Dr. Kenan Haspolat
Malnutrition is not the result of only insufficient food. It can also result from too much of the wrong food and from too much of even the right food. Obesity caused by over-eating is injurious to human health.
Obesity is harmful to infants as well as adults. Obesity during infancy may, in later life, cause such diseases as arteriosclerosis and the other ailments which often accompany it. Arteriosclerosis in adults is a factor in high blood pressure or hypertension, and in certain diseases of the heart eyes and kidneys. Obesity can also lead to diabetes.
There is a good deal in classical Islamic sources on the subjects of over-eating and obesity. The Qur’anic verses. Eat and drink but not to excess (7.32), and Do not cast yourselves into destruction by your own hands (2.195), may be mentioned (besides their other meanings) as Divine warnings against transgressing the limits in eating and drinking and doing harm to ourselves because of carelessness. All ibn al-Husayn ibn al-Wafid said. God put all medicine into half of one verse [of the Qur’an] when He said: Eat and drink but not to excess.’ The Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, also drew attention to obesity and over-eating. For example, as recorded by al-Haythami, on seeing a fat man, he said: If you did not have a paunch, it would be better for you. He also said: Overeating does not go with good health. The criterion established by Islam, and reiterated by the Prophet, is: The middle way [avoiding extremes] is the best in every affair.
Among other sayings of the Prophet which warn against the dangers of overeating and obesity are:
Avoid filling the stomach with food and drink. Overeating exhausts the body and causes illnesses. Follow a middle way in eating and drinking as this improves the body. God does not love fat bodies.
The son of Adam [i.e. man] fills no container worse than his stomach. Let him have just a few mouthfuls to strengthen the limbs.
One third of the stomach is for food, one third for drink, and one third for air. 1
The following saying uttered in relation to the spiritual harm caused by over-eating, can also be read in relation to heart diseases arising from overeating:
Do not kill your hearts by eating and drinking too much. For the heart is like a sown field: over-irrigation causes the seed to rot. 2
‘Ali, the fourth Caliph, said:
Having suet is a disease. He also said: Fullness causes heart spasms.3
‘Umar, the second Caliph, said: Avoid getting a pot-belly, for it spoils the body, causes diseases, and makes doing the prayer tiring. And avoid all excess, for God hates a learned man who is fat.4
Harith ibn Khalada, the physician of the Arabs, was once asked: What is the best medicine? He replied: ‘Necessity- that is, hunger.’ When asked what the disease was, he said:
‘The entry of food upon food.’
lbn Sina, the renowned Muslim physician and philosopher, said: ‘Never have a meal until the one before it has been digested.’ He also advised against excessive salt and fatty meat. His list of food for dieting mostly included vegetables. The prescription is much the same today.
The Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, also drew attention to obesity and over-eating. For example, as recorded by al-Haythami, on seeing a fat man, he said: If you did not have a paunch, it would be better for you. He also said: Overeating does not go with good health. The criterion established by Islam, and reiterated by the Prophet, is: The middle way [avoiding extremes] is the best in every affair.
The Prophet desclared:
Contrary to some popular superstitions, fat babies are not healthy babies. On the contrary, over-eating is also harmful for children. Children fed on starchy foods without the necessary amount of vitamin D are susceptible to rickets (rachitism). Ibn Sina advised the same nine centuries ago: ‘Avoid giving babies too much food. Over-nutrition of babies causes their urine to be light-coloured’. The fact that a baby goes on suckling does not always mean that the baby is hungry; sometimes suckling is just a reflex action. Dark-coloured urine in babies indicates undernutrition; while a light colour is symptomatic of overnutrition.
Ibn Sina was of the opinion that over-feeding provokes eclampsia (convulsions) in babies. Anther Muslim physician, Abu Bakr al-Razi, also pointed to this link. He said that some infantile convulsions can abate after proper regular nutrition. lbn Sina and al-Razi may have been referring to the kind of eclampsia caused by rickets emerging as a result of obesity: in the syndromes named after Frohlich and Martin-Albright obesity is accompanied by eclampsia.
Ibn Khaldun, a Muslim sociologist and historian famous for his Muqaddima, also mentioned that over-eating causes many diseases. He said: ‘Know that hunger is better for health than eating too much. Even if we cannot remain hungry, eating less is good. Eating less is better for the development of body and mind.’5
Other Muslim physicians such as Haji Pasha and Hafiz Hasan Effendi also wrote that giving babies too much milk was harmful for their health. It is now a well-established fact that feeding babies too much milk causes obesity.
Advice on eating and drinking
There are many sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessing, on medicine. They encompass a great variety of subjects including eating and drinking and the mention of certain kinds of food particularly useful for health. In later centuries Muslim scholars collected these sayings, usually under the title of Tibb al-Nabawi. The collections of lbn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti and Abu Nu’aym are among the most famous.
Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (d.1505), one of the greatest scholars of the Muslim Middle Ages, recommended eating cold foods in summer and hot ones in winter. Hot food should be preferred with cold, sweet with sour, fat with salt and acid with fat. Variety of foods excites the constitution; it is best to eat with relish and enjoyment. Having the same food several times one after the other and eating hurriedly causes loss of appetite and laziness. Eating a second meal without fully digesting the first is harmful. Al-Suyuti also wrote that one should avoid food and drink that has been left uncovered. The Prophet, upon him be peace and blessing, commanded this: Cover your containers and stop up the mouths of your water bottles.
The Prophet disapproved eating food while it is too hot. He never used to blow on his food or drink, or breathe into a container. He also forbade eating lying down.
Taking a walk after eating a meal or doing the prayer is beneficial, specially for the digestive process. The Prophet said: Digest your food with the Name of God and with doing a prayer. And do not go to sleep immediately after eating as this will make you constipated.
The hands should be washed alter as well as before eating. One whose stomach is over-stuffed with food cannot think clearly or wisely. The less a man eats, the less he drinks; and the less he drinks, the less he sleeps; and the less he sleeps, the better he will be in old age. The body of a man over-filled food will be badly nourished, his self will be in a bad state, and his heart will grow hard. Therefore one should avoid too much food as it poisons the heart and slows down the limbs of the body in fulfilling one’s responsibilities toward God. One should also avoid drinking very cold water, for it is harmful to the respiratory system, specially after a hot meal, or after sweet food, or after a hot bath.
The Prophet, upon him be peace and blessing, forbade drinking water at a single gulp. Anas ibn Malik transmitted the tradition that the Prophet used to drink with three pauses and, at each pause, remove his mouth from the container.
Moderate exercise is a most effective means of preserving good health. It warms the organs, helps dissolution of waste products, and makes the body light and active. The best time for exercise which does not over-tire the body or make it red. When sweating begins, exercise should be stopped. The type of exercise which increases sweating is not ‘moderate’ but ‘heavy’.
The body’s organs are strengthened and made more vigorous by regular exercise. The same applies to the inner faculties. One who wishes, for example, to improve his memory will improve it by memorizing. There is a specific exercise proper to every organ.
The Prophet, upon him be peace and blessing, advised a form of exercise which is good for our bodies and our hearts when he said: Travel, for you will grow healthy. He also said: Fasting brings health.
According to al-Suyuti, the best time to go to sleep is after food has been digested. Over-sleeping is bad for the health; and sleeping face down is forbidden. Sleeping during the hour following sunrise and before sunset is bad for one: it may lead to ailments and indolence. However, a short sleep in the middle of the day is useful for the health and helps one to rise for prayer during the night.
The Prophet, upon him be peace and blessing, used to sleep on his side, facing the qibla (the Ka’ba in Makka). And it is better o go to sleep in a state of wudu.
1. The narrations can be found in Tanbih al-Ghafilin by Abu’I Leys al-Samarkandi,
(Turkish translation), p. 799, and, lhya Ulum al-Din by Imam Ghazali (Turkish
trans.) Vol. 3, p. 186.
2. al-Ghazali, ibid., 3.186.
3. Celal Yildirim, Asrin Kuran Tefsiri, Izmir, :1987, 1.478.
4. Imam Dhahabi, Sifa Demetleri, Istanbul, 21.
5. I. Haldun, Muqaddima (Turkish trans.), Ank. 1977, 1.232.