Whenever the month of Ramadan approaches, we’re flooded with articles about how fasting is good for our physical health. From weight loss to reduced cholesterol to the preservation of muscle strength, the Internet becomes full of ‘the health benefits of fasting’ type articles. Some of this commentary and advice can be frankly anorexigenic (anorexia promoting), leading people to miss the main spiritual point of fasting, muddying intentions, and reducing Ramadan to a kind of intensive weight loss program. In extreme cases, this advice can give rise to, what I call, ‘ramadanorexia’, cases of anorexia nervosa that begin in the holy month.
For example, in her writings on her struggle with anorexia nervosa, Emirati author, Samira Al-Romaithi, writes:
‘I abused the good intentions behind the holy month and will forever be ashamed. It was an anorexic’s dream come true. I could go all day without eating a thing, have my dose of exercise by horseback riding, and then at Iftar [the breaking of the fast] eat only the little set of “safe” foods I had prescribed for myself: a green apple, a 90 calorie cereal bar and a glass of orange juice.’
The Qur’an, however, clearly and unequivocally articulates the purpose of fasting, in Sura Al-Baqara, verse 183: “…I have prescribed fasting for you as I prescribed fasting for those before you, so that you may become conscientious” (Translation by Thomas Cleary). Muslims do indeed become more conscientious during the holy month. Beyond refraining from food and drink, much misbehaviour also gets stopped. As a psychologist, I’m particularly interested in what bad habits gets dropped and why.
One of the most easily observable and demonstrable behavioural changes during Ramadan is the reduced frequency of swearing/cussing on social media. In one of our studies, we looked at this phenomenon through the lens of big data, specifically, the 2016 Twitter data for the UAE (around 154 million tweets). During Ramadan, as you can easily imagine, there was a massive increase in the use of words associated with religious practice, such as masjid (mosque), salaat (prayer), and wudoo(ablution). There was also, however, a noticeable decrease in the use of swear words, in both English and Arabic.
We swear for many reasons, but the act of uttering expletives is often an indicator of emotional reactivity – what the… !! Perhaps fasting helps us control and reduce our negative emotional reactivity or perhaps, during Ramadan, people are more conscientious, behaving in ways that elicit fewer negative emotional reactions.
Fasting, especially during Ramadan, shines a light on bad habits and presents a window of opportunity to explore breaking such behavioural patterns. But this is an opportunity lost on many of us. A week after Ramadan is over, the swear words flow as freely as the Vimto once did.
Prof. Dr. Justin Thomas is a British professor of psychology at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed University.