Fasting: It Should Be A Year-Round Practise

“Improved weight loss.” “Better health.” “A longer life.” – it seems that almost every day, there is a new headline promising these benefits linked to fasting. But are they true?

Fasting – abstaining from food and drink for a certain window of time – is not revolutionary. It has been implemented by religions for centuries as a means to purify the soul, strengthen the body, and elevate the consciousness; there’s a reason it is a core pillar of Islam. Although mainstream culture emphasizes the health benefits of fasting, from the teachings and wisdom of the great saints (Awliyah) in Islam, it is evident that there are two dimensions to fasting, and nearly everything else in life: an outer dimension (Dhahir), or the physical aspect, and an inner dimension (Batin), or the spiritual aspect.

یٰۤاَیُّہَا الَّذِیۡنَ اٰمَنُوۡا کُتِبَ عَلَیۡکُمُ الصِّیَامُ کَمَا کُتِبَ عَلَی الَّذِیۡنَ مِنۡ قَبۡلِکُمۡ لَعَلَّکُمۡ تَتَّقُوۡنَ

“O believers! Fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for the people before you so that you may become pious.”
(Qur’an 2:183)

Here, Allah first states the external aspect of fasting – abstaining from food, drink, and physical necessities – followed by the inner aspect of the practice, the goal of achieving piety, or taqwa. Refraining from every action, thought, and behavior which is displeasing to Allah is taqwa. Thus, the full experience of a fast is to not only refrain from food and drink, but also from a deceptive life, immoral behavior, and a harmful lifestyle.

In this article, we will explore both the physical dimension of fasting as well as the inner, spiritual dimension. In addition, we will review the benefits of fasting from recent medical literature as they relate to the outer and inner dimensions.

Date Palm Tree | Photo by Alireza Dashtestani

The Outer Dimension ( Dhahir)

With support from medical literature, fasting has quickly gained popularity as a dietary strategy to improve metabolic health and longevity in mainstream culture.

A meta-analysis of 11 randomized controlled trials showed that fasting has a greater effect on weight loss in comparison to calorie restriction.1 In studies, fasting has also demonstrated protection against cognitive decline,2 promotion of cellular repair in the body and reduction in oxidative stress,3 reduction of markers of inflammation,4 improvement in cardiovascular risk factors (such as reduced blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglycerides),5 and increased lifespan.6

Fasting has already been shown to prevent insulin resistance,7 an important factor in preventing and managing type 2 diabetes, but one of the newest studies has even demonstrated that a fasting protocol was able to reverse Type 2 Diabetes.8 36 participants were given a fasting protocol for 12 weeks, during which they fasted for 16 hours and had an 8-hour feeding window each day. On completing the 3-month fasting protocol, and after a 3-month follow-up, nearly half of the participants (17/36) achieved diabetes remission in the fasting group, compared to only 2.8% (1/36) in the control group. After the 12-month follow-up, 44.4% (16/36) of the participants sustained remission from Type 2 Diabetes. In addition, 65% of the study participants who achieved diabetes remission had a diabetes duration of more than 6 years – which challenges the conventional view in western medicine that diabetes remission can only be achieved in those who have had diabetes for a shorter period of time.9

Although the physical health benefits of fasting are plenty, many make the mistake of fasting throughout the day, and indulging in excess at night, a practice that can negate the benefits offered through a fast. The Prophetic way, and the way of the Awliya, is to practice the outer dimension of fasting with excellence: not to indulge in excess, but to eat simply, and to eat food that is closest to its natural state (i.e. less processed foods).

Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho | Photo by Dr. Madeeha & Dr. Wassim Drissi

Inner Dimension – Batin

The benefits of fasting do not end at the restoration of one’s physical health – they have only just begun. However, the intention we bring into the practice matters. As Abu Hurairah narrated from the Prophet ﷺ, if you fast without spiritual intentions, the effects extend only to the body and not the soul:

It was narrated from Abu Hurairah that the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said:
“There are people who fast and get nothing from their fast except hunger…”
(Sunan Ibn Majah 1690)

The inner dimension of fasting is to abstain from everything that takes us away from Allah: everything in this physical world and the world of the nafs, also known as the lower-self.10 The lower-self manifests in many ways, including negative qualities such as anger, frustration, resistance, and impatience. These are the very traits that distance us from experiencing the Divine Presence of Allah during a fast. How can we practice transcending from our lower-self?

The answer is to actively submit to the will of Allah.

By making a commitment to fast inwardly from the desires of our nafs (the self), such as restraining from anger or frustration, or restraining from indulging in food, we are submitting inwardly.

Practicing the inward dimension of fasting, in essence, is to practice mindfulness, which means being aware of the present moment and one’s thoughts and emotions as they come and go, rather than becoming attached to them. By simply observing, and allowing thoughts and emotions to come and go without attachment, surrender and stillness to Allah’s will follows, rather than resistance.

The Awliya are friends of God, because they have fully submitted to Allah’s will in any given moment. Their state of inner being is always in a state of God-vigilance and total submission to Allah SWT.

Rattler’s Gulch, Granite County, Montana | Dr. Madeeha & Dr. Wassim Drissi

Although this state of inner being has been a practice of prophets and Awliya throughout history, in recent decades, public interest in achieving this state of being has soared. Terms such as “being present” and “mindfulness” have become popular in mainstream culture, and the modern scientific community has followed this trend into their research.

Without surprise, many medical benefits of “mindfulness” activities have been found: habitual practices of mindfulness have been shown to reduce both stress and anxiety,11 and literature review has also suggested that the mental fortitude developed through mindfulness practices and exercises can break addictive behaviors and dependencies.12 One systematic review of 14 studies found that a mindfulness-based approach helped participants reduce emotional and binge eating,13 and another study investigating alcohol use disorder found that a mindfulness practice was associated with lower levels of stress, psychological distress, alcohol cravings, and alcohol use after 3 months.14 Additionally, given that the perception of pain is connected to our state of mind, mindfulness practices have also shown to be beneficial in controlling chronic pain: in a large meta-analysis that included 9 randomized controlled trials evaluating pain, a mindfulness-based practiced was associated with decreased pain. Although the same cause of pain was experienced by both groups, those who practiced mindfulness showed a greater ability to cope with pain and experienced a reduced sensation of pain.15

Cove Creek Hot Springs, Idaho | Dr. Madeeha & Dr. Wassim Drissi

By developing attention to our thoughts, emotions, and desires of our lower-selves during a fast, we are practicing mindfulness – the very same strategy that the aforementioned studies have reviewed. To fast only during the month of Ramadan would mean to miss out on the enriching spiritual experience and health benefits that fasting can offer us throughout the year. During the lecture events at Itikaf City, Pakistan in 2017, Shaykh-ul-Islam Dr. Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri eloquently said:

“The human is a compound of two things – the body and the spirit. The body was created with different constituents of clay and water, and the body and its attributes are from the earthly world. Ruh (spirit) is from heaven, and its attributes are from heaven. Thus, the human being is the compound of both the worldly and the heavenly. Within the human being, there is earth, and there is heaven too. The body is the reflection of the earth and its attributes, and the spirit is the representative of heaven and its attributes. Thus, in a human, there are highly and lowly attributes.”

May fasting be a powerful tool in our spiritual journey year-round to enhance our highly attributes – may it improve not only our outer, physical bodies (Dhahir), but our inner states of being (Batin) as well.

notes

1 He S, et al. Intermittent versus continuous energy restriction for weight loss: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Obesity. 2021 Jan;29(1):108-115.

2 Li L, et al. Chronic intermittent fasting improves cognitive functions and brain structures in mice. PLoS One. 2013 Jun 3;8(6):e66069

3 Safdie FM, et al. Fasting and cancer treatment in humans: A case series report. Aging. 2009;1(12):988-1007.

4 Cheng C, et al. Prolonged fasting reduces IGF-1/PKA to promote hematopoietic-stem-cell-based regeneration and reverse immunosuppression. Cell Stem Cell. 2014; Jun 5;14(6):810-23.

5 Varady KA, et al. Alternate day fasting for weight loss in normal weight and overweight subjects: a randomized controlled trial. Nutr J. 2013;12(1):146.

6 Mitchell S, et al. Daily Fasting Improves Health and Survival in Male Mice Independent of Diet Composition and Calories. Cell Metab. 2019 Jan 8;29(1):221-228.e3.

7 Moro T, et al. Effects of eight weeks of time-restricted feeding (16/8) on basal metabolism, maximal strength, body composition, inflammation, and cardiovascular risk factors in resistance-trained males. J Transl Med. 2016;14(1):290.

8 Yang X, et al. Effect of an Intermittent Calorie-restricted Diet on Type 2 Diabetes Remission: A Randomized Controlled Trial. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2022 Dec 14;dgac661.

9 Yang X, et al.

10 “Itikaf City 2017, Day 2.” Lecture by Dr. Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri.

11 Orme-Johnson D, Barnes V. Effects of the transcendental meditation technique on trait anxiety: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. J Altern Complement Med. 2014 May;20(5):330-41.

12 Garland E, Howard M. Mindfulness-based treatment of addiction: current state of the field and envisioning the next wave of research. Addict Sci Clin Pract. 2018; 13: 14.

13 Katterman S, et al. Mindfulness meditation as an intervention for binge eating, emotional eating, and weight loss: a systematic review. Eat Behav. 2014 Apr;15(2):197-204.

14 Gryczynski J, et al. Integration of Transcendental Meditation® (TM) into alcohol use disorder (AUD) treatment. J Subst Abuse Treat. 2018 Apr;87:23-30.

15 Goyal M, et al. Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. 2014 Mar;174(3):357-68.

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