Islam is a demanding religion, requiring a considerable amount of time and effort on the part of believers to fulfil duties of worship. The core duties are known as the “five pillars of Islam”, the most burdensome of which is the fourth pillar, the injunction to fast during daylight hours (whereby no food, drink, smoking or sexual activity is permitted) during the lunar month of Ramadan, that is, 29 or 30 days. This is necessarily a debilitating requirement, whose health and economic impacts can be significant (children, the ill and elderly are exempted).
There is mounting evidence to show that fasting in the month of Ramadan has a negative effect on health which, in turn, can have an adverse impact on productivity and economic output. Naturally, the longer the period of fasting, the greater the effect – this is particularly so when Ramadan falls during the summer months in north European countries, as at present. The duration of the daily fast this year in Britain is about 19 hours.
Research by the Dutch academic Reyn van Ewijk points to an array of long-term health problems resulting from Ramadan fasting. For those women who chose to fast during pregnancy, it may cause considerable negative health effects on the offspring, irrespective of the stage of pregnancy in which Ramadan took place.
Exposure to fasting before birth is associated with a poorer general health. It also increases a person’s chances of developing symptoms that are indicative of serious health problems, such as coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes and, among older people who were exposed during certain stages of gestation, may lead to anaemia.
Occupational health researchers have highlighted various adverse health consequences from severe dehydration, including headaches, dizziness and nausea.
In the Muslim world, one word encapsulates the economic reality of Ramadan: “slowdown” – meaning that less work is done and more slowly. An article in Arab News in July 2013 suggested that productivity declines by as much as 35% to 50% as a result of shorter working hours and the change in lifestyle during the month so that decisions and vital meetings are postponed until it is over.
In an extensive survey, economists Felipe Campante and David Yanagizawa-Drott show that Ramadan fasting has a significant negative effect on output growth in Muslim countries. A survey by Dinar Standard, the growth strategy firm, estimates that in the Organisation of Islamic Conference countries the working day is reduced on average by two hours during Ramadan (PDF).
If we assume 21 working days in a month, this translates to a loss of 42 working hours. There is no indication that these hours are made up during the rest of the year. If, on average, 1,700 hours are worked during the year, this loss represents a 2.5% reduction in output per year.
Productivity declines not only from the physical strain of fasting but from the disruption to the flow and organisation of work. It is reasonable to assume that decline in productivity would further reduce economic output by at least 3% each year, which represents a significant annual recessionary impact of Ramadan.
It is revealing that OIC countries have never undertaken extensive research to ascertain the precise impact of Ramadan on their economies. What is more surprising is that international organisations, such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and United Nations Development Programme, have also not carried out this research; perhaps because of its sensitive nature.
It is sometimes argued that rather than Ramadan having a deleterious effect, it actually increases subjective well-being among Muslims. But the use of subjective well-being with respect to authoritarian doctrines, including religions, ought to be treated with caution, especially under autocratic regimes. This is especially true for Muslim-majority countries where apostasy and blasphemy are simply intolerable.
Given this, adherence to the tenets and rituals of the faith is demanded, and shown approval by the family, wider community, and (it is hoped) the almighty. To do otherwise risks bringing shame and dishonour to the family, clan, and society at large. So, it naturally follows that when asked about fulfilling religious duties, the believers deem this to be a gracious cause for improving well-being even if the duty in question – such as month-long fasting – is demonstrably harmful to the person’s health.
Accordingly, the supposed positive subjective well-being effects of Ramadan are a flawed indicator of genuine well-being. Medical science has long made clear that regular intakes of food and drink are a sine qua non for good health and soundness of mind. Given the significant and rising numbers of Muslims living in Britain, it is high time that the issue of the health and economic consequences of Ramadan fasting is given due consideration by national and local governments, businesses and society at large.
First published in The Guardian's Economics Blog on 3rd July 2015