Observation is the essence of discovery. The Qur’an encourages observing the world and reflecting on signs. Research should enable one to gain wisdom which in turn is applied in order to benefit others. Since the manner is not specified, the Muslim researcher has the flexibility to design methods to describe social phenomena (Alias, 2005). Modern scientific research methods are not unfamiliar to Islam, having been used by Muslim thinkers of the past to study various religious or social phenomena (Alias, 2005). Therefore, there is flexibility in studying the eating habits of a sample of people. Habits are considered second nature; a concept that also applies to nutritional habits, which can be either harmless or harmful (Nimrouzi & Zare, 2014). Eating habits entail food preference and the frequency of intake, which has a direct association with overall health (Parekh, 2017). Lifestyle illnesses have grown in recent times due to the availability of fast food options. Cardiovascular illnesses, diabetes, obesity, and depression are linked to diet. As such, studying the eating patterns of people would provide insight into the scope of modern lifestyle problems, including the occurrence of eating disorders.
The sample in my research would be the local Muslim community in Cape Town. Naturalistic observation involves looking at behavior as it unfolds without intervening and adding extra variables, thus, it is ideal to observe the sample without participating and opening the doors for biases, as opposed to the questionnaire method. Before conducting the research, it would be wise to create a list of symptoms and common choices associated with eating disorders, for the purpose of looking out for these behaviors. Eating disorders are abnormal eating habits that negatively influence one’s self-image, mental state, emotions, and behavior. Anorexia and bulimia are examples of eating disorders that lead to unhealthy weight loss as well as a myriad of unhealthy symptoms. In turn, overeating due to emotional turmoil or habitual perceived hunger (Sibilia, 2010) leads to obesity and associated lifestyle illnesses (Parekh, 2017). The association between Body Mass Index and psychological distress adds to the frequency and quantity of eating, which contributes to obesity and other disorders, confirmed by a study done by Al-Thani & Khaled, (2018). Since judging stress levels and estimating BMI is impossible using the naturalistic method, I will look into other factors, such as the type of foods favored, the quantity consumed, and the overall time spent eating. My preferred means of recording would be field notes and a timer.
Via direct observation, recording can take the form of writing, audio, and videos which are interpreted later. A limitation is that, although uninfluenced during the occurrence of natural actions and attitudes, the bias of the researcher can influence later interpretations. This can be combated by recording videos instead of writing field notes at the moment. Field notes can also be written with language that states the obvious and is free from stereotypes of non-literal descriptions. The perk about this method in terms of gleaning eating habits is that it reduces self-report bias, and is independent of active involvement from the subjects. (Goodwin, 2010) I would aim to record the food choice options that attract Muslims in an open food court in a mall or at a halaal market, which is organized once a month to promote local vendors. A variety of products are available ranging from gluten-free and vegetarian options to fast food burgers, chips, and pizzas, as well as fruit-based and ice cream desserts. I would choose this setting as opposed to a mosque’s food fair due to the availability of healthier eating options. Furthermore, the mosque setting would be unsuitable due to the obligation to purchase food for the sake of fundraising. Due to the risk of under-reporting and self-bias that can occur in other methods, the naturalistic observation is ideal as it is a direct observation of eating behavior. Eating behavior is influenced by social factors (Meule & Vögele, 2013), and eating out is particularly popular among young adults (Al-Thani & Khaled, 2018). However, the attendees of food markets vary in age, therefore it would be easier to study a random sample as opposed to singling out particular age groups to observe.
The Islamic norm is to eat that which is confirmed to be permissible and avoid that which is impermissible (2:168, 2:172). A Muslim is advised to eat from what is good and not to transgress.
‘O children of Adam, take your adornment at every masjid, and eat and drink, but be not excessive. Indeed, He likes not those who commit excess. i.e. who waste by extravagance.’ (Qur’an 7:31)
According to various verses including the aforementioned, moderation is encouraged and overindulgence is discouraged in Islam (6:141); thus these values would form the basis of a conscious Muslim’s eating habits. One must avoid extremes and choose a moderate course, a notion that extends to eating habits (20:81). The Prophet (SAW) said: ‘No human ever filled a vessel worse than the stomach. Sufficient for any son of Adam are some morsels to keep his back straight. But if it must be, then one-third for his food, one-third for his drink, and one-third for his breath.’ [Ibn Majah, 3349]
Observing without the sample being aware brings about certain ethical implications, particularly on the part of the Islamic researcher in terms of whether covert observation would count as spying, and whether reporting would count as gossiping or backbiting.
‘O you who have believed, avoid much [negative] assumption. Indeed, some assumption is sinful. And do not spy or backbite each other.’ (49:12)
Thus, confidentiality must be respected. No names and stark identifying features should be noted in the field notes. Characteristics such as body type and build could be mentioned without going into detail. Video and audio should be kept private, especially if the sample is unaware. Afterward, one could approach the observed to obtain permission to use the observations in reports while respecting their respective wishes. This can be considered debriefing. It is important to make sure that the research is never to spy for the sake of exposing faults- but rather, an entryway into solutions and societal betterment. The research undertaken would have to abide by Islamic ethics and values, thus the rights of people should not be harmed.
The results of the naturalistic observation of the eating habits of Cape Town Muslim market-goers will be a good base to assess the popularity of fast food type stores versus wholesome health-conscious vendors. It may help to build a tentative image of the eating pattern and food preferences of Muslims in public. A limitation is being unable to make conclusive assumptions about whether eating disorders are observed without a follow-up with the individuals. As no consistent link can be identified between BMI, obesity, and food intake patterns, attempting a diagnosis of eating disorders based on food intake and preference alone would be inappropriate (Togo, Osler, Sørensen & Heitmann, 2001). The significance of this research would be that it marks an entry point for more in-depth inquiry that will in turn result in better marketing of healthy food alternatives, formulating a scope and providing solutions to eating disorders, and an overall improvement in the population’s eating habits.