Water Fasting as a Muslim

Photo credit: Wellcome Collection

I completed a 3-day water-only fast today to attain purported health benefits, et cetera. As Muslims we go through Ramadan & perform various supererogatory dry fasts every year, so I thought this should be easy. I mean, they say you’re allowed to drink water, tea & coffee whenever you want?! Awesome!!

The first 24 hours were effortless and motivating. It felt odd to be sipping water with zero accountability. With the devotional aspect absent, the idea that I could break the fast on a whim makes itself quickly known, and it’s not empowering because it’s yourself that you will answer to. But no problem, day 1 was smooth sailing, a bit of discomfort here and there. I had green tea late that night which strangely tasted like a hearty broth. I felt an unusual sense of relaxation as I went to bed. That was reassuring.

Second day quickly devolved into a psychological and physiological hell. Your primitive human needs are now neuroses. Hunger, with its many manifestations, is now an entity that’s constantly breathing down your neck. You crave all foods. Just the idea that soon enough I could eat bread again filled me with joy. I once didn’t understand why cafés and restaurants had such a variety of items, but now I do — they cater to this insatiable demon. Everything looks delicious. Even when your body has switched to burning fat for fuel you’re still ravenous. And I wonder if this is how some people with eating disorders feel all the time? Pictures and videos of food, while an enjoyable distraction, are in reality a form of punishment; through a fascinating human reflex your digestive system start to think you’re about to feast while looking at these images, and jumpstarts into action, releasing all sorts of enzymes and acids. So now you have heartburn, you’re extra hungry, and worst of all you’re reminded that you’re hungry.

I’ve rarely felt this kind of ridiculous want for food during Ramadan. Perhaps this betrays the current state of my soul. Or maybe because Ramadan is a level playing field, you know. It requires a fast that’s long enough to tame your energies and give you a taste of helplessness, but not hard enough to make it impossible to endure for those with weaker constitutions. It’s almost cliché to say, but hunger, deeply experienced, makes one empathize with the hungry and the needy, and that’s something everyone needs to undergo. It all makes sense. But hunger and thirst are nothing but the outer shells of a devotional fast, so this reduction is unfair. Al-Ghazali in Secrets of Fasting captures the real spirit and multi-layered build of an Islamic fast, detailing the 3 stations by which you can approach a fast. By his definition this water fast wouldn’t even meet the criteria for the lowest station: the fasting of the layperson, which is perfunctory abstinence from food, drink, and sexual appetites. It’s writing that’s captivating and poignant even a thousand years later.

Beside food cravings, a feverish fatigue sapped at my motivation and made movement difficult. Every action was a deliberate and exhausting undertaking. I felt how utterly weak and dependent all humans are. Headaches are par for the course this late into the fast. I spent my hours lying in bed, not having the energy to even read a book. I wished I could sleep through some of this experience, but I couldn’t. I felt wired the entire time, like my body has lost its ability to relax. Wired but tired. Sleep was in short unpleasant bursts, and dreams were erratic and fueled by creature discomforts.

Third day was a bit more manageable, now that my body was in ketosis, and my energy levels have stabilized somewhat. I felt relatively fine on 4 hours of sleep. But my heart rate was through the roof. I either had an electrolyte imbalance (even though I was supplementing minerals), or my cortisol levels were spiking. I don’t know, but it was unpleasant. And with the increased levels of cortisol comes more stomach acid. Water is a false comfort, distracting you only momentarily from other unpleasantries. It’s in these moments you realize what a blessing it is that we can break the fast at dusk, and then continue to eat and drink until dawn during Ramadan. All during the third day I wished I could end this, but I pushed through for the supposed health benefits. The physical hurdles get easier the longer you fast, and a lifelong experience with Ramadan gave me an extra edge in negotiating the mental aspects.

With the the third day coming close to an end, I’ve even entertained going for 5 days (it’s one recommended protocol for a water fast). What are another 48 hours, I thought? I felt relief from some minor joint aches I had, and noticed consistent mental energy & focus. But the process felt transactional, animalistic, and I was starting to miss the spiritual and ritualistic aspects of fasting even though that wasn’t the point. I could only sleep 2 hours that night. I was empty, my heart was racing, and my stomach was on fire.

At the 77th hour mark, I decided to break my fast it with 3 joyful dates and a drink of cultured milk at 9 in the morning. I’m looking forward to Ramadan.



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