As billions of Muslims feast in the evening during this auspicious month of Ramadan, meat will be on the table for many, and lots of it. But how Islamic is the widespread consumption of meat, and consumption in general?
Historically, Muslims were quasi-vegetarians including the Prophet ﷺ himself. The middle class would eat meat only on Fridays while the poor would eat it only on the two occasions of Eid.
There are many warnings of excessive meat consumption in the hadith – the collections of the speech and actions of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ as well as his Companions. In one narration, Umar رضي الله عنه said:
“Beware of meat. It has addictiveness like the addictiveness of wine”Mu’atta Imam Malik
In another narration the Prophet ﷺ said “Meat hardens the heart“; it diminishes mercy in the heart. Interestingly, if we take this narration literally, we can see some physiological changes that take place from the excessive consumption of meat; notably, the link to inflammation of the heart, as well as atherosclerosis, where the arteries “harden”, ie, prevent effective blood flow due to constriction.
1500 years later, we are now seeing the wisdom of the Prophet’s ﷺ words with the various problems attached to a meaty diet.
The Prophet ﷺ was not demanding when it came to food, he ate whatever was available at the time. In modern times we have three course meals or cook various dishes of meat, chicken, fish and vegetables. It was said that the Prophet ﷺ did not like to mix food; he preferred to keep his meals simple. Yet, today, we eat luxurious meals that humble what the kings of the past had.
With modern methods of importing food from around the world, we have become more and more demanding and overindulged with the food choices we have.
The Prophet ﷺ said: The son of Adam does not fill any vessel worse than his stomach. It is sufficient for the son of Adam to eat a few mouthfuls, to keep him going. If he must do that (fill his stomach), then let him fill one third with food, one third with drink and one third with air“.al-Tirmidhi, 2380
This Hadith is a stark warning and profound advice from the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him and his family). He is not advocating starvation here, but drawing our attention to the dangers (both physical and spiritual) of overeating and emphasising how little food we really need to live.
The way most of us approach food and its consumption is fundamentally flawed. We eat for sport, not survival. When we are bored, we eat. When we see food, we eat. When we watch food on tv or the internet, we eat. It is very rare we eat when we are hungry and when we do eat, we overeat.
Yahya ibn Katheer reported: The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said:
آكُلُ كَمَا يَأْكُلُ الْعَبْدُ وَأَجْلِسُ كَمَا يَجْلِسُ الْعَبْدُ فَإِنَّمَا أَنَا عَبْدٌ
I eat as the servant eats, and I sit as the servant sits. Verily, I am only a servant.Shu’ab al-Iman, 5519
In contrast, when someone chooses to eat less, we consider them “unwell” or deficient in maintaining a “healthy” eating habit.
More dangerously, the human race is becoming addicted to poor quality meat; it has been engrained in our daily lives to eat meat right from childhood. Children are taught they must eat meat in order to grow strong and healthy. Far from the truth, people are becoming more and more unhealthy, dragged down by diseases such as diabetes or cancers because of the increased consumption of meat and processed foods. This is down to farming practices changing to produce more and more to keep up with the greed and addiction of the people. The problem lies not in production; it is in widespread greed.
Allah ﷻ tells us in the Quran,
“Eat and drink, but be not excessive. Indeed, He does not like the lavish”.Surah Al-A’raf, 7:31.
It is part of Islam to eat fresh, home-grown, clean food. Food which is tayyib (wholesome, pure, clean, nutritious).
“Oh people, eat from the earth what is halal and tayyib, and follow not the footsteps of the Shaytan”.Surah al-Baqarah, 2:168
Although the Prophet ﷺ ate mutton, various scholars say that the Prophet ﷺ never ate beef in his entire life, even though he sacrificed a cow for his wives on one occasion. Most scholars, however, agree that he did partake of it but from the seerah itself, we can only establish three possible instances wherein the Prophet ﷺ might have eaten beef.
So what is the correct way of approaching food consumption? One Prophetic answer to this is fasting.
Fasting was a regular part of the Prophet’s ﷺ life. He would fast every Monday and Thursday. He would also fast the 13th, 14th and 15th of each month. Once you add them up you get eleven days, or roughly one-third of the month in which the Messenger ﷺ would fast, not to mention all of Sha’ban.
When the Messenger ﷺ was not fasting, he was “intermittently fasting”, i.e., eating only once a day. If he ate in the morning, he would not eat again until the next morning. If he ate at night, he would not eat until the next night. He once stated, “A believer eats with one stomach while a nonbeliever eats with seven stomachs.” The profound import of this Prophetic statement points to the importance of rooting even our food consumption in faith and the Sacred. It is interesting to note that even ascetics of other religions, such as Buddhist monks, eat one meal per day. This prophetic advice of fasting and intermittent fasting has recently been championed by contemporary fitness gurus.
What did the Prophet ﷺ eat aside from meat?
The rest of the Prophet’s ﷺ diet consisted of Dates, Figs, Grapes, Milk, Honey, Olives, Vinegar, Watermelon, Barley, Pumpkin, Squash, Yoghurt, Gourd, Cucumber, and other vegetables.
Narrations like the following demonstrate the special attention to certain vegetables that the “Green” Prophet, as he is now called by many, had, in contrast to the meat offered in the same meal.
On an occasion, a tailor invited the Messenger of Allah ﷺ to a meal which he had prepared. Anas رضي الله عنه who accompanied the Prophet ﷺ, narrates,
“I went along with the Messenger of Allah ﷺ. Barley bread and soup containing pumpkin and dried sliced meat was prepared. Anas رضي الله عنه said: I saw the Messenger of Allah ﷺ going after the pumpkin round the dish, so I have always liked pumpkins since that day.”Abu Dawud, 3782
As Muslims it is sunnah for us to incorporate the eating habits of the Prophet ﷺ into our daily lives, for some this is a complete lifestyle change but our reward may be increased by simply trying to have a more balanced and certainly a more healthy diet.