All praise is due to Allāh for granting us yet another opportunity to observe Ramaḍān.
The most sacred month in the Islamic calendar is a time when Muslims concentrate on nurturing piety and practising self-reflection. The exhortation to master one’s passion and conquer the lower self is of particular relevance to the Muslim community in the UK.
While the obligation to abstain from food and drink from dawn to dusk may be restricted to this month alone, many British Muslims should feel a greater urgency to use this occasion to reflect on what is undeniably the community’s unhealthy love affair with food.
The Muslim population in the UK consists predominantly of South Asians, whose health and life expectancy fare staggeringly worse compared to their White counterparts. Although socio-economic indicators may be contributing factors towards this predicament, the poor health and lifestyle choices of British citizens of particularly Pakistani and Bangladeshi ethnic origins can contribute towards this alarming reality.
As a British Bangladeshi, I regret that it took a pandemic to bring this depressing fact home. Genetically, South Asians in the UK are more predisposed to conditions such as diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and heart disease. This is only partially explained by how brown skin inhibits the body’s production of vitamin D. Rather, any assessment of the increased prevalence and standardised risk ratios for type 2 diabetes and disproportionate scale of non-communicable diseases and metabolic disorders in our community must also factor in poor nutrition and sedentary lifestyles that are common. 
Just thinking about the typical desi diet is enough to work up an appetite, but its health implications should make for a more sobering reflection. While there is nothing we can do to alter our genetic makeup, any sensible person will pause to question what they are putting into their bodies on a regular basis.
Although South Asian diets can be credited for being high in fibre and containing a rich variety of vegetables and spices with medicinal properties, it is also true that few other diets traditionally consist of so many starchy foods like white rice, flatbreads, and deep-fried salty carbohydrate-loaded snacks with generous helpings of ghee and preservatives – and, of course, the trademark food colouring for good measure.
But it is not simply the excess carbs that are eating away at our health. Research shows that South Asians are the largest consumers of red meat in the country. In fact, not only do many South Asians eat meat with almost every meal—thereby increasing the chances of cardiovascular illnesses and premature death—but our regular consumption of calorific mithai (which are almost solid sugar made with ghee, full cream milk powder, sweet condensed milk, and coconut) is exceedingly high and offers very little nutritional value.
The fact is, far too many of us do not consume these in moderation and have little to no appreciation for balancing the food groups. Many of us reading this may be enjoying one too many servings of such items, and not necessarily during holy festivals and cultural celebrations. What is particularly worrying is that foods which are high in saturated fats and refined carbs are a mainstay in South Asian households.
Of course, there is much diversity in the eating habits of British Asian communities, and we are not a homogenous group. However, there is no denying that unhealthy dietary practices persevere for many of us despite the detrimental risk they pose to our health.
Ifṭār and Suḥūr
There is arguably no greater opportunity for Muslims in the UK to reform their eating habits than during this blessed month of Ramaḍān. This is an opportune time to curb our appetite by consciously forfeiting material and carnal pleasures to enable us to draw closer to the Almighty. Abstinence from food and water with sincerity and forbearance helps to rejuvenate our spirituality by reminding us that we are ultimately dependent on God for sustenance in our physical lives.
Regrettably for many of us, this month does not lead to a greater intimacy with our Creator, for the simple reason that we are incapable of tempering our gluttony; we find ourselves eventually succumbing to our lower selves. Nowhere is this more depressingly evident than during ifṭār, where instead of moderating our consumption as a gesture of humility and thanks to Allāh for satiating our hunger, we become ravenous consumers of the plethora of often unhealthy food on the table.
After hours of fasting, one’s self-control typically wears thin. It is common to feel tired and grouchy, and with hunger pangs and severe thirst taking their toll, many of us will end the day by gorging on anything we feast our eyes on. This defeats the very spiritual purpose of this month. For those of us of South Asian descent, a typical ifṭār table will consist of samosas, pakoras, aubergine fritters, puris, jalebi, laddoo, gulab jamun, and other such foods that contain alarmingly high levels of carbohydrates, fat, and sugar. The ifṭār binge and the consequent bloating and unconscionable wastage is a curse that many of us are simply not willing to dispel.
The same can unfortunately be said of our habits during suḥūr. Just like ifṭār, it makes sense for our pre-dawn meal to consist of wholesome fibre, healthy fats, lean protein, as well as nutrients, minerals, and vitamins that offer a slow release of energy to keep us fuelled throughout the day.
Wolfing down copious amounts of glutinous rice with fried fish and curries, followed by more rice with tinned mango slices and double cream before fajr, will not provide a constant stream of energy throughout the day. Rather, it only serves to increase the load on our digestive system and worsen dehydration. This does little except to amplify our cravings throughout the fasting hours, making us hungrier and thirstier. This eventually culminates in the frenzied excitement at ifṭār time, when many of us are unable to exercise self-restraint and devour pretty much the entirety of the cornucopia of pleasures served before us.
Enjoying what we have been blessed with does not justify eating past our level of comfort. Consumption with reckless abandon creates sluggishness and effectively deprives us of both the spiritual and physical stamina to stand in tarāwīḥ prayers and rekindle our connection with Allāh. While this month serves as a reminder that we do not require constant consumption to experience satisfaction, compulsive overeating exposes a spiritual sickness and highlights how we desire and prioritise food more than a yearning to grow closer to Allāh. This habit ultimately bankrupts our mind, body, and spirit.
If we make the intention to eat not only the ḥalāl but also the ṭayyibāt (which can be interpreted as nutritious and ethically-sourced foods) so that we can worship Allāh with greater focus, then the act becomes sacramental and praiseworthy in the eyes of God. We can either reap the rewards from our consumption or risk eating ourselves into a spiritual coma.
Besides our inherently capricious nature, there is another monster feeding the beast: social media.
Of course there are exceptions, but for the most part, our online culture rarely encourages detoxification. Instead, it fuels a culture of excess by glamorising gluttony through the endless exposure and circulation of what is commonly referred to as ‘food porn’.
I can understand that food bloggers and restaurants leverage image sharing services like Instagram and Pinterest to market their brand, entice customers, and connect with audiences. But this phenomenon cannot simply be attributed to the food industry and marketers alone.
Although several food corporations capitalise on this month by marketing their products towards Muslims, the sad reality is that too many Muslims are caught up in the epidemic of ‘foodstagramming’, a behaviour that is genuinely disturbing to observe during Ramaḍān.
Posting aesthetic and appetising snapshots of gourmet dishes may seem innocuous on the surface, but it is taking the form of a ritual, akin to saying grace before meals. It is having a detrimental effect on our consumption patterns. In fact, those who can barely pass a moment without uploading food selfies and curating online portfolios of their culinary habits may be symptomatic of possessing deeper psychological and physiological ailments, such as eating disorders and health anxieties, which lead to conditions such as obesity.
Over the years, I have witnessed all manners of profligacy in the holy month, from the usual colouring of one’s daily feed with decadent ifṭār spreads, to something as distasteful as sharing highlights of post-tarāwīḥ kebab crawls just before tahajjud prayers.
Blurring the boundaries between celebrating and fetishising food in a month when we are encouraged to recognise the benefits of moderating consumption and controlling desires eats away at our good deeds, leaving us physically famished beyond ordinary levels and spiritually starving.
Food is undoubtedly an effective stimulus for altering our brain activity. It is natural to become preoccupied with thoughts of food when we are fasting long hours. However, wasting precious hours of the fasting day watching food vlogs, frantically searching up authentic recipes for ifṭār, and ogling at pictures of juicy steaks and burgers will naturally veer us towards self-indulgence, making us slaves to our passions, compromising the quality of our worship, and inhibiting our God-consciousness.
Physical health aside, many of us have seriously underestimated the spiritual benefits of being kind to our waistline. We should ponder on how the primal desire for food and the inability to curb this desire is what ultimately expelled Ādam and Ḥawwā’ from the Garden of Paradise.
Sages of the past like Imam al-Ghazālī addressed the perils of overeating by referring to the stomach as the fountainhead of desires and defects. In his magnum opus Iḥyā’ ‘Ulūm Al-Dīn (The Revival of the Religious Sciences), al-Ghazālī dedicates an important section to the vice of gluttony and lust under the chapter Kasr al-Shahwatayn (Curbing the Two Appetites). He cautions against unbridled consumption and reminds us how such an inclination distorts our mental faculties, deprives us of a penetrating insight (baṣīra), begets a lazy and lustful disposition, and ultimately grants the nafs complete mastery over ourselves until we are reduced to nothing but our animalistic urges.
A heedless stomach that eats beyond what the appetite demands and whenever it desires can never nurture the virtue of discipline. It will inevitably produce a sick heart and body, which is both ecologically destructive and conducive to sin and transgression. By practicing zuhd (asceticism) with our consumption and adopting a frugal diet as part of our daily nutrition, we are not only priming our bodies to worship Allāh with optimal health and vigour, but we are also training our heart to shun extravagance. We are cleansing our mind to awaken our intuitions, culturing our body to be immune to fatigue, and prudently teaching our instincts to resist the snares and fleeting pleasures of the dunya that offer little beyond transient satisfaction. In affluent consumer societies where so many share a penchant for overindulgence, cultivating these virtues is a rarity.
We know that the Prophet Muhammad (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) and many among the Salaf (Pious Predecessors) would rarely, if ever, eat their fill. They realised that hunger was a gateway to piety, and that growing accustomed to satiation was a path towards gluttony and wantonness. While attaining this austere ideal is beyond the ability of the average Muslim, it is no good being complacent as creatures of habit and continuing along the path that we find most familiar and comfortable.
Many of us must urgently recalibrate and refocus our extreme dietary habits towards moderation, harmony, and balance, in order that we can engender impulse control, delayed gratification, and warā’ (self-vigilance or observance) towards food instead of succumbing to what is arguably the wellspring of human vices.
If health is wealth, then many Muslims in the UK are mired in poverty. The old adage of ‘you are what you eat’ has spiritual connotations that we ignore at our peril. If we want to use this blessed month to aspire to a higher state of being, let us start with small and realistic dietary changes that can be sustained over time, as drastic changes will likely cause us to give up in despair.
Hasnet Lais is a teacher and freelance journalist with a Masters in Islamic Societies and Cultures from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). He is also a columnist for British Muslim news site 5Pillars.