Eating Disorders and Ramadan

One of those things that’d simply never occurred to me before was highlighted a few days ago in a story on Buzzfeed: how do you reconcile Ramadan fasting with recovery from an eating disorder?  Indeed: can you reconcile them at all?

“Food is obviously a big part of the holy month,” Sofia says. “Usually after breaking fasts, my family have bigger meals than usual, my mum cooks a lot of extravagant Pakistani dishes for iftar. It’s also a time when my extended family tend to visit more, or we go to the mosque and eat there.

“It’s really difficult to eat in public, especially because I’m still uncomfortable around a lot of foods. And what people usually don’t understand is how seeing all that food can make you feel so pressured. Last Ramadan I remember having to force myself to eat because everyone kept telling me to – and I couldn’t say no to them. When we came back from the mosque, I spent most of the night crying, because I felt I had no control.”


She adds: “I know in my head that I need to stick to the diet and do what my doctor says. But it’s still uncomfortable preparing food while my family aren’t allowed to eat or drink.” At times she “feels guilty while she’s eating”, she says, and there are moments when she’s tempted to go back to fasting again.


How central is the not-eating to Ramadan?  I mean: I know that there’re exemptions for things like medical conditions; but is there a mechanism for people not so much to be exempted, but to make an equivalent sacrifice?  Is fasting valued in itself, or because of what it symbolises?  If the latter, than some sort of substitution would seem possible without that counting as an exception.  If the former, then that wouldn’t be so clear.

Either way, the article suggests that part of the problem here is that there simply isn’t the support.  Inasmuch as that anorexic Muslims will be a minority of a minority, I suppose that that’s not surprising – and it’s compounded by apparent misunderstanding in south Asian communities.  But it’s no less worth noting for that.

  • sorcha_uc

    Muslims are not supposed to observe the fasting requirements of Ramadan if they are ill, and obviously anorexia is an illness. Broader acceptance of this (i.e. that any given individual may be eating and drinking water during the day for good reason and may not partake in ‘celebratory’ eating at sundown) would alleviate these problems. The pressure to eat to excess on cultural/religious occasions, though, we could do away with that for so many people (those with serious illness, allergy, ethical preferences for plant-based diet etc)…

    • “Not supposed” is a bit ambiguous: is it that there’s a presumption against it, or that there’s no presumption for? But, that aside, I’m still wondering about the exemption/ substitution distinction.

      If you’re exempt from some demand, then that implies that some other party has to “certify” you – to say that, on this occasion, the prima facie obligation doesn’t obtain. But if there’s a substitutability, that is more likely to keep the decision in the hands of the person concerned: implicitly, they could decide that this practice is morally/ symbolically equivalent to that more generally observed practice, and choose it instead. That is: a person could say something along the lines that (say) fasting represents admirable self-discipline, or something like that, but that so does some other thing.

      Of course, that wouldn’t apply just to people with medical conditions: you might decide that not drinking during the warmest part of the year is unreasonable; or you might live in Norway, and worry that not being able to eat or drink during daylight hours in June and July is rather more demanding than it would be closer to the equator…

      • sorcha_uc

        Sure – I wasn’t giving technical advice – but it encompasses a number of states that are covered by the exemption (which includes some elderly people who do not ‘substitute’ fasting days at a later time since they’re likely only to get older or dead). ‘Exempt’ to me does not necessarily involve a certifying party, except in the sense that someone/s set down the criteria that warrant exemption (but this could be the community – thinking of consensus-led activist groups, for example).. After that, it may well (as in this case) be left to individuals to decide in good conscience whether they meet those criteria.

        I do think that if you’re exempt, you’re *exempt* (meaning not obligated) so I don’t see why one would need to substitute the number of missed fast days later on (when one would be obligated while no one else is).

        The substitution of meals (by the elderly) seems unfair. Particularly if the reason they are not fasting is because they are feeble… [of course, many muslim communities are comprised of extended family groups and the cooking may not fall to the feeble old woman but if this is the case, it’s hard to see how she is the one giving the meal.] Furthermore, if they are both feeble and needy they may be exempt from the compensation entailed in the exemption…

        Not drinking water in extreme heat puts your life in danger and meets the criteria for an exemption – it wouldn’t just be reasonable to drink water, it is not required that you abstain. How you substitute/compensate for this in hot countries, I’m not certain. Travel to Norway maybe.