Author: Fatema Jivanjee-Shakir, LMSW
Islam is one of the fastest growing religions worldwide, with Muslims constituting roughly 23% of the world’s population (Lipka and Hackett, 2015). Research suggests that eating disorders are on the rise in this community, with about 40% of Muslims engaging in disordered eating (Melisse, de Beurs, & van Furth, 2020). Research further suggests that eating disorders are twice as prevalent in Muslim populations as compared to individuals of other religious identities (University of Granada, 2011).
Mindfulness practices have increased in popularity in western mental health treatment in the last 30 years, and have demonstrated efficacy in the treatment of eating disorders (Kabat-Zinn, 2003; Turgon et al., 2019; Wanden-Berghe & Wanden-Berghe, 2010). Traditional mindfulness practices, however, are rooted in Hinduism and Buddhism, and therefore, there are often questions about whether it is appropriate to introduce these practices with Muslim clients, and if so, how this can be done in religiously-inclusive ways.
In working with Muslim clients, it’s important to provide education about the background of mindfulness and to help a client explore whether this practice is something they are comfortable incorporating into their recovery toolbox. Some Muslims hold that mindfulness is haram (forbidden) because of its origins in non-Islamic religions, while others hold that mindfulness is an integral part of Islam, namely through the practice of muraqabah (being in a state of vigilant self-awareness in one’s relationship with Allah in heart, mind, and body). While perspectives may vary, it can be helpful to educate a client on the background of mindfulness as well as to consider ways it can be adapted to align with Islamic practices and values.
According to Hindu and Buddhist traditions, mindfulness is rooted in sati (Pali) and smriti (Sanskrit), which refer to “moment-to-moment awareness of present events” and “remembering to be aware of something,” respectively. (Milton, 2011). If we consider these definitions of mindfulness, there are numerous practices in Islam that align with the practice of mindfulness and can be utilized to support eating disorder recovery.*
Starting and ending meals with a small taste of salt.
In many Islam sects, there is a sunnah (recommended) practice of having a few granules of salt at the start and end of the meal. This practice is based on the hadith that Prophet Mohammad practiced this mealtime ritual because it prevents different types of illness and diseases.
While the medicinal nature of this practice is under-researched, what we can draw on from the Prophet’s practice is the idea of setting up mealtime rituals that promote a sense of being present and aware of the occurring meal.
Starting and ending meals with invocation and gratitude.
Similarly, another sunnah practice is beginning meals with the phrase, “Bismillah Hir Rahman Nir Rahim,” which means “In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful,” and ending meals with “Alhamdulillah,” which means “praise be to God,” which translates to “thank God.”
Rituals like this again help promote focusing our attention to the present moment, and also encourage gratitude by bringing awareness to thoughts that may be less likely to surface when we are focused on the negative thought patterns associated with disordered eating.
Eating with hands.
The Prophet Mohammad ate meals with his hands. Utilizing your fingers as utensils encourages slowing down and connecting different parts of your body with the sensory experience of eating.
For example, when utilizing your fingers, it is not only your mouth that experiences the temperature and texture of food, but your fingers. As you bring the food up to your mouth, it encourages smelling the food. Such experiences help with focusing on the act of eating and increasing one’s sense of grounding in the meal. This can subsequently encourage joy, satisfaction, and attunement to hunger-fullness cues. It should be noted, however, that this practice can be triggering for some individuals in recovery; how and when this practice is incorporated also depends on the stage of recovery someone is in.
Performing salat (prayer through worship).
Mindfulness practices extend beyond being present with food in eating disorder recovery, and may be particularly helpful for those who are not ready to engage in the practice of mindful eating directly. For instance, salat is one act that can encourage mindfulness. During salat, the individual recites various dua (prayers) and Quranic recitations, and performs specific postural positions, including standing, bowing, prostration, and sitting. The act of salat promotes mindfulness and meditation by encouraging one to be present in the act of prayer and worship. And to re-guide one’s mind to prayer if one’s thoughts start to wander. Research has demonstrated that salat is related to increased parasympathetic activity and decreased sympathetic activity in the brain, which suggests that salat promotes relaxation and reduces anxiety (Doufesh, Ibrahim, Ismail, & Wan Ahmad, 2014). These benefits can support eating disorder recovery.
It is important to note that some individuals may experience guilt and judgment if their mind wanders during prayer, and may therefore avoid salat or may struggle to approach the act. It is important to remember that Allah is merciful and understands the intention of our actions.
In the Quran, Allah states, “And indeed We have created man, and We know whatever thoughts his inner self develops, and We are closer to him than his jugular vein” (Quran 50:16).
It’s okay to approach ourselves with the compassion and grace Allah provides us. If one is having difficulty finding this compassion inwardly, it may be helpful to speak with a religious leader for further clarification and support.
Quran recitation and the use of a tasbih (prayer beads).
Similar to salat, recitation of or listening to the Quran and praying invocations using a tasbih can be linked to mindfulness. You can focus on the words, the pauses, and the rhythm of recitation. If you notice your mind drifting, you can approach yourself with compassion and try to bring your attention back to the words.
Eating disorders impact a significant percentage of Muslims worldwide. Research in recent decades suggests the efficacy of mindfulness-based practices for eating disorder recovery. However, these practices should be implemented with caution and curiosity with Muslim clients to ensure that 1) clients are accepting of this practice, and 2) that practices can be adapted in religiously-congruent ways.
*Note: The writer of this article is a Muslim-identifying individual and licensed psychotherapist, and not a religious leader or scholar. All ideas presented in this article are based on the writer’s interpretations and clinical experiences. Further consultation with a religious scholar is encouraged for clarity on the perspective of mindfulness within one’s specific religious sect and the appropriateness of utilizing a mindfulness lens when engaging in the various practices outlined in this article for eating disorder recovery.
Fatema Jivanjee-Shakir, LMSW is an eating disorder therapist, writer, and speaker.
She has extensive experience working with adults, adolescents, and couples at all levels of care.
Her work is strongly informed by the Health at Every Size perspective and intersectional approaches to healing.
Fatema has a special interest in working with Muslim clients and has been featured in numerous publications, including The Los Angeles Times, HuffPost, PopSugar, and HelloGiggles.
Fatema is a therapist at Conason Psychological Services and a Board Member of the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals New York chapter.
You can find her on Instagram at @YourSouthAsianTherapist.
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