TRIGGER WARNING: This post discusses eating disorders, anxiety and other mental disorders. Scroll to the bottom of the article for links to organisations where you can discuss issues you have and seek help for eating disorders.
Ramadan for many can bring a range of feelings, from excitement, anticipation and happiness, for others there can be a mix of emotions such as anxiety and worry about food, fasting and ramadan. An eating disorder is a mental health condition where you use the control of food to cope with feelings and other situations. These are a group of related conditions including Anorexia, Bulimia and Binge Eating. Unhealthy eating behaviours may include eating too much or too little or worrying about your weight or body shape. Eating disorders also have the greatest mortality rate of any psychological disorder which makes this issue all the more urgent to address and highlight.
For Muslims women suffering with eating disorders, Ramadan can be one of the most difficult and traumatic times of the year.
For those who usually spend their days before Ramadan restricting their diets as a form of control, or those with low self-esteem issues, this period becomes a perfect camouflage for not eating or drinking without raising concern or being questioned by anyone. Many women who struggle with eating disorders still do so quietly, often keeping up the appearance of waking up to eat or breaking their fast with the family.
For those in an acute phase of an eating disorder however, it may not be safe to fast.
Some sufferers say that both their restrictive and bingeing behaviours increase during Ramadan, which is often a reason for why recovering Muslim women may not be able to fast. Fasting can be the perfect disguise for an eating disorder, as during Ramadan not eating becomes normal and no longer something that is frowned upon. This is perhaps why it is so easy to slip back into disordered behaviours without anyone noticing.
These bingeing and purging behaviours are often triggered by hunger and long periods of low intake so it is understandable that Muslim women who are dealing with these disorders may be very apprehensive about fasting in Ramadan. In some cases, particularly for people struggling with their mental health, fasting can jeopardise recovery and increase the risk of relapse. Muslims may be excused from fasting if it will complicate or worsen a mental health condition, therefore it is important to seek advice not just from a medical professional, but also from a trustworthy Muslim scholar.
What the Qur’an Says About Exemption From Fasting
If you are unable to fast due to an eating disorder or a mental health condition, give yourself compassion and grace. Whilst we know that the trials and afflictions we experience in this world are expressions of the gentleness of Allah—Allah Most High is forgiving our sins, raising our ranks and drawing us closer to Him through our tests and trials—Allah does not impose difficulty upon us. He tells us in the Qur’an:
“The month of Ramadan is that in which was revealed the Qur’an, a guidance for the people and clear proofs of guidance and criterion. So whoever sights (the new moon of) the month, let him fast it; and whoever is ill or on a journey – then an equal number of other days. Allah intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship.” [Qur’an 2:185]
It is from Allah’s mercy and generosity that the obligation of fasting has been lifted from those who are ill and experiencing sickness. Yet, the sick person is still rewarded for fasting because if they had been able to, they would have fasted. This is Allah in His gentleness with us.
How to Manage Suhoor and Iftar
If you are fasting with an eating disorder, here are some key points of advice which may help:
How We Can Observe Ramadan Without Fasting
You may feel like you are missing out if you are unable to fast due to your mental health, but there are many ways Ramadan can be a deeply spiritual and meaningful experience even without the aspect of fasting.
1. Set your intention
Our beloved Prophet Muhammad ﷺ taught us that “actions are by their intentions, and every person will have what they intended.” He also said, “Whoever intends to perform a good deed but does not do it, Allah will record it as a complete good deed.” Therefore, an individual with a chronic illness who cannot fast achieves through their intention what they could not in action.
2. Connect with the words of Allah
Ramadan is the month of the Qur’an. Reading and absorbing the Qur’an is one of the most important highlights and one of the best deeds anyone can perform in this blessed month. Spend time reading a translation and reflecting upon the many beautiful parables and lessons within the commentary. Listen to some melodic Qur’an recitation throughout the day and most importantly, live by the lessons you learn in the Qur’an.
3. Help out in your local community
Volunteering for a local charitable cause or fundraiser can be a very rewarding and fulfilling experience. There are many charities looking for practical help throughout the month of Ramadan, and many of them have moved their activities online so that you can help out from the comfort of your own home. Ramadan is the perfect time to help those who are needy and less fortunate. Part of your charitable work could also include visiting the sick and elderly, and praying for them.
4. Remember Allah
Dhikr and meditation can be transformational. Spending more time in the remembrance of Allah – whilst at home or out in nature – can bring about deep spiritual shifts and a renewed attachment to Allah. Dhikr also serves to calm the mind and body, purify the heart, protect from harm and help remove negative thoughts, as Allah says in the Qur’an:
“…truly it is in the remembrance of God that hearts find peace.” [Qur’an 13:28]
“…remember me and I shall remember you.” [Qur’an 2:152]
5. Attend Taraweeh Prayers
There are huge blessings and rewards in Taraweeh prayers, Tahajjud and other voluntary prayers in Ramadan. Taraweeh are one of the most cherished aspects of Ramadan; our beloved Prophet ﷺ said,
“Whoever stands in the nights of Ramadan, with faith and in hope of receiving Allah’s reward, his past sins will be forgiven.”
The one who performs extra prayers draws closer to Allah through them, and the prayers make up for any deficiencies in the obligatory prayers. Remember too that the reward for all virtuous deeds is multiplied in Ramadan and this should encourage us to increase our prayers during this month.
How Can We Help Those Dealing With Eating Disorders In Ramadan And Beyond?
As a community we may not realise how stressful Ramadan conversations about food can be for a person with an eating disorder, and that even the thought of food can trigger feelings of shame, guilt or panic. With self-esteem issues on the rise especially in young people, the pressures of social media and the culture of body-shaming that is rife, these are all issues that urgently need to be addressed. Sadly, because of the stigma surrounding mental health within the Muslim community, and society at large, these subjects are so rarely discussed. Women with eating disorders and other mental health issues often experience massive guilt; open dialogue within the community would help towards relieving those feelings of guilt immensely.
If you know someone with an eating disorder, here are some things that you should be more mindful of:
Where to Turn To for Professional Help
We encourage those who are dealing with such issues to reach out to mental health services for further guidance and to signpost your family and friends. Keep in touch with your community for support, talk to family and friends and remember there is no shame in seeking help for your mental health. Some mental health services and organisations you can contact include:
A helpline for adults and young people offering support and information about eating disorders.
Helpline: 0808 801 0677 / Youthline: 0808 801 0711/ Website www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk
An award-winning charity providing faith and culturally sensitive support to Muslim youth in the UK via their confidential helpline which is open 4 pm-10 pm 7 days a week, 365 days a year including on Eid. The helpline provides support at the point of crisis for those that need emotional support and signposting.
Telephone Support as well as Textline, Email, and Webchat. They will support women of no faith as well as any faith, you do not have to be Muslim to access their support. Will provide listening support, help women in a crisis situation as well as providing information about legal rights.
Telephone 0800 999 5786 / Email firstname.lastname@example.org / Website www.mwnhelpline.co.uk
May Allah heal all of those who are struggling with eating disorders and are unable to fast. May their struggles, their prayers, their Qur’an recitation, their Dhikr and their acts of charity weigh heavily in their scale of good deeds this Ramadan. May they be recompensed abundantly. Ameen.
The Lantern Initiative is a Muslim run Community Interest organisation currently based in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire. The organisation is run mainly by volunteers in their spare time. Our aims and objectives are to educate and raise awareness of mental health issues in the Muslim community, to help break down some of the associated stigma and to empower communities in seeking and accessing help. We fulfil our aims by giving Muslims more platforms to openly discuss mental health, therefore making it less of a taboo subject. We work alongside several charities and UK mental health organisations on various projects aimed at the Muslim community.