The purpose of eating
We all know that the basic purpose of eating is for nourishment, but now, food is no longer a means of sustenance, but has evolved into an obsession and a status symbol.
Eating, like many of our daily activities, can be a form of worship, if done properly. Conversely, it can also be something that Allah will question us about if we abuse ourselves through bad eating habits and behaviour. It is not just a matter of avoiding prohibited ingredients, but we will also be questioned about whether we have eaten in the correct and healthy way, with the purpose of enabling us to worship Allah better.
What is the problem with eating?
Food, like any other provision, is a gift and a trust from Allah. Eating is a necessity, yet Allah has transformed this necessity into a pleasure for us, through the enjoyment of food and its multitude of flavours.
In today's consumer lifestyle, we are losing sight of the connection between food and worship. Many of us have taken eating to a next level, where we enjoy our food so much that it has enslaved us to certain habits and behaviour. This phenomenon is seen by the disproportionate amount of time we spend on food – whether in buying or eating. Eating has now become a lifestyle choice rather than a necessity – if we take stock of how we hold our regular meals, and the degree to which much of our social interaction revolves around food and drink, we will understand that we place too much emphasis on eating and drinking in our daily regime.
If left unchecked, these desires can make us formulate habits and routines which are not compatible with the Islamic way of life. When the original aim of eating is forgotten, our natural inclinations will instead make us form attachments to what we eat, and the result is that our behaviour will be guided by cravings and appetites.
The stomach is like the heart, and we reap the benefits of what we feed it. Like the heart, we can either enslave it or let it enslave us. By training our desires and being mindful of our eating habits, we keep our desire for food and drink in check.
However, if we give in to every craving dictated by our appetites, we allow our tastebuds and stomachs to mould our habits. The more infatuated we become with food and drink, the more danger we are of nourishing our habits rather than our bodies. From this skewed sense of priority, negative aspects of behaviour can develop and influence our mannerism. If left uncontrolled, succumbing too frequently to our desire for food can make us develop traits such as greed and selfishness, and will compromise our observance of the halal and haram. Bad habits are not just limited to over eating, it also applies to what we eat and the amount of time we are willing to spend in the pursuit of tasty food or delicacies.
The implications of such a seemingly harmless act, if corrupted, can go beyond causing health disorders, it can cause social illnesses.The more we fill the stomach out of desire rather than necessity, the more it empties the heart – making us lose awareness of the more important priorities in life.
Food influences our behaviour more than we realize. For example, when we are too attached to certain kinds of food, we develop eating habits which are unrelated to Islam, but rather originate from custom. We are entrenched in our own cultures without wanting to consider alternative eating habits and diet. Instead of following the sunnah, households eat according to their heritage, to the extent that certain dishes are almost compulsory, even if the grease, spice or flavouring is detrimental to overall health. This unwillingness to break free from our hereditary eating norms breeds cultural arrogance, where each community claims that its food is the best.
In terms of time, many of us are willing travel for hours to hunt for a delicacy, or are willing to spend time queueing up at popular restaurants instead of foregoing all that effort for a more time efficient option. There are also the long hours spent in the kitchen, cooking five dishes when only two will suffice and painstakingly crafting delicacies that will be devoured in a few seconds. There is so much leakage of time caused by the dedication to food - time that can be better utilized for more meaningful things.
Another phenomenon is also developing, where people regularly share photos of what they have prepared, cooked or eaten on the social media. This is followed by dozens of comments. Have our lives become so empty, that we can waste time showing off what we eat every day, and engage in discussions of what everybody else consumes?
From a behavioural aspect, food can influence our moods. People become angry if food is not cooked in a way that they like, or is served too hot, too cold, too early or too late.They become irritable and snappy before that first cup of coffee.When the flavour is not to their liking, they complain and create a fuss, instead of being thankful that they are in the percentile of the world which is assured fresh meals on a regular basis.
Getting caught in the frenzy of eating without any discipline or control creates addictions and health related issues. Obesity is becoming a problem in many developed nations, and in some countries, diabetes affects up to a third of its population. Every year, there are documented reports of people being hospitalized in the first week of Ramadan, because they disgracefully gorged themselves during iftar. There are even people who are willing to lose the benefits of their umrah and hajj in fights and arguments because the tour operator was not able serve the type of cuisine that they enjoy. How can we let our love of food affect us to this extent? Can we justify our actions if called to account by Allah? If we die because of our bad eating habits, can we tell Allah that we have treated our bodies as a trust?
What about time and money?
The kitchen has now become a battlefield, where women are anxious to outdo each other in the championship of cooking. This is especially seen during Ramadan, where there is an added urgency to prepare as many varieties of food as possible to impress, indulge and compete with friends and neighbours.
We lose track of time during our laborious preparations and following complicated recipes – for something where the enjoyment is momentary. Our palates are delighted, but the pleasure quickly disappears once the food is finished. Hence we waste hours slaving for perhaps fifteen minutes of gratification – is the triumph of being praised that meaningful?