Ramadan: What clerics and health experts say:
Dubai: With only 12 days left before Ramadan begins, many Muslims around the world are wondering whether fasting can pose an increased risk of catching the COVID-19 virus, due to dehydration. It is a logical question as the coronavirus pandemic is continuing to sweep its way across the world, where people are advised to keep up fluid intake to keep mucus membranes moist.
Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam, and Muslims are required to fast during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Ramadan is derived from the Arabic word “Al Ramad”, which means intense heat and drought. This reflects the hardship felt by Muslims who fast every day from dawn to sunset, during which they cannot eat or drink anything the whole day.
The question about fasting is also asked by non-Muslims who resort to “intermittent fasting” – an eating pattern that cycles between periods of fasting and eating. It is also known as an intermittent energy restriction- an umbrella term for various meal timing schedules that cycle between voluntary fasting and non-fasting over a given period. Three methods of intermittent fasting are: alternate-day fasting, periodic fasting, and daily time-restricted feeding.
As Ramadan is around the corner, Muslims worldwide wonder if they would be excused from fasting. Ramadan is expected to fall on April 23, depending on the crescent moon sighting and the Hijri calendar. In fact, Muslims cannot suspend one of the main worships and a key pillar of Islam unless a Sharia fatwa is issued by one of the Muslim world’s highest Islamic institute.
As the novel coronavirus continues to spread globally and people go on to self-isolate in their homes and stockpile groceries, is this the right time to fast? Does fasting inadvertently weaken immune system? Does fasting cause dehydration? These are a few questions raised by many Muslims and non-Muslims worldwide at such a turbulent phase of human history.
What health experts say?
According to recommendations by the World Health Organization (WHO) and health experts, people are advised to drink plenty of fluids, particularly gargling with warm water and drinking liquids to keep their throat and respiratory tract moist.
Health experts say drinking water prevents dehydration, but it will not prevent anyone from catching the new coronavirus.
Doctors caution against believing homegrown advice and what social media users are spreading online as ways of preventing the virus. Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, said while medical professionals typically recommend keeping up fluid intake when sick, drinking more water will not keep anyone from catching the virus.
“We always caution anyone healthy and people who are sick to keep up fluid intake and keep mucus membranes moist. It makes one feel better; but there is no clear indication that it directly protects against complications,” Dr. Schaffner confirmed.
What science says?
Recent scientific studies show that fasting is the secret to a healthier and longer life. According to a UK-based National Institute on Aging, evidence from decades of animal and human research shows wide-ranging health benefits of intermittent fasting.
The institute conducted a review of the research, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, which pointed that hundreds of animal studies and scores of human clinical trials have shown that intermittent fasting can lead to improvements in health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancers and neurological disorders.
The review said still more research is needed to determine whether intermittent fasting yields benefits or is even feasible for humans when practiced over the long term, such as for years.
Dr Ali Ahmad Masha’el, Grand Mufti at the Dubai Department of Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities, said: “Fasting is the fourth pillar of Islam, and nothing can excuse one from not fasting except for ailing people who are on medication and fasting may complicate their health condition.
He said there are legitimate reasons for which one may be excused from fasting as mentioned in the holy Quran, which are sickness and travelling. “O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that possibly you would be pious,” [Al Baqarah 2: 183].
“Fasting for a limited number of days. So, whoever among you is ill or on a journey – then an equal number of days [are to be made up]-And upon those who are able [to fast, but with hardship] – a ransom [as substitute] of feeding a poor person [each day]. And whoever volunteers excess – it is better for him-But to fast is best for you, if you only knew” [Al Baqarah: 2:184].
Dr. Masha’el said: “Nothing can be preferred over the pillars of Islam, including fasting, which is a duty by every Muslim. A fear of getting sick is not an excuse for a Muslim to not fast. Islam permits sick people, whose health condition makes them unable to fast, and are advised by their [Muslim] doctors, who know the virtues of fasting, not to fast because it may risk their lives.”
Islam permits sick people – if fasting can risk their lives or cause harm to their health – not to fast. “The sick person, who fears that fasting may make his sickness worse or slow down his recovery or damage a part of his body, upon his doctor’s opinion, has the option of not fasting,” the Mufti said.
He said: “If the sick person is very ill, it is permissible for him not to fast. But if a healthy person fears difficulty and tiredness or afraid of getting sick it is not permissible for him to break his fast.”
The grand mufti said fasting is a reflection and purification of both body and soul. Fasting is also good for human health, as it has been proven by modern medicine and scientific studies.
“Fasting was found to have beneficial effects on health, backed by recent scientific studies,” he emphasised.
Regarding COVID-19 infected patients, Dr. Masha’el said: “It is permissible not to fast if the health condition of a coronavirus-infected patient is critical and is advised by his doctor not to fast because he/or she needs to keep drinking water and taking medicine.”
Al Azhar Al Sharif, the Muslim world’s top Sunni Islamic institution issued a statement that Muslims are required to fast this year, and fasting has nothing to do with the possibility of an increased risk of catching coronavirus.
“Not fasting during Ramadan is not permissible due to coronavirus, and fasting is a duty and a must for Muslims,” Al Azhar said in a statement.
Al Azhar’s Fatwa is based on the feedback they received from the World Health Organisation, which says that drinking and gargling with water does not protect a person from catching COVID-19 virus.
“We have asked WHO if drinking water or gargling with water would protect people from being infected with coronavirus. The answer was: Although water is important for the moisture of human body, it does not protect against the virus and has not been proven that gargling with water can protect anyone from catching the virus.”