A research team at the University of Auckland is working on an Islamic faith-based quit-smoking intervention to be tested next Ramadan.
As Ramadan starts today in Aotearoa, many Muslims will be quitting smoking in order to correctly observe the Holy Month.
Muslims are obligated to fast each day from sunrise until sunset during Ramadan, practising self-restraint from not only drinking and eating, but also from bad habits - including smoking.
The ninth month of the Islamic calendar is a crucial time for Muslims to pray and reflect, and attempt to better themselves, the way they treat others and their relationship with God.
Abdullah Kalantan, a doctoral researcher at the University of Auckland, says many Muslims use the opportunity of Ramadan to quit smoking, in their pursuit to get closer to God.
“The challenge is that after Ramadan, research has shown Muslims will go back to their regular behaviour once the month is over. One of the reasons is the absence of the spiritual environment.”
The first phase of the study is conducting qualitative interviews with Muslim smokers to better understand why they smoke and if they have previously attempted to quit.
“We analyse the data and then conduct a workshop with religious scholars. In the workshop we discuss the results and present them with the health messages we want to use. Then we try to link the health messages with religious messages.
“For example, a lot of Muslims shared that they want to quit for their health. In this case we look at what could be a good religious message, like reminding them that a good Muslim should not harm their body.”
The study is also being conducted in the Muslim-majority country of Saudi Arabia, to compare tobacco control policies, look at cultural and societal environments in both countries, and analyse how this influences the smoking behaviour and cessation of Muslims.
The aim for this Ramadan is to carry out a pilot randomised control trial. Abdullah explains that one group in the trial will only receive health messages while the other group will receive health and religious messages. They then look at the difference between these two groups.
Ideally, the messages will be delivered around crucial periods when smokers have the strongest urges to have a cigarette, like sunrise and sunset.
For Abdullah, this research is important to him as a Muslim.
“I want to be an active and useful person in my community. My hope is that even if it's a small percentage, I would like to improve the health and wellbeing of Muslims.”
But while the research he’s conducting is specific to Muslims and Ramadan, the idea of faith-based intervention is also beneficial for other religions.
“A lot of research has been done in Christian communities in the USA where they found that religion plays an important role in promoting health and reducing bad health behaviours."
Professor Chris Bullen, Abdullah’s supervisor, says community is also an important element in faith-based smoking cessation.
“We want to harness that social power of community like for example, people going to the mosque together - it builds a sense of camaraderie and accountability.”
For AUT student Ibrahim Al-Asaad, his friends and family are holding him accountable this year, as he enters his first Ramadan completely cutting out smoking.
“It’s not too bad because I have a very specific reason to quit. It’s the rules. It doesn’t feel right to cut everything out but still keep one bad habit.”
Learning about the intervention, Ibrahim says he prefers the messages aren’t too specific about smoking as it could potentially trigger a craving, but prefers general messages about health and Islam.
“I find it easiest to quit when it’s never on your mind,” he says.