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A Muslim Perspective on Body, Health and Diet

Basma Elshayyal's picture

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A common saying which is often heard in Islamic circles is that 'Life is a borrowed space, to be returned (to God) upon rest'. This naturally is taken to mean both spirit (or soul) as well as body.


A Body on loan


As such, just as anyone would be expected to return a borrowed item to its owner in the same condition in which they received it, a Muslim believes it is their duty to care for one of the greatest blessings which they have been granted by God. It is therefore necessary, according to Islamic teachings, to ensure that one's physical body is kept healthy so that the soul and spirit may also remain healthy, thus in turn aiding the believer in the service of both his spiritual and material attainment.


Consequently, diet plays an important role for this purpose. For this reason Islam has prohibited certain foods for what are believed to be their ill effects (particularly when consumed in excess) and permitted all other food.


Also forbidden in the Qur'an are those animals which have been killed by strangling, or a violent blow, a headlong fall, being gored to death and those which have been partially eaten by a wild animal and not slaughtered before death, and those which have been sacrificed on the name of idols.


O Believers! Eat of the good and pure (lawful) that we have provided you with and be grateful to Allah, if you truly worship Him.



He (Allah) has only forbidden you (from eating) dead animals, blood, the flesh of swine, and that (animal) over which the name of other than Allah has been invoked.

(2:173, 16:115)


Instead, Muslims are encouraged to eat a healthy, balanced diet.


O you people! Eat of what is on earth lawful and good!



So eat of (meats), on which Allah's name hath been pronounced if ye have faith in his signs.



The game of the sea and its food are permitted to you.



Pure milk, easy and agreeable to swallow for those who drink.



He it is who produceth gardens with trellises and without, and dates, and tilth with produce of all kinds and olives and pomegranates, similar and different, eat of their fruit in season.





In fact, everything as a general rule is fine except for the few that are expressly forbidden, such as alcohol.


They ask thee concerning wine and gambling. Say: 'In them is great sin, and some profit for men; but the sin is greater than the profit.'



In short, moderation and purity may be said to be the two main teachings in Islam, with the Prophet (pbuh) instructing his followers to 'eat no more than a third (of one's capacity), drink no more than a third, and preserve the remaining third for air'; and advising them always to stop eating before their stomachs are completely full.


A quick side point here – infants are not forgotten, this reference is to be found in 31:14, where breastfeeding is recommended at least for the first two years.




To continue with the theme of moderation, it is worth considering the role of Ramadan (see piece on Rituals and Celebration).


Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and is known as the month of fasting. During Ramadan Muslims get up before dawn, two to three hours before sunrise, and eat a pre-dawn meal. There is no eating, drinking, smoking or sexual activity between dawn and sunset. In addition, Muslims must implement the moral code of Islam very strictly; the violation thereof nullifies their fast. During the night Muslims may eat, drink (intoxicants are forbidden) and carry on normally.


Although not specifically mentioned in the Qur'an by name, smoking and recreational drugs are prohibited in almost all schools of thought based on the belief outlined above that ultimately one's body belongs to Allah and should not be degraded or harmed in any way. Also, excessive consumption of drugs, just like alcohol, leads to undignified behaviour.




Maintaining the purity and dignity of one's body is perceived as an amanah (trust) not to be taken lightly. This has implications for many aspects of a Muslim's life ranging from ritual cleanliness (a state Muslims are encouraged to keep always), to personal hygiene and practice.


Truly, Allah loves those who turn unto Him in repentance and loves those who purify themselves (physically).

(Al Baqarah 2:222)



The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) said:


Cleanliness is half of faith … prayer is a light, and charity is proof (of one's faith) and endurance is a brightness and the Qur'an is a proof on your behalf or against you. All men go out early in the morning and sell themselves, thereby setting themselves free or destroying themselves.


(Sahih Muslim Book 2, Number 0432 narrated by AbuMalik al-Ash'ari)


Other aspects of human dignity pertaining to the body are privacy, most notably expressed through a distinct dress code and in dealings with members of the opposite gender.


And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands' fathers, their sons, their husbands' sons, their brothers or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O ye Believers! turn ye all together towards Allah, that ye may attain Bliss.




Tattoos and cosmetic surgery


The ramifications of this verse may be imagined in daily situations (e.g. hospitals etc), the main point being that humans are judged for who they are rather than what they look like or the 'charms' they may choose to display. Again, the same principle applies to issues such as tattooing and cosmetic surgery (where it is cosmetic, rather than if carried out due to a medical or psychological need) with God's creation being deemed perfect and in no need of human addition or tampering

We have indeed created man in the best of moulds.



Playing God


To continue in this vein, the idea that humans should attempt to 'play God' is considered most presumptuous – as mentioned in the article on death, the Qur'an states:

No soul can die except by Allah's permission.



Therefore, although questions such as abortion, suicide and euthanasia generate plenty of debate and soul-searching, they are generally agreed upon by the majority of scholars versed in fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence).

Does not man see that it is We who created him from sperm. Yet behold! He stands as an open adversary! And he makes comparisons for Us, and forgets his own creation. He says who can give life to (dry) bones and decomposed ones? Say, 'He will give them life who created them for the first time, for He is versed in every kind of creation.'

(Qur'an 36: 77-79)


Say: 'Come, I will rehearse what Allah hath (really) prohibited you from:' Join not anything as equal with Him; be good to your parents; kill not your children on a plea of want; We provide sustenance for you and for them; come not nigh to shameful deeds. Whether open or secret; take not life, which Allah hath made sacred, except by way of justice and law: thus doth He command you, that ye may learn wisdom.



Kill not your children for fear of want. We shall provide sustenance for them as well as for you. Verily the killing of them is a great sin.



Using the above verses as evidence, abortion is permitted only in cases that are deemed to be 'life-saving' where, for example, the mother herself would be in danger if the pregnancy were to continue, with the unborn child considered as having just as much right to life (if not more) as the mother has in deciding to get rid of it (please refer to ideas outlined in freedom and authority article). Finally, according to the teachings of Islam (53:42–47), only Allah knows why people are suffering or when they will die, and it is a great sin both to take life and to try to alter God's will. As such, euthanasia is forbidden, and suicide is not acceptable to Muslims. Those who commit suicide are believed to suffer further after death because they will be far more aware of the grief and suffering of those they left behind, but be unable to help. In reality, people who attempt suicide as a result of severely destabilising suffering or when not in a fit state to take a decision for which they may be held accountable (e.g. mental illness) may be disturbed to such an extent that they are considered not responsible for their actions; in these cases Muslims believe that they will receive Allah's forgiveness.



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