With the beginning of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, the annual debate starts up about the effect of fasting on the health. It is accepted that fasting is not a good idea for sick people. But does it benefit those in good health, or is it merely a religious practice that has nothing to do with one’s well-being?
Muslims are only expected to fast if they are healthy adults. Sick people, whether suffering from temporary or chronic disease, are exempt. Many scholars of Islamic sharia law say fasting is prohibited if it is harmful.
The Prophet Muhammad is quoted as saying: "Fast so as to be healthy". Some Muslim scholars have been trying to get support from doctors to prove the health benefits of fasting. Each year, much of the Islamic media covers the benefits of fasting during Ramadan, and the hazards for sick people if they try to do without food.
Dr Muhammad Alabdooni, the chairman of the Dutch Moroccan Physicians Association, maintains there is no scientific proof that Islamic fasting is physiologically beneficial, but says it may benefit psychological health:
"Positive aspects of fasting in Ramadan are related to relaxation that happens due to worship, which increases in the holy month. These worship practices give a feeling of psychological and physical relaxation."
On the other hand, Dr Alabdooni explains that fasting has some negative effects on health, but he doesn't consider these very serious.
"Effects of fasting on a healthy person are limited. Negative effects are inconveniences, especially in the early days of Ramadan, such as headaches, nausea, sleeplessness, etc."
No scientific study
Dr Alabdooni says this is the prevailing opinion of the medical profession, at least in the Netherlands. He admits that no scientific study has been conducted to date on the effects of Ramadan fasting on healthy people:
"Studies have focused on sick people, particularly on chronic-disease patients. There are a lot of studies in this area, but they haven't given any attention to the effects on healthy bodies."
Effects on health
Dr Albdooni has never been interviewed in the media about Ramadan fasting, but his immediate acquaintances often quiz him about the effects of the practice on their health. He explains the risks associated with the sort of fasting people practice nowadays - abstaining totally from food and drink during daylight hours, and then eating a wide range of food after sunset. Most people who come to him with questions admit to eating excessively in short bursts during Ramadan.
"Many people agree with me when I say fasting these days produces results that are not intended by Ramadan fasting. They recognise that they eat large amounts of sugar and fat after breaking their fast, and this leads to them putting on more weight instead of losing it, the effect fasting is expected to achieve."
Dr Alabdooni remains non-committal about the doctors who appear on Arab TV channels during Ramadan to talk about the health benefits of fasting, preferring to let them decide for themselves what they say. However, he does believe the medical and religious professions should be strictly separated:
"Doctors are not religious scholars or preachers, they should always be aware of the limits of their profession".