Is there a deeper meaning to our meals? Does the food we eat along with how, where, and when we eat make a difference to our health, family, and faith? We, as Muslims, must consider that any choice we make, no matter how mundane, has implications for our faith. Food, which is seemingly innocent and a blessing of Allah (swt), has a vital role to play in who we are. This article looks at food choices through the filter of Islam and Seerah. We will talk about how consumption of different types of food has an impact on our behaviour, and investigate whether or not food quality and quantity dictates our thoughts, behaviour, and actions. As the old adage goes: “You are what you eat.” We will also discuss what Shifa and Tayyab food is.

Avoiding Extremes

Before we go on, let’s ponder over what it means to eat as a Muslim. Eating is a part of worship for us as food is a blessing granted by Allah (swt). We supplicate to Allah (swt) to bless our food, and we eat only after we have recited His name. We must be cognizant of how our food reaches us, the people who are involved in it, and how its production fulfills Allah’s (swt) command for us. Allah (swt) tells us in verse 31 of Surah Al-Araf: “O Children of Adam! Take Your adornment (by wearing Your clean clothes), while praying and going round (the Tawaf of) the Kabah, and eat and drink but waste not by extravagance, certainly He (Allah) likes not Al-Musrifoon (those who waste by extravagance).”

So where do our eating habits fall, according to the above Ayah?

  1. Necessity
  2. Satiety
  3. Excess

Imam Ibn Al-Qayyim mentions two extremes regarding food. Firstly, there are Muslims who under-eat and under-drink, thinking of this as an act of piety. Malnutrition and sickness will affect their health and happiness. Muslims belonging to the second category overeat beyond what is considered to be normal or healthy. This extreme also inhibits health, and we all know of obesity-related diseases. A Muslim should maintain a balanced diet: no over or under eating. Both of these extremes are Israf and hence, forbidden in Islam. The Prophet (sa) warned against the dangers of overeating: “Avoid filling the stomach with food and drink. Overeating exhausts the body and causes illnesses. Follow a middle way in eating and drinking as this improves the body.” (Al-Ghazali) Not only is overeating frowned upon, eating and drinking in a hurry is also discouraged.

When we reflect over our personal eating habits, we realize that we are addicted to processed, fatty foods that harm us. Our children thrive on sugary drinks and oily substitutes for freshness. During the Prophet’s (sa) Isra wal-Miraj, he chose milk over all other drinks offered to him. This incident alone emphasizes the importance of choosing the healthiest alternative – not just regarding the type of food but also the amount that we consume. Quick and convenient, attractively-packaged food has taken over our lives, while wholesome, healthy, and organic food seems like a chore and a bore.

Tayyab and Halal Foods

Allah (swt) commands us to eat from the beautiful and bountiful food He has made for us, which is Halal and Tayyab: “O mankind, eat from whatever is on earth [that is] lawful and good and do not follow the footsteps of Satan. Indeed, he is to you a clear enemy.” (Al-Baqarah 2:168)

“They ask you (O Muhammad (sa)) what is lawful for them (as food). Say: ‘Lawful unto you are AtTayyibat [all kind of Halal (lawful-good) foods which Allah has made lawful (meat of slaughtered eatable animals, milk products, fats, vegetables and fruits, etc.)]. And those beasts and birds of prey which you have trained as hounds, training and teaching them (to catch) in the manner as directed to you by Allah; so eat of what they catch for you, but pronounce the Name of Allah over it, and fear Allah. Verily, Allah is Swift in reckoning.’” (Al-Ma’idah 5:4)

Tayyibat (singular Tayyab) is often translated as ‘lawful and good.’ Halal is all the food and drink that is not specifically forbidden by Allah (swt). Simple enough, you might say. However, in today’s attractively-packaged food with misleading labels, we fail to detect small quantities of Haram that is mixed into otherwise Halal items.

When I was living in Chicago and had my first child, my neighbour told me not to use a brand of infant formula. Since I breastfed, I was not concerned but I was curious. The next time I was at the store, I read every ingredient on the label. Apparently, nothing seemed Haram. I then called the company’s toll-free number, and inquired about how they made the formula – again nothing set off alarm bells. Just before I hung up, the lady informed me that as a Muslim I might want to know that they used powdered porcine bones to clean their machines. Subhan’Allah! Who would have guessed? What we often do not realize is that in switching from homemade to packaged, we are negotiating a challenging terrain packed with both Haram and non-Tayyab items in our food, which may be invisible to us.

I became interested also in the differences between Tayyab and Halal. At a meeting, this was beautifully explained with the following example: a cow is milked and a bucket is ready with its milk; this milk is Halal and Tayyab. Then an animal comes and urinates in it. Now the milk is still Halal but no longer Tayyab. This means that something else, not an essential part of it, has been added to it. Similarly, sugar is Halal and Tayyab for a non-diabetic person, but it is not Tayyab for a diabetic patient, as it could lead him to death, if over-consumed.

Usually, additions to food are made for three reasons:

  1. To improve taste (herbs, salt, sugar, spices).
  2. To preserve it (for packaged foods).
  3. To increase its quantity (for example, adding potatoes to meat).

Adding Halal items that do not destroy the food’s nutritional value or affect its healthful nature render the original food Tayyab, for example, adding oregano to pasta for enhancing the flavour.

Islam has two fundamental principles that are generalized to derive rulings on all substances and food items. The first is Istihala: if an impure substance undergoes a complete and total chemical transformation into a pure substance, it is considered to be pure. The classic example used by the early scholars is that of vinegar derived from wine; vinegar is Halal but wine is not. The second principle – Isthilak – states that any impure substance added to pure food items does not make the food impure, if it was totally used up and dissolved in the food item, such that its traces became negligible.

Muslims are prohibited from eating omnivores or carnivores. Does this have anything to do with our disposition? Does the type of meat we eat affect our temperament? For millennia, mankind has believed that food influences our well-being and temperament. A study published in the Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science states: “The past 80 years have seen immense progress in research, primarily short-term human trials and animal studies, showing how certain foods change brain structure, chemistry, and physiology, thus affecting mood and performance.” These studies suggest that foods which directly influence brain neurotransmitter systems have the greatest effects on mood, at least temporarily. The perfect diet to enhance one’s mood and optimize performance and health remains unknown. It seems best to follow a well-balanced diet that is rich in protein, moderate in carbohydrates, and low in fats, since this could generally improve one’s mood and energy levels. We all know that dates are a highly effective source of protein; they are low in fat and rich in fibre.

Shifa Foods

Islam has special foods called Shifa foods. After a meal, we recite the following Dua: “All praise to Allah (swt), the Lord of the worlds. All praise to Allah (swt), Who fed us, quenched our thirst, and made us Muslims. O Allah (swt), you have fed us Halal food. Make it help us in obeying You.” Truly, we ask Allah (swt) after every meal to help us obey Him. There are certain foods that the Prophet (sa) has identified as Shifa (healing). These foods keep us healthy and aid us in obeying Allah’s (swt) commandments. Some of them are also mentioned in the Quran.

  1. “There comes forth from their [bees’] bellies, a drink of varying color wherein is healing for men. Verily, in this is indeed a sign for people who think.” (An-Nahl 16:69) The Prophet (sa) is reported to have said honey has healing properties, and it is a blessing and the best medicine. Science has recently discovered that honey has antibacterial properties. It contains water, sugars, enzymes, and several types of vitamins. Pure honey is the only food item that will never go bad.
  2. “And a tree (olive) that springs forth from Mount Sinai that grows oil, and it is a relish for the eaters.” (Al-Muminun 23:20) Olive oil naturally has monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids and Vitamin E. It is also used as massage oil on the skin to increase softness and retain elasticity.
  3. Ginger root. “And they will be given to drink there a cup (of wine) mixed with Zanjabil (ginger, etc.).” (Al-Insan 76:17) The aromatic ginger helps to sooth a scratchy throat. Ginger is also used to treat nausea. Researchers are trying to prove that it can also help prevent cancer and aging disorders.
  4. “And it is He Who produces gardens trellised and untrellised, and date-palms, and crops of different shape and taste (its fruits and its seeds) and olives, and pomegranates, similar (in kind) and different (in taste). Eat of their fruit when they ripen, but pay the due thereof (itsZakataccording to Allah’s Orders 1/10th or 1/20th) on the day of its harvest, and waste not by extravagance. Verily, He likes not Al-Musrifoon (those who waste by extravagance) (Al-Anam, 6:141) Pomegranates contain a plentiful supply of potassium and such minerals as phosphorus, calcium, iron, and sodium as well as vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, and C. Acting together with sodium, potassium regulates the body’s water equilibrium and ensures that the heart beats normally.
  5. “(They will be) amid thornless lote-trees, among Talh (banana-trees) with fruits piled one above another. In shade long-extended, by water flowing constantly, and fruit in plenty, whose season is not limited, and their supply will not be cut off.” (Al-Waqiah 56:28-33) I remember the time Michael Chang won the Wimbledon tennis tournament against Ivan Lendl. He ate bananas at every break. Bananas consist of water (75%), protein (1.3%), and fats (0.6%). Each banana also contains carbohydrates and a considerable amount of potassium. Besides helping to cure many diseases, bananas are especially recommended for fever, digestive system disorders, cramps, and muscle slackness.

In conclusion, we definitely are what we eat, and part of our Deen is to make sure we eat Halal and Tayyab foods, avoid any type of excess, and keep ourselves fit to act on Allah’s (swt) commandments.