This year, Ramadan begins the evening of June 17th and ends the evening of July 17th. During this month-long observance, approximately one billion Muslims around the world will not eat, drink, or smoke from dawn until sunset. Fasting is one of the Five Pillars of Islam and is considered a way for Muslims to atone for their sins. Muslims believe that abstaining from bodily pleasures and desires (sex is also included on this list) shows their obedience to and love for Allah. This month is an opportunity to make up for transgressions or sins of the year and is one of the holiest times of the year for Muslims.

Ramadan is an opportunity for Muslims to join together in brotherhood and community. Each day begins at 4:30 a.m. with breakfast (Sahur) prior to sunrise and the first prayer of the day at 5 a.m. As the day goes on, Muslims will pray five times, with their stomachs reminding them frequently of their devotion and submission to Allah. During the day, Muslims are encouraged to volunteer and help the needy, believing that whatever good acts they perform during this time will come back to them times 70. As the sun goes down, Muslims gather together for their evening meal, called Iftar. The last ten days of Ramadan are especially holy, called the Nights of Power or the Night of Destiny when the prophet Muhammed first received revelations from the Qur’an. The fasting ends with a celebration called Eid-ul-Fitr. Friends and family visit, exchange gifts, and feast on traditional dishes.

The Muslim community shares a special bond during the month of Ramadan, and although only adults and children over age eleven are required to fast, many children will voluntarily go without food to join the celebration. But what should you do if you have a chronic condition that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to go for that long without food or water?

It is important to note that the Qur’an does state exemptions from fasting:

  1. Women who are bleeding (menstruating or in child birth)
  2. People on their sick beds or who are on a journey
  3. Mentally challenged people
  4. Children who have not yet reached puberty

In the book Fasting by El-Bahay El-Kholi, these exceptions are expanded upon. Women who are menstruating at any time during Ramadan must stop the fast and complete a holy bath after their menstrual time is over. Additionally, there is no specific indication of exactly how sick a person must be or what the illness must be in order to exempt them from the fast. This means that in the case of chronic illness or pain, the decision to fast is up to each individual person. Travelers may also choose to break their fast if their travel is especially arduous. As with much of Islam, this choice is seen as a decision that is made by the person in a way that honors both an individual’s needs for their health and their devotion to Allah. To that end, there are a few ways that a person with a chronic condition can care for themselves during Ramadan.

Speak to your Imam or the head of your mosque about your concerns

If your condition requires you to take medications that must be taken on a full stomach, fasting all day may not be an option. Diabetics have similar issues as they deal with the delicate balance of blood sugar. Speaking to your Imam may help allay any fears you have about not fasting or participating in a modified fast.

Listen to your physical body 

If you feel able to fast initially but your condition worsens as Ramadan continues, you may need to break your fast to support your health.

Modify your schedule if you can

If you feel able to fast but the resulting lack of energy or fatigue makes it impossible to get anything done, modify your schedule if at all possible to save the fasting hours for worship and low-energy tasks. After the evening meal and celebration, it may be possible to complete other tasks that were left unfinished during the day.

Ask for help

Suffering from a chronic condition like chronic pain can be challenging at the most regular times. Adding lack of food and water can make symptoms worse. If you do choose to fast, ask for help and support in your community as the month goes on. Iftar is a lovely communal gathering to break the fast each evening, but if you are not able to host that meal, ask to simply bring a dish to another’s home.

Substitute days

There are provisions in the Qur’an for those who are unable to fast during Ramadan to “make up” those fast days at a later time. Likewise, people who do not fast due to “permanent” illness (e.g., AIDS, tuberculosis) may show their reverence during Ramadan by serving the poor for the month.

Substitute meals

The Qur’an also allows you to offer a meal to another person in place of the meal you are eating during a fasting day. In this way you can still be mindful and observe this holy time while making sure you are taking care of your health. The meal that you give should be similar to a meal you would normally eat. You do not need to substitute luxurious foods.

Fasting as a sacred act is present in all of the world’s major religions. For more on religious holidays and fasting, visit Belief Net’s handy chart.

Image by yeowatzup via Flickr


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