Once, Shaykh ‘Abdul-Qadir al-Jilani, one of the greatest poles of spirituality, may God sanctify his holiness, had a pupil who was the only child of an old, anxious woman. That respected woman went to visit her son only to find him eating a piece of dry, black bread. His physical weakness that was a result of this asceticism aroused his mother’s compassion. Pitying his condition, the woman went to al-Jilani to complain, and saw that the respected Shaykh was eating fried chicken. She said to him, “O master! My son is nearly dying of hunger, but you are eating chicken!” Whereupon, the renowned Spiritual Pole said to the chicken, “Rise up, by God’s leave!” Many truthful, trustworthy, and reliable people narrated that the bones of the chicken brought themselves together and jumped off the dish as a live chicken. The holy Spiritual Pole responded to the woman, “When your son reaches this level, then he too can eat chicken!”
With this act, the holy Pole meant, “Whenever your son’s spirit prevails over his body, and his heart over his carnal soul, and his intellect over his stomach, and he demands pleasure for the sake of thankfulness, then he can eat delicious things.” (Said Nursi, Nineteenth Gleam, 3rd point.)
I too witnessed a similar incident thirty years ago. With a large group of friends from university I was invited to visit a well-known scholar for whom I had a deep respect. We had the opportunity to attend a dinner with him and among the food served were some delicious cherries. My inner voice said, “If I sit near him, I will not be comfortable enough to eat as many of those cherries as I like.” This was exactly what happened. While I was thinking about how to get a chance to eat more of the cherries, that respected person took one of the cherries, excused himself, and left the table. I still cannot forget how ashamed I was of my thoughts at that time.
As a result of the story of Abdul-Qadir Jilani and my own experience, I started to ponder the activities that function so well in the human body. In medicine, the dynamic balance that entirely governs the body during eating, drinking and digestion is known as homeostasis. The most crucial body fluid in this balance is the blood. All the agents in the blood have a fixed quantity, a fixed measure and are supplied at a constant rate. Blood pressure is stabilized according to the characteristics of each vein. For instance, the average blood pressure of large arteries is about 100 mmHg. If the pressure exceeds this figure, then the result is hypertension. Hypertension can lead to cerebral hemorrhages, paralysis, renal failure, cardiac expansion, cardiac failure and heart attacks, all of which can result in death. As for hypotension, this is when the flow of the blood to the organs, mainly the brain, lessens. Another example of the importance of maintaining balance is that the agents which are responsible for maintaining the concentration of sugar in the blood (glycemia) must be kept at a suitable balance. If the ratio of the blood sugar (glycemia) rises, the person may go into a sugar coma, which is life threatening. However, if the ratio of blood sugar drops, the organs, in particular the brain, are deprived of energy. A hypoglycemia coma (when blood sugar is too low) is even more dangerous for the brain than hyperglycemia (when blood sugar is too high). The concentration of sodium, potassium, chlorine, calcium and fatty acids present in the blood, like sugar, are kept in a dynamic balance. If this concentration is upset, the result may be disease or even death. The Owner of Absolute Will and Infinite Mercy keeps all these in balance thanks to the marvelous mechanisms that He has placed in our bodies. However, we are free as far as actions like eating and drinking are concerned, for we are granted the willpower to choose our actions.
One of the most often discussed medical subjects in recent years is obesity. This is an important health problem that poses a threat to life, and it is related to diabetes, hardening of the arteries (arteriosclerosis), fatty liver, cirrhosis, cardiac failure and heart failure. Apart from using one’s own will power and eating less, doctors have presented other harmless ways that are appropriate to human nature to treat obesity. Being overweight constrains the ability of a person to move (exercise) and this inactivity, in turn, leads to more and more weight gain. God has enabled us to seek nourishment wherever we like, within certain parameters. Naturally, our stomach has a certain capacity and when this capacity is met, we feel full and do not need to eat any more. Yet, even though we feel full and should not eat, as this is what is necessary for the health of our body, we are overcome by our lower self and tend to overeat extravagantly. The problem of obesity seems to be greater in developed countries.
Our Creator has not put any restrictions on the absorption of food into the blood. All the food we eat is taken into the intestines so that the nutrients can pass into the bloodstream. If the dynamic balance (homeostasis) were to be maintained here as well then the body would take as much as it needed and the surplus of food would be evacuated from the body without going into the blood; as a result, obesity would not be a concern, however much a person might eat. But by allowing all the food we eat to pass into the bloodstream, the Absolute Ruler has set a test for us, challenging our wills and warning us about self-control.
Most of the activity during digestion and absorption takes place in the small intestine. Our small intestine is a duct which consists of three parts, namely the duodenum, jejunum and ileum, each having different functions and structures. The length of the intestine is 3–4 meters, and it measures 2–4 centimeters in diameter, varying according to the position in the body. The area of the inner surface of this cylindrical structure is 1,600 cm2 (0.16m2) at its maximum. The inner perimeter of the intestine is not like a flat tube, but rather it has folds, each measuring about 8 millimeters, that stretch over the inner parts of the canal. These folds allow the absorption surface to be increased about threefold. If the inner surface of this structure were flat, the absorption capacity of the small intestine would not be more than 1/600 of its present capacity. The surface of these folds is also not flat, but covered with protrusions called villi that are shaped like a finger; these stretch into the vacuum of the canal by about 1 millimeter. There are between 20 and 40 villi to every square centimeter on the surface of the intestine. These villi allow for there to be a tenfold increase in surface absorption. The surface of the villi has cylindrical cells that are arranged in a single row and these help in absorption. The surface of these cells has extensions that are quite thin and dense, known as microvilli, or epithelial cells. Thanks to these cells with a brush border surface, the absorption surface can increase by about twenty times. Thus, although the surface area of a flat canal of the same size should be approximately 3,300 cm2, thanks to surface folds, villi and bushy edges, the total absorption surface of the small intestine increases to 2 million cm2 (200 m2). Moreover, some research has suggested that the total increase could be even greater (about 1,000 times as much). Normally, 100 grams of fat, 50–100 grams of amino acid, 50–100 grams of iodine, and 7–8 liters of water (consisting mostly of fluids produced within the body) are absorbed by the intestines daily. Furthermore, if one eats or drinks too much, the maximum capacity of the system allows the absorption of several kilograms of carbohydrates, a half to one kilogram of fat, a half to one kilogram of protein and twenty liters of water per day. Our intestines have been created with the capacity to transfer all this food into the bloodstream. If we do not control our eating, this capacity is abused and we can face conditions like obesity.
In this life, one of whose tests is in our body, and in which we are required to strive hard using our willpower, there is no limit to the absorption of foods that have high calories (lipid, carbohydrate, and protein), and this can lead to being overweight, as mentioned above. However, in the absorption of minerals, which are not normally considered as making up the basic components of nourishment, but which are of the utmost importance for the human body (in all the operations of the nerves, muscles, bones and in the balance of all the electrolytes), the rules of dynamic balance occur in our intestines, regardless of our will, by the help and mercy of God. For instance, hemoglobin, which is found in the red blood cells (giving the blood its red color) and is charged with the task of transporting oxygen, contains iron. When there is surplus iron in the body, hemosiderosis occurs, which leads to the destruction of organs such as the liver and the pancreas, or cardiac failure. If there is an iron deficiency, then a person suffers from anemia. It is for this reason that a quite sensitive iron-absorption balance exists in our intestines. Here, it is evident without question that there is Divine Aid and Mercy. The same mechanism works for substances like calcium.
Prophet Muhammad’s, peace be upon him, advice to stop eating before feeling full is a significant measure against obesity, for it eliminates “false” appetite. This has a psychological truth, for the brain responds to the feel of fullness a short time after eating. In fact, we all know by experience that we actually feel full a short while (fifteen–twenty minutes) after we stop eating even if it is a small meal.
To conclude, the Almighty One warns us against extravagance and orders us to use our willpower. At this point, we can see how important a role the blessing of religious belief and the training of the soul and the will play in eating habits. Likewise, the principles of Islam, which is in perfect keeping with human nature, are crucial for the well-being of the community as a whole; charitable alms and fasting, which urge us to help and think about those with less, are obligatory and all kinds of charity and good deeds are encouraged. In Islam extravagance is prevented, not only in eating and drinking.
Omer Arifagaoglu is a professor of medicine in Turkey.