The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations states: ‘The food you choose and the way you consume it affect our health and that of the planet.’ This article attempts to engage with Fatimi philosophical traditions that establish the widely accepted correlation between food consumption and health.
Embodying the teachings of Islam, which emphasise valuing the bounty of food, providing food for others and avoiding wastage, Fatimi philosophy describes how food and the manner of its consumption, affect the individual and collective health of human beings. Food, as reaffirmed in Fatimi philosophy, is the source of sustenance and health for humanity as it is for all creatures; depending on human choices, it can also be the source of ailments and disease.
Moderation, in tandem with the philosophical concept of the golden mean, is the fundamental Fatimi principle for food consumption, the fulcrum that leads to a balance of health, conservation and sustainability. Imam Jaʿfar al-Sadiq states: ‘If people pursued moderation in their diets, their bodies would stay healthy and robust.’ These words elucidate, as advised by health professionals and dietary experts today, that eating the right amount of the right foods is essential to health and wellness; moderation should regulate both what a person eats and how they eat it.
Fatimi texts are replete with teachings that encourage consuming a variety of wholesome foods as part of a varied, balanced diet, as well as certain foods that are helpful in treating specific ailments in addition to maintaining a healthy mind and body. As recognised by most, adequate nutrition is essential to life and good health and in its absence, starvation and malnutrition ensue as attested to even in the modern world.
Exceeding the bounds of moderation leads to unfavourable consequences as well. In the epistle on animals in the Rasaʾil Ikhwan al-Safaʾ, in which Imam Ahmed al-Mastur illustrates the human condition through an allegorical narrative, a human delegate in the court of the Jinni king expresses yet another claim of human superiority based on the endless bounties of food and drink bestowed upon humankind. He contends that they are blessed with the cream of the crop, from fruits and grains to milk and butter and therefore enjoy a more gratifying life than animals. This declaration, however, is met with derision.
The animal representative, a nightingale, counters that contrary to other creatures, humans must expend a tremendous amount of effort and resources in the production, harvest, trade, preparation and storage of food. And though humans may relish an abundance of food, it often culminates in suffering in the form of illness, ailments and aches resulting in the necessity of bitter tasting medicine to treat them. This is because, unlike animals, many people habitually consume food excessively and frequently instead of eating solely for the purpose of survival and nutrition.
In spite of advancements in medical science, technology and agriculture, these assertions ring as true today as they did a thousand years ago. Statistics show that billions of people cannot afford a nutritious diet today and yet close to two billion people are overweight or obese due to a poor diet, overconsumption and sedentary lifestyles, with related healthcare costs predicted to exceed USD 1.3 trillion in the next decade. As to the expenditure of resources, the world’s food systems employ one billion people and are responsible for a third of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. And yet, many continue to starve while nearly a third of food produced globally is lost or wasted.
The significance of moderation and restraint in individual and global food consumption is difficult to overstate. The counsel of Imam Ali bin Abi Talib provides a gauge for self-restraint. He states:
‘Rise, while you still have a desire to eat.’ By heeding this advice, one is able to avoid overconsumption. The reason is that it takes several minutes for the brain to receive the signal that the stomach is full. If one eats slowly and stops before feeling completely sated, they will have already had enough for a full stomach. Modern dietitians offer similar advice today, encouraging time-tested techniques of mindful eating.
A hadith of the Prophet Mohammed further clarifies the healthy effect of pursuing moderation. Water, he instructs, should be sipped slowly to aid in digestion, along with pausing between sips and taking time to express gratitude to the Almighty. In contrast, gulping large amounts of water at a time is detrimental to health. This method of conscious consumption also leads one to better value food and water, therefore paying more heed to their conservation.
Further contemplation of Imam Jaʿfar al-Sadiq’s statement leads to the understanding that moderation in food consumption contributes not only to the wellness of the individual, but to the collective health of humanity. The philosophical notion of the human as a microcosm of the universe and vice versa, helps one perceive the fact that because they are part of a whole, the actions of each individual play a role, however large or small, in ensuring the well-being of the world.
Mindful eating and sustainable, healthy food choices are key to moderate and responsible consumption in general, which leads to less wasted food, less global hunger and less harm to the environment, thereby improving the overall health of both humanity and the earth.
Inspired by Islamic tenets and Fatimi philosophy, Dawoodi Bohras today strive for their own health as well as the health of their fellow human beings. Under the guidance of His Holiness Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin, the Faiz al-Mawaid al-Burhaniyah (FMB) community kitchen initiative aims to ensure food security and a healthy diet for the entire community in line with the principles of moderation and sustainability. Additionally, the community ethos of philanthropy and environmental responsibility has prompted it to work towards eliminating food waste and eradicating hunger through initiatives such as Project Rise and Dana Committee. With these initiatives, the Dawoodi Bohra community hopes to be a part of creating a healthier world.