The Science Behind Religious Fasting: Ramadan and Autophagy

The Riverside Church

January 19, 1936

My dear Dr Einstein,

We have brought up the question: Do scientists pray? In our Sunday school class. It began by asking whether we could believe in both science and religion. We are writing to scientists and other important men, to try and have our own question answered.

We will feel greatly honoured if you will answer our question: Do scientists pray, and what do they pray for?

We are in the sixth grade, Miss Ellis’s class.

Respectfully yours,

Phyllis

nuns

———————-

January 24, 1936

Dear Phyllis,

I will attempt to reply to your question as simply as I can. Here is my answer:

Scientists believe that every occurrence, including the affairs of human beings, is due to the laws of nature. Therefore a scientist cannot be inclined to believe that the course of events can be influenced by prayer, that is, by a supernaturally manifested wish.

However, we must concede that our actual knowledge of these forces is imperfect so that in the end the belief in the existence of a final, ultimate spirit rests on a kind of faith. Such belief remains widespread even with the current achievements in science.

But also, everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man. In this way, the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is surely quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.

With cordial greetings,

Yours A. Einstein

einstein

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Among the 125 inspiring and unusual letters in Shaun Usher’s compilation, Letters of Note, these were two letters that really caught my eye. It got me thinking how even one of the greatest scientists to ever live on Earth, does not negate the existence of God and the influence of religion in our lives. 

Science versus religion – has been an age-old debate, a topic that does not seem to lose people’s interest.

Can science and religion coexist? Well, at least Einstein agreed. Didn’t he?

Letters of Note : Shaun Usher : 9781782112235

Or perhaps, there was an inner meaning to his reply, which we are missing out. Maybe, it is not science versus religion. It is science in religion. Maybe they are supposed to go hand in hand.

All my life, I have been a keen student and a patient learner of both religion and science. Instead of frustration, I found pure joy in figuring out scientific evidence that would link to the religious practices that were followed everywhere, including my home. 

Among the many things I have learnt over the years, one of them is the importance of intermittent fasting in the month of Ramadan. I agree it is a spiritual act, at its basic level. But there is so much more to it than that. 

Science & Spirituality

When Yoshinori Ohsumi discovered the mechanisms behind autophagy that won him the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2016, I learnt something very profound through his invaluable work. He discovered how under certain circumstances, cells within our body digest themselves on their own in order to avoid build-up of toxic wastes. One of the conditions he discussed for this process to take place, was starvation or fasting.

In other words, intermittent fasting helps clean up the body with the help of autophagy. 

Imagine it to be something like this. If you happen to be a borderline untidy person like me, then you know how messed your cupboard might get within just three days of tidying it. Now imagine, six months of not cleaning up that mess. Again, if you are anything like me, you would wear the same shirt that lies on the top of the pile and not bother digging into the depth of the cupboard’s junk pile.

This is exactly what happens to the body when you simply eat and not do anything to burn it up. Your body starts adding everything you eat on top of another, leaving the older biomolecules deep down, unutilized. 

During intermittent fasting, autophagy comes into play and acts as the cleaning agent of the body, removing and organizing excess, unutilized biomolecules. This way there is a reduction in bad cholesterol levels, fasting blood glucose levels, and inflammatory markers. 

mosque

So, through a very recent discovery, I was able to understand the very basis of fasting that we Muslims have been religiously following since the past 1400 years or so. That’s when I realized that most of the religious practices that we may inadvertently follow may have some scientific principles underlying it. 

Growing up I was a student of science through and through. Religious or not, back then, I could not agree to something, unless it was not backed up with science and logic. Even now, being a scientist, I do not agree with something unless it is linked with some scientific jargon. 

The only difference between then and now is that I have grown up to understand not everything that has to be proved. Some customs and traditions need to be lived, understood, and then learnt from.

I totally agree with Dipa Sanatani, the author of The Little Light, when she says,

“Life is not meant to be foretold, Little Light. It is meant to be lived.”

Perhaps, if everything is proved, understood, and hence foretold, then there is no point at all. There are some things that are meant to be lived and learnt from. Maybe that’s why, right now, you are unable to see sense in that religious practice which you’re trying to figure out. 

Or maybe, you have to think harder because the world is waiting for you to explain it. 

About the Author

Fareeha

Fareeha Arshad is a forager of meaning, a reader by passion, a writer by choice, and a scientist by vocation. The Arab born, confused Desi lives on the Persian Gulf coast of Saudi Arabia with her parents and siblings, where she spends most of her time studying, teaching, writing or cooking. 

Author: Mith Books

Mith Books | The Merchant of Stories | Timeless Tales from Around the World

2 thoughts

  1. Amazing Fareeha!

    You continue to amaze me with the wonderful connections and associations you make. I truly love the idea that science and religion are not mutually exclusive.

    The understanding that not everything in the world can be proven is what widens our mind’s horizons. And I know that this post is going to help a lot of people do just that!

  2. Another remarkable way to look at the process of fasting!

    You know, I never believed in the Science vs Religion concept. I didn’t understand why we have to negate one to accept another, why can’t they both coexist. I had tried searching for answers but never found them. Perhaps I searched in the wrong places. The post resolved my conflicts. I just loved the concept of “Science in Religion”. That tended to all my doubts.

    And I just loved the line:
    “The only difference between then and now is that I have grown up to understand not everything that has to be proved. Some customs and traditions need to be lived, understood, and then learnt from.”

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