[This following article is based on a lecture given by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf Hanson in London, England. It was previously published in the Muslim Word—a monthly newsletter in Toronto—in the May, 1998 issue. This current version includes a new introduction, several additions, and has been edited.]
“We raised them up from their sleep so that they might question one another. A speaker from among them said, ‘How long have you tarried?’ They said, ‘We have tarried a day or part of a day.’ Another said, ‘Your Lord best knoweth what you have tarried.’ Now send one of you with this sliver coin into the city, and let him see (yanzuru) what food (ta’aama) is purest (azkaa) and bring you nourishment (rizq) from it. And let him be courteous in order not to inform others about his presence” (Qur’an 18:19).
Food is the foundation of our material existence. During our life in the womb we were sustained materially by our mother’s nourishment through the umbilicus. We left the wombs and the umbilicus was severed to begin another stage of nourishment, the breast. Upon being weaned, we began to eat foods of various textures and tastes, acquiring lifelong preferences during this stage, some good, and others bad. There is a relationship between food and language that is quite revealing. Our metaphors are often derived from our necessary relationship with food. We talk about sweet talk and bitter words, being hungry for love and thirsty for knowledge, of the “milk of human kindness” and “one man’s meat being another’s poison.” When speaking of the need for change, we say things like, “I need to wean myself from this,” or “I’m going to abstain from vain talk.” All of our metaphors that relate to food and drink, hunger and satiety, indicate the central role that food plays in our lives and how profound its experience is to us.
Few people think of the relationship that food has to their health. Before we speak about food, let us ask the question “what is health?” Most people believe that health is an overall state of well-being, the absence of pain, and the relative vitality of the body.
A physician will give a person a “clean bill of health,” with almost no understanding of the overall state of the person as a spiritual, intellectual, emotional and physical being. Each of these dimensions has a healthy status and an unhealthy one. For most people, spiritual health is given almost no consideration. If one goes to Church every Sunday, or the Synagogue on Saturday or the Mosque on Friday, given the respective faith, he or she may consider themselves spiritually well. Little attention is paid to the spiritual heart’s diseases such as greed, covetousness, pride, envy, vanity, arrogance and anxiety. All of these are symptoms of pronounced spiritual disease. When mental health is considered, people tend to focus on emotional health and not intellectual health. However, can we call a man who spends his days developing more sophisticated ways of killing people for the government, healthy? If a man develops napalm with his intellectual gifts and finds out that Vietcong villagers are building lakes so that when the napalm is dropped and their skin begins to burn from the assault they can flee to the lake and submerge themselves in the water thus preventing serious burns, which causes that same man to enhance his napalm by making it insoluble in water so that people can no longer find relief from the pain by immersing themselves in water. Is that man healthy intellectually? When people consider their emotional states they rarely see subtleties in their overall emotional health. If they are not depressed or grief-stricken and their overall mood is balanced they feel emotionally healthy. They might be surprised at the idea of lack of concern for others less fortunate than they are being an emotional disease resulting from a lack of compassion; or that excessive love of money, not greed but actual emotional attachment to one’s wealth, whereby if the stock market goes down, I have an emotional downturn also, is a sign of serious emotional disease.
People often believe that because they are fine at a given moment they think that they are generally well. But we must realize that when disease is dormant, and the right circumstances can cause a flare-up, one is still considered suffering from a disease, chronic and dormant perhaps, but still disease. There are those also who believe their bodies are physically well in the absence of pain and yet hypertension, which is often undetectable without medical tests, is one of the major causes of midlife mortality in America. What then is health? When is a person healthy?
The Latin word for health is Sanitas, which is where we get our word sanity, i.e. well-being of the mind. The Romans had a phrase sans mensus; sans corpus: a healthy mind in a healthy body. The Arabs call health sihhat from a root meaning “to be sound or strong, a sahih hadith is a healthy hadith that has no ‘ilal or diseases, as is known from the Islamic science of prophetic traditions. A “healthy” hadith had to have five qualities before it was determined to be sound by the doctors of the hadith science. If any were lacking then the hadith was determined to be “sick.” Depending upon the number of criteria missing, the hadith was: very weak, weak, or in “good health” but not excellent. If we look to the human, what criteria would we use to determine the health of that person?
In Islam, health is actually not seen to be of the body, but rather the state of the heart. There is a hadith in which the Prophet, peace be upon him, said, “There is a lump of flesh in the body, if it is sound the whole body is sound. Is it indeed the heart.” He was not talking primarily of the physical body or the physical heart but of the spiritual body and the spiritual heart. A man can be suffering from a terrible disease and considered to be in excellent health in Islam, while another can be in perfect bodily health but determined to be sick according to the Qur’an. In fact, a hallmark of hypocrites is the excellent appearance of their bodies, “Their outward forms are pleasing to you.” But the Qur’an says of them, “In their hearts is a disease.” True health is the state of one’s heart with God. The heart is healthy when it is filled with trust, love, charity, compassion, lack of material desire, patience, hope, awe of God, and most importantly, gratitude. It is diseased when filled with suspicion, envy, hatred, anger, pride, anxiety, hopelessness, and ingratitude. But the health of the body is also important and Islam prohibits its neglect for many reasons, the least of which is one does not function well in the world when handicapped by ill health.
What is the role of food in our basic well-being, in the state of the spirit, intellect, emotions and body? Is food only related to the state of ones body and is there a connection between the body and the other integral elements of man? There has been a concern about food from the very early period of Islam. Al-Qushayri in his Risalah says that the Companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) were more concerned about their food than about the night prayer (qiyaamul-layl). The reason being, because if they were eating food that was not good or lawful, there wouldn’t be any night prayer! One of the early generations (salaf) said, “I heard a word of backbiting and as a result of it I was denied the night prayer (tahajjud) for 40 days.”
In relation to food, whenever the Qur’an mentions the word halal, which indicates what is permissible, it mentions tayyib, which means pure, immediately after it. What is meant by permissible and pure is that the food is not simply good to eat but it is a morally sound food, its source was ethically sound. It also has the meaning in the Arabic language of “lawful”, “pure,” “esteemed.” A person who is cheery and of good disposition is called Tayyib. Something that is pure and innocent is also Tayyib. The Prophet’s son, peace be upon them, was known as both Tayyib and Tahir, both meaning pure. Thus, the Qur’an commands us to eat “pure and permissible food.”
Until recently, the majority of food was pure at its most primary level by nature because there was very little that people could do to food to contaminate it. With the resources available today, people change the chemical structures of food, and the study of Dietary Science is a burgeoning field of increasingly serious implications concerning the health of our planet.
Allah warns us not to change His creation but to leave it in its natural state. That’s what fitra means. There is a beautiful hadith in Sahih Muslim in which the Prophet (peace be upon him) passed by a group of people who were pollinating and he thought it was a strange, unnatural practice. The Ansar stopped doing it after the Prophet questioned it and they had a bad crop that year. So they complained to the Prophet (peace be upon him) and he said that they knew better about their worldly matters than he did, for his remark about the pollination, was not based on revelation and was never meant to be. While it was not wahy, his comment is indicative of how he viewed the world, peace and blessings be upon him.
We are all electro-magnetic resonances at the most basic level. We are vibrating at a certain resonance. Food has a resonance and when you eat it, it either nourishes or harms, although the food itself is neutral. If you eat in its right proportions, and if you eat good food, then it is going to be beneficial to the body. The opposite is also true. The worst thing you can do is to completely fill the body with food. In a sahih hadith the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “The worst vessel that the son of Adam can fill is his stomach.” And he also said: “It is enough for the son of Adam to have just morsels (of food) to keep his back upright. But if you have to eat more than that [and everybody thinks this is part of the Sunnah] then one third for food, one third for water, and one third for air.”
The Sunnah is to consume enough morsels to keep our backs straight, while filling one third of the stomach with food, one third air and one third with water, is the dispensation (rukhsa) given to us by the Prophet (peace be upon him). At the same time, we know that the Prophet (peace be upon him) did not encourage asceticism and he did not like going to extremes.
Imam Busayri said, in this regard, “it may be that too little food is worse than too much food.” This is because the nature of the nafs is such that the excessive extreme is safer than the deficient extreme. A diabetic is not in danger when his sugar levels get high, but he is when it falls precipitously low. An overeater can go on for a long time but someone who under eats can eat into serious health problems very quickly. So Imam Busayri is saying that those of excessive zuhd (doing-without) are worse than people who are indulgent, because the former can end up killing themselves.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) never liked pointing out people’s mistakes publicly but there are a few examples when he did. There is a very interesting hadith where the Prophet said to a man with a large stomach: “Had this been on somebody else it would have been better for you.” Meaning that the food you are wasting by overeating would be better if someone else was eating it.
In the Kitab Al-Raqaa’iq of Ibn Mubarak, Sayyiduna ‘Umar sees Yazid making tawaf around the Ka’bah and his stomach was coming out over his loin cloth (izaar), so he took his stick and lifted his devotional cover (ihram) saying: “Is this the stomach of a little kafir?” ‘Umar was making a reference to the well-known sahih hadith, which says that the kafir eats from seven intestines and the believer eats from one. The circumstance of the hadith is that a man came to the Prophet (peace be upon him) to learn about Islam, so the Companions brought him some milk and he drank seven bowls. The next day he came and took shahadah and the Prophet offered him milk again and this time he only drank one bowl. The Prophet (peace be upon him) then asked him if he wanted more and he said that he was now full. The meaning of this is that the kafir’s appetite for the dunya is more than the true mu’min.
Food is our essential connection with the world. One of the early pious Muslims said that he would prefer to stop eating before he became satiated so that he would be able to perform the night prayer. Prophet and his message, he stayed at the sanctuary of the Ka’bah for one month and he used to only drink the water of zamzam, and he said that he gained weight in that month.
If you look at the diet of the Prophet (peace be upon him) in the Shama’il of Imam At-Tirmidhi, it says that he used to eat barley (sha’eer), which has proven to be the most nutritious of all the grains. He also used to eat dates. However, they did not drink cow’s milk, but rather goat, sheep, and camel’s milk. They also made a type of yogurt, as well as butter (zubda), from it. He liked pumpkin, cucumber, grapes, which came from Ta’if, and he also liked melons. The Arabs would also bring dried fruits from Syria such as apricots, but they were expensive and thus only affordable for the well-to-do.
Meat was rarely eaten in the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him). In the language of the age we now live in, the Companions would be considered semi-vegetarian. In those days you had to personally sacrifice an animal before you had meat and so meat was usually only eaten when people were invited somewhere as guests. Meat is a ‘na’eem’ or a “luxury” food. The Arabs call somebody who loves meat or is carnivorous a ‘qarim.’ Once ‘Umar saw a man buying meat everyday in the market and asked him why. He replied that he was so ‘Umar told him that he was afraid that he would become like those who lose all of their good deeds in this world by taking too much na’eem from the dunya. ‘Umar, during his khilafah, prohibited the eating of meat everyday. This is permissible for the Khalifah to do because it is only mubah (permissible) to eat meat everyday.
With this said, it is mentioned that al-Hasan Al-Basri, in his time, used to eat a small amount of meat everyday. But no one has considered this to affect his status as a zahid (one who does without the excesses of dunya). The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “Meat is the master of food.” It is like the aristocrat of food. Imam Malik has a chapter called Bab Al-Lahm (The Chapter about Meat) in his collection of hadith entitled the Muwatta. The following are two hadith from this chapter and they are both warnings about eating meat:
1. “Beware of meat because it has an addiction like the addiction of wine.”
To this day, in some parts of Yemen, they call meat “khamr al-mu’mineen” (the wine of the believers). People who eat meat constantly must have meat in their food because they get addicted to its taste or flavor. In many places in the Muslim world, meat was not readily available, and for most, extremely expensive. Do to its cost, most Muslims rarely ate meat and one of the benefits of the Feast of the Sacrifice after Hajj is that poor people get to eat meat for a day.
Another aspect that has changed is refrigeration. In the past, people ate meat that was freshly slaughtered and thus the decomposition was minimal. Now, meat is kept for days, weeks, and even months. Meat consumption is much higher today than it was in the past. Also there is a danger in the unnatural growth hormones and estrogen [a female hormone] used in modern meat production as well as in the dairy industry. Immigrant parents who are of average height are now finding that their children are much taller than them or anyone in their families. Many think it is a good thing and attribute their children’s size to the “good food” they are eating (as if they didn’t get good food back where they came from).
Wherever American beef has gone there has been an increase in the size of the people. This has happened in Japan and in Asian countries such as the Philippines. The average height of an average person is five feet, eight inches. In the Muslim world that’s the average height. If you are six feet and you go on Hajj you will tower over everyone else.
The other hadith in the Muwatta is:
2. ‘Umar used to see someone who buys meat all the time, so he said: “It would be better if you tucked your stomach in a little bit and let other people eat.”
This is a very profound insight from the Second Caliph, ‘Umar, may Allah be pleased with him. Starvation is very real and one of the tragedies of modern food shortages is directly related to meat production in general and cattle consumption in particular. It takes several pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat and reducing one’s meat consumption is in fact a political act that, if done on large scales, would have excellent benefits for both the environment and the less fortunate.
In the Muslim world today, lamb, rather than beef, is the dominant meat eaten. Lamb was the traditional meat eaten by the Prophet (peace be upon him), although he did sacrifice a cow on the Hajj, which was for his women folk. There is a sahih hadith that says: “The meat of the cow is a disease and its milk is a cure.” Today we are seeing evidence that cow’s meat is the number one reason for cardio-vascular disease. Saturated fats found in animals are the main cause for one’s arteries becoming sclerotic, which leads to strokes and heart attacks. We see that bypass operations are very common for people who have a habit of eating a lot of cow meat. It is tragic because if people would just follow the Sunnah, they would rarely need such common and preventable operations. Allah says, “Eat and drink but not to excess, Allah does not love those who are excessive.” The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “The best of my Ummah are my generation, then the second generation, then the third generation, then they start getting plump.”
In most cases, it is our own appetite (nafs) that leads to heart conditions and we should really only blame ourselves. The body is designed to live over 120 years. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said that the ages of his Ummah would be between 60–70 years. The Prophet passed away when he was 63 and it is said that his stomach was completely flat, that he had only 17 grey hairs in his beard and that he had the strength of 40 men.
The body has rights over us. The right of the body is that it has to be fed properly and it has to be given exercise and rest. The great Imam Al-Ghazali said that the maximum amount of sleep that the body must be given is eight hours. Sleep is nourishment; it is food for the ruh (spirit).
Protein, carbohydrates, and lipids feed the body, while the ruh is fed by the remembrance of Allah (dhikr) and sleep (nawm). Another thing that is notable is that the more dhikr you do the less sleep you need.
If you sleep before midnight (meaning halfway between Maghrib and Fajr), after ‘Isha, then that sleep is worth up to twice as much as the sleep that occurs after midnight. The Sunnah of the Prophet is to go to bed right after ‘Isha, and sleeping after Fajr, before sunrise (shuruq), is considered negative sleep. So, if you slept for two hours it is as if you were deprived of two hours of sleep. It is negative sleep. If you sleep before Zuhr or before ‘Asr, then that is positive sleep and it is worth twice in terms of the rejuvenation of the body. According to Imam As-Suyuti in Tibb An-Nabawi, “Whoever sleeps after ‘Asr and wakes up mad let him blame only himself.”
The Prophet (peace be upon him) used to sleep after Zuhr and he said: “Take an afternoon sleep (qaylula) because Shaitan does not take one.” This practice helps you get up at night for the night prayer (tahajjud). When you take the afternoon rest it literally brings you back to the freshness of the morning. It is like starting the day all over again.
Sickness is not a bad thing because it is a form of taharah for the members of this great Ummah; it is purification. You get sick when your immune system deteriorates. This happens when you don’t give the body its right. You should not consume too much sugar because it will compromise your immune system. Drinking all these sugared drinks is bad for your health.
The Prophet did not drink with meals. If you drink a sugared liquid with a meal then it creates a type of fermentation inside your stomach, especially if you’ve eaten carbohydrates and meat. By drinking a cold fluid you weaken the digestion and put out its “fire.” It is better to drink a warm fluid after your meals.
The Prophet, peace be upon him, taught us how to eat, sleep, and worship. He reminded us that our bodies have a right over us. Only recently have scientists discovered that one’s health in later years is enhanced by a lifelong commitment to certain basic principles including moderation in food, drink, rest, and exercise. Western scientists have also clearly found that people who are in healthy marriages and practice prayer on a regular basis have longer and healthier lives. Islam provides immense guidance in the area of health and hygiene and this is an area sorely neglected among many Muslims today. We should all commit to healthier lifestyles including changing our diets to be more consistent with our beliefs and closer to our beloved Prophet’s practice.