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.