Why Ramadan is good for both body and mind

A worshipper during Friday prayers at Al Jaffali mosque during Ramadan, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, April 30. AP
A worshipper during Friday prayers at Al Jaffali mosque during Ramadan, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, April 30. AP

A study last year by a joint team from the UAE, UK and Bahrain explored the implications of fasting during Ramadan on physical health. Published in the European Journal of Nutrition, the research looked at 85 previous Ramadan-related studies, spanning 25 countries and that included over 4,000 people over four decades.

The researchers concluded that fasting is good for the cardiovascular system. Improvements in physical health due to fasting might seem obvious but Ramadan appears to positively affect mental health too.

A commitment to a religious practice, studies indicate, lead to psychological well-being and better mental health. Hundreds of studies report religiosity being associated with, for example, lower levels of depression, anxiety and substance misuse. Some follow up with people over decades. The message is clear: commitment to religion is associated with a reduced risk of psychological problems.

A few disorders do break this general rule, though. For example, anorexia and obsessive compulsive disorders can be associated with heightened religiosity. And there are cases where people have been adversely affected by distorted teachings. However, in general, religious commitment appears to have positive effects on the mind.

Mental health professionals have long recognised the beneficial role of religion and often attempt to integrate it into treatment plans. Some clinicians go further still, crafting faith-specific interventions – Islamic Integrated Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and Christian Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, to name just two. Beyond that, newer interventions such as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy have drawn heavily on the world's religious traditions for therapeutic inspiration.

Religious commitment, studies say, have several positive effects

Through this lens, the UAE's commitment to religious tolerance, epitomised in projects such as the Abrahamic Family House, can be seen as a significant contribution to mental health and public well-being.

But what is it about religion exactly that makes it so helpful? What are the possible mechanisms through which religion plays a therapeutic and protective role?

epa09169550 A Pakistani Muslim boy reads verses from the holy Koran at a Mosque during the fasting month of Ramadan, amid the coronavirus pandemic in Peshawar, Pakistan, 30 April 2021. Muslims around the world celebrate the holy month of Ramadan by praying during the night time and abstaining from eating, drinking, and sexual acts during the period between sunrise and sunset. Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar and it is believed that the revelation of the first verse in Koran was during its last 10 nights. EPA/BILAWAL ARBAB
A Pakistani boy at a Mosque in Peshawar, Pakistan, April 30. EPA

There are lots of theories, some psycho-social, others biological. Several researchers suggest religion's protective role comes from the sense of belonging and social identity that the congregational aspects of faith can provide. Others say that it is the social support and social interaction that gives the faithful an uplift. Religion's prohibition against illicit drugs has also been proposed as a critical protective factor. There is even a genetic theory, the dual-duty genes hypothesis, which suggests that genes associated with resilience to depression might simultaneously contribute to heightened religious sentiments.

None of the above ideas are mutually exclusive. Still, for me, the more obvious answer to the link between religion and well-being lies in the teachings. The similarity between some religious teachings and talk-therapy techniques can be obvious. For example, cognitive therapists frequently use a process called "thought challenging". One version of this involves identifying a negative thought, whatever event it may be triggered by. Challenging this thought, the therapist might ask: "Is there an alternative explanation?".

By taking the patient on this line of questioning, the therapist is gently encouraging him or her to explore various situational interpretations and develop greater cognitive flexibility. This technique shares a lot in common with Islamic teachings on Husn Al Dhan, that is, giving the benefit of the doubt or, if you like, a compassionate explanation.

The following Islamic tradition (Hadith), narrated by Imam Bayhaqi, advocates the idea of Husn Al Dhan: "If a friend among your friends errs, make seventy excuses for them. If your hearts are unable to do this, then know that the shortcoming is in your own selves".

Kashmiri qomen pray during Ramadan outside a shrine in Srinagar, India, April 19. EPA
Kashmiri women pray during Ramadan outside a shrine in Srinagar, India, April 19. EPA

Beyond negative thoughts and situational interpretations, cognitive therapists are also on the lookout for unhelpful thinking styles, such as the tendency to "compare-and-despair", a habit that has us routinely draw upward social comparisons – that is, measuring ourselves against those we assume are superior, in whatever trait we are comparing.

This style of thinking leads to lasting dissatisfaction and dysphoria, or a state of unease. Unsurprisingly, cognitive therapists try to help their patients spot and disrupt their self-deflating compare-and-despair tendencies.

The same is articulated in an Islamic tradition narrated by Ibn Hibban: "Look towards those who rank below you, so that you may get used to being thankful". This tradition also represents a cognitive exercise to cultivate gratitude – a super-trait much lauded by positive psychology practitioners.

There are many more examples of religious teachings that overlap with the aims of contemporary talk therapies. We can find instances in all the world's major religions. And while preventing mental illness is not the primary objective of religious traditions, it is a welcome side effect.

Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University and a columnist for The National

Updated: May 3, 2021 01:03 PM


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