Muslims and those who have enjoyed meals with them know that when it comes to moderating their eating, most Muslims do not follow the Way of the Prophet. In fact, they seem to do the opposite! Although Muhammad's community went through times of great scarcity, there were also times during which they enjoyed a relative abundance of food. When there was enough to eat, our beloved Muhammad advised his community not to overeat. He told them to take small bites. One should eat with only three fingers; eating with five would be pick up too large a bite to chew and swallow properly. And he told them to take very few of those small bites! He strongly criticized eating one's fill. It is reported he said, "The worst cavity one fills is one's belly, if you must eat make sure you fill one-third of your stomach with food, one-third with water and leave one-third empty." He also advised that we should not eat too much meat, saying, "Don't worship the meat." As a result, there is a strong tradition in Islam of ethically sourcing one's food and striving to eat less, and less meat, to reduce our harmful impact on God's creation and improve our health. But don't worry, this is not going to be a lecture on returning to the wise Sunna of eating less. No arguing there. This is about the blessings of food.
First let me say thank God, the Prophet, in all wisdom, did not just speak about eating less but also spoke about the blessings of food. No need to be dour! Anyone who has eaten an ethically-sourced cupcake knows there need be nothing dour about ethical eating. The Prophet spoke of food in terms of the blessing of moderation and sustenance, yes, but also in terms of the blessings of pleasure. He said, "When you eat food, you should say, God bless us in it, and give us food better than it!" Now, one of the blessings of Paradise is the pleasure of good food and drink (Q 52:20); I cannot help but think he meant the pleasure of food in this world as well as the gustatory bliss in the next. Of the pleasures of this world, he knew that one should always leave the best bite for the last Muhammad said, "There is blessing in the middle of a dish. So commence from the side and not from the middle." Milk and honey are mentioned in the Qur'an as two of the foods of paradise (Q 47:15) and the Prophet loved his milk and honey. He even thanked God for the wonder of milk because it is both a food and a beverage. It is said that his love of honey got him in some hot water with his wives. He said concerning milk, "Drink milk, for it wipes away heat from the heart as the finger wipes away sweat from the brow. Furthermore, it strengthens the back, increases the brain, augments the intelligence, renews vision, and drives away forgetfulness." On honey he said, "By God in whose hand is my soul, eat honey. For there is no house in which honey is kept for which the angels will not ask for mercy. For those who eat honey, a thousand remedies enter their stomachs and a million diseases will come out. If they should die with honey in their stomachs, the Fire will not touch them."
Muslims have no trouble seeing the blessings in food, we know the good when we see it. Especially when we smell it and taste it! We have this wonderful intentionality towards food. We sit together as friends and neighbors, we share food, we care for each other with good food. We see the light of God in it and we share that light. It is like all things, a sign of God for us to read. It is a taste of Paradise in this world, and a source of healing for us outwardly and inwardly.
When I was living in Morocco, we would go visit a lover of God in Sale. He is the loveliest human being. He polished and repaired tea pots and trays for a living. His little shop was right across the street from the little mosque where he leads prayers everyday in his neighborhood. He would see us coming from his shop, yell out to us, and come and meet us in the street. He'd always call out to me, "My sister!" and then give me a big hug. Once in his house, he would serve us fresh bread, honey, and butter along with tea. He would dig into the butter and say to us, "Eat there is healing in it!" And there was healing in it! Eating with gratitude and love of God in your heart turns bread, honey, and butter into nourishment for hearts. I am still living off the nourishment I gained from eating with him.
There is nothing magical in this. There have been sufficient scientific studies showing that a good intention, belief in a positive outcome, can make one healthier inwardly and outwardly. There is a study showing that belief in a merciful and kind God results in better health and a calmer constitution. Whereas belief in a vengeful God increases the likelihood of ill health, anxiety, and a tendency toward rage.
As the Prophet reminded us, intention is everything. A good intention opens the heart and mind toward God. It transforms the stuff of this world, rounds of wheat bread, honey, and butter, into an opening to God, fellowship, and healing. I think of it in terms of the report of the Prophet visiting a sick man who was in great pain with a high fever. The Prophet told him that if he would understand his fever as burning away his wrongdoings, his suffering offered him a chance to reflect on his actions and seek redemption. But the man dismissed him, replying it was just pain, nothing more. The Prophet responded, and I hear sadness in his voice, that if that was his view of things, then the illness would be--in reality--nothing more than pain and fever.
Intention is everything. The Prophet, God love him, said that nothing bad can come from something good. So I will close with another story from my time in Morocco proving our assurance on that point. I was trying to make Harira and I could not get it to taste right. After suggestions from everyone and trying everything, I was near to giving up. I went early for the midday prayer at the local mosque one day to sat for a while with the old ladies who prayed and socialized there everyday. I asked them about the soup. They asked me every imaginable question and no one could sort out what I was doing wrong. Until one woman looked up and asked me, "Did you say 'in the name of God' before you started!?"