This is the sixth piece in the Interfaith Ramadan 2016 series. Articles written by contributors from diverse faiths and none will published every day throughout the month of Ramadan.
Photo Credit: Samra Hussain
I never thought much about healthy food until the last few years. I ate comfort foods, using white bread to make meat sandwiches for lunch and the typical foods: deli meat sandwiches, pizza, burgers, and Pakistani dishes such as biryani, palao, korma, etc. I rarely ate any vegetables unless they were a topping on a pizza and ate limited fresh fruits (mostly bananas). The common factor in the foods I ate was that they were made with heavily processed grains and a lot of meat.
But then the internet came along, and soon after, Facebook happened. I started getting videos and articles in my news feed about healthy eating and the negative aspects of the global modern food industry. I watched videos and read articles about veganism. I felt fascinated and intrigued by the growing movement of people eating only plant based foods and completely avoiding animal products including dairy, poultry, and seafood. There were even people eating almost completely raw foods!
I felt like I needed to give it a try, so I started by simply adding fruit smoothies to my diet while still eating the usual unhealthy foods. Within a few days I realized how easily my body digested the smoothies compared to the foods I ate. I also noticed how it made me feel emotionally better. But at times I was confused and even felt that the benefits of prolonged veganism and raw veganism were a sham or a gimmick, and because it seemed so out of my comfort zone and so out of society’s norms, I had several experiences of cognitive dissonance. It sometimes seemed ludicrous that a meal could be considered a meal without meat in it. How was that possible? How can I have a meal if it did not have meat in it? And how could I have breakfast without eggs? How could a fruit smoothie be a breakfast every morning?
Then one day I read an amazing book that tied together all the various articles and videos I saw promoting raw vegan eating. It really cemented the idea of eating predominantly live and plant based foods from a scientific research perspective. In Return to the Brain of Eden: Restoring the Connection between Neurochemistry and Consciousness, authors Tony Wright and Graham Gyn state that, “From the type of dentition, gut length, and toxicity of foods like meat, a very strong case can be built for Homo sapiens being designed to eat and process a largely fruit-based diet. The brain’s requirements for food and the gut’s requirements for energy, the optimal acid/alkali balance, and the structure of the intestines all point to a frugivorous diet.” Another interesting quote from the book is, “Furthermore, experimental work on human fiber digestion has shown that our gut microfloras are very sensitive to different types of dietary fiber. We are very efficient at processing vegetable fiber from dicotyledonous sources (flowering plants like fig trees, carrots, and lettuces) but are less so from monocotyledons (grasses and cereals). This provides yet another pointer to the archaic diet of humans as being largely fruit based and indicates that the grass seed that we eat so much of today in cereals, cookies, and much else is a poor substitute.”
After reading that book, I started eating raw vegan, but because I was so accustomed to my previous unhealthy diet, after just three weeks, I felt exhausted and turned off of the raw foods, craving my comfort foods again. But I knew that I could not “un-know” what I knew now. I also began to wonder, would veganism be condoned or perhaps even encouraged in Islam?
I was in for a big surprise when I came upon Sheikh Hamza Yusuf’s YouTube videos about food and Islam. Sheikh Hamza Yusuf is one of North America’s most highly respected Islamic scholars. He has studied extensively with the top traditional/classical Islamic scholars in the Middle East and is very socially conscious.
Sheikh Hamza Yusuf has given numerous lectures available for free on YouTube about eating consciously. He states that, “...traditionally the Muslims were literally semi-vegetarians, the Prophet pbuh...was not a meat eater [Editor's note: pbuh is an abbreviation of 'peace be upon him', the English version of the Islamic honorific phrase used after the name of the Prophet]. Most of his meals did not have meat in them, and the proof of that is certainly in the Muwattah (the earliest written collection of hadith, writings about the Prophet pbuh), where Sayyidina Umar says: "Beware of meat because it has an addiction like addiction of wine.” Sheikh Hamza also links hadith related to over consumption of meat to modern day food shortages by stating, “...if you study modern meat industry you will find out that a lot of the famine in the world is a direct result of the over consumption of meat in countries like the United States, Canada and Europe...”
It all made sense and was tying everything together for me. There was no discrepancy between the scientific research about the harmful effects of over consumption of meat and the examples from the life of not only the Prophet Muhammad pbuh, but also his companions and the early Muslim community. Sheikh Hamza Yusuf highlighted that the Prophet pbuh mentioned that “the body has a right over you” and that the early Muslims were very conscious of the food they ate. In my humble opinion, there is no reason why the early Muslims did not eat a lot of meat other than them being conscious eaters and being aware of the spiritual repercussions of what we put in our bodies, because they were typically sheep and camel herders and they had easy access to herbivorous animals.
In addition to eating nutritious foods that were mostly plant based, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf states that the Prophet Mohammed pbuh also exercised and walked a lot. He also had a flat stomach and warned against obesity. After reading and watching so much about food and what makes a healthy lifestyle, I realized that our Prophet pbuh taught through example the same principles the scientific community is now urging people to adopt.
Photo Credit: Samra Hussain
I was blessed in that Ramadan 2015 came along and I vowed to eat healthier than before. I prayed and begged Allah swt [Editor's note: swt stands for 'Subhana Wa Tala' - an Islamic honorific used after the name of Allah, usually translated as 'glorious and exalted is He'] to help me eat more consciously and ecologically. Thankfully my prayers were answered and Allah swt helped shift my eating habits. I barely ate any deep fried foods all of last Ramadan. Some nights my iftar (the post-sunset meal that breaks the daily Ramadan fast) consisted solely of fresh fruits such as cantaloupes, honeydew melons, strawberries, apples, bananas etc. Many of the nights I prepared vegan dishes for myself. I made myself resilient over the days, ignoring the pangs of hunger that arose at random times during my fast. Instead, I felt in control and disciplined and felt an inner joy from denying myself food and water for the specific times of the fast. I realized how much control I had over myself and that I would certainly not die from fasting for 16 hours.
Ramadan 2015 was my emancipation from the tyranny of my commanding self which usually demanded indulgent unhealthy foods for all meals every day. For the first time during any Ramadan, I lost weight instead of gaining or maintaining weight. I felt relief as my body grew lighter and I visibly looked leaner. Ramadan 2015 taught me that I had full control over myself, and that if I could hold off from consuming food and water for 16 hours, and I could still break my fast with simple, humble and fresh foods, then I could surely eat a healthier and balanced diet after Ramadan.
I watched more documentaries and read more articles about healthy eating. One piece of wisdom from a documentary stayed with me, and it stated that human beings in their natural state are supposed to be lean and athletic. This made perfect sense because through most of human history we had to live in harsh conditions and use a lot of physical force to get things done. We also had to forage for our food like the other animals in our surroundings, which meant that we often went hungry for long periods of time in search of food.
I added regular exercise to my lifestyle and felt the benefit of added energy and more toned muscles. At every new healthy lifestyle choice, I held on to God and acknowledged my need of His help and every time He delivered.
There is no need to eat the sheer amount of food we consume today, especially given our sedentary lifestyles. As a Muslim, I believe it is time to live from the sunnah of our Prophet pbuh and eat a mostly plant based, fresh, and whole food diet, along with a lot of physical activity. We should try to reserve meat dishes and indulgent foods for the weekends to provide some balance for our mind and body.
It is also time to work in harmony with other faith/belief groups to end the deplorable treatment of livestock living in horrible conditions on factory farms. We must work together to create a new global food culture that upholds the Islamic principles of treating all creatures with compassion and justice. We must always remember that Islam demands that we always treat ourselves and others with uprightness and kindness. Other major faiths also stress self compassion, others, and compassion for all living creatures. It is time to wake up and take back the reigns many of us have given up without a fight to our lower selves.
I look forward to Ramadan 2016 and eating mostly healthy vegan meals for iftars. I consider Ramadan as a crucial opportunity to take hold of our destiny and to create discipline in our lives, whether it is our food habits or our character traits. Ramadan 2015 was my knight in shining armor and I hope that all Muslims will use Ramadan 2016 and onwards to better ourselves and to realize that we all have full ability to over ride our negative urges and control our behaviour for the better.
Sheikh Hamza Yusuf lectures referred to in this post:
Muslims' Consumption Habits
Healthy Eating In Islam
The Status Of Meat
Samra Hussain is a homeschooling mom of 4. She enjoys writing about spiritual topics on her blog, and believes in lifelong learning. Samra previously wrote Concerns of a Mom as Ramadan Nears for Interfaith Ramadan 2014.
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