The Muslim community is failing in health communication

When I was 17 years old I told a family member: ‘leave out the religion part, if you just follow the lifestyle prescribed in the Quran it’s almost impossible for you not to become successful!’.

This was before I was Muslim and before I even considered the idea of devoting myself to any particular religion. At this age, I was heavily invested in becoming a competitive athlete and starting my career in healthcare. It was to my surprise to find so many answers to modern-day illnesses and societal problems, be they physically, socially or mentally in a 1400-year-old text. 

I am 26 now and I have read and learned a lot about Islam, science, health and life in general. My passion for Islam and the tools it gives for health and wellness has increased, but so did an annoyance in the way the Muslim community is communicating these God-given tools.

A positive development, as our community struggles with a plethora of lifestyle diseases, is that we start to see the urgency to address and deal with these health issues. The solutions to these lifestyle diseases seem so easy; eat less, exercise more, sleep better, stop smoking and worry less. Unfortunately, this is where the easy stops. Changing the way how somebody behaves is very difficult. Health behaviour is so complex that even with all the hundreds of millions invested in research and programs we still have not found ‘the cure’ for the common lifestyle diseases like diabetes or obesity. It’s also not only the individual’s fault, the way our environment impacts our health behaviour is very well studied and described. 

Our problem is not the fact that we don’t know what to do, we don’t know how to make people do these behavioural changes

My annoyance is that our community haven’t progressed further than naming some short narrations about the way our Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) ate or how He (PBUH) and his companions would address people that were overweight or behaved in unhealthy manners. We totally leave out the context of these narrations. Just continuously telling people what that Umar (RA) told somebody that being overweight was a curse instead of a blessing is not an effective way to promote behavioural change. Confronting people again and again with how bad their behaviour is can be very detrimental to onces health.

Aisha (RA): “…When the people embraced Islam, the Verses regarding legal and illegal things were revealed. If the first thing to be revealed was: ‘Do not drink alcoholic drinks.’ people would have said, ‘We will never leave alcoholic drinks,’ and if there had been revealed, ‘Do not commit illegal sexual intercourse, ‘they would have said, ‘We will never give up illegal sexual intercourse…” (Sahih al-Bukhari 4993)

An interesting literature review by Tomiyama and colleagues (2018) theorised that weight stigmatisation can be as bad or even worse than somebodies actual BMI. People with health problems don’t need to be reminded that they are suffering from their current state, they experience that already every day. Continuously confronting people with what they are doing wrong and how bad they are for it is not the solution to our health crisis. As stated in the hadith of Aisha (RA) we need to work on the deeper cause of unhealthy behaviour. Just saying ‘eat less’ without first building somebody up will surely backfire. Help people value their life again so they can value their health. Teach them how to change behaviour, set realistic goals and create a supportive environment. Or even better; help them with their debt (2), feelings of discrimination(3) or education(4)

We need to increase our empathy and social support for the ones struggling with their health, even when it’s ‘by their own doing’. I am not promoting ‘fat acceptance’ or any other sort of unhealthy pity. But we need to accept the fact that our community’s health crisis isn’t solely from ‘a lack of knowledge’. We need to teach people how to change when their entire environment is working against them. Behaving healthy in an unhealthy environment is not easy and religious health stigmatisation is not going to solve this problem.

  1. Tomiyama, A., Carr, D., Granberg, E. et al. How and why weight stigma drives the obesity ‘epidemic’ and harms health. BMC Med 16, 123 (2018) DOI:10.1186/s12916-018-1116-5
  2. Sweet, E., Nandi, A., Adam, E. K., & Mcdade, T. W. (2013). The high price of debt: Household financial debt and its impact on mental and physical health. Social Science & Medicine91, 94–100. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2013.05.009
  3. Pascoe, E. A., & Smart Richman, L. (2009). Perceived discrimination and health: a meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin135(4), 531–554. doi:10.1037/a0016059
  4. Jansen, T., Rademakers, J., Waverijn, G. et al. The role of health literacy in explaining the association between educational attainment and the use of out-of-hours primary care services in chronically ill people: a survey study. BMC Health Serv Res 18, 394 (2018) doi:10.1186/s12913-018-3197-4