• Esmé L. K. Partridge

You Are How You Eat: A Medieval Islamic Theologian’s View on The Value of Food

In a secular society that categorically rejects the sacred, it is no surprise that we fail to treat life’s offerings with sanctity. Food is, second to the environment, perhaps one of the most unfortunate victims of this; within the past few decades, the culture of food and drink has become rapidly profanised in the West. First came the breakdown of the family meal and the once-ubiquitous ritual of saying grace at the table, followed by the acts of preparing and consuming food becoming more simplified than ever before in the name of convenience. In 2020, we can now order meals to our front doors at the click of a button, or even replace them altogether with supplements and substitutes ‘approved by nutritionists’.


In an era of expediency where life’s simple rituals have been replaced by a hyper-utilitarian emphasis on corporate production and gain, the importance of appreciating food — let alone taking time and care to prepare it — has become woefully neglected. Now that the repercussions of this negligence are becoming all the more clear with the obesity crisis and environmental consequences of food waste posing huge problems for the health of both our bodies and the climate, we must rethink our attitudes towards what and how we consume.


The 11th Century Persian polymath Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali’s treatise ‘On The Manners Related To Eating’ offers a valuable perspective on the subject that may serve as a source of inspiration for this rethinking. Both a theologian and a scientist, Al-Ghazali dedicated himself to understanding the natural world as an expression of God, paving the way towards the sanctification of even the most seemingly mundane of daily rituals. His major work, ‘The Revival of The Religious Sciences’ — of which ‘On The Manners Related To Eating’ is the eleventh constituent — provides guidance for instilling gratitude into how we go about consuming our food, along with numerous other aspects of our lives.


Though the text pays considerably more attention to the etiquette of social eating — something which is relevant in its own right, given that 20% of American meals are reportedly eaten alone in cars — Al-Ghazali’s reflections are particularly pertinent to the issues of the decline in home-cooking and processed food, and how we can overcome treating consumption as a mere means-to-and-end.


Of course, foundational to Al-Ghazali’s approach is his understanding of food as a provision from God. It is important to recognise this as the inspiration behind the emphasis he places on thankfulness; itself a theologically loaded concept that can be associated with one of the ninety-nine names of Allah (al-Shukr; often translated as ‘the thankful’ or ‘the appreciative’) and, according to Al-Ghazali himself, constitutes ‘one half of faith’ (the other half being patience). He also writes in the introduction of the text that food is inherently religious both because it is a practical necessity for the maintenance of the body and thus its ability to partake in worship, and, at a more metaphysical level, because it is a blessing from God that signifies the human dependence upon Him. In this respect, food can also be thought of as a signifier of the Divine attribute of provision and sustenance (al-Razzāq), as is alluded to in The Qur’ān on several occasions:

‘And a sign for them is the dead earth. We have brought it to life and brought forth from it grain, and from it they eat’ — Qur’ān 36:33 ‘So eat of the lawful and good food which Allah has provided for you. And be grateful for the Graces of Allah, if it is He Whom you worship.’ — Qur’ān 16:114

Religion, then, is the essential basis for Al-Ghazali’s approach. There is no reason, however, for his application of thankfulness to the subject of food not to resonate with secular views just as much as spiritual ones. By reminding us of the complexities of food production and consumption so easily overlooked nowadays where pre-prepared and pre-packaged products are the norm, Al-Ghazali invites us to reinstate an organic balance that is beneficial to both the producers and the consumers. In doing so, we realise the importance of placing the order of nature above our own desires for bodily gratification — something which, regardless of one’s stance, can be recognised as a crucial step in overcoming the imbalances caused by our culture and attitudes surrounding food today.


One of Al-Ghazali’s central propositions is that genuine thankfulness can be achieved through thoughtfulness. It is arguably the lack of this that is at the root of the modern West’s problematic relationship with food; because we rarely see with our own eyes the processes that go into cultivating and producing it (along with the majority of our commodities), we are seldom given the opportunity to truly contemplate its origin. As a result, these processes and subsequently the food itself are all too easily taken for granted. Before delving into the practical means of resolving this, Al-Ghazali reminds of us of the complexities involved in food production in his chapter ‘On Patience And Thankfulness’ (also within ‘The Revival of The Religious Sciences’), where he writes:

‘If you examine [it closely], you will understand that one loaf [of bread] does not become suitable for eating until more that one thousand craftsmen worked on it. The beginning lies with the King Who drives the clouds to bring down rainwater; then it continues until the last of the work of the angels; then it passes to the work of man’

In order to appreciate the work of ‘one thousand craftsmen’, Al-Ghazali suggests a number of precise and yet achievable ways for how we can apply thoughtfulness to our consumption, most of which pertain to the virtues of patience and self-restraint. For example, he states that it is improper to blow on hot food in attempt to cool it down — something which, although most of us do without even thinking, he regards as a mark of rashness and impatience. He proposes instead that we should wait patiently to consume the food at the optimal temperature, encouraging us to think carefully about what we are consuming rather than treat it as a means to gratify our impulses of hunger.


Other prescriptions of Al-Ghazali’s include specific rituals for foods that encourage the consumer to consolidate thoughtful intention. Instead of eating uncontrollable quantities of certain foods, he suggests that we should precisely count them and adopt specific practices for every time we consume them. This is likely out of a similar rationale that precision encourages thoughtfulness, and thoughtfulness encourages thankfulness. Speaking of dates, for example, he says:

‘Of dates a person should eat an odd number: seven, eleven, or twenty-one, or however many they may come to. He must not place the dates and their stones together in one dish, or bring them together in the palm of the hand, but should place the stones from his mouth to the back of his hand and then discard them’

Though perhaps seemingly arbitrary, applying such rituals of care and precision to our food is a necessary prerequisite to truly appreciating it. Without this kind of discipline, we are likely to overlook the complexities of ‘one thousand craftsmen’ and instead fall prey to our desires for instant gratification. Al-Ghazali’s approach thus stands in contrast to the food ‘innovations’ of the modern world, which catalyse human indulgence. In fact, they steer us in the opposite direction of thoughtfulness; instead of waiting patiently, they tempt us to turn to delivery services offering us a meal exactly when and where we want it. While this may seem ‘convenient’, it comes at the cost of malnourishing ourselves — both physically and spiritually.


Such ‘innovations’ are also responsible for the decline in home-cooking; an issue which, although is not addressed explicitly by Al-Ghazali, can be viewed in light of both his notion of thoughtfulness and broader Islamic theological concepts. Of the former, it can be said that by cooking food ourselves we become directly engaged in the process of craftsmanship. This inspires us to truly appreciate the meal that we are putting on our plates, and to practice thoughtfulness that is conducive to thankfulness.


Of the latter, if one views the art of cooking specifically through the lens of Islamic theology, it can be interpreted as a reminder of God in that it transmutes multiplicity into unity. By assembling and combining an array of different ingredients, the individual partakes in a process of harmonisation of a many into a one; an inherently religious act which reminds us of the oneness of God, even from the mundane setting of our own kitchens. Just as a musician orchestrates choral unity by combining three musical notes to form one chord, the cook simulates a oneness — that is, the final dish — from a multiplicity of constituents, through a delicate process of harmonising different flavours and textures into a composite whole.


Merely engaging in this culinary metaphysics is therefore inherently spiritual in its evocation of unity (tawhid). More generally, it is an act of creation; creating a meal, as with a piece of music, art or any other kind of craftsmanship, is a simulation of the Divine act of creation at a microcosmic level. By creating things ourselves — rather than have a corporation do it for us — we each manifest our own creative abilities that, in the Islamic tradition, are directly associated with God through his names al-Khalik (the creator) and al-Musawirra (the fashioner of forms and shapes).


A further benefit of home-cooking — which, given the historical context, Al-Ghazali does not raise himself though nonetheless can be interpreted through his philosophy — is that it avoids the artificial additives so commonplace in modern food, which hinder the pursuit of thoughtful consumption in two significant ways. Firstly, they disconnect us from natural ingredients in favour of artificial ones, inherently alienating us from the natural world and the appreciation of its offerings. From the religious perspective specifically, this can be regarded as disrespectful towards creation; by adulterating natural ingredients with E-numbers and other additives, it is as if to suggest that God’s work is itself inadequate and must be ‘improved’ through processes that we believe make food ‘better’ for us on the basis of our own appetites and inclinations — a deviation from the Islamic dictum allāhuʾaʿlam (‘God knows best’).


Secondly, artificial additives encourage the instant gratification that Al-Ghazali warns agains. Because processed food is engineered to boost endorphins and ultimately lure the consumer into addiction, it inevitably catalyses gluttony. This, as Al-Ghazali emphasises, can singlehandedly cause us to regress to our base, animalistic natures. He states that he who partakes in eating ‘should not allow himself to lose control’ or ‘give himself the liberties of beasts at pasture’; behaviours which are made considerably easier to resist if we are to avoid chemically processed foods and return to the wholesome ritual of home-cooking.


What can be learnt overall from Al-Ghazali’s philosophy of eating is that, when it comes to food, we must inspire a sense of thankfulness through the practice of thoughtfulness. This thoughtfulness can be cultivated through applying patience and intention to how we eat and appreciating the complexities involved in its production, ideally by being as engaged with its production as possible. If we are to follow this, we will almost certainly arrive at a balance whereby food is consumed not as a means-to-an-end (that end being instant gratification), but as a celebration of the Divine (or, for the non-religious, a celebration of nature) and its provisions.


Furthermore, such an outcome finds itself to be in-line with Christian perspectives that the West has, to a considerable extent, written over with secularism. Al-Ghazali’s views on self-restraint and moderation, for example, share with Christianity the notion of gluttony as a hindrance to our moral and spiritual development. In this regard, Al-Ghazali’s ‘revival’ can be considered twofold; not only does it revive the religious sciences in a world where reductive materialism prevails, but it also has the potential to revive the moral philosophies of the West traditionally promoted through Christendom. When viewed this way, a reading of Al-Ghazali in the contemporary context can inspire a form of truly meaningful dialogue, moving towards a more environmentally and spiritually conscious way of life for all.