Al Ghazali on the 7 benefits of feeling hungry
In Imam Ghazali’s book, Kitaab Al-Arba’in Fi Usul ad-Din, The Forty Principles of the Religion, which is a summary of his great work, Ihya Ulum ad-Din, he talks about how to purify the heart by ridding oneself of bad traits.
One of these is Sharah at- ta’am which is gluttony.
Ghazali dwells at length on gluttony in his book Ihya Ulum ad-Din in his volume ‘The Defeat of The Two Desires’. He talked about the desire for food and the desire for intimacy as two disastrous desires if they are not kept under control.
He says that gluttony is one of the greatest sources of harm for the religion, as the stomach is the wellspring of desires. The desire for food spurs the desire for sexual relations. When the desire for food and sex become overpowering, the desire for wealth and then fame follow after. Desire begets desire and becomes insatiable. Once fame and fortune come, a multitude of diseases of the heart are ignited, pride, ostentation, envy, hate, and so on. Therefore the more you eat, the more it opens up gates for other desires.
Of course without doubt, Islam does not command us to cut out all desire, but guides us to channel it in a healthy way, because Islam is about moderation and balance. Desire is programmed into our nature, and to completely reject it and become celibate is not part of our religion. When some Companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) refused to marry out of a mistaken sense of piety, he was angry with them because this is not the way of the Sunnah.
Anas bin Malik (may Allah be pleased with him) narrated:
A group of three men came to the houses of the wives of the Prophet (ﷺ) asking how the Prophet (ﷺ) worshipped (Allah), and when they were informed about that, they considered their worship insufficient and said, “Where are we from the Prophet (ﷺ) as his past and future sins have been forgiven.” Then one of them said, “I will offer the prayer throughout the night forever.” The other said, “I will fast throughout the year and will not break my fast.” The third said, “I will keep away from the women and will not marry forever.” Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) came to them and said, “Are you the same people who said so-and-so? By Allah, I am more submissive to Allah and more afraid of Him than you; yet I fast and break my fast, I do sleep and I also marry women. So he who does not follow my tradition in religion, is not from me (not one of my followers). (Bukhari)
Marriage, not celibacy or extreme asceticism. Islam caters for our desires whether it’s food or intimacy. Do not go beyond the limits and do not go to the extreme of killing desire in every shape or form.
We know for sure these days that obesity is classified as a disease. It is common in America, and in many parts of the world, Ghazali suggest following a special diet, but this is not a prophetic diet. It is based on his personal experience, readings, and recommendations. Some of which you can understand and follow, some of which are out of date, irrelevant, and not appealing to follow.
Virtues of hunger
Ghazali (may Allah have mercy on him) quoted some narrations about the virtues of hunger and feeling hungry etc. The main narration is that when you eat you should not fill your stomach with more than a third of drink and a third of food.
Al-Miqdam ibn Ma’d reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “The son of Adam cannot fill a vessel worse than his stomach, as it is enough for him to take a few bites to straighten his back. If he cannot do it, then he may fill it with a third of his food, a third of his drink, and a third of his breath.” (Tirmidhi)
This is the prophetic recommendation. Do not eat and eat until you can eat no more, until you can barely breathe.
The benefits of hunger
Eating is reflected by the state of your heart physically and the spiritually. Having periods where you feel hunger has multiple benefits.
As a theologian and philosopher with a very organised mind, Ghazali breaks down the benefits of feeling hunger into 7 benefits.
1. Purity of the heart
Hunger gives you spiritual clarity and also deep insight, baseera. By default, we understand that feeling satiated takes away your clarity. Don’t take a decision when your stomach is so full you can’t breathe, as your mind will be clouded.
2. Clouds the intellect
Overeating slows down and dulls your faculties, whereas hunger gives you softness of heart and enables you to experience the sweetness of conversing with Allah Almighty and feel the benefits of your worship. If you are full, you do not have this munajaat (intimate discourse) with Allah, because your mind is clouded. Dhikr and worship will not impact you as much.
Junaid al Baghdadi one of the masters of the Sufis and scholars, also noted that overeating blocks your spiritual connection and intellectual thinking.
Obesity is a huge problem in our time, and some people are not obese, but still eat more than they should. It is still not recommended to eat like this.
While Ghazali was talking about the immediate impact on the senses of overeating, we also have studies that show that eating too much does not just expand your waist, but high caloric intake over time may actually raise your odds of developing memory loss, or mild cognitive impairment (MCI), later in life.
Eating too much alters our eating patterns and makes us eat more. A chronic high-fat diet modifies the lateral hypothalamus by deterring its neural response and thus weakens an endogenous “brake” on eating.
Indeed, there are similarities between some forms of overeating and drug addiction as they might derive from the same imbalance in certain neural pathways that mediate the motivation to eat certain foods or to take drugs, and those that control these urges. The dopamine reward pathway is central to this goal-directed behaviour: pleasurable activities such as eating, sex or drug use trigger the release of dopamine which encourages the individual to repeat the activity. The excessive consumption of food or drugs can dysregulate this system to the point that pursuit of these rewarding activities dominates an individual’s behaviour
It is well known that the stations of the heart like awe, humility, fear, and brokenness are from the keys to the Gates of Jannah. While the station of knowledge is above these, hunger is like knocking on the door of Jannah.
3. Humbling the ego
The third benefit of hunger is that it humbles the ego and removes traces of arrogance. Nothing breaks the ego like hunger. Our ego controls us most of the time, which is why we feel closer to Allah in Ramadan, when we break it. Consequently we feel softer and lighter.
In the beautiful hadith, Allah Almighty offered to the turn the valley of Makkah into gold for the Prophet (peace be on him) when he was hungry but he said:
No I would rather be hungry one day and sated another day, for if I am hungry, I am patient and humble and if I am sated, I am grateful. (Tirmidhi)
Your state is different when you are hungry and when you are full. He could have accepted the valley full of gold, but he preferred to be thankful and grateful to Allah.
4. Calamities and tribulations are from the gates of paradise when you handle them in the prophetic way.
Bearing with calamities properly with sabr, leads you to the Gates of Jannah. We are not permitted in the shariah to inflict pain upon ourselves however we can make ourselves endure hunger, which ironically makes us stronger. All you have to do is refrain from eating. It even saves you money. When you experience hunger, it helps you empathise and feel more merciful towards others.
When you are full, you are in state of ghaflah and unaware of the pain of hunger. We see in the seerah of the Prophet (peace be on him) that he and the believers experienced extreme hunger during the three years of siege in Makkh to the extent they resorted to eating the bitter leaves of the trees.
Even in Madinah the Prophet (peace be on him), his wife and children and his Companions went through periods when they had nothing to eat, to the extent that Abu Hurairah felt he would die from hunger many times. In order to help them bear the hunger pangs, they would tie a stone around their waist, and discovered that the Prophet (peace be on him) had tied two stones, as he was so hungry. It shows us that he was not a leader who stuffed himself ate while his people went hungry.
5. Hunger tames desire
One of the great benefits of hunger, is that it breaks desire, which is the essence of disobedience and sins. Hunger controls the lower self, which dictates to you to do wrong. Hunger helps tame this. The second century prominent Sufi Dhul Nun al Masri, (whom Abu Nuaim wrote about in Ḥilyat al-awliyāʼ wa-ṭabaqāt al-aṣfiyāʼ biography of the top righteous scholars) said from his experience he never felt sated without either disobeying or considering disobedience.
Ghazali wrote about the importance of breaking desire at length in his book Breaking the Two Desires which is a volume of Ihya Ulum ad-Din (The Revival of the Religious Sciences).
The Prophet (peace be on him) recommended fasting as a means of reducing one’s libido. `Abdullah bin Masoud (may Allah be pleased with him) narrated:
We were with the Prophet (peace be on him) while we were young and had no wealth. So Allah’s Messenger (peace be on him) said, “O young people! Whoever among you can marry, should marry, because it helps him lower his gaze and guard his modesty (i.e. his private parts from committing illegal sexual intercourse etc.), and whoever is not able to marry, should fast, as fasting diminishes his sexual power.” (Bukhari)
As marriage is the only halal outlet for desire, if you are unable to marry, you cannot simply chop out your desire and throw it away, so you need to find a way to manage and diminish it. Siyam is a solution as it helps you to control your gaze and protect your chastity. Whereas eating has the opposite effect.
6. Lightness of being (Khifatul badan)
When one eats less one can attain the lightness of body which enables you to pray tahajjud with khushoo. I have witnessed the experience of my Shaykh, who, after maghrib, would eat nothing but an apple because he said it kept him light for qiyyam. It helped him sleep better and be focused. Whereas when he ate later, he would be lethargic and unable to focus. My shaykh was slim, had good health and he was as light on his feet as a bird. His philosophy in consuming was to be fit for ibadah.
Though there is a clear spiritual benefit in not eating too much, we live in an environment where junk food invades every corner of our life. With endless Deliveroo and online/offline options, we can have food parachute on us 24/7. This is not healthy for us or our ibadah.
Abu Suleman ad-Darani, another early Sufi ascetic, said whoever overeats will lose the sweetness of ibadah, and he will not be able to memorise wisdom; he will be prevented from having mercy and compassion towards the creation of Allah; his ibadah will be heavy – he will not enjoy it and it will increase his desire. While the believers are around the mosque, he will be around junk food.
Some people start thinking about lunch as soon as they finish breakfast and they snack throughout the day and they think about food all the time. They live to eat, not eat to live.
7. Eating less means reduced cost
When you eat less you will spend less on food. You will reduce your financial burdens. You will be able to function without filling yourself. The Prophet (peace be on him) used to eat whatever was available. Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her) said sometimes they experienced three months when no fire was lit in their house as they had nothing to cook, so they used to eat water and dates.
Ghazali sets out his own diet programme which some Sufi groups still follow. However it is not applicable to us these days as it is based on his experience, rather than prophetic practice. Moreover Ghazali talks about eating bread for weeks, which is not nutritionally balanced, according to the knowledge we have now. He lived 1000 years ago, when food choices were different from ours.
Meat consumption and vegetarianism
Some people eat meat daily, or even multiple times a day. This is not good for your health or the environment and it is costly. Becoming vegetarian is the other extreme. Have meat once or twice a week or every other week, or once in a while, but do not make it prohibited for yourself.
Do not eat late
Don’t eat heavy meals before sleeping. Have something light and simple. Be balanced in what you eat. It will help you lost weight, and it is cheaper than going on an expensive diet programme.
Al-Miqdam ibn Ma’d reported that the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said:
“The son of Adam cannot fill a vessel worse than his stomach, as it is enough for him to take a few bites to straighten his back. If he cannot do it, then he may fill it with a third of his food, a third of his drink, and a third of his breath. (Tirmidhi)
This was the practice of the Prophet (peace be on him), not because he did not have enough to eat, because there were times when they had a lot of money after the conquests such as Khaybar, but because he did not overeat or indulge in luxury.
Avoid overeating to keep your connection with Allah strong and your heart pure and clear and soft. Otherwise even if you put the alarm clock on for tahajjud, you will be like a mountain on wheels.
Cut your consumption gradually
Cut down your consumption bit by bit. It is difficult to reduce your intake at once, but if you cut down gradually you won’t even notice it. By cutting down on your portions and snacks you can make a significant reduction when you are consistent, over time.
Fasting reboots your system
Fasting resets your system. Fasting on Mondays and Thursdays helps the body rejuvenate, not just spiritually but physically.
Don’t always choose the gourmet option
The timing and the quality of what you eat is important. Sometimes you should choose food which is not top quality, so you can experience what poor people eat.
Go against your inclinations
Another tip is to eat the opposite of what you are craving. If you feel like eating meat, eat bread and vice versa. In this way you can break your desire. Obviously, you shouldn’t eat fried chicken instead of steak. Or ice-cream instead of chocolate cake.
Eating less means your dreams will be clearer
The practice of shuyukh is not to eat much in the evenings, because overeating affects your dreams. If you want to know whether your dreams are true and not induced by your biryani, then avoid heavy meals at night.
A man once approached a shaykh and said he longed to see the Prophet (peace be on him). The shaykh advised him to eat a dish of bulgur fried wheat, without drinking anything. The man came the next day, and said he didn’t see the Prophet (peace be on him) in his dream, but he was so thirsty he dreamt of water all night long. The shaykh said this was the lesson for him. Whatever you thirst for in life, is what you will see in your dreams.
Shaykh Haytham Tamim – The Thursday Al Ghazali Class
Transcribed by Rose Roslan and Ayesha Khan
Ghazali quoted some hadiths in his book, which are not authentic narrations. Though, he was without doubt, a top philosopher, scholar, faqhi, and theologian, he was not a muhadith, so he has quoted many narrations which he had come across but which were weak or fabricated.
Later there were two main commentaries on Ghazali’s books which have to be read alongside his work. The first commentary Al-Mughnee ‘an-hamlil-Asfar fil-Asfar fee takhrej maa fil-lhyaa minal-Akhbar, by Imam Al Iraqi (may Allah have mercy on him), a top muhadith went through Al Ihya, and checked and classified all these narrations, pointing out which are authentic and which are not. Usually the Arabic copies of Al Ghazali’s books have footnotes from Imam Al Iraqi verifying the status of every hadith and additional comments.
The second commentary is by Imam Zabidi (may Allah have mercy on him). He not only authenticated the narrations and used a lot of the work of Imam Iraqi, but also commented on Al Ghazali’s book Al Ihya, which is 5 huge volumes in Arabic. Imam Zabidi’s commentary is 10 volumes, twice as long as the book. In the new copies, there are 25 volumes, which have the commentary of Imam Zabidi, and the authentication of the hadith and the explanations of Imam Ghazali’s book, which is like an encyclopaedia.
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