Sunday, July 21, 2013

Ramadan - when fasting goes bad...

When Ramadan falls during a hot summer in northern Europe, Muslims here suffer more than their brothers and sisters nearer the equator; the day-light lasts longer (4am to 10 pm in mid-summer) and the infrastructure, buildings, habits and customs in our northern climes are not designed for coping with endless days of sunshine and sweltering, oppressive heat. Meanwhile, the nannyish nagging of the "elf 'n' safety" tzars to keep drinking fluids to fend off dehydration may provoke irritation and mockery among the general population, but how much more annoying must it be to be told how dangerous not drinking in the heat is when you know the next opportunity to quench your thirst is ten or more hours away.

But is not eating or drinking for such long periods in such extreme heat actually dangerous? My Muslim friend tells me that fasting is good for the body. I agree. Recent research confirms the age-old wisdom of fasting for health reasons. Fasting plays a role in most, if not all religions; as a way of purifying the mind and body I can see the benefits and have even tried the 5-2 fast myself. However, the Muslim fast is different in both type and duration from other fasts, whether religiously motivated or not, and there is a growing body of both clinical and anecdotal evidence which suggests that Ramadan can have harmful effects.

A study by Dr. Ibrahim Abu-Salameh at Soroka University medical centre in 2010, for example, found migraine attacks were three times more likely during the month of fasting. Not surprising given the following list of possible effects of dehydration: Asthma, Allergies, Heartburn, Migraines, Constipation, Obesity, Fibromyalgia; High Blood Pressure, Lower Back Pain, Type II Diabetes. 

Nutritionist, Anwan Gunawan, a Muslim herself, lists the effects not of dehydration caused by the fast, but ironically of over-eating during Ramadan: "They don't eat at daytime, but they eat a lot in the evening. So, it's not good, it's not healthy. And you can see after the Ramadan, people get fat, get sick."

And it's not only the detrimental physical effects of such extreme fasting that can be seen. Mood and concentration can also be badly affected by the strains put on the body during Ramadan. Anyone who has stayed in an Islamic city during the fast will attest to the dangers of driving just before Iftar, the breaking of the daily fast. Annabel Kantaria writing in the Telegraph says the following about being out on the roads during Ramadan:
It’s no secret that, during Ramadan, the number of road traffic accidents increases dramatically. Twenty per cent of all traffic accidents in Oman last year took place during the Holy month alone and, this year, Dubai Police have revealed that they were called to 3,605 traffic accidents in the first 10 days of Ramadan.One of the most dangerous times of the day is just before people rush home for Iftar, the sunset meal at which the daily fast is broken. Hungry, tired and dehydrated, some drive recklessly, overtaking, undertaking and racing through red lights in their hurry to get home. This year, nearly 20 accidents a day have occurred in that crazy period just before 7pm, which the police have now dubbed the “Ramadan rush hour”.But, while there’s obviously a certain risk to driving after fasting all day, Dubai-based psychologist Dr Annie Crookes tells The National that the cause of the bad driving is likely to be more psychological than physical.Research has found that fasting has an impact on reaction times and spatial perception, but Dr Crookes says it’s still no excuse for some of the crazy driving seen during the Ramadan rush.
She also reports how the Emirates Driving Institute warns that drivers who have been fasting all day will likely have headaches, feel faint, be impatient and lack concentration – issues that Dubai Police are trying to pre-empt by giving out free Iftar meals at major road junctions in busy parts of the city. (Given that our local taxis are driven almost exclusively by Muslims, it does make you wonder...)

When rush hour meant the odd extra camel in the desert, the daily commute was a wander to the local market, sunrise to sunset was a predictable 12 hours whatever time of year,  and jobs where functioning at a level less than 100% presents a danger not just to you but to the public were unheard of - then I can perhaps understand how Ramadan might have helped a community to focus on spirituality. 

In our modern 24-7 high-speed world where those fasting must work and function in societies ill-suited to such practices, Ramadan presents a challenge not only to those who are happy to partake but also to those who must live and work alongside fasting Muslims.

Did Allah foresee such difficulties, I wonder? I'll leave you with the story of an airline pilot as told on a professional airline pilots forum:

I once flew with a muslim capt a long time ago during ramadan and we had a very long and interesting discussion about his beliefs etc as he was fasting and very devout.He was also a very good pilot and an excellent guy I might add except he didn't drink beer!!He did acknowledge the problem of those less inclined to do the right thing during the year and making up for it while flying an aircraft during Ramadan.It was almost an 8 hour sector and he had eaten breakfast before dawn in dubai I would guess about 5 am.By the time we were on descent later in the day about 4 30 pm Dubai time or just after dark where we were, he was no longer in my opinion fit to be sitting in the front seat of a very large aircraft.He must have been very dehydrated as he didn't even have any water.The amount of things he missed on descent was quite disturbing.After we landed he raced off to get a feed at the airport cafe and then felt human once more.We then went out on the overnight and had a nice night and he obviously had his energy back. I would imagine he was at the same level of competence as someone who had a some alcohol in his system while flying.Of course my point is that EK would sack you immediately for having alcohol in your system if you are caught and yet condone an unsafe situation due to fasting.I would imagine every muslim according to the Quran also has an obligation to safeguard life particularly during ramadan.Is there not a way for our muslim colleagues to aide by their faith considering they are travelling and still operate safely as the situation where both flight crew are seriously fasting is fraught with danger.I think we all have a moral as well as legal responsibility to operate the aircraft safely and owe the passengers a duty of care.It will be no use explaining to the families of 400 people "but he was fasting" if it leads to a tragedy.


  1. If a person is engaged in the act of intercourse and dawn comes, he is obliged to withdraw, and his fast will be valid even if he ejaculates after withdrawal, but if he continues having intercourse until after dawn, he has broken his fast, and he must repent, make the fast up later, and offer expiation.

    1. er...too much information, Anon.

  2. “Although Islam releases passengers from fasting, we are not exempt since we fly every day,” said Latifa Nabizada, Afghanistan's only female pilot, who now flies transport helicopters for the military. “And while we carry responsibility for every passenger and for flight safety, we are comfortable and have no problem with flying and fasting.” - See more at:

  3. OK, I am going to leave whether or not fasting is good or bad to one side for a second and focus on personal responsibility - so please do not misunderstand and think I am pro or anti anything here - just making some points:

    You are more than allowed to break the fast for safety and security - I think these bad things happen because people are not thinking properly. My husband fasts during Ramadan and he also goes to the taraweh prayers (which are long nights of standing and praying - sometimes for an hour or two hours) - but he will break his fast if there is a need to, and will donate to charity or do some other act of goodwill to make up for it (there is a verse which says something along the lines of "those who cannot fast should x, y, z"). For example, if we are going out for the day as a family, and we are driving far - he will break his fast because he is a traveller. What this usually means is that we don't do these trips during Ramadan (he gets massive guilt over it) but if we did, he would break it and make up for it in another way.

    When I was teaching at the Muslim school, a lot of the kids got faint and dizzy from fasting and the strict teachers would say: "pray to Allah to make it easier for you" - leaving them to suffer, and other teachers would give them water & tell them to do a kind deed, or good deed - like carry the shopping for their mum, or give food to a poor person - so again, you have two radically different approaches going on there, from deeply religious people who equally believe in Islam: the only difference between them being in the level of knowledge they have and the level of understanding they have. To the strict teacher, Allah will reward him for encouraging them to fast, and to the other teacher Allah will reward him for giving a thirsty person a drink. Actually. I would say that fundamentalism is the result of the most basic understanding of Islam. For example, you get rewarded (Islamically) for fasting - but there are many sayings like (and this off the top of my head so potentially inaccurate - just trying to make the point) "a kind word is equal to a thousand nights of fasting". So if fasting is a good thing to do, then being kind is a REALLY REALLY good thing to do - but people skip the latter parts and just go with phase 1 of practice which is just to fast. They-just-dont-get-it....seriously literature deficiency going on for some reason.

    Another point is that those who are travelling are exempt from the rules of fasting - and so the airline pilot more than falls into that catagory. He should not really have fasted at all and so yet again, there seems to be a serious knowledge gap in religious followers who touch the surface of their religion, but never really bother to understand it properly and practice it properly (whatever "properly" is these days - hard to tell with Islam - maybe thats why they don't investigate).

    My point is - that yes, there are religious rules and traditions - but you cannot blame ALL on the religion, you have to (at some stage) look at the people and go: "err, mate - have you lost it or wot?" - because there is a stage where doing certain religious things (whether they are in the book or not) is a form of madness and recklessness which cannot be explained. To put other people's lives in danger is just reckless - its not just religious - its reckless. I am sure there are muslim pilots around who have read a bit more, understand a bit more and break the fast for flying.

    1. nicely put, Jasmine.
      however, the main thrust of the post surely refers to the increasing irrelevance of such a extreme fasting in the modern, western world. Irrelevant in the sense that expecting people to drive or carry out any profession where focus and concentration are vital when they are suffering the effects of dehydration is unrealistic.
      I wouldn't want my prescription made up by a pharmacist who can think of nothing but her next drink, for example. I wouldn't want my children driven by a bus driver suffering from a migraine brought on by dehydration. I could go on but you get the picture.
      To say that you have to look at the people misses the point. when the rules of a religion are so far removed from common sense one has to look at whether the religion is at fault.

    2. PS: Here is the view of a rather extreme religious Islamic website on pilots fasting -
      Its states that once they are away from home (there is a set distance that qualifies as "far enough away to qualify for breaking the fast) they can stop fasting.

    3. Another ruling on fasting for pilots:

  4. @Anon re: "Irrelevant in the sense that expecting people to drive or carry out any profession where focus and concentration are vital when they are suffering the effects of dehydration is unrealistic."

    Yes this is true and in countries where the daylight hours are very long, people are told not to fast. I have fasted, and its not as extreme as it may look on the outside, The Atkins Diet and other diets are significantly more extreme.If you know any fat person who has done the lighter life programme, you will become aware of just how much extreme dieting there is around.

    I would also argue that just because something seems irrelevant in today's modern world it doesn't really mean that it is. I am not defending Islam here - I am defending quite a few things that could fall into the "irrelevant" catagory and I think there needs to be caution when taking an "anti" stance over an argument such as "its irrelevant" because I am of the opinion that that is a very fine line to tread.

  5. Erm... clearly not researched well. A traveller does not have to fast. In your blood thirsty zeal to prove something wrong, you open yourself to make such basic "school boy" errors like this.

    Yes long hours fasting can be dangerous - when it is, you can forgo fasting. So you see "Allah did foresee these dangers." As for the driving incidents in Bahrain, perfectly understandable that accidents will increase during Ramadan. Doesn't negate the need, or the benefits of Ramadan. It's kind of like how accidents rocket on Friday and Saturday nights when you - and your folk - roll out of your offices to down "a few bevvies." Accidents, fights, unsociable behaviour ensues. Yet, I don't see you clammering to get that "english practice" banned. Let's not even get started on the strain it causes the NHS...

    Partaking in the 5-2 diet huh? You mean the 2 days a week fasting Muslims are urged to do voluntarily when it isn't Ramadan? Thanks for reminding us about another verified scientific practice from Islam

    1. Fasting has been observed in cultures long before Islam so theres no scientific miracle claim on Islams part. You being muslim will most likely say that these were early muslim societies that were corrupted (would be a poor answer on your part but understandable why you would claim it). fasting benefits does not at all validate the claims of a religion bieng true.

      There are benefits to fasting but sometimes overzealousness can lead to serious problems.

  6. I've never denied fasting hasn't been part of other cultures and religions. Worshiping God didn't start when Islam started, so I can well believe it's part of the same faith strand. However, Islam is the only big religion to have codified it, and made it a major part of worship. And now so to it becomes part of the West's lifestyle choice.

    Nice to see you ignored the comment about alcohol...

    1. Your comment that suggested that accidents caused by drunk driving in the decadent West were as bad/ just as bad (I'm unsure of the thrust of your argument) as accidents caused by loss of concentration and bad temper during Ramadan? Is that the comment about alcohol I ignored?
      OK Let's deal with it. Nobody in the West binge drinks or drinks and drives because they live in fear of being tortured for an eternity by a merciful God if they don't. Muslims do however fast to please God...get to Heaven...avoid the terror of Hell and end up causing accidents on the roads. One is caused by human stupidity/fallibility the other is caused by human gullibility.