August 4th, 2013
09:49 AM ET

For some Muslims, Ramadan fasting poses risks

By Slma Shelbayah, CNN
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(CNN) This Ramadan, Amina Jabbar faced a difficult decision.

The University of Toronto medical student’s rotation at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre began around July 9, the start of the Muslim holy month.

That meant working unpredictable shifts for as long as 26 hours while fasting from eating and drinking during the day.

The fast-paced hospital environment was already challenging Jabbar’s ability to keep up with colleagues and patients. As a new physician, she felt more “error prone” and said fasting would increase her anxiety on the job.

Ramadan requires “slowing down,” Jabbar said, an impossible task for a first-year medical resident whose job requires fast decisions and clear thinking to save lives.

The 29-year-old Muslim was torn.

Should she fulfill her professional duties, eating regular meals so hunger would not distract her from patients’ critical needs? Or should she honor her religious obligations by observing the fast, a practice considered a “pillar” of Islam?

“I am spending 60-80 hours (at the hospital) and I don’t get to slow down for Ramadan,” Jabbar said. “It felt unfair to my colleagues and patients to tell them to slow down for me.”

At the same time, Jabbar said she feared that fellow Muslims would criticize her if she didn’t fast. “There’s a certain amount of shame when we talk about people not fasting,” she said.

The decision not to fast during Ramadan, the holiest month in the Muslim calendar, is somewhat taboo in the Muslim community.

READ MORE: The Belief Blog Guide to Ramadan 

In Islam, Ramadan commemorates the time when the angel Gabriel imparted the Quran to the Prophet Mohammed.

Many Muslims throughout the world commemorate the month by fasting, refraining from sex and smoking, and dedicating more time than usual to praying and reading the Quran.

Some exceptions are generally allowed during Ramadan, which ends August 8. Pregnant women, travelers and sick people are not expected to observe the fast, for example.

But for many other Muslims, especially first responders and others with stressful jobs, the choice of whether to fast can cause its own kind of anxiety.

When Jabbar blogged about her decision not to fast, she received a mix of reactions.

One Muslim accused her of looking for an “excuse” to shirk her religious duties. Some questioned her devotion to Islam, asking if she performs other required Islamic rituals such as daily prayers.

“Of course I pray," Jabbar said. "I am just choosing not to fast. We have a lot of pressure to demonstrate to our community that we’re Muslim.”

Imam Khalil Abdur-Rashid, head of the Iqra Mosque in Brooklyn and Muslim Chaplain of Columbia University,  said that observing the fast during Ramadan is a religious obligation for every Muslim who is considered mature, mentally sane, healthy and not traveling.

There are no fatwas – or religious rulings – that grant fasting exemptions for first responders, he added. But, Abdur-Rashid said, one is definitely needed. In fact, he generated one immediately after speaking with CNN.

"The purpose of the fast is not to place the fasting person in the face of harm, but to teach self-restraint,” Abdur-Rashid said.

“And the moment the fast becomes dangerous, or external conditions place the fasting person in harm's way," he said, "then the fasting person is not only permitted, but in many cases, religiously obliged to break their fast.”

Abdur-Rashid's new fatwa may be especially valuable to Muslims like New Yorker Ahmed Sabree, who battles fires while wearing heavy equipment during the searing summer heat.

Sabree, 42, said the arrival of Ramadan this July took him back to his training days with the New York Fire Department nearly eight years ago.

Sabree endured intense physical drills that included racing up six-story buildings, pulling up hoses and crawling on the floor.

Trainers told the budding firefighters to “hydrate, hydrate, hydrate,” Sabree recalls.

He contemplated breaking the fast, at least to drink some water, and researched Islamic texts for guidance.

Sabree concluded that his training, though grueling, was insufficient reason to drink water during the day.

Ramadan is not just about enduring physical hardships for hardships' sake, Sabree said. Instead, the holy month has a deeply spiritual dimension.

The firefighter said Ramadan's rituals offer an opportunity to “get back on track” and become more conscientious of his responsibilities to God and his fellow man.

That doesn’t mean fasting is easy for Sabree, so he takes precautions to lighten the load a bit.

For instance, he volunteered for the lunchtime watch shift at his firehouse in Harlem, New York, while others are eating in the kitchen, better to keep the alluring aromas of food at bay.

And if a fire breaks during the time of breaking the fast, Sabree responds immediately. To the fire that is, not his stomach.

“If it’s time to break the fast and there’s a fire, you gotta go,” Sabree said. “I’ll break my fast with some water and go.”

READ MORE: Muslims have mixed views on TSA Ramadan advisory

Deputy Chief Mike Jaafar of Wayne County in Michigan is also fasting this year.

Jaafar says Ramadan is “kind of a cool time,”  but he doesn’t mean temperature.

In fact, for the last several years, Ramadan has fallen during the hottest summer months. The holy month is calculated by a lunar, rather than fixed calendar, so it rotates from year to year.

“Unfortunately, I can’t adjust my schedule in the profession I am in. This year is going to be a tough one,” Jaafar said. He is expected to keep the same long hours and fulfill the same duties as his fellow officers.

But there are some perks to celebrating Ramadan in Michigan, home to the largest concentration of American Muslims in the United States. When the holy month comes around, fasting isn’t much of a foreign concept, even for those not Muslim.

This understanding translates into small workarounds for Jaafar. Sometimes, if he begins his workday early enough, he is able to finish in time to get home for dinner.

“My hours can be flexible, and usually I can break my fast with family,” Jaafar said. He uses this time to visit his mother every day and to attend the mosque with his children.

As for Jabbar, the medical resident is trying to make up for not fasting through other spiritually fulfilling options, such as praying and helping heal her patients.

“Spirituality has to become part of my clinical practice, because I spend so much time of my life there,” she said.

But Jabbar said she still misses the slowing down that Ramadan's daytime fasting requires.

"I am trying to make it up in terms of remembrance," of God, she said. "It doesn’t always feel sufficient."

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Faith & Health • Holidays • Islam • Islamic law • Ramadan

soundoff (647 Responses)
  1. real reality

    islam is the first Multi level marketing gimimick for the soul and could be considered a ponzi scheme for the soul and hence should be banned from the western world

    August 4, 2013 at 11:43 am |
    • chriz

      how about your religion?

      August 4, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
  2. Skorpio

    Muslims are hypocrites!. Ramadan should be a time of self restraint, fasting and moderation BUT this month is when people gain the most weight, party the most and 9 moths after, the highest number of children are born.

    August 4, 2013 at 11:41 am |
    • wifey

      Watchout.. may be someone is sleeping with your.....

      August 4, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
  3. amrazim9

    Interesting how CNN does not have a clue about: Muslims; Islam or Ramadan!!!

    August 4, 2013 at 11:39 am |
    • cnnside

      oh yea.. dont you see comments allover – you could easily understand how much informative they are..

      August 4, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
  4. chuckmartel

    With such primitive and religious fundamentalist dark age traditions taken so seriously, no wonder muslim societies are so backwards and screwed up. Even without any terrorist issues, these societies are not compatible with the secular western way of life. These muslims do not belong here and should be basking in their own holier way of life in the muslim world. I hear it is 'springtime' there.

    August 4, 2013 at 11:39 am |
    • wayoflife

      western wayof "ife" ? you aren't kidding, right?

      August 4, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
    • Abdullah

      You can keep your polytheist faith of worshipping a man, a ghost and whatever else, Martel. And by the way, keep up the hatred!

      August 4, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
  5. real reality

    this article outlines the problem with islam, and that is above everything else, above any other rights of anyone, a muslim is bound to islam above any country, any ethic or ideal. There was a reason why they were run off from the eastern and western worlds centuries ago and it will happen again.

    August 4, 2013 at 11:38 am |
    • lerianis

      With all due respect, Christianity wants you to be 'bound to Christianity over all else' as well. So, you need to wake up and smell the rotten pile of dog drops that you are pushing, real reality.

      August 4, 2013 at 11:40 am |
    • amrazim9

      There is no problem with Islam. But they maybe problems with some Muslims. It is an important differential!!

      August 4, 2013 at 11:41 am |
  6. Sam

    Imam Abdur-Rashid has the right idea...ANY religious observance really must be ignored if it would result in injury to thge observer or another.

    If Dr. Jabbar fasts and doesn't have the energy or the mental clarity to perform her duties - which involve caring for the ill - she really should stop. The Imam probably didn't realize it was going to present a safety issue.

    The fast can always be made up later.

    August 4, 2013 at 11:34 am |
    • lerianis

      Or we could just realize that the fast is a HUMAN MADE thing put into these religious books in order to weaken the 'faithful' and make them not be in their right minds so that you can force more religious BS on them and simply ignore it AND all religions as well.

      August 4, 2013 at 11:41 am |
  7. Thought Purification

    this is what wrong with the picture "Jabbar said she feared that fellow Muslims would criticize her if........."

    making people feel guilty, feared, shamed is like forcing religion down the throat of a person

    August 4, 2013 at 11:29 am |
    • real reality

      yes it is a peer pressure religion, it is what is classified as a Multi level marketing gimmick though and a ponzi scheme

      August 4, 2013 at 11:52 am |
  8. Arabiy

    CNN always try to bring sensational negative stories about Islam in their front page. Well, how about putting in the first page the stories of the Egyptian military coupe created and supported by Westerns who claim to support freedoms. The truth is very clear to the whole world when 1% Westerns open their mouth with the word freedom it mean propaganda, war, hate to Islam, military coups, support to corruption. It is true 1% control 99% in the west.

    August 4, 2013 at 11:28 am |
  9. blind obedience.

    “There’s a certain amount of shame when we talk about people not fasting,”

    That is a consequence of valuing blind obedience more than independent thinking.

    August 4, 2013 at 11:27 am |
  10. MK

    Islamic Faith is between the individual and Allah. She shouldn't consider what others will think or say. This is not islamic her faith has some weekness starting there. Just like any other faith if you do it to please this worldly life you are not a true believer .Everything should be for the sake of Allah. If she choses not to fast thats between her and Allah. She should have only made her decisoin based on her personal needs not what others were thinking. this shouldnt cross her mind. Sounds like she didn't even try . If you eat well before the sunrises and again when the sunsets most are fine.

    August 4, 2013 at 11:21 am |
  11. Debbie

    Did you not see that she had already decided NOT to fast...and that no one was asking for any sort of religious
    "concession?" The article was about them living out their religious beliefs WITHOUT seeking concessions...geez. As a Christian I may not believe what they believe...but I respect their rights to believe them. Thankfully they now have a Fatwa that okays breaking the fast for those whose responsibilities require it.

    August 4, 2013 at 11:19 am |
  12. Khan

    This doctor seems to be making her decisions based on social pressures and not religion. The religion allows you to not fast and feed 60 poor people instead which I'm sure a doctor in Toronto can easily afford.

    August 4, 2013 at 11:19 am |
    • Thought Purification

      how did you come up with #60? There should be a simple work around like if you can't fast, just feed hungries, not feed 60 poor people.

      August 4, 2013 at 11:33 am |
      • real reality

        there are many nuances that make the religion dangerous, hence the 60 number, also why the virgin number for killing an infidel? lest we forget the unspoken number of free passages between heaven and earth for a person AND their relatives for each infidel converted.....islam the first MLM gimmick, but for the soul!

        August 4, 2013 at 11:41 am |
    • L77

      Excellent point, only I would say that she should feed more than 60 people (or a person for every day she does not fast) if feeding 60 people is easy for her. Ramadhan is a glorious month and meant to remind us of the world's poor and the things we take for granted, among other things. Giving to the needy during this month should be a sacrifice, not an easy "get out free card."

      August 4, 2013 at 7:03 pm |
  13. L77

    I am Muslim, but I do not fast due to my medical conditions. Many would say that my medical conditions are not severe enough, but I believe that only Allah can judge me. Fasting can be dangerous here in countries like the US where you are not given the provisions like those who live in majority Muslim countries. This summer, fasting could lead to severe dehydration and other complications because of the long day light hours and the intense heat. Those who cant fast have the option to donate a meal to a hungry person for each day that they don't fast. In terrible summer heat like this; I say get your check books out. Fasting is meant to purify you, not kill you! I understand some Muslims will disagree with me; and that is ok. This is just my two cents.

    August 4, 2013 at 11:12 am |
  14. Akiko

    Good on her for not fasting. She needs to eat and replenish herself through out the day if she's managing patients. It's a good feeling going to the hospital and knowing the doctor treating me is in their right mind.

    August 4, 2013 at 11:11 am |
  15. Shawn

    As a U of T alumni, and not religious, I say thank you Amina Jabbar for making the hard choice of putting real people, your patients, ahead of your beliefs. You are a role model.

    August 4, 2013 at 11:10 am |
  16. rad666

    Seriously this woman should not be treating any body if she cannot think clearly and perform her job, She wouldn't be touching myself or any member of my family. Guess you have to make a choice between religion and career.

    August 4, 2013 at 11:08 am |
  17. Ahmed

    If Muslims find it hard to do their job in the West while observing Ramadan, they are welcome to go to Saudi Arabia and stay there. If anyone from some other religion demands any sort of concession based on religious grounds in any Muslim countries, they will be imprisoned, stoned or deported

    August 4, 2013 at 11:00 am |
  18. Alias

    Fortunately for me, I do not live in Toronto and I will not have to worry about an intentionally marginalized doctor making decisions for me.
    I would think her employer should have something to say about this.

    August 4, 2013 at 10:43 am |
    • real reality

      exactly! if a person wishes to reside in a just and civil society they need to adopt the same rules as everyone else living in that society, and put islam second- but as this article clearly points out, islam relies on peer pressure hence the reasons in areas for family honour killings or just plain old killings for sinners.....in fact islam appears to be the first Multi level marketing gimmick for the soul and also a ponzi shceme for the soul and hence should be banned on those laws....notice how muslims quote numbers, if you dont want to fast look after number of souls, if you kill an infidel by suicide in heaven you get numbers of virgins if you convert infidels you get numbers of free passages between heaven and earth....that people is a MLM gimmick and a Ponzi scheme!

      August 4, 2013 at 11:48 am |
      • Abdullah

        Reality, your comments just expose your hate-filled mind, that's all. That doctor woman is unaware of the rulings of her own religion, CNN can publish anything that sounds sensational, and hate-mongers like you can use any opportunity to potty mouth Islam or Muslims. "perish in your own hatred."

        August 4, 2013 at 4:15 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.