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More than prayers

As Ramadan begins, the Muslim ummah attempts to focus on our Islamic duties, reflect on our religion and strengthen our intentions to practice our deen with a renewed passion and purpose. Personally, Ramadan gives me a distinctive boost of confidence in my abilities. It reminds me that I have an inner strength that I can call upon whenever I choose to. There is a depth of knowledge that exists within this holy month. I always feel that our sense of community, as an ummah, is amplified. Nevertheless, I cannot help but consider whether our approach to Ramadan might be too task-orientated: read a few verses of the Qur’an every day, ensure all prayers are kept up and attend taraweh.

Although there is benefit in focusing on doing as much as one can, I do sincerely believe that Ramadan also provides an opportunity to gain so much more. Many of the treasures that are bestowed to us over this period lie in the potential for internal change. There is a form of resilience that Ramadan brings that allows us to take charge of our base needs in order to focus on inner and outer transformation.

As explained in the Qur’an in Surah al-Ra’d [13:11] ‘Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.’ This is a verse that I truly love. The responsibility is clearly given to us. We are unequivocally instructed to seek change. I see growth – whether it be mental, emotional or spiritual – as very individual. Nevertheless, what is universal is the fact that, as expressed in the verse above, we are accountable for our own condition. Ramadan gives us the opportunity to initiate, reinvigorate or perhaps accelerate profound change. It is what could present a mental and spiritual revolution.

In order to cultivate this growth, one of the most valuable gifts Ramadan presents us with is in fact that of self-discipline. Allah explains in Surat Al Baqara [2:183]: ‘O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may (learn) self-restraint.’ The Arabic term for fasting can be defined more accurately as ‘abstinence’ in many contexts.

Generally, the word abstinence is associated with harmful substances. In the case of Ramadan it is associated with food, drink, sexual acts and certain behaviours. It is more than just staying away from food.  This can be seen in Surah Maryam. The mother of Jesus, Maryam (AS), is told that if she were to meet any individual after giving birth, to ‘tell them I vowed to fast for Allah, and I will not speak to any human being.’ Here, fasting also refers to abstaining from verbal communication. The abstinence from talking is for Maryam’s (AS) own protection.

The wisdom of fasting reveals itself through closer investigation. Having the self-discipline to disengage from activities, and the will to remain steadfast in your decision-making is an achievement in itself. If pharmaceutical companies could bottle that and sell it to the masses, they would do so in a heartbeat (and reap the financial rewards). Millions would welcome the prospect of being able to manage desires that don’t benefit them. Yet in reality, self-restraint and self-discipline are like muscles. They must be trained. The more one practices restraint and discipline, the easier they become. As with any type of training, consistency is key.

As Muslims, we are prescribed to practice this once a year at least. In addition to the spiritual gains, a number of studies now demonstrate the health benefits of fasting. Most of us know that if fasting is done appropriately it can lead to healthy weight loss as well as the management of blood glucose and cholesterol levels. Still, this must always be taken within its context and medical advice should be sought in cases where there are concerns. Moreover, contrary to popular belief, exercise and suitable weight training are actually beneficial during fasting, if done at the right time with the right intensity.

Recent research has also resulted in the recognition that fasting can lead to the activation and increase of autophagy and neurogenesis. Autophagy is the process whereby the body rids itself of damaged, worn cell material, which if left can cause inflammation and potentially other health risks. It essentially is a mechanism that allows the body to self-cleanse and recycle cells. Autophagy can in fact slow down or counteract the process of aging because energy can be redirected towards cell renewal.

Neurogenesis is even more interesting! Neurogenesis is the creation of neurons (brain cells). It was thought that neurons are only created as part of early child development. Adult brains were considered to be rather stagnant when it came to new growth. Recent research has challenged this. If this not exciting, I am not sure what is. Neurogenesis has been linked to the management of depression and dementia. Fasting – the simple act of abstaining from food – has been shown to increase rates of neurogenesis and regulate mood amongst other benefits. This TED talk by Dr. Sandrine Thuret will amaze you.

Abstinence has many benefits, but some rewards will only be achieved through a mindful approach. I would recommend deciding upon two or three goals to focus on during Ramadan. Taking on too much will inevitably result in failure. Change and growth can only be achieved through consistency, so less is more in terms of goals.

As much as I love eating warm samosas, malawah (a Somali dish, similar to crepes) and absorbing the magical atmosphere Ramadhan brings, I know very well that the promise of delectable food is not the reason why this month has been given to us. We must consider what our individual needs are, and attempt to create sustainable inner change. If we want to change our condition – whatever that may mean for each one of us – we must create change within our selves.

Ramadan Kareem!