The Importance of Food and What Lies Beyond It

First Khutbah – Main Points

إن الأكل من الدين

“Eating is part of religion.” [from the Companions – RAH]

لا طريق إلى الوصول للقاء الله إلا بالعلم والعمل

“There is no path to the meeting with God except by knowledge and deeds.” [advice from al-Ghazali]

ولا تمكن المواظبة عليهما إلا بسلامة البدن

“And there can be no devotion to it [knowledge and deeds] except with a sound body” [advice from al-Ghazali

كلوا من الطيبات واعملوا صالحا

“Eat from that which is good and perform righteous acts.” [Q: ‘A’raf (7):100]

إن الرجل ليؤجر حتى في اللقمة يرفعها إلى فيه وإلى في امرأته

The Prophet [s] said: “A man is rewarded even for the morsel of food he raises to his mouth and to the mouth of his wife.” [related in Bukhari]

الوضوء قبل الطعام ينفي الفقر وبعده ينفي اللمم, ينفي الفقر قبل الطعام وبعده

The Prophet [s] said: “Wudu’ [ablution] before eating removes poverty and performing it afterwards removes minor sins.” [related in Abu Dawud and at-Tirmidhi]

Eating is a barometer of sorts for the believer. It gives us an indication of where our nafs is at: Continue reading “The Importance of Food and What Lies Beyond It”

"Eat from that which is Good" – Chocolate Cupcakes Cross Examined

chocolate cupcakes

On May 21st, I gave a khutbah at the University of Pennsylvania in which I talked about food as it relates to Muslims but examining the Qur’ānic imperative:

كلوا من الطيبات واعملوا صالحا

“Eat from that which is good and perform righteous acts.” Qur’an, 7: 100.

This statement crossed my mind again that day as I stopped in at a 7-Eleven to get a sports drink. Across the cooler, laying inconspicuously, was an attractive looking package [for a junk food addict that is], which read on the front: “Chocolate Cupcakes: rich, chocolaty goodness — mouthwatering chocolate cake covered with chocolate frosting”.

At the same time, a recent converstaion I had with a close friend of mine, in which we discussed the modern woes of food production as well as the absence of any critical Muslim dialog and involvement in it, entered my head.  In the conversation, the brother asked me to watch a video entitled, “Food Inc.“.  The video, which can be seen on Youtube, lays out and illustrates a reality about food production that should of interest to Muslims, especially given the above imperative. During our conversation, I became aware of my own lack of congnisance regarding the subject and have thus endeavored to make myself more aware of its importance.  But in doing so, my desire was to take the conversation about “healthy food” away from the fringe, where it is perceived to be the property and proclivity of vegans, vegetarians and other minority groups who are conscious, and steer it towards the mainstream of the typical Muslim.  In essence, it is my hope that we can have a communal conversation and perhaps even change of action, regarding food, that goes beyond the halāl/non-halāl dichotomy. I also saw it as a missed opportunity that Muslims could have in terms of da’wah and dialog with the broader American public.

But back to our story … So there I was, in a spot we’ve all been at, at some time or another.  Tempted by some sweet delicacy.  And as my hand reached for its cellophane wrapper, brother Muhammad’s voice and conversation entered my head, and I recalled the verse I had recited from the minbar again: “Eat from that which is good and perform righteous deeds“.  And as I did, I glanced down at the ingredients and I must say, it was startling.  Not only for its sheer incomprehensibility and daunting chemical vocabulary, but also at some of the ingredients themselves—my concsiousness made aware from Food Inc.—a few of them stood out, for which I have highlighted.  This is a far cry from the chocolate cupcakes my mother made me as a child!

Sugar,water, corn syrup, enriched unbleached flour and bleached flour (wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), high fructose corn syrup, soybean oil, palm oil, eggs, cocoa (natural and processed with alkali), contains 2% or less of the following: modified food starch, dextrose, leavening (baking soda, sodium acid pyrophosphate, monocalcium phosphate), cornstarch, calcium carbonate, wheat gluten, mono- and diglycerides, chocolate liquor [say what?!], salt, calcium sulfate, methylcellulose, agar, soy lecithin, datem, sodium stearoyl lactylate, cellulose gum, polysorbate 60 [what happened to the other 59?], guar gum, titanium dioxide (color – titanium for color? C’m on!), artificial flavors, lactic acid, sorbitan monostearate, sodium hexametaphosphate, annatto (color), citric acid, xanthan gum, caramel color, preserved with potassium sorbate, sodium propionate, and sodium benzoate.

In light of the above verse and this laundry list of chemical agents, it is high time for Muslims to have a voice in the public discourse on health.  We have our own long tradition of health-related eating practices [both Qur’anic, Prophetic and from the Tradition].  One can walk into any hospital and find a large number of Muslim doctors but how many Muslim public health officials do we have?  I am reminded of Dr. Jackson’s talk on the “quietism” on behalf of Muslims when it comes to race.  I would indeed agree, though I would push it further and contest that Muslims are “quite” on the vast majority of topics that are of interest to the society that they live in as a whole.  How can we remain quiet in the face of not only racial injustice, but of practices on the part of the food industry that have the potential to affect us all?

Food for thought.

Extra Links

  • Halal Scanner: www.halalscanner.com/
  • Halal and kosher food safer?: Scientist Live [is it really? And does halal necesarrily equate “tayyib”/”good”?]
  • American Halal Association: americanhalalassociation.com/

Health Consciousness and Religion

On November 15, I participated in a locally-held, national event co-sponsored by Jewish and Muslim student groups called Health Consciousness and Religion [https://www.ffeu.org/]. The event, held at Hillel on UPenn’s campus, was a talk about Kosher and Halal, and looking at both systems not just in their similarities, but in how their scope goes beyond the mundane boundaries of governing what a Jew or a Muslin can or cannot eat. Instead, such topics as environmental stewardship and low-impact eating were examined within the constructs of Kosher and Halal. I participated in a short talk with Rabbi Joel Nickerson, the Senior Jewish Educator/Rabbi-in-Residence at Hillel. Here are some of Rabbi Joel’s notes:

Humans will have meat for their food and they will kill to get it.

  • We started off as vegetarians in Genesis: “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earthm and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food.” [1:29]
  • Yet, after the flood, in Chapter 9, humans are permitted to eat all food on earth, including animals, yet already with some restriction.

By viewing the Jewish dietary laws as an ethical system, we come to see that Judaism has worked out a system by which we can maintain our lust for animal flesh, yet not be dehumanized in the process.

This is done through 3 basic rules:

  • Choice of animal food is severely limited – startling how few animals there are to eat, according to Jewish law, with no restrictions on plants and fruits.
  • Animals may not be killed by just anyone – only a qualified few, whose skill and religious recognition of the slaughter process, are allowed to slaughter.
  • Ensures that those who slaughter do not become brutalized through regular killing.
  • Even after belong ritually slaughtered, blood must be drained before they can be consumed.
  • humans have the right to nourishment, but not to the life of others
  • Humans have the right to nourishment, but not to the life of others.

Bible’s method of taming killer instinct in humans is through dietary laws – not about hygiene. Bible goes to great lengths to offer rationale for dietary laws, focusing on the holiness of these commandments.

  • How do you define holiness?
  • Separation (from idolators and other cultures), emulating God

My thanks to Roxana and Penn’s MSA for inviting us out for the talk. We enjoyed and benefited from all of the student input as well as Rabbi Nickson’s words. It allowed us to look at how we eat as people of faith through a larger lens. We look forward to engaging in more efforts such as this.

Thanksgiving Survival Manual

Being Muslim in a non-Muslim environment can present a number of challenges. From time to time, we are called upon to negotiate a space in which we are not the defining power. This happens with great frequency here in America, a non-Muslim majority environment. So when it comes to the holidays, many Muslims feel torn between upholding immutable values of their religion and not breaking the ties of kin [interestingly enough, another immutable value in Islam]. For those who already believe Thanksgiving to be haram, this discussion is not for you. I’m sure my blood is already halal to you. But for those who are of a mind that is trying to negotiate this space, I give you a little something to take with you to your families. Whether you’re a convert whose spending the evening with family or one who was born Muslim, but because of family ties, one may be staring down a turkey, this small supplication is for you. Share it with your families and let them know that Muslims also have a narrative, an opinion, a take on the duality of food and thanks.

الحمد لله الذي أطعمنا وسقانا وكفانا وآوانا سيدنا ومولانا يا كافي من كل شيء ولا يكفي منه شيء أطعمت من جوع وآمنت من خوف فلك الحمد. آويت من يتم وهديت من ضلالة وأغنيت من عيلة فلك الحمد حمدا كثيرا دائما طيبا نافعا مباركا فيه كما أنت أهله ومستحقه. اللهم أطعمتنا طيبا فاستعملنا صالحا واجعله عونا لنا على طاعتك ونعوذ بك أن نستعين به على معصيتك

“All praise belongs to God who has provided food, drink, and sustenance, as well as sheltered us. O’ our Lord and Master!, You who defend us from everything, none can change Your decree. You kept us from hunger, secured us from fear, therefore to You belongs the praise. It is You who has sheltered the orphan and provided guidance from error and it is You who has enriched from poverty, therefore to You belongs the praise, a praise that is plentiful, everlasting, good, beneficial and blessed. You are undoubtedly worthy and deserving of it. O’ God! You have fed us well so make us conduct ourselves well by it and through this, make us act obediently to You. We seek refuge in You should we use this blessing in disobedience to You.”

The above is from Hāmid Abu Muhammad al-Ghazālī, one of the great thinkers of Islam, who earned the title of hujjatul Islam – the Proof of Islam. May God have mercy on him.

Enjoy.

Where To Turn To When Returning To Spirituality

 

There has been a great increase in interest in spirituality from the Muslim community over the last several years. Published manuscripts of this or that teacher, new translations of Ibn ‘Arabi’scosmology as well as lesser known, more esoteric authors have hit the shelves of book stores in waves. The Muslim readership in the English-speaking world are hungry for spiritual sustenance. But is this hunger being fed? That is the question I would like to ask.

This new call for methods and practices on Muslim spirituality have not been solely limited to print. Many neo-Traditional institutions have found themselves in demand, holding numerous seminars across the United States and Britain, calling for returns to a spiritual practice of Islam. And while I laud these efforts, I will illustrate how some of these mediums may not actually be accomplishing their goals: to help engender a spirit of God conscious amongst the rank and file believers. And finally, to go beyond just critique, I will try and offer a few meager suggestions myself.

It goes without saying that Islam is a religion that has a strong historicaland spiritual practice, what some may call Sufism, Tasawwuf, or mysticism, found in all corners of the earth, where ever Muslims have traveled to. It is linked with many of the great intellectual and philosophical figures in Muslim history (the aforementioned Ibn ‘Arabi, Mulla Sadra and of course, the famous Abu Hamid al-Ghazali). Many if not most of these spiritual traditions have survived up to the present day, from Africa to Asia, the Balkans to the Middle-East, in various turuq (plural of tariqah, or a Sufi brotherhood). And now that Islam has arrived on America’s shores, what will its spiritual tradition look like? Is there one at all? Proto-Islamic groups, such as the Nation of Islam, had their roots in a “holy protest” against white supremacist values and socialinjustices; spirituality was not a primary or even secondary focus of their experiences as Muslims (note: I am obviously aware of the doctrinal differences between orthodox Islam and the problematic theology of the NOI, but for the purposes of this article, I will refer to them nonetheless as Muslim here) in America. Following the popular demise of the NOI in the face of Muslims hailing from the historical Islamic world, again, we see most Muslims in America primarily concerned with existential matters: education, employment, assimilation. And while these are all necessary matters, they cannot sustain a community over the long haul alone. So why the recent interest in spirituality? And more importantly, how will it shape itself in this unique context, addressing the many various needs of the American Muslim community? These are some of the questions that beg many answers.

I have spent a fair amount of time over the last severalyears attending, photographing, and observing many religious functions of Muslims in America. Many of these, whose objectives are a call to spirituality and the return to a more focused spiritual life. The significance of this shift coming post 9/11 cannot be ignored, as it helps us to see who’s interested and why. To be more direct, calls for a return to spirituality have been championed primarily by immigrant-supported groups. By supported I mean groups either led by leaders or more importantly, support financially by immigrant Muslims. Many, though not all of these Muslims tend to come from more affluent backgrounds, having both more formal education than their Blackamericancounterparts as well as the disposable income to support such groups and even the human capitalto volunteer and assist in their implementation. This should not be thought of as a critique versus merely an observation. In fact, it is because of the lack of both economic and human capital that many indigenous [and here I am referring to Blackamerican] institutions have yet to fully take flight. So the question I ask myself is in what way, in what role, will indigenous Muslims have a role in shaping the future of the development of spiritual practices. But before attempting to answer such a question, first we must look at what are the current practices and trends on the ground and what does the triage call for.

Like any thing else in the American Muslim experience, divergent groups will have divergent needs. The spiritualneeds and practical implementation of any such developed practices will have to vary from community to community. The trials and tribulations of immigrant Muslims may indeed be very different from those of BlackamericanMuslims, regardless if they are low-income urban Blacks or educated, upwardly mobile. It is the different histories of the two communities that will drive (or ought to be) and dictate the spiritual needs of the communities. What I believe should be paid more attention to is that bothcommunities have a real need for such a return. And while this has been felt by the immigrant Muslim community, in large, this has either been ignored by the Blackamerican population, especially in urban settings, where there is a palpable mistrust of such practices as deviant, or not fully articulated into a “need”, and thus practice. But there has been a small groundswell of interest in more independent-minded BlackamericanMuslims, many of whom I have been in contact with and have discussed this very same topic. For them, the question is not “if”, in terms of spiritual practice, but “how” and “by whom”, and in what way. Many of us have toured the travel circuit, attended the lectures and workshops but have yet to be left with a feeling of a workable plan. A functional spirituality that gives meaning to their private lives as Muslims. That bring them closer to God.

With two possible tracks articulated, the question now turns to the institutions themselves. How are they, if at all, prepared to deal with the multiplicity of backgrounds, cultural proclivities and the like of the above groups. The traveling workshop has left many with just a taste of what might be possible, but with no solid or tangible means to pursue these practices further. Many have stated they do not feel they can learn or accomplish much in a one-day or two-day talk, often of which the topics seem more like a talk show format than something truly topical. Should we be asking more and/or different formats of dissemination from our Islamic higher institutions of learning? Many would seem to think so. And given that time and money are of limited supply, many of these attendees feel that their money, time, and resources could be put to better use for better results.

To be certain, a great deal of this difficulty is brought about by modern life itself, which at many times can seem and feel antithetical to the betterment of the human being. Time constraints, inflation, taking more to obtain less, all add to the stress and detracted interaction of not only Muslims from one another, but to all peoples caught in this bind. And while the Internet has made the dissemination of information doubly more proficient, it has yet to prove to be truly capable to mimicking the experience of bona-fide human involvement. In short, both short seminars and web casts are poor substitutions for proper teachers and real companionship (suhbah, the word from which the word Sahabah (the Prophet’s صلى الله عليه وسلم companions) is derived). And it may be true that the greater aspects of spirituality are those demons we all rankle with on the inside, there is also an outer aspect that involves companionship with our common man. And in our case specifically, with other Muslims. I myself saw the proof of this when interviewing many of the attendees at conferences such as MANA and ISNA or even talks by Zaytuna. They all attested to the fact that the greatest benefit from those conferences wasn’t the talks, wasn’t the shopping at the bazaars, but it was just the honest-to-goodness social interaction with other like-minded Muslims. I believe this to be step one in commencing our journey towards a healthy spiritual practice. We must come to know one another. And there is plenty of evidence that we, as an American Muslim collective, still do not know one another as well as we should.

“O’ mankind! Without a doubt we created you from a single pair of man and woman and made you of various sorts and tribes so that you may get to know one another.” al-Hujaraat, 13.

As for the second step of this journey, we, both the rank and file and the administrators of such institutions, must constantly ask, “is this serving our purpose?” Is this what we need? Along with a new generation of imams, who will need to be trained in more than just Qur’anicrecitation, our next generation of scholars and community educators must need be multifaceted, trained in many areas of expertise, capable of on-spot cultural analysis, assessing that the community needs, what they’re facing, and how best to prepare them for the world in which they not only live in, but for one they want to live in, and of course, for the life to come. Perhaps in there lies a hope for divergent communities to come together, utilize and celebrate the genius of our communities, and not just sending our best and brightest off to study medicine and engineering. I encourage many of my Blackamericanbrethren to take a second look at the intellectual and spiritual history and tradition of Islam and not right it off as just “bid’ah“. With all of the difficulties that Blackamericans face, especially those coming out of urban backgrounds, we need to deliver to them an Islam that is more than simply an conglomerate of rules and regulations. More intelligent ways of saying “halal” and not just “haram”, without giving up or into the demands of the dominant culture and yet not completely disassociating ourselves from it. Without a doubt, we need a return to spirituality, but we can ask for and receive better.

And God knows best.