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Anorexia: A Product of Western Ideals?

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Anorexia, which means “without appetite,” is an emotional illness in which a person refuses to eat. Ninety percent of anorexia cases are women and young girls (Balch, p.321). Although an anorexic female is hungry most of the time, she avoids food for psychological reasons. The exact cause of anorexia is not known, however, social factors such as the desire to be thin, appear to be the most important of the factors. Depression and low self-esteem are also powerful factors as they may cause a person to become anorexic out of a desire for more attention or as a cry for help (Merck, p.415). In Western society and through advertising, food is heavily linked to pleasure, self-image and fulfillment. However, the Islamic view on food and diet is quite different and may provide some guidance for those trapped in the ideals of Western self-image.

In Islam, food is linked with the blessings of Allah; with the expression of generosity; and with the health of the body. It is not linked to self-image, fulfillment or pleasure like it is in the West. In the Qur’an it says, “And He made in it mountains above its surface, and He blessed therein and made therein its foods, in four periods: alike for the seekers” (Qur’an, 41:10). However, a Muslim is expected to realize that this blessing is not made just for him, but for his guests and others as well. The Qur’an also advises, “And they give food out of love for Him to the poor and the orphan and the captive” (Qur’an, 76:8). Hadith(s) also provide an insight into how food is viewed in Islam. Abdullah ibn Umar narrated that the Prophet (saws) said, “He who does not accept an invitation which he receives has disobeyed Allah and His Apostle of, and he who enters without invitation enters as a thief and goes out as a raider” (Shahih Bukhari). Furthermore he advised, “Give food to the hungry, pay a visit to the sickand release (set free) the one in captivity (Muslim).”

The Prophet(peace and blessings be upon him) also listed a number of foods that would help restore health to the body, such as: dates and barley. Saad narrated that Allah’s Apostle(pbuh) said, “He who eats seven ‘Ajwa dates every morning, will not be affected by poison or magic on the day he eats them” (Bukhari). However, Western society and Islam agree on one perspective of food: Food is linked to life performance.

On television, long chains of commercials advertise foods that are supposed to help people perform better at work, at school and in sports. In Islam, the health of the body became linked to the ability of the Muslim to perform their prayers when the Prophet(peace and blessings be upon him) advised against praying on a hungry stomach. Sahih Muslim records that the Prophet(peace and blessings be upon him) said, “If supper is served and the Iqama for (Isha) prayer is proclaimed, start with you supper first.”

Despite the noble place that food holds in Islam, many Muslim women have succumbed to the disease of anorexia. However, the avoidance of food is not the only challenge for an anorexic. Some anorexics also go through a stage where they become bulimic. They start craving food and they end up eating large amounts of it. After consuming it they make themselves vomit. In Western society this vomiting is seen as a way to rid the body of undesirable calories or to “repent” for the social sin of overeating. In Islam, the Prophet (saws) advises that when one commences a meal they should remember from the beginning of the meal that, “A believer eats in one intestine (is satisfied with a little food), and a kafir (unbeliever) or a hypocrite eats in seven intestines (eats too much).”

The most noticeable symptoms of this alternating starvation and binging are severe weight loss (up to 25% of body weight), slow heartbeat, growth of thin hair on the body, low blood pressure, delayed puberty and edema (Merck, p.415). In Western society, films portray thin women as beautiful and magazines speak of the great sacrifices women must make to be thin and the newspapers portray hunger strikers as heroines. From this perspective many anorexic women may feel that their health symptoms are merely a sacrifice for the greater good of themselves or mankind.

However, in Islam, the destruction on one’s health is viewed in a different light. Up to 20% of anorexic women die each year (Merck p. 415) and in Islam suicide is considered Haram (forbidden). In Sahih Bukhari, a number of punishments are related corresponding to the various methods in which people may kill themselves. It is stated that killing oneself in any way is unacceptable in Islam. The Prophet(peace and blessings be upon him) gives a number of examples: “He who killed himself with steel (weapon) would be the eternal denizen of the Fire of Hell and he would have that weapon in his hand and would be thrusting that in his stomach for ever and ever; he who drank poison and killed himself would sip that in the Fire of Hell where he is doomed for ever and ever; and he who killed himself by falling from (the top of) a mountain would constantly fall in the Fire of Hell and would live there for ever and ever.”

However, the results of anorexia can easily turn into “a living hell” for the family and friends involved. When anorexia cannot be halted at home, many anorexics end up in the hospital. They are put in special rooms where they can be watched. The doctors and nurses then go into the room at certain times and force the victims to eat, sometimes through an IV tube. The anorexic is only allowed to leave when their eating habits resume normally and a safe weight is restored (Merck, p.415). The ‘Merck Manual of Medical Information’ states that, “Treatment is aimed at establishing a calm, concerned, stable environment while encouraging the consumption of an adequate amount of food.”

The Qur’an and Hadith could provide important guidance in this area. The Western world views food as a pleasurable, fulfilling hobby and views a positive self-image as achieved through self-sacrificing beauty. However, Islam views food as a symbol of Allah’s blessings, a function of health and a method of worship. In Islam self-image is achieved, not by sacrificing one’s health, but by restoring one’s physical, mental and spiritual health. It is a known fact, that even Muslim women wants to look good and have a perfect body, however, she can have all this with her good health by following the guidelines of the Qur’an and Hadith. Although the Prophet Muhammed(pbuh) said, “The food for two persons is sufficient for three, and the food of three persons is sufficient for four persons.” He also said that, “the believer must fill his stomach with one third water, one third air and one third food (Sahih Bukhari).”

Qur’an and Hadith Search.

Berkow, Robert, MD. “The Merck Manual of Medical Information.” Whitehouse Station, New Jersey: Merck and Company Publishing. 1997.

Zand, Janet. Walton, Rachel; and Rountree, Bob, MD. “Smart Medicine for a Healthier Child.” Garden City, New York: Avery Publishing Group. 1994.

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