Traditionally, Muslims knew the importance of eating well – perhaps not so much for enjoyment, but for health reasons. Yet somewhere along the line this knowledge was forgotten. By Omar Shahid.
A stupendous aroma spreads through the room. Savoury brown and yellow meats are spread over the table. The sight of rice, bread, salads and an exciting selection of drinks temporarily drown out life’s difficulties. The food is rich, tender and perfectly cooked. People fill their cheeks and flood food down their gullets whilst talking, laughing and quizzing one another about their day.
“Alhamdulillah, that was delicious,” those around the table call out, loosening their belt and undoing the top button of their shirt, feeling stuffed and slightly uncomfortable.
It’s not uncommon for Muslims to feast like this on the evening of Eid ul-Fitr, the festival that marks the end of Ramadan. Many of us see it as a highly deserved meal after a tough month of fasting – a meal that we look forward to throughout the year, and one that brings families together.
But, sadly, neither is it uncommon for Muslims to feast like this during iftar, the dusk meal during Ramadan.
Ramadan is a time to dispose of negative traits such as gluttony. It’s also a time to empathise with the poor and control the nafs, one’s ego and desires. Imam al-Ghazali, an influential 12th-century Islamic scholar, lays down a damning criticism of those who stuff themselves at the time of iftar.
“Of what use is the fast… if at the time of breaking it, one not only makes up for all one has missed during the daytime, but perhaps also indulges in a variety of extra foods? It has even become the custom to stock up for Ramadan with all kinds of foodstuffs, so that more is consumed during that time than in the course of several other months put together,” he wrote.
What Imam al-Ghazali said 900 years ago remains particularly apt today. In Qatar – now the fattest nation on earth1 – iftar and sahur have reached extravagant proportions. In 2012, on the first day of Ramadan,128 people were taken to hospital for stomach upsets and intestinal problems, while the food intake of Muslims reportedly doubles during the month.2
Qatar is not the only country in the Middle East to see obesity rates rocket over the past decade or so. The rise in obesity is blamed on things such as the increase in fast food (and importing the diets of many Western countries) and the idea that being fat distinguishes you from the poor.
But what is the reason Muslims seem to have forgotten about eating well? “The importance of eating healthy and wholesome food is well off the radar of Muslims at large today,” says Imam Afroz Ali, an Australia-based Islamic teacher and senior lecturer at Seekers Guidance, an Islamic education website.
“There are two fundamental reasons for this: firstly, the classical teaching did not place that much explicit emphasis regarding the toyyib aspect of the exhortation by Allah to eat ‘halal and toyyib’. The reason for this was because during early Islam, food was dimly natural and wholesome and there was no concept of highly processed food. Secondly, we have become a consumer society, and Muslims are not immune to this regression.”
Imam Afroz joins a long list of scholars who have recently promoted the importance of healthy eating, sourcing food ethically and eating less meat. But they are merely trying to revive an important part of the Islamic tradition, namely the diet. “The ethics and spirituality of producing and consuming food is a seriously important science within the vast knowledge of Islam,” says Imam Afroz.
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), his family and his closest companions ate very little and were deeply conscious about their diet. Their life was one of frugality. “We should be grateful for the gifts we have been endowed with from our Lord by being frugal, less wasteful and frivolous,” says Imam Afroz.
The Prophet (pbuh) reportedly said: “Nothing is worse than a person who fills his stomach.”3 It should be enough, says the Prophet (pbuh), for us to have a few bites to satisfy our hunger. If we wish for more, it should be: one-third for food, one-third for liquids, and one-third for our breath.
Hamza Yusuf, an influential US-based Muslim scholar, says that the Prophet (pbuh) was a semi-vegetarian. The second caliph, Umar, prohibited the Muslims of his time from eating meat two days in a row. He is also reported to have said: “Beware of meat, because it has an addiction like the addiction of wine.”4
It is not often you hear about Muslim vegetarians. But it is a growing phenomenon, largely because of the poor treatment of animals in many parts of the world, so people are seeing vegetarianism as a more ethical and spiritual option.
“It was a hard decision, but I became a vegetarian over a year ago,” says Fauzia, a Muslim woman in her early 20s from California. “It was a decision I made for the sake of my spirituality. We honestly don’t need meat in our diets and I’ve felt so much better since. I’ve felt more connected to God and I’m seeing more and more people choose this.”
The concept of vegetarianism is not new to Islam. The companion Ibnu Abi Lahm, points out Hamza Yusuf, was a vegetarian. Rabia al Basri, an 8th-century female Sufi mystic, is also believed to have shunned meat.
During a time when the spiritual dimension of food has been forgotten and consumerism prevails, what solutions are there? Imam Afroz points out three. “Firstly, we must support and involve our food purchase through ethical sources. Secondly, we must eat wholesome food by reducing processed food as well as reducing our food intake. Thirdly, go beyond just food consumption: review and audit your entire lifestyle and start to disengage from a consumerism mindset.”
The Qur’an gives a clear message about how we should think about eating food. “Eat of the good things We have provided for your sustenance, but commit no excess therein.” (20:81)
Eid, however, is a time to celebrate. If ever there’s a valid excuse to overeat, it’s now.
1 ‘Qatar most obese nation in the world’, Arabian Gazette, 16 April 2012, available here
2 ‘Over 100 people head to HMC ER with stomach problems, sparking debate about “right” way to spend Ramadan’, Doha News, 21 Jul 2012, available here
3 Narrated by Miqdam bin Madikarib, in Sunan Ibn Majah, available here
4 Narrated by Yahya, in Muwatta Malik, available here
This article originally appeared in the July 2014 Eid issue of Aquila Style magazine. For a superior and interactive reading experience, you can get the entire issue, free of charge, on your iPad or iPhone at the Apple Newsstand, or on your Android tablet or smartphone at Google Play