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Eating Disorders And Islam

Eating disorders are diverse in expression, causation, and victimization. You may hear the question “what does someone with an eating disorder look like?” and think of a skinny white woman unsatisfied that her hips are too wide and her stomach is too round, but the reality of the disorder is much more complex.

Disordered eating affects 30 million people each year, a total that is equal to 10% of the US population. An unsurprising statistic, considering Americans already have unhealthy restrictive habits, abnormal dietary patterns, falsified dietary guidelines, and extreme beauty ideals.

Many of these people come from a vast array of communities. LGBT folk are disproportionately affected by eating disorders, yet the bias is evident in the research: “Research is limited and conflicting on eating disorders among lesbian and bisexual women,” despite the high number of gay men in proportion to straight men who suffer from body image issues. Many are also racial and ethnic minorities, even among cultures that typically value larger bodies: “the leanest 25% of 6th and 7th grade girls, Hispanics and Asians reported significantly more body dissatisfaction than did white girls…. youth all reported attempting to lose weight at similar rates, while among of Native American adolescents, 48.1% were attempting weight loss.” Unfortunately, with little research, treatment ignores the sociocultural conditions that surround eating disorders among these populations. People from low-income backgrounds are also more likely to report disordered eating, undermining the notion that the condition occurs only to middle and upper class elites.

Eating disorders also do not discriminate based on religious identity: the fasting requirement of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and other religions can act as a risk factor for many vulnerable to eating disorders. There are many examples throughout history of starving saints, most notably Catherine of Siena. There is even a term for this phenomenon: “anorexia mirabilis.” As with almost every major world religion, Islam also defines restriction in idealistic and spiritualistic terms:

“I heard the Messenger of Allaah, sallallaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, saying: ‘No human ever filled a vessel worse than the stomach… But if it must be, then one third for his food, one third for his drink and one third for his breath.’”

While fasting itself is not inherently dangerous, it can be for Muslims with eating disorders. Ramadan encourages those who observe the fast to maintain discipline and control over their hunger and thirst, a belief that many with eating disorders already follow. Many Muslims also view their efforts more positively during the holy month. Since observing the fast is one of the five pillars of Islam, some continue starving themselves, believing that through strict discipline they are becoming closer to God.

Many Muslim women recovering from eating disorders note that their communities do not provide the support systems they need. Many hold stigmas against mental illness. Eating disorders are also not seen as issues, since skinny bodies are thought to be beautiful bodies. Even online, many Muslim women feel isolated, unable to relate to the stories and experiences of other groups. Even as these disorders become more common among Muslim groups, especially in the global south, centers do not have the resources to handle these culturally sensitive issues.

Ramadan does not start for nearly three months, but Muslim women with any eating disorder is advised not to fast without explicit permission and guidance from a physician. Fortunately, Eating Disorders Victoria offers some advice to those who feel guilty about being unable to fast:

“Ibn Qudaamah (may Allah have mercy on him) said in al-Mughni (4/403), ‘The kind of sickness in which it is permitted to break the fast is intense sickness which will be made worse by fasting or it is feared that recovery will be delayed.’

Muslims are encouraged to set up supportive environments and participate in Ramadan in other ways, like “restraining anger, doing good deeds, exercising personal discipline, and preparing oneself to serve as a good Muslim and a good person.”



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