There are numerous traditions that warn of the consequences of excessive eating and inform us of the benefits of hunger and eating in small quantities. The Prophet has said that a man whose consumption of food is little has a healthy stomach and a pure heart, and a man whose food is plenty has a sickly stomach and a hard heart. Further warning us against excessive food, he has said it poisons the heart with hardness, slows the limbs in performing acts of obedience, and blocks the souls from hearing counsel. Imam Ali said that overeating is the greatest aid to acts of disobedience, and that when the stomach is filled with even permissible food, the heart becomes blind to goodness.
Food, glorious food!
But is it just about the food? When we are concerned about our eating habits and diet plans, it usually has to do with what we should consume, in which proportions, whether or not our body’s nutritional needs are being met, etc. Whilst this is indeed important to learn, practice, and maintain, we must not allow our eating to become mindless beyond this point. For along with what we should eat there is a whole other dimension of how we should be eating. Let us explore some of the teachings of our Infallible Guides (peace be upon them all) with respect to this, making efforts within ourselves to transform mindless eating into mindful eating.
Time of Eating
If we only ever ate to satisfy hunger, the time of meals and snacks would not be such an issue. The problem arises when we turn to food on a daily basis not just to appease hunger, but for comfort, enjoyment, stress relief, and as a medium to socialize. Yet we must realize that these emotional tendencies need to be controlled and altered, and replaced with a mental attitude that will not only help our body but also our true selves, our nafs (soul).
Imam Ali (peace be upon him) has said, “A person who would like the food to not cause him harm should not eat until his bowels are clear and he feels very hungry. When he begins to eat, he should recite ‘Bismillah’. The food should be chewed, and when there is a little bit of hunger left to be appeased, he should stop eating.” Indeed Allah says in the Qur’an, “…eat and drink, and be not extravagant” (7:31) and the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny) has said, “We are a people who do not eat until we feel hungry, and when we eat we do not satiate ourselves (we do not eat excessively).” A very simple narration of the Prophet that we can always keep in mind: “Eat when you desire and stop while you still desire.” (Bihar al-Anwar)
It is recommended to eat early in the morning, go without food for the whole day, and eat again for the second time after Isha prayers. If this is too difficult, it is a good idea to eat only fruits between breakfast and dinner. According to a reliable tradition, the nephew of Shahab went to Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (peace be upon him) complaining of stomach ache and the heaviness of bowels. The Imam asked him to eat only twice a day – day and night – for Allah has said the same in the praise of food in Heaven: “For those whose abode is Heaven, they will get their food already prepared both times, morning and evening.” (19:62)
It is highly discouraged to eat in the state of Janabat, yet the rigidity of this is relaxed if one performs Wudhu or washes the hands, gargles, and puts water in the nose, or simply washes the hands and face and gargles. Traditions state if this direction is neglected, one may suffer from the disease of white spots.
Quantity of Food
There are numerous traditions that warn of the consequences of excessive eating and inform us of the benefits of hunger and eating in small quantities. The Prophet has said that a man whose consumption of food is little has a healthy stomach and a pure heart, and a man whose food is plenty has a sickly stomach and a hard heart. (Tanbih al- Khawatir) Further warning us against excessive food, he has said it poisons the heart with hardness, slows the limbs in performing acts of obedience, and blocks the souls from hearing counsel. (Bihar al-Anwar)
Imam Ali said that overeating is the greatest aid to acts of disobedience, and that when the stomach is filled with even permissible food, the heart becomes blind to goodness. (Ghurar al-Hikam)
On the night of Mer’aj (the Prophet’s heavenly ascension), the Prophet asked, “O Allah, what is the outcome of hunger?” He said, “Wisdom, protection of the heart, drawing closer to Me, lasting sorrow, less burden on the people, telling the truth, and lack of concern whether one lives in wealth or poverty.” (Ibid)
General Recommended Acts
According to Imam Hasan (peace be upon him), every Muslim should keep 12 points in mind regarding food. Four are compulsory, four are recommended, and four pertain to general manners:
- To know one’s Giver
- To know that all we have is from God and be satisfied with the food He gives
- To say “Bismillah”
- To thank Allah
- To wash one’s hands before eating
- To sit by keeping one’s weight to the left side
- To eat with at least three fingers
- To lick the fingers
The general manners
- To eat the food placed before one
- To take small morsels
- To chew the food
- Not to look at others’ faces while eating (Wasael al-Shi’aah)
Other Recommended Acts
- To eat with the right hand whilst sitting on the knees.
- To wash the hands before and after eating, and not to dry them with a towel. Numerous traditions state that if a person wants his house to be blessed, he should wash his hands before every meal. This also prevents poverty and body pains.
- Having a little salt before and after each meal. This has countless benefits; it is narrated that the Holy Prophet asked Imam Ali to do this, for a man who takes salt before and after meals is saved from 70 types of curses, a major one being leprosy. Imam Baqir (peace be upon him) has also said regarding salt: “It is the cure for 70 diseases, if people would know the advantages of salt they would not use any other cure except salt.”
General Discouraged Acts
- To eat while walking, except when forced, as per the tradition of Imam Sadiq
- To take very hot food, but if one does, (s)he should not cool it by blowing on it; rather it should be allowed to cool itself.
- To eat while lying or relaxing; however, there is no harm in resting on the left hand while eating.
- To eat alone. It is recommended to eat with one’s servants and slaves, sitting on the ground.
- To leave plates uncovered. Imam al-Sadiq said, “Do not leave your plates uncovered, for Satan spits on uncovered plates and takes from them what he wants.” (Mustadrak al-Wasail)
Supplications at the Time of Eating
According to the Holy Prophet, when food is served, thousands of angels descend from heaven and surround the food. For those who start their food with “Bismillah”, the angels pray to God to send His blessings on them, increase their daily bread, and order Shaitan to leave them alone, as he is the one who broke the law of God; thus, he cannot join them. After having eaten, for those who say “Alhamdulillah”, the angels say these people are the thanks-givers, as they have thanked God for the good food He has given them. If they do not say “Bismillah” while eating, they invite Shaitan to have food with them, and if they do not say “Alhamdulillah” after their meal, the angels remark these people are those who are not satisfied with what good food God has given them, for they have forgotten to thank God for the blessing; as such, they are cursed.
Imam Ali has said one should remember Almighty Allah whilst eating and should not talk too much, as the food is a blessing from Him, and when one consumes that blessing, it is time to praise and thank Him.
According to Imam Sadiq, “While drinking water, whoever remembers Imam Hussain and his family members, and invoke the removal of Allah’s Mercy from his murderers and tormentors, 100,000 good deeds will be written in his record, 100,000 sins will be forgiven, he will be elevated 100,000 times, and he will be rewarded to the extent as though he has freed 100,000 slaves in the name of God, and on the Day of Judgment Allah will look towards his welfare.”
He furthers says it is better for one to recite the following while drinking water: “May Allah shower His blessings on Hussain and his family members and his companions. May He remove his Mercy from the murderers of Hussain and his enemies.”
Unless otherwise referenced, narrations in this article are taken from Allama Majlisi’s book Tahdhib ul-Islam.