Muslims who fast during the month of Ramadan do not eat or drink from sunrise to sunset but this month is also about strengthening the mind and the spirit along with the body.
Let’s first talk about Ramadan and the body. Individuals who are sick, elderly, children, and women who are nursing and are pregnant are exempt from the physical fast. The fasting period can sometimes last for up to 16-18 hours, especially during the summer. Hence, nourishing your body before sunrise and after sunset becomes very important. In the Western world, intermittent fasting is often used by individuals to cleanse their bodies and practice mindful eating with the intention of losing weight. Similarly, Ramadan can allow Muslims to cleanse their bodies of toxins and practice intentional and mindful eating. Some of us live to eat while other eat to live. In this case, the latter becomes necessary. Staying hydrated and eating a meal that provides all the necessary nutrients are important.
Many Muslims, for example, break their fast by eating dates. Dates are naturally sweet and provide many health benefits. They are high in fiber and antioxidants, can promote brain health, and provide energy. They are also to abstain from alcohol and drugs as they can be harmful to the body. Sleep hygiene also becomes important during this month so that individuals can wake up in time to eat before sunrise and have enough time to get some rest after sunset. Initially, it is difficult to get used to the timings and the schedule. However, as days go by, people become used to the lifestyle change and may begin to feel more energized. The mindful eating and diet is reflected in their weight loss and appearance. In addition, the physical hygiene of washing your body enhances purity and is especially important prior to praying or reading the Qur’an. If exercise is a regular part of one’s life, it can be continued during Ramadan, it just has to be scheduled at the right time while being mindful of one’s energy and listening to one’s body. Through personal experience and observation, I have seen people become more disciplined with their physical bodies during this time (although, for me, not being able to drink water is challenging at times).
Ramadan not only helps with the practice of physical discipline, but also mental. During this time, Muslims are encouraged to focus on having positive thoughts and positive relationships. Although fasting for a long period can cause individuals to feel irritable, they have to maintain control and discipline as not to allow the hunger of the body to control their mental state. Some of us, including me, can go a few hours without eating but when the hunger strikes, our minds fail us and we are not able to concentrate on anything but getting some food into our bodies. Hence, this month can be used as a time to take that mind-body connection and gain better control over each. Further, this month is not used as an excuse to avoid day to day tasks, such as going to school or work. Individuals still have to continue with their daily lives by working on increasing their knowledge and finances as well as fulfilling their responsibilities.
One of the goals of this month is maintaining a positive attitude in our environments while maintaining positive relationships with whom we interact. It’s easy to gossip, talk bad about others, complain, curse, and think negatively. This month is the time to practice sending positive energy into the universe so that the same positive energy is returned to you as a result. If you work hard and study hard, without negative thoughts and complaints, then you will see positive results. One of the rules of this month is to abstain from having sexual intercourse during the fasting period. During the fasting period having sex is considered impure for the body and the mind. Instead, this time can be used to improve communication and other aspects of the relationship with your partner. In other words, physical connection with your partner is important but so are the other areas of your relationship, such as the emotional connection.
Ramadan is a way to enhance your spiritual connection with God and with yourself. Its a time to pray, reflect, and learn patience and discipline. Muslims generally spend some time everyday reading the Qur’an and reaffirming their allegiance to Allah. In understanding Allah’s messages they may find new meanings or view things from a new perspective. Reflecting on themselves and their lives as they work on their spirit through rituals and meditation increases their self-awareness as well as reinforces humility and generosity. Communal prayer also becomes important because praying with others can generate more energy and power. The auspicious night of Lailatul Qadr is the time when Muslims come together and spend the evening, night, and early morning in prayers. They are remembering Allah, asking for His mercy and forgiveness, praising Him, and requesting Him to give them strength to overcome their difficulties while they are visited by angels and spirits from the heaven above. They also use this time to find ways to give back to the community by donating their time, knowledge, or money because it all exists due to Allah’s blessings.