As I look back on this past Ramadan, I reflect on how it was such a spiritually uplifting month for me, as I am sure it was for all of us. We made lofty spiritual schedules and set ambitious goals for ourselves, some of us even planning months in advance in order to take maximum benefit of this blessed month.
Certainly, Islam emphasizes (and science has also shown) that spiritual health affects many other aspects of a person’s health, including emotional, intellectual, and most notably, physical (Moeini, Sharifi, and Kajbaf); this Ramadan focus on spiritual cleansing is then rightly warranted due to the many effects spirituality can have on the rest of one’s being. That being said, however, have we ever considered that there may be an overlapping interrelationship between these different aspects of one’s being?
Surely, if spiritual health affects physical health, then physical health may also influence one’s spiritual health (Johnstone, Yoon, Cohen, et al). By not taking care of our physical health, we may unknowingly be compromising, or even harming, our spiritual health. In the rest of this article, I will provide an Islamic definition of health, examine the relationship between spiritual and physical health from an Islamic lens, and end with some Prophetic, Quranic, and practical tips on how to better manage physical health.
Islamic Definition of Health
Islamically, health is a natural state for every human being, with disease seen as a deviation from the normal equilibrium. We are encouraged to maintain the natural state of health and to restore it if illness afflicts us. Good health has been described as a ni’mah, or blessing, from God, and should be preferred over illness (Hameed, A.). The Prophet (SAW) stressed this point by explaining, “No blessing other than faith is better than well-being (Sahih al-Bukhari, Book 81).” On another occasion, he warned his followers to take advantage of good health and to use it to perform virtuous deeds before sickness replaced health. A believer will be questioned on the Day of Judgement about his blessings and how he used them; good health is no exception. Apart from being a ni’mah, health has also been described as an amanah, or trust, from God, which must be preserved as part of our duty to Him (World Health Organization).
The emphasis on good health in Islam is well understood when put in the context of man’s duty as a vicegerent of God on Earth, which includes the responsibilities of building an Islamic community and giving da’wah; poor health would deprive society of an individual’s contribution and create undue burden on others. We see that when the Sahaba were denying their bodies’ basic needs by fasting all day, praying all night, or abstaining from relations with women, the Prophet (SAW) responded with, “Your body has a right over you (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 7).” As illustrated, maintaining bodily health has important implications not only for one’s relationship with and responsibility to God, but also for one’s responsibility to the community at large.
Islamic View of Relationship Between Health and Spirituality
To best understand the relationship between the different aspects of one’s health, one must first understand the central tenet of Islam, Tawhid, which conveys the basic spirit of Islam in all matters. Tawhid, or unity, is a concept of oneness in the belief of God; a Muslim realizes this doctrine in his/her being by uniting all thoughts and actions into a harmonious whole. Applying this doctrine to the concept of physical health, the body is viewed as one unit, with the spiritual, physical, psychological, and social all interconnected and related. When one part of the body is disrupted, all other parts become disrupted and out of balance. Indeed, Islam requires fulfillment of the needs of the body (food, sex, dress) to ensure not only physical but also psychological and spiritual health because these physical needs possess aspects which may affect one’s psyche and spirit (Bakar, O.).
Although science recognizes many secondary benefits of being healthy (decreased chance of suffering from disease, higher quality of life, etc.), scholars are of the view that we should maintain our health primarily for the sake of the soul (Bakar, O.). The purpose of maintaining a perfectly healthy body is so that it can be an instrument for the soul to complete the purpose it was created to fulfill (worship and attaining God’s pleasure). In fact, Imam Ghazzali describes the body as a vehicle for the soul, which is a traveler visiting a foreign country with the aim of merchandise and will soon return to its native land. The vehicle should be cared for but not at expense of neglecting the ultimate goal of the journey (Al- Ghazzali, Daniel, and Field). Indeed, the body is the vessel used to perform righteous deeds; by taking proper care of one’s body, one can maximize its use for completing virtuous deeds and thus attaining God’s pleasure (Mehraki and Gholami).
Prophetic and Quranic Advice for a Healthier Life
One can learn many lessons from the Quran and the life of the Prophet (SAW) how to lead a healthy lifestyle. The Quran (2:168) commands us to eat what is lawful and good in the Earth. In other places, the Quran clarifies this statement by defining unlawful foods and mentioning beneficial foods. Recommended foods described in the Quran include honey (16: 68-69), olives, dates, and grapes (80:28- 29, 6:99), pomegranates (6:99), and bananas (56:29), among others. Science has been able to corroborate the health detriments caused by Islamically prohibited foods, such as alcohol and pork (Miller, M. W.), as well as the many positive health effects of the above-mentioned foods, including improved gastrointestinal health, lower risk of cardiovascular disease, and increased energy levels (Covas, Konstantinidou, and Fito?).
The Quran and Sunnah also provide advice on how to consume our food and in what amount. The Quran (7:31) prohibits eating excessive amounts of food, and narrations from the Prophet (SAW) emphasize the dangers of such a practice. The Prophet (SAW) warned that, “The son of Adam cannot fill a vessel worse than his stomach (Sunan al-Tirmidhi, Volume 6).” In another narration, he mentioned the importance of eating slowly. Science has only recently uncovered the many health advantages of these practices (Sawari, Ghazali, Ibrahim, et al). Research shows that it takes at least 20 minutes from the time we begin eating for our brain to sense satiety; by that point, most people are already done eating. By eating slowly, our bodies have enough time to sense when we have eaten enough food, preventing overeating due to lack of a feeling of satiety. Other benefits of eating slowly include better digestion and hydration, easier weight loss, and higher meal satisfaction (Andrade, Green, and Melanson). While these dietary recommendations have been widely promoted in the recent health media, the Quran and Prophet (SAW) informed us over 1400 years ago of the blessings associated with these practices.
Practical Tips for a Healthier Life
I want to end this article with some practical tips that can be applied to everyday life. A healthy society requires effort at both the individual and community level. At the individual level, there are many small steps you can take to start living a healthier life. First, improve your diet. Start by trying to eat at least one vegetable with every meal. Also try replacing one unhealthy snack during the day with a piece of fruit. If you are eating an unhealthy meal, eat from a smaller plate. Research shows that when we use smaller plates, we trick our brain in regard to the portion size, resulting in less caloric consumption (Van Ittersum and Wansink). In addition to healthy eating, exercise is also essential for a healthy lifestyle. If you don’t usually exercise, start by walking 20-30 minutes a day. If you have trouble sticking to your workout regimen, get a workout buddy. Studies have proven that people who exercise with a partner are more likely to enjoy their workout and meet their goals.
The community also has a responsibility to promote healthy behaviors among its members. The Quran (5:2) commands us to assist each other in pious and righteous acts, and the Prophet (SAW) further explained that, “Religion is [to give] good advice (Sahih Muslim, Book 1).” One way the community can encourage healthy lifestyle habits is to hold group cooking classes. I propose the Tulane Teaching Kitchen model, which not only educates citizens on how to improve their dietary habits, but also utilizes medical student volunteers in an effort to educate a new generation of nutritionally literate physicians. The on-site chef compares calorie and fat levels among different variations of the same meal (prepared by groups of volunteers) and shows how by replacing a few ingredients with healthier options, the meal’s caloric count decreases substantially. Participants are taught that eating healthier doesn’t mean spending more money on ingredients, eating less, or eating unpalatable food. The Tulane Teaching Kitchen plays an important role in teaching community members how to replace unhealthy eating habits with healthier ones, and similar teaching kitchens would be beneficial in other communities.
Nushrah Malik (BS & BSM, Tulane University, 2016) is an MD student at Tulane University School of Medicine. Over the summer of 2018, she was a summer intern at the Initiative on Islam and Medicine at the University of Chicago. This article was produced as part of the internship program, which is underwritten by a generous donation from Drs. Skina and Hossam Fadel.