How Muslim should look at health and fitness

Health is often misunderstood as being free from illness but in actual fact, it is more than that. Health is actually a bridge that will take you to your goal and live your true purpose.

In recent years I’ve observed an interesting growing controversy in (western) society. In a time where healthcare costs and patient numbers of lifestyle diseases like diabetes, alcoholism/smoking, and obesity are rising to unknown heights, “health” has become the new hype.

The growth in the number of gyms is insane, superfoods become more and more expensive and there are loads of people who become cult-like followers of their diet/exercise philosophy.

You hear everybody talking about health and the amount of information on the internet is overwhelming. The worst parts are that so many people claim that their vision on health and how to attain it is ‘the best’… and they are all contradicting each other. This commercialization of health as shift the focus from well-being to profit

So to begin our health journey… What is ‘health’ actually? Does being healthy mean that you are capable of all kinds of impressive physical feats of strength? Are you healthy when you can run a marathon? Does being healthy mean you never get sick and feel energetic all day long?

It is really important to know what health is before one starts trying to ‘become it’. Being bombarded with information about your health without knowing it’’s core being could lead you to be confused, chase unrealistic/unpractical goals and make you vulnerable for misinformation by the many ‘guru’s’ out there. Even more important, a deep understanding of the concept of health is necessary to set yourself up for long term behavioral change. The reality of health is that it is a core element for our life’s purpose, one that should be elevated to an act of worship.

What is health?

There have been many different definitions about what health actually means. The World Health Organisation (WHO) put forth in 1948 that health was “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”. Well… As if the “absence of disease or infirmity” wasn’t demanding enough, the WHO’s perception of health as a “complete well-being” is rather idealistic.

Recently a far more practical definition was promoted by researcher Machteld Huber who described health as ‘the ability to adapt and to self manage, in the face of social, physical and emotional challenges’. Huber’s definition individualizes the concept of health and transforms it from something you ‘are’ or ‘are not’ to a tool to interact with your environment.

I personally really like this definition and think it is very applicable if you look at it through an Islamic lens. In the narrations of our Prophet SAW he spoke about health in a functional way. In a hadith the Prophet (ﷺ) said to a man while he was advising him: “Take advantage of five matters before five other matters: your youth, before you become old; and your health, before you fall sick; and your richness, before you become poor; and your free time before you become busy; and your life, before your death”. In this hadith the Prophet told us to “make use” of our health, not merely ‘attain´ or ‘be’ it.

Health for a Muslim

Machteld Huber states that health is the ability adapt and self-manage challenges. So the first part in finding out was health entails is to find out what is those challenges are? We get an explanation in the Quran where Allah SWT says “And I (Allah) created not the jinns and humans except they should worship Me (alone).”(Quran 51:56). The reason of our existence is to worship god and Him alone, therefor a logical conclusion is that ‘health’ is a tool to reach this end goal. Allah SWT also tells us that during this life we will face a variety of difficulties and challenges; “And certainly, We shall test you with something of fear, hunger, loss of wealth, lives and fruits, but give glad tidings to the patient ones.” (Quran 2:155).

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So an Islamic definition of health could be that “Health is a state wherein a believer has the physical, mental, social and spiritual capabilities to adapt and self-manage his/hers tests and ones path to Allah.”

Health is personal

It is important to understand that health is a tool to deal with your challenges. Knowing what your challenges are in life gives you the opportunity to understand what your physical, mental, social and spiritual demands are going to look like. Because ones challenges and goals in life are constantly changing, your demands on your capabilities does too. That means ‘health’ is not static state that stays the same one’s entire life or that is the same for everybody. Health is a fluid state that describes one’s ability to face the ever-changing demands in the light of their challenges and goals in life.

Understanding this helps you to understand which situations or behaviors are healthy for you. I’ll give an example; staying up large parts of the night, limiting your sleep and eating at strange hours is is not a ‘healthy’ or productive behavior. But exactly this is required from us in the holy month of Ramadan. So if you would follow the WHO’s definition o health and take health as a goal on itself, Ramadan fasting (especially in the long summer hours) would be “bad for your health”.

Health & Spirituality

But with the Islamic perspective on health, we see that your physical health, in this case, is a tool to face a spiritual challenge that you are being confronted with. You being physically healthy gives you the capability to endure a period of physical hardship and that will hopefully increase your spiritual health. An athlete is healthy when his physical performance is peaking at times of competition. But a student doesn’t need to be able to run a marathon. His challenges are different and thus spending the same amount of training as a professional athlete can even hurt his ambitions and upcoming challenges

What is your health needs

Health’s only purpose is to facilitate (self-manage) the things we want to do in our lives. So health only has value when one understands his goals and the tools he needs to attain it. Knowing your goals and what kind of challenges you will probably face determines what your mental, spiritual and physical capabilities should be. Knowing your goals and the demands that come with it also gives you a filter to evaluate the importance of certain behaviors. Does your goal demand a high physical fitness? Or is it enough to just ‘be in shape’? Does your life involve high levels of stress that you actively have to do relaxation or mediatationxercises, or is have a walk in the park enough?

Stop others from forcing their vision of health on to you. Start off with knowing yourself, your life and your goals and only then… will you find an answer to what ‘health’ really means.

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