How I Navigate Ramadan and Eating Disorder Recovery

April 18, 2024

With Ramadan upon us, I am reflecting on what it means to be a practicing Muslim, in recovery from an eating disorder. Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, is considered the holiest month, as it was during Ramadan when the Quran was first revealed. 

During the month, Muslims focus on their relationship with God, increasing their time in worship. There is also an increase in charitable actions and giving, spending time with community. Finally, fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam, where Muslims are asked to abstain from food and drink from dawn to sundown, as well as avoid anger, cursing, harmful behaviors, smoking, and extramarital sex. At sundown, when it comes time to break fast, Muslims share a meal, called iftar, and frequently spend part of the night in prayer. 

The cultural perception of Ramadan often focuses on food. Between fasting during the day, enjoying meals in the evening, waking up early for a pre-dawn meal, called suhoor, and the special foods enjoyed at Eid-al-Fitr, the feast days celebrated at the end of Ramadan, it’s easy to see how food plays a part of this holy month. So what is a Muslim living with an eating disorder or in recovery to do? 

Early in my recovery, I struggled with the idea that I would not be able to fast during Ramadan. But there were two things that I needed to bear in mind as I navigated Ramadan in recovery, firstly, not all Muslims are expected to fast, and secondly, Ramadan is so much more than the food.

While fasting is a major part of the faith, there are those who are exempt from fasting, and honoring those exemptions is as much of an obligation as fasting is for someone who is non-exempt. A Muslim is exempt from fasting if they are a child or elderly, if they are menstruating, pregnant, or nursing, if they are traveling, or if they are ill. Part of my recovery was reconciling that an eating disorder is a serious illness, impacting my mental and physical health. 

I also came to terms with the idea that in my eating disorder, and in recovery, not fasting was what was best for me — and that I had a God-given exemption to not fast. It wasn’t easy, as I had to work to navigate the anxieties around the cultural and social expectations to fast. Because I outwardly seemed fine, I worried about needing to disclose why I wasn’t fasting to those around me. Thankfully, those questions never came. Had I been asked, I think I would have been forthright and honest. 

In those early days of recovery, I was learning to trust that my voice and experience, given wholeheartedly and bravely, would most often yield the best outcome.

And I think that it’s okay if the person I was answering didn’t get it. After all, observing Ramadan, my relationship to God, my recovery, and the way those things intersect in my life is personal and unique to me. I also think it’s worth acknowledging that I could choose how much I wanted to tell someone who was asking, whether it was a simple, “I’m not feeling well,”  and moving onto a different subject, getting into a more in-depth explanation with someone I trusted, or enforcing a firm boundary that it was personal and not something I wanted to discuss, were all viable options. 

In the years that have passed I have been able to more greatly embody and experience the parts of Ramadan beyond the food. I have felt a deepening of my spirituality.

The idea in Islam of amanah, or trust, has really resonated with me in my eating disorder recovery. In Islam, taking care of a trust is in itself an act of worship, and I have come to understand my body and mind as a gift in my care.

Through this lens, I can prioritize what is best for protecting my wellbeing. I embrace Ramadan being a time of reflection and prayer, and in this time, reflect on my growth and plan improvements. I appreciate having the time in Ramadan to be in service to others and in community with others. 

My path and experience may not be the same for all Muslims, and I acknowledge that I may have had fewer obstacles than others. It helped to know that I could work with my care team and reach out to those I trusted if I needed support. Eating disorders aren’t always understood, so I armed myself with information, so that if someone did question me, or needed help to understand why I wasn’t fasting, I was prepared. 

And finally, just like faith, eating disorder recovery is personal, and has complexities for each individual, so part of my journey is an ongoing dialogue. I will always be reflecting, working with my support networks, and exploring within my faith how best I can live in this life, and be true to myself. 

Nadia lives in the Capital Region of NY where she works in STEM and as a yoga teacher. She enjoys giving back to the community and is passionate about representation in healing spaces.