Ramadan is here. The blessed, blissful month of spiritual healing, worship, and peace. Muslims fast for a whole month from sunrise to sunset to practice self-control and to be able to empathise with the poor and needy. All in all, Ramadan is a good, religious blessing to make use of for self-improvement. (I am not saying everyone should start fasting and expect to be magically cured, however).
I had a dietitian, a therapist, an eating disorder consultant, and my care co-ordinator tell me not to fast during Ramadan. At that point I had fasted since I was 9 years old and was very eager to continue. Their words made sense to me, but I always need a lot of logic and reasoning to understand and do anything. I wanted to have better insight regarding what the correct guidance for Ramadan was, for a Muslim with an eating disorder.
I reached out to a knowledgeable Imam in the first instance. Perhaps not fully understanding what an eating disorder was, he informed me that fasting was blessed and capable of healing. While he did not in any way pressurise me to fast or tell me that it would cure me, my very overwhelmed and conflicted mind saw his advice as: I should fast if I am a good Muslim. Fasting is important. I must fast.
I still needed further guidance, so I turned to the local Facebook group and was in touch with a female, Muslim accredited therapist. I asked her the exact same questions I had asked the Imam, and she decided that having an eating disorder meant that I struggled to stay hungry or without food for long periods of time. It was funny for me to listen to her tell me about how I should fast, and it would provide me with healing and relief.
It was obvious that this person had no idea what an eating disorder is and had decided that I was some sort of weak person looking for an easy way out. Her comments were in no way logical, so I completely ignored her and carried on in my struggle to seek assurances.
Islam goes against harming yourself, and unfortunately for me to be fasting was causing more harm than good.
It was two years ago, during my MSc. At Goldsmith’s University in London that I finally was able to seek well-informed guidance from a Muslim guidance counsellor. He was helpful in making me realise what was happening, assuring me that I would be doing the right things and that I was right in trying to seek understanding and logic regarding what was happening for me. Through this individual I made the painful realisations that:
1) I was not fasting to practice self-control. I was fasting because I adored and craved the thrill that came from long periods of starvation
2) Islam goes against harming yourself, and unfortunately for me to be fasting was causing more harm (psychologically) as well as physically, than good.
It has been two whole years since I fasted during Ramadan. Initially it was distressing for me, because I so badly want to be doing the right thing, in religious aspects but also in terms of sensible adult decisions. It has been a journey, one that I have learnt to travel along at my own speed, and I am aware I can give fidya for the fasts I cannot currently keep. The way I see it for me is:
Ramadan is like a ‘battle’ against the nafs (or ‘what the soul desires’) to practice self-preservation and control in the way of the Almighty. For most, of course, what we desire is eating freely.
My very, erm… different nafs quite love the prospect of self-punishment and the thrill of not eating. So my personal battle is to keep on eating, nourishing my body mind and soul. In doing so, my self-preservation involves a very intense and mentally exhaustive battle to not resort to self-harm through starvation.
my own personal battle is to keep on eating, nourishing my body mind and soul.
I do appreciate I do not have to explain myself to anyone. Being a very private person, I do not think I want to have to explain myself to anyone. The only reason I have decided to attempt to voice my experiences, is because I know that I cannot be the only one and I hope to start raising awareness in any way possible. This, for me, is step 1 of many, many more hopefully.
-Contributed by Ayisha
If you've been affected by any of the issues raised in this story, or are concerned for yourself or a loved one, you can find support and guidance on the help pages of our website. You can also check out our Guide To Eating Disorders And Ramadan, from Dr. Omara Naseem.