Ramadan changes my relationship to wellness and the culture of restlessness

It’s time to Ramzaan (Urdu for Ramadan), and this year I’m fasting for the first time since I was a child. My return to this practice was unexpected, but more than ever, it feels like an antidote to the world we live in today.

Many might believe that Ramzaan only involves abstaining from food and water, but for Muslims everywhere, abstinence can include sex or even social media. For me, Ramzaan carries the true meaning of detox, with no overpriced green juices in sight. It interrupts your to-do list and grants you permission to be with yourself for a month, much like a luxury yoga retreat in Bali.

In Pakistan, where I was born and where I lived as a child, the whole country slows down during the holy period. People take long naps to conserve energy, and it’s common to hear phrases like, “I’ll call you back when the Ramzaan is over.” It’s easy to forget how fragile we are in a world that constantly asks us to prove and perform at our true worth; skipping lunch, burning midnight oil, or feeling like you have no right to slow down.

Through fasting, you become hyper-aware of your basic physical needs. It reminds you that you are human and find it difficult to function when you are hungry, thirsty or tired. I find that people treat each other with more compassion during Ramzaan. They recognize that it is unfair to work their bodies like machines. This reflection has recently forced me to re-examine my relationship with the hustle culture and redefine what wellness really means to me.

Ramzaan carries the true meaning of detox, with no overpriced green juices in sight”

I realized that my relationship to work had to change at the end of 2021. I had written my first play, one of my long-term goals. Yet, instead of feeling inspired, I was exhausted from the creative activity I had undertaken in my free time. I spent my evenings, weekends, and annual leave writing, but I convinced myself that it didn’t count as work. I felt consumed by life, disconnected from my body and tired all the time. I needed something that had been missing from my life since childhood: balance.

My journey to fasting again has not been easy. As a teenager, I drifted away from Islam and completely stopped participating in the Ramzaan. My family lived between the UK and Pakistan when I was young, so I lived in two worlds: an Islamic Republic, where being Muslim is the norm, and England, where I often feel to be an outcast. As a teenager in the UK, where more than 50% of religious hate crimes committed each year are against Muslims, I avoided talking about my faith for fear of being judged and excluded.

I have been actively engaged with Islam for over a decade now. Over the past few years I have struggled with my wellbeing and made many attempts to heal my IBS, social anxiety, burnout, and decade-long binge eating disorder. Whether it’s attending classic yoga, quitting sugar, following a low FODMAP diet, paying for a hypnotherapy app, swallowing self-help books on the commute, I really believed there was a wellness hack out there that could fix me. I am far from the only one in this case. What I didn’t expect, however, was that the journey to take care of my physical health would bring me back to my faith.

The ancient spiritual practice of abstinence also challenged the workaholism I recently submitted to.”

The penny dropped when I recently came across a suggested solution for my IBS: intermittent fasting. After reading about intermittent fasting and its digestive health benefits, I was struck by how familiar this practice was to me. It made me think about the reasons for fasting in Islam beyond sacrifice and personal endurance. I had watched my family members use Ramzaan as a form of detox for years; emerge on the other side of the holy month feeling physically and mentally cleansed. If I could draw parallels between Ramadan and intermittent fasting, I wondered how Islamic practices might seek to address contemporary concerns facing society today.

This Ramzaan, I engage in prayer five times a day; a form of mind control with myself at regular intervals. I can see physical parallels between prayer and other practices I use to improve my well-being, namely yoga. I experience the same mental clarity during my prayers as when I practice yoga, both of which require me to slow down and connect with my body while performing a series of movements. Mindfulness emerges from the repetitive nature of reciting prayers, which are always the same verses from the Quran. Praying in Arabic seemed alienating to me when I was younger, but now it encourages me to focus on how the words sound, which has become a welcome break from overthinking.

Ramzaan teaches me that what I need to be well does not exist “over there”; it’s not a hack I haven’t found yet, but rather the ability to turn inward, away from the false promises of consumerism”

The ancient spiritual practice of abstinence also challenged the workaholism I recently submitted to. I canceled plans, knowing that I would be too tired to have fun after fasting. I take great care when selecting what I eat in the morning, knowing that I need to feel full and energized for as long as possible. In the evening, I treat myself to a scoop of ice cream to congratulate myself on having spent the day. I question the image of well-being that I had in mind, that of punishment and restriction, and I replace it with moderation and compassion. Ramzaan teaches me that what I need to be well does not exist “over there”; it’s not a hack I haven’t found yet, but rather the ability to withdraw into myself, away from the false promises of consumerism, and believe that I already know how to take care of myself.

I am also reading the Quran in English for the first time because I want to understand its relevance in my life today. One verse in particular spoke to me: “And so We appointed you to be the community of the middle way” (Chapter 2: Verse 143). The translator suggests that this is the very essence of what it means to be a Muslim: following the “middle way”. Islam invites us to seek balance in all aspects of our lives, not as a suggestion, but as a spiritual obligation. After several years of denying my faith, I feel grateful to have Islam in my life. I hope that following this Ramzaan will deepen my understanding of what it means to live a balanced life in a world of harmful extremes.

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