The beauty of the fasting month is often cited in the following points: unity, routine, and elevated spirituality. Across the globe, millions of individuals structure their days around the sunrise and sunset of their geographies. Within those geographies, hundreds of thousands move in similar rhythms; one is almost guaranteed that if a live-feed of Muslim homes were to be broadcasted, each household would be seen operating in the same way. This segues nicely into the case made for routine: Ramadan calls for a more structured day than any other month of the year because one of the primary leaseholders of our time (preparing and consuming food at least twice in twelve hours) is temporarily absent, opening up a large slot of hours that ideally should be spent bettering oneself. Finally, this moves us into the realm of elevated spirituality, where the fasting individual, humbled by their hunger, seeks avenues through which they may become closer to God. However, with the spirituality, and emphasis on piety comes the danger of regressing into old, damaging habits. For those afflicted with eating disorders, the holy month is a test of the highest degree.
The absence of mental health discourse
Before I continue, I should make it clear that this is not a denunciation of Islamic practices; rather, it is a condemnation of the absence of mental health discourse and resources within Muslim communities. Often, any indication that religious practices should be altered, or perhaps understood in greys (as opposed to black or white) for the sake of those who need help, is immediately shunned. In light of Ramadan and the subject of this piece, it would do us all good to remind ourselves about the fundamentals of both. Surah Al-Baqara 2:184 of the Qur’an states that while the prescribed number of fasting days have been ordained (that is, one must follow the lunar calendar as per Islamic tradition), if one is ill and therefore unable to perform these fasts, they have guidelines to follow that in the eyes of God, allow for different and easier actions that are equal in merit. The Qur’an does not specify the kind of illness, so we have come to understand that no specification means we use our judgement in defining illness and its levels of severity.
Eating disorders are mental illnesses that manifest themselves physically, making them hazardous in two separate spheres. The purpose of this essay is not to detail the qualifiers of each eating disorder; such information is easily found for those who are curious and open to learning. Instead, the focus here is on the shared characteristics of each disorder, primarily an attitude towards food that renders their sufferers unable to process food in a typical fashion even on regular, non-fasting days. For an individual in the grips of an illness like an eating disorder, the discipline associated with achieving spiritual closeness becomes the rigidity of ailment.
Stomachs shrinking after not having eaten for a significant period of time are a medical myth. Instead, stomachs reset themselves, which leads to one feeling full after eating less than they are accustomed to. Keep in mind that an individual’s food intake prior to the resetting may have been the healthy, required amount. A bulimic, then, suddenly confronted with a full stomach, and so quickly at that, may be compelled to rid themselves of their food. Those more prone to starvation, like anorexics, may eat very little and very selectively after breaking their fast, claiming they have to ease back into full meals slower than everyone else. In the flurry of iftar and post-iftar activities, it is likely that no one gives this behavior a second glance. Now, it is not the sole responsibility of the eating disorder sufferer to keep their religious experiences safeguarded. Often, the discourse around mental illness is hushed with declarations that God provides, that God takes care. This is lazy, inconsiderate, and arguably un-Islamic. What of common sense and decency? Is that not from God too?
We need to talk
The taboo of discussing mental illness permeates almost all communities and is not unique to Muslims. As someone who has dealt with this issue first hand and witnessed loved ones experience it as well, what saddens me is the silence we practice in the name of upholding cultural mores, intertwining that with religion and God, and leaving the ill to fend for themselves. The Prophet (SAW) himself has been reported to have said the following: “Whoever removes a worldly grief from a believer, Allah will remove from him one of the griefs of the Day of Resurrection… and Allah will aid His worshipper so long as he aids his brother…” [Hadith 36].
What remains now is for Muslims, both as a testament to their faith and their humanity, to cast aside whatever reservations they may have with openly addressing difficult topics such as mental illness, particularly if it causes the further alienation of those who are affected by it.