How Religious Literacy Can Save Lives

A Muslim woman touches a wooden wall as she prays at the shrine of Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jeelani, a Sufi saint, during the holy fasting month of Ramadan in Srinagar on June 7, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Danish Ismail
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-RAMADAN-WORLD, originally transmitted on June 9, 2016.

While on clinical rotations, I helped treat a patient who seemed to be fainting every other day from hypoglycemia.

Ms. K. had been diagnosed with diabetes over a year ago but had only started to have this problem recently.

After learning more about her social history and background, I discovered that she was a practicing Muslim and was fasting because of the holy month of Ramadan.

As a Muslim medical student, I realized providers need to have a baseline familiarity with the practices of various faith traditions.

Religious literacy enables doctors and nurses to better treat a diverse set of patients. Often these needs can be overlooked when the nuances of faith traditions are not understood, or even considered.

Other providers had considered adjusting Ms. K.’s diabetes medications or ordering extensive lab work without fully realizing the reasons for her recurrent hypoglycemia.

During Ramadan, which this year began on May 26 and ends next week, Muslims all over the world are abstaining from food and drink during the daylight hours. And yes, that includes even water – one of the most common questions Muslims get from non-Muslims.

How does Ramadan impact the health of the 3.3 million Muslims living in the United States, some of whom need medical treatment? Are health care providers ready to thoughtfully assist?

In Islam, fasting is only mandatory if a person is healthy. If people are ill or pregnant, they can make up the fast at a later time. I explained to Ms. K. that fasting would place her life at risk and that people with chronic diseases are granted the option of donating food to the poor instead of fasting.

Among the aspects of Islam I find most beautiful are these exemptions for health reasons.

The Quran states that Allah does not wish to cause excessive hardship through fasting and that the main lessons of Ramadan are about self-discipline and spiritual re-centering.

When I discussed these points with Ms. K., she was thankful she could continue practicing her faith without jeopardizing her health. How many doctors would have been able to present her with that option?

Fasting is a relatively common practice among world religions; in addition to Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Jains and others may be fasting at any given time.

Health care providers should be aware of their patient’s cultural practices and be able to suggest options for maintaining medication compliance without transgressing the person’s faith.

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Source: Religion News Service