By Khalil Marcus Lambert, Ph.D.
In his famous book, How to Eat to Live, the leader of the Nation of Islam (a conduit through which many African-Americans were introduced to Islam) emphatically states: “There is no way for us to learn the right way to eat in order to live a long life, except through the guidance and teachings of Allah.”
Although Elijah Muhammad’s Islamic creed diverted from traditional mainstream Islam, he understood well that the key to addressing the complete spiritual and mental vitality of his people was by placing an emphasis on their physical well-being, which he addressed through ancestral eating habits and social vices; undoubtedly a wholesome approach borrowed from the Qur’an and example of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ (peace be upon him).
The Prophet Muhammad SAW placed great emphasis on physical matters in developing spiritual matters. In a famous hadith (saying of the Prophet)1 , the Messenger of Allah SAW observes a man praying the ritual salah (prayer) and says to the man, “Go back, for you have not prayed.” After the man’s return, the Prophet ﷺ says to him repeatedly, “Go back, for you have not prayed.” Because the man was not implementing the true mechanics of the prayer to the best of his ability, he was likely depriving himself of its complete spiritual and emotional benefit.
Arguably every religious ritual or habit put into practice by the Prophet SAW holds a deep spiritual benefit that is only uncovered through regular or meticulous application. However, many traditions have obvious physical and emotional benefits as well. Within the Islamic tradition are directives that uplift the whole life of the individual. Fasting is the perfect example.
Routine, periodic fasting has been shown to have a number of positive effects:
- contracted stomach (and satisfaction with less food);
- lower blood sugar and cholesterol;
- and even evidence for combating cancer.
During a fast, energy is diverted away from the digestive system to concentrate on metabolic and immune functions. Master regulator hormones called glucocorticoids are released to aid the body in breaking down fat cells and forming glucose molecules for energy. Side effects of this can be the release of toxins trapped in fat cells and maintenance of normal blood pressure.3
Elijah Muhammad notes, “Fasting is a greater cure of our ills, both mental and physical, than all of the drugs of the earth combined into one bottle or a billion bottles.” These were wise words to many African American families predisposed to poor health conditions.
What many Muslims have not truly appreciated are the Islamic and faith-based practices that influence our body’s health. Many researchers have studied the effects of Ramadan, prayer, and other religious influences on individual health, yet population-based studies have been confounded by profound cultural and ethnic diversity. Thus, it is difficult to draw conclusions about health associations from a population with so many contributing variables. Still, intriguing questions remain about the overall health benefits of Islamic mandates.
For example, what are the health implications of the prohibition of alcohol, pork, sex before marriage, etc. on the Muslim community? How has the non-reductionist, holistic perspective on healing affected the health of Muslim populations? Can common characteristics be observed in the (epi)genetic profiles of Muslims?
A 2008 study in the American Journal of Cardiology found an association with members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as Mormons, and heart health. Mormons who typically fast at least once a month for a 24-hour period had a lower prevalence of coronary artery disease.5 Interestingly, Prophet Muhammad ﷺ encouraged his followers to “fast three days a month as the reward of good deeds is multiplied ten times, which is equal to one year of fasting.”6 Many Muslims even follow a more regular prophetic regime of fasting on Mondays and Thursdays.
How faith-based practices coincide with physical well-being is no coincidence. What may seem like a novel concept is actually very intentional in Islam. The Qur’an commands: “O you who have believed, eat from the good things which We have provided for you and be grateful to Allah if it is [indeed] Him that you worship. ”7
How can one reach their full spiritual maturity in a poor physical and mental condition? The healthier you feel in mind and body, the easier it is for you to grow in iman (faith). Being healthy is Islamic, and Islam is wholesome health.