Although there are some indigenous characteristics in the patterns of consuming food in different Muslim cultures, Islam has laid down some specific and useful codes of conduct for eating which were recommended by the Prophet Muhammad.
Muslims have contributed much to the nutritional practices of the world’s many cultures. The Muslim’s nutritional practices are expected to be determined by the injunctions and regulations of Islam, as outlined in the Qur’an and explained by the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). There are more than 1.2 billion Muslims of different nationalities, societies, and geographical backgrounds. The unique food habits and nutritional practices of the Muslims are discussed in this article.
I. Cleanliness and Hygiene
Islam uses the Arabic term ‘Taharah’ for cleanliness. ‘Taharah’ literally means a state of purity and cleanliness. Taharah includes outer cleanliness and inner cleanliness. According to Imam Ghazali, outer cleanliness includes the cleanliness of body, clothes, and place. Inner cleanliness includes purity of beliefs and purity of thoughts. The importance of cleanliness (taharah) in Islam can be assessed by the fact that it is an essential pre-requisite for worship, specifically for the five daily prayers (Salat). “O you who believe! When you rise up for the Prayer, (if you have no ablution) wash your faces and your hands up to (and including) the elbows, and lightly rub your heads (with water) and (wash) your feet up to (and including) the ankles. And if you are in the state of major ritual impurity (requiring total ablution), purify yourselves (by taking a bath)….” (Maidah, 5:6)
The ritual prayer (Salat) is obligatory on every sane Muslim five times a day, for every day of his or her entire life. Evidently, cleanliness (taharah) is an essential part of Muslim life. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said: “The key to paradise is prayer (salat) and the key to prayers (salat) is cleanliness.” (Ahmad) The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) also said: “No prayer is accepted without purification and no charity is accepted out of ill-gotten wealth”. (Muslim) Cleanliness, therefore, is greatly emphasized, to the extent that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) declared:
“Cleanse yourself, for Islam is cleanliness.” (Reported by Ibn Hayyan) “Cleanliness invites towards faith (Iman), and faith (Iman) leads its possessor to the Garden.” (Reported by Al-Tabarani)
Islam motivates its followers to be clean by associating cleanliness with faith (Iman) and the reward of paradise. This motivation is stronger, more effective, and longer lasting than any scientific reasoning or any worldly motivation. The declaration of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH): ‘Cleanliness is a part of faith (Iman)’, supersedes hundreds of scientific studies revealing and recommending the importance of cleanliness.
(1) Cleanliness of Hands, Nails, and Hair
Hands are used to handle, prepare, serve, and eat food. Cleanliness of the hands is particularly emphasized because dirty hands can pollute and contaminate food, which can lead to many diseases. Washing the hands before and after eating and drinking, as well as after using the toilet, is a Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
Long nails can provide refuge to dirt and pathogens which may enter the alimentary canal while eating with the hands. Nails, therefore, are recommended to be trimmed regularly and maintained at their natural mark of demarcation.
The mouth begins with the upper lip and lower lip. Islamic Shari’ah recommends shortening the hair of the moustache so that the hair does not hinder eating, nor pollute the food or drink while consuming. This practice also facilitates the easy cleaning of the nose, which is essential for making wudu (ablution). The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said: “Whoso does not trim his moustache is not of us.” (Nasa’i)
Hair should be kept clean and combed regularly. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said:
“Whoever has hair, let him honour it (by cleaning and tidying it).” (Abu Dawud)
(2) Cleanliness of the Mouth (Miswak)
The alimentary canal, and thus the digestive process, begins with the mouth and teeth. When food is chewed in the mouth, dirty teeth can contaminate the food and lead to several diseases. If the teeth are not properly cleaned, food particles clinging to the teeth may cause tooth and gum diseases, which are among the most common diseases of human beings. No wonder Islam has given special emphasis to cleaning the teeth regularly. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was particularly careful in the practice of brushing teeth. ‘Miswak’ is an Arabic word meaning a tooth cleaner. It is made of wood (Salvadora indica) and used as a toothbrush.
Using a miswak (brushing the teeth) is recommended with every ablution (wudu). To motivate Muslims to use the miswak, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) emphasized that a prayer (salat) with clean teeth is seventy times better than a prayer (salat) without it. (Reported by Baihaqi).
Use of the miswak is recommended before and after every meal, and as often as one can. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said: “The miswak is a means of purifying the mouth and pleasing the Lord.” (Ahmad) The spiritual approach was used to encourage physical cleanliness when the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said: “Your mouths are the pathways of the Qur’an, render them, therefore, clean with the tooth stick (miswak).” (Ibn Majah)
II. Muslim Eating Habits
Eating, like any other act of a Muslim, is a matter of worship when performed according to the Islamic guidelines. Muslims are required to earn halal and eat halal, abstaining totally from haram earning and haram foods. Islam reminds Muslims that food and drink are the provision of Allah provided to them for their survival and for maintaining good health. Muslims find the best example (Uswat-ul-Hasanah) in the life of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Following the Prophetic (PBUH) practices and approvals is an integral part of a Muslim’s way of life. “Assuredly you have in Allah’s Messenger an excellent example to follow for whoever looks forward to Allah and the Last Day, and remembers and mentions Allah much…” (Ahzab, 33:21)
The following food habits have been practiced and approved by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
(1) Never Criticize any Food
Food should not be criticized for any reason, even if a person dislikes it. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) never criticized any food that was offered to him (PBUH). “The Prophet (PBUH) never criticized any food (he was invited to), but he used to eat it if he liked the food, and leave it if he disliked it.” (Sahih Bukhari)
(2) Du’a (Supplication) Before Each Meal
Since eating, like any other act of a Muslim, is a matter of worship, it begins with the name of Allah. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said: “The devil considers food lawful for him when Allah’s name is not mentioned over it.” (Muslim) Muslims are to start their eating by making the following du’a (supplication): “O Allah! Bless the food You have bestowed upon us and protect us from the torment of hell. In the name of Allah we start.” (An-Nasa’i) When a Muslim forgets to say this du’a before starting to eat, and remembers it after a while, he should say: “In the name of Allah before and after.” (Tirmidhi & Abu Dawud)
(3) Du’a (Supplication) After Each Meal
After completing the meal, Muslims praise and thank Allah for the blessings that He bestowed upon them. After finishing their meal, Muslims say the following du’a: “Praise be to Allah the One Who gave us the food and the drink. Praise be to Him Who made us Muslims.” (Tirmidhi & Abu Dawud)
(4) Eating Less
One of the main principles of good health is a balanced diet. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) emphasized the habit of eating less as a method of preventing sickness and disease. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said: “Nothing is worse than a person who fills his stomach. It should be enough for the son of Adam to have a few bites to satisfy his hunger. If he wishes more, it should be: One third for his food, one third for his liquids, and one third for his breath.” (Tirmidhi & Ibn Majah) It is interesting to note that this fact was recently realized by the scientific community (after 1400 years), as is manifested in the popular slogan by the American Dietetic Association (in March 1983): “Say yes to less… A Health plus +.” The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said: “Eat less, you will be healthier.” (Hadith)
Muslims are advised to eat not more than two thirds of their normal capacity. A very interesting study has been done by Berg, et al. (1960) with rats dealing with the onset of diseases (chronic glomerulo nephritis, periosteritis and myocardial degeneration), longevity and mortality as influenced by the level of food intake. On ad libitum feedings (as much and as often as desired), rats attained large skeletal size and developed obesity.
When food intake was restricted by 33% or 46%, (levels which prevented fat
accumulation and had little retarding effect on skeletal growth), longevity was extended and the onset of diseases was delayed. Though the major diseases leading to death in the rat and in man differ in nature, the tissues affected by lesions are the same. In both species, the blood vessels, heart and kidney are involved and hypertension is a frequent complication. Also, in man there is considerable evidence that being overweight and obese predisposes one to a shortened life expectancy and to the development of cardiovascular disorders, renal disorders, and hypertension. In the experiments conducted by Burrows, et al. (1965), the body weights of rats subjected to reduction in intake of Purina Laboratory Chow by 25%, 50%, and 75% were significantly lower than the control animals fed ad libitum. The restriction resulted in a significant increase in the succinoxidase activity of the liver.
(5) Eating Slowly
Eating slowly is recommended for health. Slow eating reduces the consumption of food, as it postpones much of the meal to a time when the absorption of nutrients begins to produce physiological signals of satiety.
Slow eating helps in chewing the food well. This results in the exercise of the jaws (mandibles) and mixing of saliva with food. Hence, efficient digestion takes place because the food particles are cut into smaller pieces, not requiring as much churning in the stomach or intestine.
The religion of Islam laid down the basis of dietary regulations as well as the limits within which man can satisfy his physical needs and desires without endangering his life and mental health. In contrast to man-made systems and superstitions, the divinely revealed religion of Islam (brought by Allah’s messengers Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and in the final form, by Muhammad) motivates man to seek the good of the Hereafter as well as of this world in a balanced way. It teaches man to enjoy the pleasures of life, including food, in a moderate way, not becoming a slave to his desires and not losing sight of his ultimate spiritual goal.
Eating is essential to sustain life and maintain health. Maintenance of health in turn, is essential to carry out the duty of serving Allah and propagating His message. “(We said 🙂 Eat of the pure, wholesome things that We have provided for you but do not exceed the bounds therein (by wastefulness, ingratitude, unlawful earnings, and the like)….” (Ta-Ha, 20:81) A Muslim is advised to avoid extremes and to choose a moderate course in all his affairs, including his eating habits.
“O children of Adam! Dress cleanly and beautifully for every act of worship; and (without making unlawful the things God has made lawful to you) eat and drink, but do not be wasteful (by over-eating or consuming in unnecessary ways): indeed, He does not love the wasteful.”
The Prophet (PBUH) advised the Muslims to avoid overeating and he (PBUH) himself was the best example of restraint. Islam encourages Muslims to enjoy life within certain limits. The limits are drawn from the Shari’ah which was built on the Islamic golden rule: “Do not harm or be a cause of harm”, whether for oneself or for others. Islam also encourages the individual to be content with little and to avoid greed. Consequently, it facilitates the feeling of contentment which induces happiness.
Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) demonstrated to his followers the pleasures of sharing, as opposed to over-indulgence in the good things of life. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said: “One person’s food is enough for two, two people’s food is enough for four and four people’s food is enough for eight.” (Muslim)
Sharing of food with neighbours, relatives, friends, the needy, and the destitute is emphasized. Ibn Abbas (R) reported that he heard the Messenger of Allah (SWT) saying: “He is not a believer who eats to his fill while his neighbour goes without food.” (Reported by al-Bukhari)
The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) often elaborated on the duty of the Muslim to suppress greed, especially in eating. This appears in a very specific situation reported by Ibn Umar, in which the Prophet (PBUH) prohibited anyone taking two dates together before asking permission from his companions. (Reported by al-Bukhari).
(8) Eating Together
Eating with others brings about harmony and understanding among people. The family members eating daily meals at the same time and at the same table typify a happy family. Having meals together strengthens the family relationship.
People are usually relaxed when eating in company. Their minds are less absorbed in their daily activities and are free of worries. Thus, people are better able to communicate with one another. Even business deals are agreed upon more successfully during dinners or luncheons than in offices. Often, doubts and suspicions are removed when people dine together, even if they do not clear such doubts by openly seeking explanations.
The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) brought the attention of Muslims to the importance of eating together. He (PBUH) said: “Eat together and not separately, for the blessing is associated with the company”. (Ibn Majah)
It should be noted that overeating, whether as a form of compensation or because of emotional stress, most often involves people who eat alone. Aside from the misery of being lonely in a crowded society, people eating alone are often unable to sit down to their food with clear minds as others do. Thus, their physical behaviour is affected by their state of mind. In addition, it is very hard to obtain satisfaction from food while the mind is engaged in straying thoughts. The nervous system seems to malfunction in these situations, as in the case of physical illness and all other abnormal situations.
These Islamic dietary recommendations are cherished by Muslims all over the world; and they are to be cherished by the Muslim generations to come. In 1952,a group of university students in Alexandria, Egypt, of varying weights went on a diet of only milk and dates, under medical supervision. There were no restrictions other than the type of food. While on the diet the subjects were involved in a camp which required physical work. Those who had an overweight problem from overeating were able to bring their appetites back to normal without losing the pleasure of eating food. Gradually the feeling of hunger became less frequent than formerly. After the experiment, 60% of the subjects with overweight problems were able to return to a normal diet without reverting to overeating. The underweight and normal weight subjects felt an increase in appetite; however, no weight was gained. (The increase in appetite may have been a result of the physical work). Furthermore, no cases of dizziness were recorded, which was associated with previous dieting attempts by some of the obese subjects. This was due to the fact that the blood sugar level was kept normal by the dates, although the general food intake was reduced.