How to be a gracious guest (and avoid being hit on the head with a hot pan)
What to avoid as a guest
In Imam Ghazali’s Kitaab Al-Arba’in Fi Usul ad-Din, The 40 Principles of the Religion, he has a chapter on kesab, (earning) and on doubtful earnings.
In this he explores the mentality of those who refuse to eat anything as they are suspicious of its origins and whether it is halal, and those who will eat everything.
How do you know if what you have been offered is halal and permissible to eat? How much do you need to know about your host’s source of income in order to decide if what they are serving has come from halal means or whether you can take from what you are offered of their wealth?
Interestingly, al Ghazali came up with 6 categories which I have never seen before. It is a helpful guide for knowing how to navigate common social situations.
People you meet fall into 6 categories:
- You do not know if they righteous – you can eat/take from them
- You know they are righteous – you can eat/take from them
- You know they are not righteous – do not eat/take from them
- You know the majority of their income is lawful – you can eat/take from them
- You suspect they are an oppressor – investigate and confirm your suspicion. Be cautious.
- You see signs of sin but not oppression – investigate and decide. If you know they are sinful but the majority of their income is lawful, you can eat/take from them.
He explained his reasoning as follows:
Don’t be suspicious of everyone
Their income source is Unknown. Is all their money halal or not? If there is no sign that they have doubtful mean, don’t be overly suspicious about them. The original state of people is goodness, so assume this is the case unless it is proven otherwise.
Assume people are good unless you have evidence to the contrary
As per the Shariah the basic concept is that one is innocent until proven guilty; you assume their money and food is halal (if they are Muslim). Extremists are the ones who assume everything is haram unless proven halal. Islam is the deen of moderation and balance.
The Prophet (peace be on him) said:
“Ruined are the extremists” (Bukhari)
Allah Almighty wanted us to be a moderate ummah. The middle is between two extremes. As He said:
“Likewise, We have made you a mid-most nation (wasatan).” (2:143)
Imam Tabari states in his commentary, “Allah only attributed them with the term mid-most because of their balance in the religion.”
“Be steadfastly balanced witnesses (qawamin) for Allah in equity (qist), and let not hatred of any people seduce you that you deal not justly (la ta`dilu). Deal justly, that is nearer to your duty.” (5:8)
The verse, “Guide us to the straight path (sirat al-mustaqim)” (1:6), where the word “mustaqim” entails the meaning of balance and moderation, being from the same root as the word “qawwam” mentioned in the previous verse.Well known for being righteous. You don’t need to avoid eating in their house and be extra pious. No need to doubt what he offers you, this is an insult. Unless there is something suspicious. Some people’s nature is to be suspicious about everything. These kind of people make life difficult for everyone around them. The halal is clear and the haram is clear. If there is not doubt, don’t try to test and check everything.
Do not eat from someone who is known to have haram income
Well known for having haram money or being an oppressor. You know the original state for this person is haram. You refrain from eating from their food or taking their money.
You may eat from someone whose main income is not haram
Mixture of halal and haram. If it is known to you that most of their money is halal but they have some side business which is haram, like selling cigarettes or wine, what should you do? It is not their main income. You can eat from his money, but you can refrain if you want. The majority is halal so you can eat. Some people have relatives and parents who have an off-licence.
If you have doubts about their income, make discreet enquiries
Unknown – but you have seen a sign of evil. Then do not eat from his money unless you research. Do not assume that it is halal because you have a seen a sign. So you need to ask.
If you see signs of sin, remember that does not make all their income haram
See signs of sins, but not oppression. Imam Ghazali is very against oppressive rulers due to the era in which he lived. You see even in his spiritual books, which are not related to politics, he brings it up every now and then. It reflects what they had to endure. He passed away 505 AH /1111 CE which was a time full of dhulm (oppression). Here he is distinguishing between major and minor sins. Your host might have looked at girls in the street or have bad language, which are sins, but they do not make his rizq haram. They are not as serious as earning a living through fraud. There is no comparison between the level of sin.
In this scenario, you cannot be 100% certain that what you are eating is halal, but you trust the butcher or the factory.
When you discover you had something impure are you sinful?
If you performed wudu and you discover it had impurity in it, such as a pigeon had fallen in the water tank and died, so the water was contaminated. Are you blameworthy because you used impure water? Is your salah accepted? If you finished it, it is fine. If you to repeat it, you can, but you are not guilty because you did not know the water was najis (impure).
Do not be fussy
Shabbir Ali, in his inimitable style, once talked about how he used to be fussy about e-numbers and said it made his life hell. He ended up not eating anything, even milk had issues in it. Then he found the only thing he felt he was permitted to drink was goats’ milk. That was the final straw for him! He was defeated by goats’ milk.
OCD is not good
One of our shuyukh was invited by a local couple but he discovered when he arrived that the wife had obsessive compulsive cleaning habits because she doubted if her home was pure enough, for instance to pray on. She was cleaning everything over and over again, even though it was spotless because she was worried about najasa. Do not create issues when there is no need and when our religion does not require it.
Do not hurt the feelings of your host
If you have to leave, do it with sensitivity, without breaking their heart. They went to trouble to prepare for you, they exhausted themselves. You would feel offended if they ask you where you got your ingredients from, how you prepared it and whether it was done properly or not enough for them to consume. If you ask ‘How did you cook it?’ ‘Where did you source it?’ and ‘Is it halal?’ it is insulting for your host. You are implying that your standard is higher than theirs and you doubt their level of piety. It is like saying you are not good enough to feed me. I am more halal than you.
The gracious example of the guest
This is not the prophetic way. The Prophet (peace be on him) when he was offered food by a companion, did not ask if it was halal? He did not say ‘Where did you get it? How did you cook it?’ Unless there was something obviously problematic about it, he did not question it. If there is nothing to make you feel there is something wrong with it, do not ask.
There was on occasion when the Prophet (peace be on him) was brought cucumbers, which they was unexpected, so he asked his companion where he got it from as he was surprised to see it.
Jabir ibn Abdullah al-Ansari said, “We went out with the Messenger of Allah (peace be on him) in the raid on the Banu Ammar tribe.” Jabir said, “I was resting under a tree when the Messenger of Allah (peace be on him) came. I said, ‘Messenger of Allah; come to the shade.’ So the Messenger of Allah (peace be on him)sat down, and I stood up and went to a sack of ours. I looked in it for something and found a small cucumber and broke it. Then I brought it to the Messenger of Allah (peace be on him). He said, ‘From where did you get this?’ I said, ‘We brought it from Madina, Messenger of Allah.'” [Muwatta’ Malik]
If you are invited to eat but you do not like what you have been given
If you have been invited for a meal, you should always be polite, even if you did not enjoy the food. Do not say the food is awful. You are being offered what they eat. It is hurtful to criticise what you are given. Even if it is not delicious, say, ‘Jazakillah khair. May Allah reward you for your efforts’. Do not lie in your praise, but compliment them for the trouble they went to.
Mother in law’s cooking
I am often asked by women what to say when they do not like their mother in law’s cooking. Should they mention it needs some more salt, or less oil or less chillies? It is a quandary, because if you make a comment, it will upset them, but if you do not say anything they will keep cooking it the same way. Offer them your advice in a nice way. Do it at the right time, when they are willing to listen. If they are not in the right mood, do not comment. Choose the right words and right time and compliment them for their efforts.
Compliment your wife’s cooking
I know someone who went for hajj, and when he came back, he stopped complimenting his wife’s food because he had promised not say any lie. This is not the right thing to do! Without lying, always be kind and nice, especially to your spouse. Don’t say the truth is that the food is awful! Not only will you offend your wife, you risk a hot pan landing on your head.
I was invited for a meal once and found a piece of glass in my mouth. My host said that a jug had smashed that day and gone everywhere. I did not mention that everywhere, included the food in my plate and now in mouth. I politely removed it. No matter what they served, they had gone to trouble to make it and it would have been embarrassing for them to know that the glass had landed in my food.
The politeness of the Prophet (peace be on him)
Jabir once narrated that when the Prophet (peace be upon him) asked his family for condiments and was told that they had only vinegar, he called for it and as he was using it in his food he said:
“Vinegar is a good condiment; vinegar is a good condiment.” [Muslim]
The Prophet (peace be on him) used to be invited to eat by poor people. He accepted their invitation and he never questioned whether the food they had given him had been given to them as charity, even though as a Prophet (peace be on him) he did not accept charity. One of the signs of prophethood was that he did not take anything as charity and those who wanted to test if he was a real prophet, like Salman al Farsi offered him charity and gifts. When he did not accept charity but accepted their gifts, they had their proof and embraced Islam.
On one occasion, Aisha’s servant Barira received a shoulder of lamb as sadaqa. She cooked it and she knew the Prophet (peace be on him) loved the shoulder, so she offered it to him. He ate it graciously, without checking if it had come from charity. Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her) informed him that this had been given in charity to Barira. He replied that while it charity for her, it was a gift from her to him. This is a rule in Islam, when something changes hands, its status changes.
‘A’isha (Allah’s be pleased with her) reported that she had bought Barira from the people of Ansar, …
She (Barira also) gave ‘A’isha some meat as gift. Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) said: I wish you could prepare (cook) for us out of this meat. ‘A’isha said, It has been given as charity to Barira, whereupon he said: That is charity for her and gift for us. [Muslim]
Can you eat the food of Non-Muslims?
If you are invited by a non-Muslim host, if the food is vegetarian and has not been blessed, for example as poojah you may eat it. If you are unsure and have doubts then you need to enquire discreetly and politely if this is the case. If it is the case, do not eat it.
If you are invited by people of the book there are two opinions on whether or not you can eat their food. One opinion is that you may. However I would not follow this personally. But I would not object to somebody following this opinion ate their food.
HMC and E-numbers
There is a tendency amongst Muslims to make life very difficult by going into minute details over the ingredients of their food. whilst we are commanded to eat what is good and what is lawful, being excessive in looking at the tiniest ingredients on their list is unnecessary. Unless there is something very obviously her arm in those ingredients, such as alcohol or pig products, do not make your lives miserable.
There are people who will not eat meat unless it is certified HFA rather than HMC. Do not get bogged down in this. If it has a halal certificate, accept that it is halal.
Al Ghazali has shown us that Islam is a religion of ease, graciousness and is against being overly suspicious or extreme, or holier-than-thou. If you are invited, be a polite guest, so you are invited back!
Shaykh Haytham Tamim – The Thursday Knowledge Circle on Al Ghazali’s Forty Principles of Religion.
- Culture vs Islam
- Children in the mosque
- Ghazali on how to organise your wird
- When you make room for others, Allah makes room for you
- The link between manners, moral values and feelings
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