Bringing health and wellness in Islam

Malaysia’s wealth of biodiversity could be turned into natural and traditional medicines, giving us an advantage in the Islamic wellness industry.

ACCORDING to the 2016 Global Wellness Economy Monitor, the wellness industry grew 10.6% (from US$3.36 trillion to US$3.72 trillion, or RM14.41 trillion to RM15.95 trillion) for the period between 2013 and 2015, even when the global economy shrank by 3.6%.

The Global Wellness Institute considered the wellness industry one of the world’s fastest-growing and most resilient markets.

The sectors within the wellness industry include preventive and personalised medicine and public health, complementary and alternative medicine, healthy eating, nutrition and weight loss, fitness and the mind-body connection, workplace wellness, beauty and ageing, the spa industry, wellness tourism, wellness lifestyle real estate and thermal or mineral springs.

Due to the potential demand in the wellness industry, the number of wellness start-ups recorded significant investment in 2015 in the form of angel investment, crowdfunding and venture capital.

This positive development has also led to the establishment of a health and wellness thematic exchange-traded fund through the listing of the Deutsche Health and Wellness Fund on Nasdaq in 2016.

Pondering upon the wellness reports and figures, one may wonder, what is “wellness”, really? The World Health Organisation defines wellness simply as “the optimal state of health of individuals and groups”.

Scholars have elaborated on the difference between health and wellness, referring to health as a state of being, whereas wellness is a process of being.

A number of models have also been established to measure an individual’s wellness. Depending on the models, the wellness dimensions may comprise physical, mental, psychological, spiritual, social, work, financial and environmental wellness.

From the various dimensions of wellness, spiritual wellness is possibly the most developed and discussed topic among scholars. Spiritual wellness aims for a universal value system by living in harmony with one’s own self, others and the universe.

This value system includes the formation of a worldview that gives unity, purpose and goals to thoughts and actions.

Research on wellness has also identified the spiritual dimension as the core and centre of wellness. In other words, an individual’s spirituality has a profound effect on his or her holistic wellness encompassing the physical, mental, psychological and other wellness dimensions.

The findings of spirituality as the core to individual wellness are very much consistent with Islamic tradition. It was narrated from the Prophet that the state of one’s body (good or bad) depends on the state of the heart (Sahih Bukhari and Muslim).

While Muslim physicians such as the Persian philosopher Ibn Sina referred more literally to the heart as the flesh of a physical heart in one’s body, Persian jurist and theologian Al-Ghazzali referred to the heart as a spiritual entity.

In Al-Ghazzali’s books, Kimiya-yi Sa’adat (The Alchemy of Happiness) and Ihya’ ul Ulumuddin (The Revival of Religious Sciences), the Islamic spiritual aspect of Sufi mysticism is emphasised and brought together with Sunni theology as a comprehensive guide to wellness practices in Islam.

Nonetheless, Ibn Sina’s book, Al-Qanun fi at-Tibb (The Canon of Medicine), which has survived as a medical reference for thousands of years, provides the essential requirements for a healthy heart and living. The book has been translated and is still being used today, particularly with the rising interest in personalised medicine.

Recent work by Prof Gerard Bodeker at the University of Oxford shows that the wellness of Islamic societies is due to an agenda of sustainability, as Islam places the highest possible value on nature and is able to provide a complex understanding of how the human body specifically responds to natural ingredients.

The Global Islamic Economy Indicator 2016/17 ranked Malaysia as the first out of 73 countries in the halal industry. Moving beyond halal status, there should be a shift towards halalan toyyiban (lawful and good) through health and wellness-oriented consumption.

As highlighted by Bodeker, “the nutritional, healing and beauty traditions across Islamic cultures are the last, lost, great bodies of traditional health knowledge that must and will be discovered”.

Malaysia has an advantage in promoting the Islamic wellness industry, considering the potential opportunity to turn the wealth of biodiversity in Malaysian forests into natural and traditional medicines. This could help to reduce dependencies on imported medicines and act as an option for cost-effective health treatments.

In industrialised societies, the use of complementary medicine is associated with the higher-income and higher-educated market segment.

As Malaysia progresses towards a high-income nation, the wellness industry may create well paid employment for local talents and provide another source of income from the export of halal wellness goods or Islamic wellness tourism.

In developed countries like the United States, Germany and Britain, as well as some Asian countries like Singapore, China, South Korea and Vietnam, insurance may fully or partly cover the treatment and products of traditional medicine. Hence, the Islamic wellness industry can also be an avenue to grow the takaful industry by providing coverage for services of registered Islamic wellness practitioners.

Given that well-being is in focus at the national level and monitored through the Malaysian Well-being Index, wellness at an individual level should be integrated as part of a comprehensive economic well-being agenda.

With its own heritage value, the wellness of the Islamic tradition may also strengthen the “Malaysia, Truly Asia” national identity by harmonising it with local traditional Chinese medicine and India’s Ayurveda heritage.

Suzana Md Samsudi is a Fellow with Ikim’s Centre for Economics and Social Studies. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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