By Sohaib Saeed
Originally published by 1st Ethical
O mankind, eat from whatever is on earth [that is] lawful (ḥalāl) and wholesome (ṭayyib) and do not follow the footsteps of Satan. Indeed, he is to you a clear enemy. (Qur’an 2:168)
And eat of what God has provided for you, lawful and wholesome. And fear God, in Whom you are believers. (Q 5:88)
Then eat of what God has provided for you, lawful and wholesome. And be grateful for the favour of God, if you do worship Him. (16:114)
After quoting these verses from the Qur’an, which – along with similar verses – call upon human beings and believers to eat what is lawful and wholesome, I am moved to share the following reflections:
- We don’t need to be told to eat, because God has already created us with this instinct. Therefore, these instructions have more to do with being mindful, discerning and thankful. They are also linked to the fact that our bodies are a trust upon us and necessary to fulfil our worldly and religious duties. This is in addition to the context in which some of the verses come: nullifying the polytheists’ practice of falsely declaring things impermissible, or the extreme ascetic doctrine of rejecting all worldly pleasures. As such, the word “eat” encompasses more than just eating.
- In all these verses, the importance of restricting ourselves to what is lawful (ḥalāl) has been coupled with seeking and enjoying what is wholesome (ṭayyib). These concepts are intertwined because the Creator has in fact made wholesome things lawful for us, and harmful things forbidden (Q 7:157, 5:4,5). However, the words appearing together also invites us to consider each in its own right. For one thing: consuming even ḥalāl things in excessive measure endangers us physically and spiritually, and there is nothing ṭayyib about that (Q 7:31).
- “You are what you eat” is not just a saying. It is quite obvious physically, but spiritually we might overlook it altogether. Our very being and every output is affected by what we choose to input. It is not for nothing that the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) instructed us to slow down our consumption while treating every morsel as a choice blessing. The name of God is mentioned over an animal being killed, and again when it is presented as food. The provisions of this world are to be treated with reverence, not to be abused.
- It is as though the frequent coupling of ḥalāl and ṭayyib is to remind us that legalism and iḥsān (more than spirituality, it is seeking the best in all things) depend on one another. While some people are obsessed with the permissibility or otherwise of certain E-numbers, there are others who would turn away from those very products simply for being unhealthy. Even the first group (who have doubts about the substances) could admit that being ṭayyib includes the meaning of being above suspicion – and that has its own sweetness.
- Another meaning of ṭayyib is to be appealing to people of sound taste; as such, something is not ṭayyib if it is disgusting. How many times have you eaten something which, if its origins were described to you, would make you lose your appetite? If it goes further and actually harms the body or mind, then it can never called ṭayyib, no matter what other certification it may receive. Ṭayyib is a mark of quality and benefit.
- Something can never be ḥalāl without being ṭayyib – if we are talking about things as they exist in nature. But when human hands fiddle wantonly with crops and livestock, or churn out substances devoid of nutritional value, the latter description is lost – even if every scholar would have to admit their technical legality. “Corruption has appeared on land and sea due to what the hands of people have earned…” (Q 30:41). We might say that the verses have taken on new meaning and significance in our industrial age, in which big companies engineer taste and manufacture addiction.
- The quality of being ṭayyib is significant enough to have been mentioned alone in numerous verses (e.g. 2:57, 2:172, 23:51). Exegetes often equated its meaning in these verses with being lawful, but perhaps it is more fitting to say that the word encompasses both aspects, as anything that is not ḥalāl is not truly ṭayyib as it causes harm in the next life, if not in this.
- The news is filled with food disasters: from horse disguised as beef, to pork traces found in food marketed as “ḥalāl”. What has gone wrong? We can blame the unethical companies, but how much has to do with our incessant and increasing demands for “convenient” meals at lower prices? Are we not also over-dependent on meat, such that the word ḥalāl is used almost exclusively in its context? Not to mention that the Prophetic standards of kindness to animals have been reduced to a hollow boast, as animals are stuffed with junk and stuffed into cages.
- The beginning of the solution: consciousness about what we eat and the spiritual dimension of eating. We are half-way there by knowing about ḥalāl, but now it is time to think deeper and smarter about ṭayyib.