Why Religious Fasting Could Be Good for Your Brain

By Andrea Useem | September 17, 2008
http://pokedandprodded.health.com

Ramadan is in its third week now, and the required dawn-to-dusk fasting often feels like a daily mini–marathon. By late afternoon, hunger and thirst have sucked me dry, leaving me sleepy, slow-minded, and sometimes short-tempered.

I know that the purpose of fasting is spiritual—God will reward us in the next life—but in this lifetime, fasting sometimes makes me an ineffective, irritable person. So I was excited to learn that Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey, MD, had spoken at a recent Renaissance Weekend event about how caloric restriction can improve brain function.

I emailed Dr. Ratey to find out if those benefits might extend to religious fasting, and he sent me a 2006 paper on the brain functioning of men during the Ramadan fast. The researchers studied a small group of healthy men during and after the holy month, looking at their brain activity via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). They concluded that “all individual results showed consistent and significant increase of activity in the motor cortex during fasting.”

Other research shows similar results
That research builds on the work of other scientists, including Mark Mattson, PhD, who heads a neuroscience lab at the NIH’s National Institute on Aging. Mattson has done important research on how dietary restrictions can significantly protect the brain from degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.

In a 2003 article, Mattson and others reported that rats who were deprived of food every other day, or restricted to a diet at 30% to 50% of normal calorie levels, showed not only decreased heart rates and blood pressure, but also “younger” brains, with “numerous age-related changes in gene expression.”

Mattson and his colleagues also shared data from research on humans, which shows that populations with higher caloric intakes—such as the United States and Europe—have a greater prevalence of Alzheimer’s than do populations that eat less—such as China and Japan. The authors speculate that humans may have adapted to conditions of feast and famine; the stress of having little food, they write, “may induce changes in gene expression that result in adaptive changes in cellular metabolism and the increased ability of the organism to reduce stress.”

Although this research is relatively new, with many questions left unanswered, the authors conclude that “it seems a safe bet that if people would incorporate a spartan approach to food intake into their lifestyles, this would greatly reduce the incidence of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and stroke.” (Of course, how this recommendation translates for individual people remains almost a complete unknown; consult with your own doctor before restricting your diet in dramatic ways.)

But here’s the hard part: Although we know eating too much leads to all sorts of health problems, “it has proven very difficult to successfully implement prolonged dietary-restriction regimens,” reports Mattson and his team. Information and doctor’s orders are rarely enough motivation.

This last observation gave me hope, because it seemed the authors were overlooking the role of religion; it can inspire people in ways information or experts don’t. Would I be undergoing this rigorous month of fasting unless I believed strongly it was the right thing for me to do? Probably not. And the same goes for millions of Muslims around the world.

And many other religions include fasting or dietary restrictions as part of their religious observances. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or Mormons, for example, fast one Sunday a month. The Orthodox Church in America notes five separate fasting seasons on its website, in addition to individual fast days; during some of these fasts, all food is restricted, and during other fasts, only certain foods are off-limits. Some Roman Catholics abstain from meat on Fridays, and all do during Lent. Many types of Buddhist monks abide by a code that prohibits eating after noon each day.

Science may only now be discovering that some of these religious practices, both ancient and modern, offer nourishment not just for the soul, but for the body as well.

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Eighteen Reasons For Fasting

O ye who believe! Fasting is ordained for you, even as it was ordained for those before you, that ye may guard yourself (against evil)” Qur’an: Chapter 2, Verse 183).

Ramadan is a month of fasting and prayers for the Muslims. The fast consists of total abstinence from food and drink from dawn to dusk. There is, however, a greater significance to fasts than mere abstinence from eating and drinking. The real objective of fasts is to inculcate in man the spirit of abstinence from sins and of cultivation of virtue. Thus the Qur’an declares that the fasts have been prescribed with a view to developing piety in man, as is clear from the verse quoted at the top of this page.

How are the many facets of piety sought to be cultivated through the fasts?

  1. The prime consideration in undertaking fast, as in any act of devotion, is to seek NEARNESS TO GOD and beseech HIS PLEASURE and FORGIVENESS. This itself generates a spirit of piety in man.
  2. The wilful creation of the stringent conditions of hunger and thirst for one’s own self, simply in obedience to the Divine Order, measures the FAITH of man in God and helps to strengthen it by putting it to a severe test.
  3. Fasting enhances through creation of artificial non-availability, the value of the bounties of God, which man is apt to take for granted in the midst of plentiful availability, and thus inculcates in man a spirit of GRATITUDE and consequent DEVOTION to GOD. Nothing else can bring home to man the worth of God’s bounties than a glass of water and a square meal after a day‑long fast. This also reminds man that the real joy in enjoying God’s bounties lies in MODERATION and RESTRAINT and not in OVER INDULGENCE.
  4. Fasting makes us deeply conscious of the pangs of hunger and discomfort suffered by the less fortunate among our brethren, who may have to put up with such stringent conditions all through their lives ‑ it thus enkindles in man a spirit of SACRIFICE leading to CHARITY towards his suffering brethren.
  5. Fasting affords man an unfailing training in ENDURANCE ‑ i.e. a SPIRIT OF. ACCEPTANCE of the inevitable, which could well prepare him to put up with the unchangeable situations in life in the same spirit of RESIGNATION as cultivated during the fasts.
  6. Fasting develops COURAGE, FORTITUDE and a FIGHTING SPIRIT IN man to surmount the heavy odds in life with a cool and tranquil mind. It sharpens his, power of CONCENTRATION to overcome obstacles, through a vigorous exercise all through the month, leading to a steeling of his WILL POWER and RESOLVE, which could help him in trying situations in actual life. It is seen that many an undesirable habit which is found hard to leave, is more easily left off during the days of fasting.
  7. Fasting teaches man RELIANCE on God and CONFIDENCE in HIM in facing the bitter situations in life with the comforting thought that these too, ordained by Him, could well be surmounted through His assistance alone, even as the rigorous state of fasting for a complete month. For, fasting develops the quality of PATIENCE in man, with the realisation that, as the days of fasting, though seeming unending do have a successful and, so are all the bitter situations in life. It therefore infuses a spirit of GOOD CHEER, (driving away BITTERNESS and DESPAIR) in his attitude towards life and in his demeanour towards others.
  8. Through quick alternation of the state of plenty and of scarcity, fasting seeks to inculcate in man the right type of attitude in different situations in life‑ of GRATITUDE and THANKSGIVING in plenty and of PATIENCE and FORBEARANCE in difficulty.
  9. Fasting is meant to CONQUER ANGER, not to augment it, and to develop SELF‑CONTROL in man; for the vigorous effort of wilfully putting up with a continued state of hunger and thirst can well be extended to conquer other infirmities of human character that lead man into error and sin.
  10. Fasting inculcates a spirit of TOLERANCE in man to face unpleasant conditions and situations without making his fellow-being the victim of his wrath on account of his adverse conditions, such as deprivation of his basic needs of life, which constitutes the common cause of dissension among men.
  11. Fasting MELLOWS a man and enhances his character, giving jolt to the human instincts of ‘PRIDE, HAUGHTINESS, ENVY and AMBITION, for when fasting, a man’s energies are too sapped to follow these instincts which are the chief causes of discord and conflict among men.
  12. Fasting exposes the weakness of man in the event of his being deprived of but two of the bounties of God ‑ those of food and drink; it thus infuses in him a spirit of MEEKNESS and SUBMISSION, generating HUMILITY and PRAYER in an otherwise arrogant man.
  13. Fasting breathes the spirit of FORGIVENESS in man towards his subordinates, as he himself seeks God’s FORGIVENESS through fasts and prayers.
  14. Fasting affords lessons in PUNCTUALITY through man’s strict adherence to various time‑schedules in the observance of fasts and offering of prayers.
  15. Fasting can be made to effect ECONOMY in an individual’s life, which can be extended to wider spheres.
  16. Fasting enforces in man rigid DISCIPLINE ‑ mental, spiritual and physical ‑ a trait of character which forms an essential ingredient to success in human life.
  17. Fasting provides LEISURE, that could he gainfully employed in devotional or intellectual pursuits. The month‑long duration of fasts creates a proper climate for the SPIRITUAL REFORMATION in man, infusing in him a spirit pf enthusiasm and zest to turn over a new leaf ‑ an opportunity provided every year.
  18. On the physical side, fasting cleanses the human system of the accumulated impurities of uninterrupted eating throughout the year. It prepares the body for toughness and hardihood to face disease or conditions of scarcity. The rigid abstinence that the fast provides, regulates man’s HEALTH, sharpens has INTELLECT, gives spurt to his SPIRITUALLY and enhances the qualities of his HEART. With the cleansing of the human body, it paves the way for its easy and effective rebuilding through meals at the end of the day or after the month is over.

Source: Jamiatul Ulama South Africa

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Long Hot Summer Fasts

Are you scared of long hot summer fasts???
Read the following article to get some encouragement.

——

Taken from:
Ibn Rajab al-Hanbalī’s “Latā’if Maʿārif”

As the blessed month of Ramaḍān coincides with the summer months, many Muslims are apprehensive of the long fasts and, admittedly, struggle to stay hungry and thirsty for such a lengthy period. The following extract from Imām Ibn Rajab al-Ḥanbalī’s Laṭā’if al-Maʿārif will, inshā-Allāh, change our perspective and make us realise the great opportunity Allāh Most High has granted us to reap extra reward.

“Among the acts of worship whose reward is multiplied during extreme heat is fasting, due to the thirst one experiences in the midday heat.

This is why Muʿādh ibn Jabal رضي الله عنه expressed remorse on his deathbed over the midday thirst he would no longer experience, and other predecessors expressed the same.

It is related that Abū Bakr al-Ṣiddīq رضي الله عنه would fast in the summer and not fast in the winter.

At the time of his demise, ʿUmar رضي الله عنه advised his son ʿAbdullāh: “Acquire the characteristics of faith,” and the first one he mentioned was fasting in the intense summer heat.

Qāsim bin Muḥammad said that ʿĀ’isha رضي الله عنها would fast in the intense heat. He was asked, “What caused her to do this?” He replied, “She was taking advantage of the time before death.” Mujammiʿ al-Taymī would fast in the summer until he would faint. One of the righteous women would choose the hottest days and fast them. When she was asked regarding this, she would say, “When the price is cheap, everyone will buy,” indicating that she preferred those actions only a few were capable of, due to it being difficult for them. This is a sign of great determination.

Abū Mūsā al-Ashʿarī رضي الله عنه was on a boat when he heard someone calling: “O People aboard, stand up!” three times. Abū Mūsā رضي الله عنه replied: “How can we stand up? Do you not see where we are? How can we stand up?” The caller asked, “Shall I not inform you of a decree that Allāh has taken upon Himself?” He replied, “Indeed, why not? Inform us!” The caller replied, “Allāh has decreed upon Himself that whoever makes himself thirsty for Allāh’s sake on a hot day has a right upon Allāh that He quench his thirst on the Day of Standing.” Thus, Abū Mūsā رضي الله عنه would seek the extremely hot days where one would be close to passing out and fast those days.

Kaʿb said that Allāh Most High said to Mūsā عليه السلام, “I have made it incumbent upon Myself for whomever is thirsty for My sake that I will quench his thirst on the Day of Resurrection.” Others have said, “It is written in the Torah: ‘Glad tidings for whoever makes himself hungry in preparation for the Great Day where his hunger will be satisfied. Glad tidings for whoever makes himself thirsty in preparation for the Great Day where his thirst will be quenched.’”

Ḥasan said, “A maiden of Paradise will say to a friend of Allāh, while he is reclining with her on the shore of a river of wine in Paradise, as she hands him a cup whilst he is in the pinnacle of enjoyment, “Do you know on which day Allāh married me to you? He looked at you on a long summer day while you were extremely thirsty in the midday heat. He expressed His pride over you to the angels, saying, ‘Look at My slave. He has left his wife, pleasure, food and drink for My sake, desiring what is with me. Bear witness that I have forgiven him.’ He forgave you on that day and married you to me.”

When ʿĀmir ibn ʿAbd Qays went from Basra to Shām, Muʿāwiya رضي الله عنه would ask him to refer his needs to him. He refused to ask of him, eventually saying, “My need is for you to return the heat of Basra to me, in order to make the fast a bit harder, as it is too easy in your lands.”

Ḥajjāj camped by some water on a journey between Makka and Madina and called for his dinner. He saw a Bedouin whom he called to eat with him. The Bedouin replied, “One who is better than you invited me, so I accepted his invitation.” He asked, “And who is this?” The man replied, “Allāh. He invited me to fast and so I fasted.” Ḥajjāj asked, “In this intense heat?” The man replied: “Yes. I am fasting in preparation for a much hotter day.” Ḥajjāj said, “Break your fast today and fast tomorrow.” The man replied, “Only if you can guarantee that I will live until tomorrow.” Ḥajjāj said, “This is not in my hands.” He replied, “How then can you ask me to do something now in place of something in the future you have no control over?”

Ibn ʿUmar رضي الله عنهما was once on a journey with some of his companions and they had spread out their tablecloth. A shepherd passed by, so they invited him to eat with them. He said, “I am fasting.” Ibn ʿUmar رضي الله عنهما said, “You are fasting on a hot day like this, while you are between these valleys walking behind these sheep?” The shepherd replied, “I am taking advantage of these free days of mine.” Ibn ʿUmar رضي الله عنهما was impressed by this reply and said, “Can you sell one of your sheep to us? We will feed you from its meat with which you can break your fast and we will pay you for it.” The shepherd said, “They do not belong to me; they belong to my master.” Ibn ʿUmar رضي الله عنهما said, “What will your master say to you if you tell him it was eaten by a wolf?” The shepherd left with his finger raised towards the sky, saying, “What about Allāh?” Ibn ʿUmar رضي الله عنهما kept repeating this phrase of his. When he arrived in Madīna, he went to the shepherd’s master, and bought him and his sheep. He then freed the shepherd and gave him the sheep as a gift.

Rawḥ ibn Zinbāʿ had stopped at a place between Makka and Madina on a very hot day when a shepherd came down towards him from a mountain. He said to him, “O shepherd! Come eat with me.” The shepherd said, “I am fasting.” Rawḥ said, “You are fasting in this heat?” The shepherd replied, “Should I let my days pass by in vain?” Rawḥ said, “You have utilised your days properly, O shepherd, while Rawḥ ibn Zinbāʿ has wasted his.”

Ibn ʿUmar رضي الله عنهما used to fast the optional fasts until he would almost faint, but he would not break his fast. Imām Aḥmad would fast until he was close to fainting and he would wipe water over his face. He was asked about a person who fasts but finds it extremely hot. He said, “There is nothing wrong with wetting a cloth to cool oneself with and pouring water over oneself.” The Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم was at a place called ʿArj where he was pouring water over his head while fasting.

Abū ’l-Dardā’ رضي الله عنه would say, “Fast the extremely hot days, in preparation for the Day of Rising. Pray two rakʿats in the darkness of night, in preparation for the darkness of the grave.” It is narrated in Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī and Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim on the authority of Abū ’l-Dardā’ رضي الله عنه, “We saw ourselves with Allāh’s Messenger صلى الله عليه وسلم on one of his journeys on an extremely hot day. A man would put his hand on his head due to the intense heat. (But not having any shade) None of them would be fasting except Allāh’s Messenger صلى الله عليه وسلم and ʿAbdullāh ibn Rawāḥa رضي الله عنه.” In one narration: “This was during the month of Ramaḍān.”

When those who fast for Allāh in the heat are patient against their intense thirst, He has set aside for them a specific door among the doors of Paradise; the door of Rayyān. Whoever enters it will drink, and whoever drinks after entering it will never be thirsty again. When they enter through it, it will be locked to those coming after them, thus none will enter through it except them.

May Allāh Most High give us the ability to appreciate the blessed month of Ramaḍān, accept all our acts of worship therein, and bless us with the extra reward of the long summer fasts. Āmīn.

By Al Habib Trust

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