In the 11th century, Islamic scholar Muhammad bin Rasul al Husaini wrote that an outbreak of plague during the fasting month of Ramadan in Hijriah 131 killed almost 1,000 people a day. The outbreak lasted until Syawal, the month following Ramadan.
Muslims named the event Tho’un Muslim bin Quthaibah, after its first victim. The leaders and the people of Bani Umayyah fled to the desert to distance themselves from the sick.
Many centuries later, Muslims will fast during Ramadan, which starts today, during the global, devastating plague of COVID-19. The most frequently asked question has been: How will the pandemic change Ramadan this year?
One of the activities that mark Ramadan is fasting, which Muslims have practiced for 14 centuries. During this holy month, Muslims are required to abstain from eating any food, drinking any fluids, smoking cigarettes and engaging in any sexual activity from dawn to dusk. Fasting is obligatory for all adult Muslims, men and women alike, except for individuals with medical conditions that prevent them from fasting.
Muslims fast during Ramadan not just because it is obligatory, but also because they believe they will benefit from the practice in terms of its effects on their physical and spiritual health.
The pandemic, however, will force Muslims to change the way they fast. In normal times, Muslims get together for buka puasa, the breaking-of-the-fast-meal, and for tarawih (evening Ramadan prayer), but this will not be possible now under the nationwide social distancing policy.
Both the government and the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) have asked the country’s Muslims to pray at home and refrain from attending congregational prayers or mass gatherings. The MUI also advises against attending the Ied prayer that normally marks Idul Fitri, at the end of Ramadan. Most recently, the government has banned mudik (exodus), the annual practice of returning to one’s hometown during Ramadan and Idul Fitri that involved more than 20 million Indonesians over the last few years.
Does fasting increase the risk of infection? No study is available on fasting and the risk of COVID-19 infection, but in a newsletter just weeks before Ramadan, the World Health Organization said that fasting was fine for healthy individuals, as it has been in the past.
COVID-19 patients are not obligated to fast because in Islam, people who are sick, old or pregnant are exempt from the practice. Although fasting during Ramadan is safe for all healthy individuals, those with illnesses such as diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders and renal (kidney) disease should consult their physicians and follow their recommendations.
Scientists agree on the physical and psychological benefits of fasting. Fasting, prayer and other ritual activities help relax the mind and prompt intense feelings of love and joy. This happens when the excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters in the brain excrete hormones. Sensations often described as spiritual or a sense of the divine can occur while fasting due to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). This may be why people say they are able to find God in such moments.
Physically, fasting is proven to decrease body weight, waist circumference, the body mass index, body fat, blood glucose, both systolic and diastolic blood pressure and anxiety levels.
A 2013 paper by Abdolreza Norouzy et al, published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, found that fasting during Ramadan led to weight loss and a reduction in fat-free mass. Other studies have shown that even without reaching ideal weight, moderate weight loss can be effective in reducing some risk factors of cardiovascular disease, such as high blood pressure.
However, these health benefits can all be canceled out by binge eating during buka puasa, since many people tend to consume more fat-rich, carbohydrate-rich, sugar-rich foods to break their daily fast.
When President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo announced the first COVID-19 cases in Indonesia, many Jakartans rushed to supermarkets in a buying frenzy. Panic buying may recur during Ramadan to cause overwhelming demand and, eventually, food scarcity. However, this behavior contradicts the teachings of Prophet Muhammad, who promoted generosity rather than greed.
At the end of Ramadan, Muslims give zakat (alms). As physical distancing is very likely to remain in place in the coming months, giving cash is not recommended to fulfill this Islamic obligation. We live in a country where the poor account for 10 percent of the population, or 26.5 million people, and this figure will have increased as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. Zakat is one of the ways we can help others and boost social unity.
Contemplation during Ramadan will help Muslims not only achieve a peaceful mind, but also fight hoaxes and misinformation. The Prophet Muhammad said, “Speak a good word or remain silent”. Fake news about COVID-19 has spread far and wide on social media. Ramadan is an ideal time for Muslims to examine our faith by sharing positivity and facts, not hoaxes.
May we seek the blessings of Allah through Ramadan, with healthy bodies and minds. Godspeed!
Health columnist and general practitioner; University of Indonesia medical school graduate, doctorate in molecular medicine from Gunma University, Japan
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.