It begins with a faint realisation that something is missing, a slight persistent discomfort that keeps growing until it matures into a persistent, gnawing grumble, making it almost impossible to do anything else except tend to that primal urge.
The growling call of a hungry stomach is an experience to which all of humanity can relate. It cuts across caste and creed, age and gender and is one of the greatest equalisers, as it does not discriminate between those that have and those that do not.
Imam Jaʿfer al-Sādiq AS states: ‘indeed the offspring of Adam was created hollow, unable to escape the need for sustenance.’
Despite being considered mundane because we are habituated to it, the phenomenon of feeling hungry and consuming food to dispel that hunger is most intriguing. It is so deep rooted in our nature as to define who we are and to a great extent, what we do.
In this article we explore the many aspects of hunger and satiation.
In the Epistles of Ikhwān al-Safāʾ, Imam Ahmed al-Mastūr AS explains that the process of hunger and satiation is inextricably linked to the broader phenomenon of pleasure and pain, where pleasure is nothing put the elimination of pain, and pain moreover is the result of imbalance.
To elucidate this, the first example cited therein is that of hunger. According to the epistles, the entire digestive apparatus is pervaded by a natural heat which continually acts on consumed food so as to process and digest it. When the digestive tract is empty of food, the unceasing heat – having nothing to act on – begins to exert influence on the tract itself, causing the pain we come to realise as hunger. This pain, which is a result of an imbalance in the digestive tract, spurs us to eat something which restores the internal balance by giving the heat something to act on once again, thereby eliminating the pain of hunger and bringing about an equilibrium induced pleasure of feeling sated.
Which brings us to the most critical element of this discussion. That of balance.
We have seen that balance plays an important role in making us feel hungry and bringing about a sense of being sated. But the role of balance is far more important in what comes next.
In a captivating analogy employed to explain just how the food we consume is dealt with once ingested, the Epistles liken the human body to a city and its various elements, strengths and humours to the constituents of that city. In a healthy body where the humours and elements are in a state of balance and harmony, nutrients from the food are distributed throughout the body to each organ according to its needs, much like the resources of a stable city are traded and consumed lawfully and fairly so that each part of society receives its fair share. But when that body is in a state of imbalance and turmoil, its resources are plundered by the strong and powerful, leaving the weak in a state of deprivation.
The most interesting part is how the entire phenomenon comes full circle when we factor in the realisation that a healthy body of balanced humours and harmonious elements which sees to a balanced distribution of nutrients throughout, is in itself the direct result of a balanced diet. Specific food groups lead to the production of specific humours, and so it only follows that an imbalance in diet leads to an internal imbalance which brings about sickness.
Like most things in Fatimi philosophy, the physical realm symbolises something that goes beyond it. In this case, the need for physical sustenance corresponds with a yearning for knowledge. As stated in the epistles, food for the body is like knowledge for the intellect.
Here too we see the relevance of balance. An integral balance between physicality and spirituality.
Gluttony is said to do away with acumen, which is not limited to the practice of eating but holds true for all activities pertaining to physicality. Overindulgence in the physical brings about a neglect of the spiritual as stated often in Fatimi philosophy, and yet the physical is not something which can be shunned in its entirety; this therefore necessitates a need for balance. In the words of Syedna al-Muʾayyad al-Shīrāzī RA, a Fatimi dāʿī in the time of Imam al-Mustansir bi Allah AS and the renowned author of the philosophical corpus al-Majālis al-Muʾayyadiya, physical sustenance can never take the place of intellectual sustenance nor can knowledge and enlightenment supplant the need for food. They must both exist in balance.
The Dawoodi Bohra community is encouraged and taught to live their lives by this very balance. Which is why the community’s intellectual and spiritual gatherings (majālis) are usually coupled with communal meals, while its initiatives to feed the hungry are intellectually backed by the understanding that while feeding oneself is an inescapable necessity, feeding others is a choice informed by the highest level of spirituality. The Prophet Mohammed SAW states: ‘there is no deed superior to feeding the hungry.’