Islam is the world’s fastest-growing religion. It’s the second-largest religion behind Christianity with more than 1.9 billion Muslims in the world today. For Muslims, dietary laws and fasting play a major part in our daily lives as well as our spiritual practices. Fasting, after all, is one of the five pillars of Islam.
Muslim Dietary Restrictions
The main religious tenets of Islam were derived from the Quran and Prophetic traditions and it is clear from the Quran that Islam was intended to encompass all aspects of life. Dietary restrictions follow from this principle. Hence, there are foods and beverages that are permissible, and food and beverages that are not.
Halal and haram
Halal is an Arabic word that translates to “permitted” or “lawful.” The term refers to any food products, food ingredients, food contact material, medicines, and cosmetics that are suitable for anyone who practices Islam.
But when most Muslims talk about halal, they refer to meat and poultry and the question of whether the animals were slaughtered according to Islamic dietary laws.
Halal food items include:
- All fruits, vegetables and grains, except those that cause intoxication
- All beef, poultry, and lamb products slaughtered according to Islamic dietary laws
- All animal-derived products that come from dhabiha (or zabiha) animals
- All vegetable ingredients, except those that may lead to intoxication
What foods are forbidden in Islam?
According to Islamic dietary restrictions, non-halal items are known as haram, which means “forbidden” in Arabic. These are the opposite of halal.
What foods are haram?
- Pork and all its byproducts, including gelatin
- Any animal that wasn’t slaughtered according to Islamic guidelines
- Blood and its by-products
- Birds of prey (those with talons) and any other carnivorous animals, including reptiles and insects
- Alcoholic beverages and any other intoxicants
- Foods that include any of the items listed above
It is a wise practice for Muslims to understand ingredient lists on packaged foods to determine if they are halal or haram.
Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, and Why Muslims Fast
Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, and it is also among the holiest months. It is an intense period of fasting and prayer, as it is believed to be the month in which Mohammad, whom Muslims consider a prophet, received revelation of the holy book — the Quran — to Muslims.
More than 1,400 years ago, Muslims were commanded to fast during Ramadan. The fast is intended to remind Muslims of the suffering of those less fortunate and bring believers closer to Allah. Fasting during Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, along with the daily prayer, charity, declaration of faith, and performing the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
According to 2017 data from Pew researchers, eight-in-ten U.S. Muslims said they fast during the holiday. Pregnant and nursing people, children, older adults, and those with serious illnesses are not expected to fast, but most others will fast from sunrise to sunset every day for the entire month.
To determine when exactly the holy month will begin, Muslim-majority countries look to local moon sighters. In Saudi Arabia, special infrared cameras are used to capture the new moon. Seeing the crescent moon will signify the start of Ramadan.
Fasting hours vary around the world. Muslims who live in the Northern Hemisphere have fasting hours that are a bit shorter and that will continue to decrease until 2032, the year that Ramadan will occur during the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year.
Then, fasting hours will increase until the summer solstice, the Northern Hemisphere’s longest day of the year. Muslims who live south of the equator will experience the opposite effect.
During the month of Ramadan, Muslims are also supposed to try to curb negative thoughts and emotions like jealousy and anger, and even lesser things like swearing, complaining, and gossiping. Some people may also abstain from caffeine, listening to music, and watching television, often in favor of listening to recitations of the Quran.
Over the course of this month, the Muslim family prepares a breakfast-like meal, or suhur, before sunrise. At the end of the fasting day, they break their fast at sunset to eat their dinner, known as iftar. At the end of the whole month, we celebrate with a festival called Eid al-Fitr when it is actually forbidden to fast.
Tips for healthy Ramadan fasting
Although fasting is an important part of many religious traditions, for some it can be a little extreme. Fasting during Ramadan is definitely as much a mental exercise as it is a physical one. These are a few tips to help adjust to the daily practice of fasting during this holy time:
- Stay hydrated. Remember, when you have the sensation of thirst, your body is already dehydrated.
- When breaking the fast at night, give your body the wholesome nutrients it is craving. Vegetables, lean protein, whole grains, fruits, and healthy fat (like olive oil and nuts) can replenish your body and help it recuperate from the stress of fasting.
- Don’t overeat. Remember, it will take your body about twenty minutes to register that it’s had enough to eat. So, although you might be tempted, don’t go overboard with eating during iftar.
- Keep your body moving. Though you may not have your usual energy, try not to be completely sedentary. Take short easy walks to keep your energy up during the day.
- A successful suhur will help your blood sugar remain stable and will also give you good energy. Include whole grains, fresh fruit, protein, and healthy fat. For example, oatmeal made with low-fat milk and topped with fruit and nuts is an excellent option.
- Most importantly, trust how your body feels. Everyone is different — we must adjust our diet and habits to support this religious practice without compromising our health.
The act of fasting for Ramadan is intended to teach self-control and self-discipline. When we sacrifice food, something usually taken for granted, the intent is to encourage empathy for those less fortunate. Even those who are excluded from the fast due to health reasons are expected to participate by providing food to someone lacking regular access for the month of Ramadan.
Therefore the act of fast-breaking, while created as a celebration, is not supposed to be a gluttonous indulgence. We take in nutrients in gratitude as an extension of the fast by encouraging an appreciation for what is now available that wasn’t before and for what continues to be unavailable to many.
Muslim dietary laws exist to promote the health of our bodies and communities. By following them and observing both fasts and the breaking of the fasts, we show deference to God and reinforce our common identity as Muslims.