The ‘What is Islam?’ Podcast brings you a whole new world of understanding Islam and religion through social commentary and analysis.
In this podcast episode we discover how the practice of Islamic fasting can bring transformative changes to your mind, body, and spirit. Learn about the benefits of this ancient tradition, including improved mindfulness and self-discipline, better physical health, and a deeper spiritual connection with God.
Islamic fasting offers a holistic approach to personal growth and well-being. Join Imam Hadi and the Hosts of the Al-Hakam Inspire Podcast as they explore the benefits of this powerful practice and discover how it can transform your life
Click below to listen to the full episode, watch the video podcast on our YouTube channel above, or read through an abridged transcript below.
Imam Hadi: Assalamu alaikum, everyone. Peace be upon you. Today, I have the pleasure to be speaking with two very esteemed friends of mine. First of all, we have Ataul Fatir Tahir, who is a lecturer at Jamia Ahmadiyya, UK, a Seminary of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. He also works as the sub-editor of the weekly global Al-Hakam newspaper.
We also have the privilege to be speaking with Dr. Hasham Ahmed, who is a medical doctor working in the NHS. He has a background in surgery and research and has a particular interest in science and medicine within the Holy Quran. Both Dr. Hasham and Ataul Fatir are co-presenters on the Al-Hakam Inspire Podcast.
All right. So welcome to the podcast, gentlemen. It’s an absolute pleasure to have you both with us today. One thing I was mentioning just before we started recording was that this podcast was actually started after becoming inspired from listening to your podcast. So it’s actually quite good that it’s quite apt and appropriate to the name of the podcast that you have, which is the Inspire podcast for Al-Hakam, which is great.
Imam Fatir: It’s good. It’s good, you felt inspired.
Imam Hadi: Yeah, so, as you can see, your podcast is definitely having an effect all the way here in Australia. So thank you so much for everything you both do. The other thing I was mentioning was that the main objective of this podcast is to help people understand the benefits of Islamic principles and for them to see Islam as more of a way of life rather than a set of dogmatic beliefs and a way in which we can actually continue to improve in our lives and maybe even look at it this way, seeing the Holy Quran as the best manual for self help.
So, today, in that vein, we’re looking to talk about fasting or the Islamic version of fasting and understanding the wisdom behind its benefits. And it’s really interesting because growing up, well, I grew up in the UK, just like the both of you. And one thing that I’m sure both of you faced and I faced quite often, not so much now, but particularly whilst growing up was usually when we would talk about fasting or when I would mention that I’m fasting for the sake of Ramadan, many times you get these awkward stares or people would kind of ask the question, ‘why would you stay away from food or even drink for such a long period of time?’
It’s like, why are you starving yourself? And what’s the wisdom behind it? And usually it’s kind of implied that what you’re doing is actually harmful for you rather than something which could be of benefit. And you’re just doing it because it’s some sort of dogmatic belief or ritual that you’ve picked up from your parents and there’s no real benefit to it. Whereas interestingly, in recent times, there’s been a lot of research that has gone into this.
And just within the past decade, in 2016, many of us would know that a Japanese cell biologist by the name of Yoshinori Ohsumi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Medicine for his research on autophagy, and how in actuality, fasting activates this process. So I was hoping we could begin somewhere here looking at the health benefits, before we start looking at maybe the religious or the behavioral change benefits that fasting can provide. So, I was wondering if we can start with Dr. Hasham, if you could tell us a bit about the health benefits, maybe touch on this concept of autophagy that was introduced by this doctor?
Dr. Hasham Ahmed: Yeah, no, absolutely. I think firstly, to echo what you said, when we were growing up in school, the narrative was completely different. It was a lack of understanding or not knowing what fasting is, the reasoning behind it, the spiritual improvement that is to aim for achievement by fasting. And then the lack of understanding of the physical benefits of fasting and the effects on your physical health, your mental health, spiritual health. And now because of so much research, that narrative has changed quite significantly. Now people are actively studying the Islamic process of fasting, and we have various other ways of fasting, (like) intermittent fasting. You have heavy dry fasting, you have various other kinds of regimes that people create for fasting and there’s so much more research into it now with the Islamic way of fasting.
And I think it’s important to mention that the ultimate aim is this spiritual benefit, that we aim to better and achieve by going through the month of Ramadan, by fasting through the month of Ramadan. However, there are also added physical benefits, like you mentioned. And recently, one of the research that you talked about on cellular autophagy, that was quite ground-breaking in the sense that it was looking into how autophagy is basically where the body tends to kind of kill its own cells that are not required or start this process of removing or cleansing your body of unrequired cells.
But the reason why it’s so interesting and why it’s so important is because by default, you’re looking at conditions like cancer, where you have active differentiation of cells, where cancer is kind of spreading throughout the body and suddenly you’ve got this study looking into the process of slowing that down, in fact, reversing it.
And so that was quite ground-breaking in itself. There’s no kind of definitive conclusions from it, but there’s strong evidence to suggest that this process not only slows down, but can go into reversal as well. So that’s one thing that is important to remember. And it’s not the only study. There’s a lot of studies looking into anti-cancer anti-ageing properties and other effects of fasting, and particularly the way you’re fasting through Ramadan.
I think going back to basics in itself, the primary physical benefits that you see from fasting and there have been a lot of studies and research looking into this, is the effects on reducing things like metabolic syndrome. So that’s basically a label for a group of conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. And they’re the key kind of culprits in significant health diseases. So when you get diabetes, it tends to affect mainly the small blood vessels in your body. So, you get diabetic retinopathy as a complication. So, the small blood vessels in your eyes and your feet, your kidneys and even your heart, if you imagine pipes, it tends to kind of weaken the walls of these blood vessels. And then there’s other things like cholesterol build up where you get blockage. And again, sticking to this analogy of pipes, you get blockage of pipes and all of this stuff puts you at risk of stroke, heart attacks and significant life changing problems. And it’s not like these things won’t put you at risk of death. They do. But the other added complication is you end up living with significant disabilities or dependance on medications to look after your health. So there’s this huge drop in your quality of life. … So overall, there are many different types of fasting. But the process that is described within Islam has been shown to be beneficial in multiple ways on your health as well.
Imam Hadi: And it’s interesting, actually, because nowadays it’s just become a thing. You mentioned the benefit of not being on pills or on medication in the long term. And I think people have really started to realise that we need to live our lives in a way where you’re not dependent on medicine in the long term. And, one thing that we’ve been trying to present in the podcast episodes that we’ve recorded thus far is this idea that in actuality, everyone fundamentally is religious. It just really depends on what you mean by being religious. And the Islamic understanding would be to live your life in a well balanced and well-proportioned manner. And within that comes your diet.
The Holy Quran and the practice of the Holy Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him) – they both quite clearly demonstrate how to live a balanced life. What type of foods to eat, what type of foods not to eat. So, I’m just wondering for someone who doesn’t have too much knowledge in terms of the science, how would you explain why those health benefits actually take place? What happens to the body when you’re starving it from food and water, which then results in these good results? As in, what’s pushing the body to begin this process of autophagy?
Dr. Hasham Ahmed: Yeah, So good question. It’s very complicated because there’s multiple processes that are happening in the body, but kind of simplifying it, and broadly speaking, when you go through this period of no food, no water, for a certain period of time, dawn to dusk, what you’re doing is creating a strain on the body. A metabolic strain, and due to that, certain processes are activated. So, you put strain on the kidney, you put strain on the heart, you put strain on the brain and so the hormones that are looking after the different processes in the body, they all come under strain and they start working in different ways. The body has a response. If you imagine going out into the cold, icy cold weather, your body adapts and suddenly certain processes are activated, your body immediately starts shifting blood to where it’s needed and hormones are released and you start breaking down fat and carbohydrates to get that glucose and that energy around the body. So it’s just an example to show that certain processes are disrupted. And as a result of that, you get this process, if you do fasting significantly and sustain the effect, then you can activate this autophagy process.
Imam Fatir: There’s actually a really good couple of podcasts done that really go into the nitty gritty of the science by people like Dr. Andrew Huberman that we’ve spoken about on our podcast a lot, and Dr. Anna Lemke, who is also a Professor of Medicine at Stanford and does a lot of work on addiction. And she actually explained this concept really well and from a neuroscience perspective. And like Dr. Hasham said, resetting the equilibrium, and like you just said, that Islam teaches balance, right? So, in this day and age of cheap dopamine hits and lots of unhealthy habits like social media scrolling, junk food, video games and horrible addictions as well, what happens to the brain? And Dr. Anna Lemke explains this beautifully. And she talks about these gremlins in the brain.
So, you have a pain and pleasure balance. And equilibrium is where you feel good, right? You’re not feeling depressed, not feeling anxious. You’re living a good life and from a neuroscience perspective, now what’s happening is when we’re getting these cheap dopamine hits like scrolling on Instagram or YouTube shorts, or just waiting for those likes, for a post or whatever, or eating chocolate and or junk food, that’s basically weighing our dopamine scale down. So, we’re getting a lot of dopamine. However, when we stop that, the pain comes flying down and your dopamine base level then also gets completely ruined. And what happens is your base level becomes lower, right? And so the whole concept of establishing equilibrium is so important in terms of dopamine. And fasting enables this as well because you’re basically doing a whole massive reboot reset.
And the way Doctor Anna Lemke explains this whole concept, you’ll hear it on a lot of podcasts by medical professionals and scientists and researchers, and it’s what Dr. Hasham was talking about this stressor of the body, and the term for is Hormesis, which in Greek basically means to put into motion. So, the concept is, low stress on the body will actually result in better growth in terms of well-being. And the sense that if you do difficult things, you put the pain gremlins down, you’re weighing the scale down, then what happens is, when you come out of that pain activity, then your dopamine level actually raises, because it’s trying to rebalance it. And then your base level of dopamine goes up as well. So, by doing difficult things, which could be cold showers, fasting, exercise, all these kinds of things. You’re actually increasing your base line. So, you’re generally feeling better. So, that’s a completely Islamic concept. And Ramadan, 30 days of nonstop fasting every day. You’re in constant stress every day. And of course, then comes a spiritual element from the physical element, you’re giving your body the stress of not drinking or eating, and as a result, all these amazing things happen in terms of your health, mental health, physical health as well. So, this concept of rebalancing our dopamine levels, especially in this age of endless cheap hits of dopamine and other feel good hormones and pleasure hormones, it’s just amazing. And we all live in this really fast paced world. And just resetting everything, it’s an amazing thing, a tool to have at your disposal if it’s ingrained into your life.
Imam Hadi: Well, it applies to everything. The whole experience of Islamic fasting is not really limited to food, it’s not just this dopamine or this dopaminergic response that we have, it’s not limited to just food, but rather, I would say the ability to have an immediate way to gratify yourself. And that can manifest itself in so many different ways. And what’s interesting is, as you said, it’s a concept that’s quite heavily enshrined in Islamic wisdom. One particular verse of the Holy Quran comes to mind, which is:
Who created death and life that He might try you (as to) which of you is best in deeds.
And He is the Mighty, the Forgiving”
Which is that basically God Almighty is the Most Grand and Majestic Being who is responsible for all of creation that we see around us. And then He particularly then points to the fact that He’s created death and life so that He may try you and it may become manifest. Which among you or who amongst you who behaves in the best manner. And it’s interesting because the fourth Caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, he touched on this particular verse and he explained that it’s really interesting the words that have been used in this verse. Usually in the English language whenever you use the phrase or the metaphor, you would say, it’s a matter of life and death. Whereas here it’s like the opposite. And God Almighty is saying that, well, He’s created death and life, and He gives the example that in actuality a certain level of death is required in every aspect of our life for healthy growth.
And it’s interesting because you would think someone who is at rest would actually be much healthier than someone who’s constantly putting themselves under strain. And then he gave you the example of, okay, well, a couch potato, someone who sits on his couch all day watching TV, just eating his chips and that’s all he does in comparison to someone who actually wakes up at a particular time, he goes to work out at a particular time, he keeps himself busy. And he says that, well, technically, maybe logically speaking, you would come to think, I mean, if the science wasn’t there, if the human experience wasn’t there, and just on the basis of these two scenarios, you ask someone, who do you think is going to be healthier? Usually you might have the idea that obviously it’s the person who’s at risk, because you’re not putting yourself under strain. And he says quite the opposite is true. And what’s seen is something which is now fully well understood nowadays, I guess one example we’ve been giving quite frequently now in our podcast is the example of working out and going to the gym, and it’s like you put your body under stress, you break up your muscle tissues, but what happens is, you’re not getting weaker. You’re getting stronger in the long run, right?
Dr. Hasham Ahmed: Yeah. You’re looking for that optimal balance, that optimal feel good feeling, You know that when you get that baseline dopamine increase, you do feel better in yourself mentally as well.
So, it has a huge impact on your mental health. Most of the patients you see in clinics nowadays with depression and anxiety symptoms, they’re treated with medications that are designed to increase that level of serotonin, that good feeling hormone, and essentially, ultimately try to increase that baseline level of dopamine. Now, they also have loads of side effects. And you know what you were talking about earlier, dependencies on medications. My general opinion is that people are looking for shortcuts or they don’t want to put in the work basically, or feel that stress or pain. But what they would benefit from realising is that once you put your body under stress and strain, you do start this process of what metaphorically we’re talking about, is death, but it brings about improvement and better health in every aspect.
Imam Hadi: Oh yeah, absolutely. Because then what happens is the dopamine actually ends up being a driver, because what happens is every time you’ve achieved a level of betterment, then you’re thinking about the next thing, right? You’re thinking about, okay, well, how can I tweak this a little further. How can I curate my life a little bit better? How can I be better at this?
Imam Fatir: Right, so they usually call this the ‘top of the mountain concept’ where you’ve reached the top of the mountain, now what? And that’s why Dr. Huberman explains you should always be in the process of achieving, and creating, rather than just having an endpoint. There should be constant movement. But this concept, again, it’s found in the Holy Quran, right? Where Allah says:
You know, go back into motion and carry on. Right. And you can apply this into your life, like you’ve achieved your objective move forward. Like neuroscience and science which obviously other people, more qualified people are better at explaining. But again, these people are not necessarily religious, but they’re coming towards a very religious element, which from our perspective, Islam, but also other religions, because we believe their origins to be divine, have been teaching for a very, very long time.
Like fasting isn’t exclusive to Islam, right. It’s in Christianity, there’s fasting in Hinduism, there’s fasting in Judaism. And of course, from the Islamic point of view, we believe that the origins of those religions were from God, and over time they moved away from their actual purpose. But anyways, the main point is that religion has been teaching all these different things for a very, very long time now.
Dr. Hasham Ahmed: You know, just on that, if you do have that growth mindset, where you’re trying to achieve the next thing and better yourself. Actually, if you are a religious person who understands that by achieving better health, by achieving better physical health and mental health, I’m going to achieve or improve my spiritual health. So, you’re looking at not just the long term, but the very long term, the afterlife as well. You’re looking after your soul, looking after your internal self. If you have that as your end goal, you suddenly put your end goal much further and you suddenly don’t reach that top of the mountain because the mountain is much further and you’re trying to get there a lot more. So your goal isn’t suddenly, okay, I’m going to get fit, I’m going to lose 50 kg. Your goal is I’m going to get fit, I’m going to improve my weight and that will help me in my spiritual endeavors as well. It will help me in my mental endeavors as well. Again, to improve that soul and spirituality.
Imam Fatir: And the Islamic fasting is the same. It’s not like we fast once in our life for three days. It’s every single year. Ramadan, the blessings of Ramadan, but not just every single year for one month, but weekly. So it’s like this fasting which happens your whole life, right? As long as you’re not ill, and all the reasons when you’re not allowed to fast. But as long as you’re healthy and you can do it, you are meant to be fasting for your whole life.
Imam Hadi: Yeah, absolutely. So I think that’s a great segway to just move forward to this aspect of the conversation, which is, why do we fast in the month of Ramadan? What’s so special about Islamic fasting, that’s why we’re here to kind of understand and unpack this concept. I think for the longest time we had people talking about how maybe what Muslims are doing during this month is actually harmful. And it’s just this dogmatic practice that they do just for the sake of it and there’s no benefit to it.
And obviously the research, as we’ve discussed, is not just quite reassuring, it’s very reassuring. And I think for many Muslims, it’s faith inspiring, really. But then obviously, aside from the research and the physical benefits of it when it comes to Islamic fasting, I think the emphasis is mostly on overall well-being and behavioral change and then ultimately bringing about that spiritual transformation. And again, in a recent podcast, we were talking about how it’s important to develop a moral framework. And when you create that moral framework then that spiritual being also comes about. And a lot of the times we get it the wrong way around, we sometimes don’t realise that spirituality is a byproduct of the moral framework that you create for yourself first and foremost. And you can’t just really claim to be spiritual without actually developing a moral framework. And I particularly stress upon this because it’s just amazing. One way to look at Islamic fasting and particularly the month of Ramadan is it kind of puts in all the leverages and the systems in place to kind of assist you in bringing about that behavioral change in developing habits.
Because, there’s a lot of research done on habits as well. I mean, it’s incredible. For example, I believe it’s the book Atomic Habits, right? That book is just phenomenal. And reading through it, I was just thinking, man, there’s nothing here that’s being mentioned, which Islam has not already categorically and explicitly described right. And he talks about the fundamental aspects of developing a habit, one of them being, make it easy for yourself, make it attractive and another is make it obvious. And it’s interesting because, just touching on the “making it easy” aspect of it. It’s like through fasting, what you’re doing is you’ve added a leverage there to kind of ensure you behave in a particular way.
So for example, what happens is Muslims would wake up before the break of dawn, they would pray and we could talk about that. I specifically want to share with you something in relation to that, but we can talk about that later. But they pray and then obviously they eat their food and then as soon as the dawn breaks, they begin their fast. Now what happens is from that time till sunset, you obviously go through a period where you don’t eat or drink, but it’s not limited to that. During that period, there’s a number of other things that you can’t do either, you cannot consort with your wife or your husband. You know, you shouldn’t be telling lies. You shouldn’t be behaving inappropriately at all, right? You can’t curse. Because what happens is, what most people will have in the back of their minds is, well, if I do this, then it will invalidate my fast and this whole fast, basically, I’m doing it for no reason. And, you know, I might as well go and eat and drink something if I’m behaving like that. But why I touch upon this in particular is, there’s a concept that the founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community put forward quite clearly. And he says that, if you can hold off on that which is permissible, then in the long run, it’s easier for you to stay away from that which is impermissible, that which is unhealthy for you.
Dr. Hasham Ahmed: There’s this huge thing on the mental health aspect as well as the community aspect. So, for example, I did some research a few years ago. I was looking into mental health and depression in young adult males. And essentially, one of the things that I found out from that was that community aspect and particularly religious communities are so protective. They have like a huge protective factor for preventing suicide in young adult males.
It gives you that identity as well. And by partaking in Ramadan, which is prescribed individually, but also a huge part of it is these community based activities. So, for example, praying Taraveeh prayer at night time, having Iftar with your family or there’s iftaar at the mosque as well, which creates an opportunity or an environment to engage within your community.
All of these things, they help you to carry out the instructions or follow the teachings of Islam and follow the teachings prescribed about Ramadan. But, they also allow you to engage with each other and get that kind of community aspect. And overall I think it’s a hugely positive thing and it’s been shown across multiple aspects of research as well.
Imam Fatir: You know, there was this study that just recently came out. It was done in China, and so one of the doctors, they found that frequent participation in social activity was associated with prolonged overall survival time from baseline to five years of follow up. The more frequent the social activity, the more prolonged the survival time. This is done in people who are 80 and above. But there’s loads of studies like this, tons of studies on the importance of having community, the importance of having a social network where you are connected. And in Ramadan, it’s the same thing. Like you’re surrounded by people who are worshiping, who are focusing on their spirituality. That’s going to brush off. And you’re going to be affected by that. And the Quran says be with the truthful, the righteous people. It’s so ingrained in Islamic teachings that it’s funny because we’re born in the West. We’ve all been raised in the West. And like you said, growing up, a lot of people would be questioning Islamic concepts . And it’s only now, you know, in 2023 and there’s just endless, endless amounts of science and research coming out with this, just, you know, solidifying the Islamic concepts and how important they are for our mental, spiritual as well as physical health.
Dr. Hasham Ahmed: I was just going to say I really like the point you made earlier that you have to have morality to be able to reach that level of spirituality. You know, like you mentioned the Promised Messiah, he explains this in a lot of detail in his book, The Philosophy of Teachings of Islam. I think that’s what we’re finding nowadays where, like on social media of individuals like Andrew Tate, you know, well-known people who have openly accepted Islam, and there’s open discussions about kind of Islam and in its sense how it’s a moral religion, how it upholds integrity. And they’re looking at the kind of the moral aspect of it, and that is perhaps inclining them towards looking into it further and that there is a level of spirituality above this. I think that’s a hugely important factor that you mentioned.
Imam Hadi: Yeah, and it’s interesting because we’re getting a lot of people reaching out to us in recent times and they’re just quite clear as to why they’re reaching out. They’re saying very clearly that they’re fed up with the hedonistic ideals that modern society has propagated and which they followed for a very long time now. And they’ve come to realise that the long term benefits are within the Islamic principles, and that in actuality, if there is any religion which espouses principles that speak to your very human nature, it is Islam.
It’s just incredible. I feel like there’s this large scale exodus of people now coming back to religion. And Islam is there welcoming people with open arms.
So yeah, so just coming to the end of the podcast. I mentioned in the beginning how both of you are the hosts of the Inspire Podcast under the newspaper, Al Hakam. So I was hoping you could just give our listeners and viewers an introduction to the newspaper as well as the Inspire Podcast and what it hopes to achieve.
Imam Fatir: Al-Hakam originally started during the time of the Promised Messiah, Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, peace be upon him. It was relaunched in English in 2018 by our current Khalifa and it aims to publish Islamic news for Muslims. But we also do lots of modern day questions in relation to religion as well. There’s lots of history of the Muslim community. There’s been a wide range of articles relating to Islam. So we have that, and then we have the podcast, which we started about a year ago now. And the aim of the Podcast is to interview experts in a wide range of different fields and speak to them. It’s similar to your podcast, the Islamic element on different things. We’ve done addiction, we’ve done brain states, we’ve done Muslims who are in innovation and creating things. So there’s a whole array of things there. But it’s not just the Muslims, we have Non-Ahmadi Muslims on as well, experts. We’ve had book authors. We actually had Professor Jeffrey Sachs, who is one of the most renowned economists in the world talking about the Russia Ukraine issue right now.
Dr. Hasham Ahmed: So our social media is @AlHakaminspire. That’s our Twitter and Instagram handle. And of course we’ve got the YouTube channel: YouTube.com/AlHakaminspire. All the podcasts are available on YouTube or podcasting platforms and also played on the Voice of Islam UK.
Imam Hadi: Wonderful. Well, I thank you so much for your time. Honestly, I genuinely appreciate you both taking out some time to speak with us. And that’s all we have time for today. So if you like this episode, please do follow us on our socials at TrueIslamAU. Similarly, you can visit our website for more content at TrueIslam.com.au We would also love to get your feedback! Do you agree or even disagree with what we’ve discussed? What would you like for us to cover in future episodes? And with that, that is all we’ve got time for today. Thank you for listening. And until next time, Assalamo Alaikum, peace be upon you.
Listen to the full episode where Imam Hadi, Dr Hasham Ahmad and Imam Fatir continue discussing how to transform your mind and body through the practice of fasting according to the wisdom found in Islamic teachings, as well as a detailed overview of the Inspire Podcast and much more!