Does this happen to you? You are invited to luncheon at another sister’s house, and she is a fantastic cook. You tell yourself that you will not overeat this time – no second helping of her delicious Turkish food, no extra piece of baklava. Your pre-lunch pep talk seems to be working, and you enter her house empowered and committed. But the conversation and delicious smells sweep you away and, before you know it, you are enjoying your second lahmacun and eyeing longingly the large plate of beautifully arranged golden brown and flaky baklava. Good and sincere intentions, once again, are not enough.
The Human Condition
Why can’t we just say “no” to a little morsel of food? How could something that we chew into oblivion, digest with acidic, vulgar-tasting enzymes, and that ultimately exits our bodies in a humiliating way, be so hard to resist? One answer is that we are created weak (Qur’an 4:28).
When our beloved Prophet (SAW) made the Israa and Mi’raj, he returned with Allah’s commandment for us to pray five times a day. It didn’t start out that way though. Initially, Allah (SWT) ordered us to pray fifty times a day! The Prophet (SAW) then started his descent through the Heavens, once again meeting Musa (AS) on his way. When Musa (AS) learned that fifty prayers had been ordained, he encouraged the Prophet (SAW) to request less, stating that the Prophet’s (SAW) followers would be unable to meet that commitment. The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) returned to the Divine Presence twice, and the number of prayers was reduced to ten and then five. Even so, Musa (AS) encouraged the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) to ask for less, but the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) was ashamed to do so, having already asked twice before. (Bukhari)
We all know that it can be a struggle to do what is required and avoid what is prohibited. When you think about why this may be so, we have a lot working against us: a world that tempts us with its illusionary and ephemeral beauty, strong corporal and ego-related desires (e.g., food, sleep, intimacy, approval), and a personal shaytan who knows our weaknesses and encourages us to disobey. Under these circumstances our struggle is understandable and we are limited, alhamdulillah, on how to deal with it.
First, we cannot change the world, as Allah (SWT) created it as “amusement and play” to “test” us.
“And this life of the world is only amusement and play! Verily, the home of the Hereafter, that is the life indeed (i.e. the eternal life that will never end), if they but knew.” (29:64 and 18:7)
The way the world is is exactly the way Allah (SWT) wills it to be. For example, evil has its place in this world by Allah’s (SWT) attributes of knowledge, will and power. This world is designed to be our temptress, promising false pleasures and worthless riches that only lead to destruction and separation.
We cannot escape the fact that each of us has a shaytan whispering to our nafs, encouraging us to disobey, and in legion with the Ultimate Deceiver, Iblis, and his army of shaytans.
“Surely, Shaytan (Satan) is an enemy to you, so take (treat) him as an enemy. He only invites his Hizb (followers) that they may become the dwellers of the blazing Fire.” (35:5-6)
If we cannot change the structure and purpose of the world and the presence of shaytan at our side, all that is left then is controlling our desires and overcoming our inherent weakness. Alhamdulillah, we know where to focus our attention, and although difficult, many great men, women, and children have ignored worldly temptations and evil whisperings.
One of the first steps it to recognise that following our own desires is putting a partner with Allah (SWT), as every human is born into servitude and the question is, “Who is your Master?”
“Have you seen him who takes his own lust (vain desires) as his ilah (god), and Allah knowing (him as such), left him astray, and sealed his hearing and his heart, and put a cover on his sight. Who then will guide him after Allah? Will you not then remember?”(45:23)
But like any problem, once it is recognised it can begin to be addressed.
“But isn’t it permissible to eat a second helping or an extra dessert?” one might ask. Yes, on most occasions, but indulging in the permissible can lead to the impermissible, and overeating or eating to one’s full goes against the sunnah, for example, Nothing is worse than a person who fills his stomach. It should be enough for the son of Adam to have a few bites to satisfy his hunger. If he wishes more, it should be as such: “One-third for his food, one-third for his liquids, and one-third for his breath.” (Tirmidhi, Ibn Majah)
Overeating, according to scholars, can lead to disobedience, such as making one sluggish so as not to be able to perform required or recommended worship. Anyone who has eaten too much at an iftar can attest to the difficulty of completing Taraweeh prayers. Eating gives us strength to commit other sins as well, and that is one of the reasons that fasting outside of Ramadhan is encouraged.
A hadith states: It is related ‘Abdu’r-Rahman ibn Yazid said, “I visited ‘Abdullah with ‘Alqama and al-Aswad. Abdullah said, ‘We were with the Prophet (SAW) when we were young men and had nothing at all. The Messenger of Allah r said to us, ‘Company of young men! Any of you who can afford it should marry. It lowers the eyes and preserves the genitals. Anyone who is unable to should fast. It restrains the appetite.’” (Bukhari)
Although it is very difficult to stop eating delicious food, the good news is that if one can control this desire then others may be easier to address. Indeed, some scholars have stated that eating is the hardest desire to conquer, even more so than lust.
Of course, Islam is a religion of moderation so this does not mean that we immediately restrict ourselves to 600 calories a day! We should always remember the reward of small but consistent actions.
A’isha reported that once the Prophet (SAW) came when a woman was with her. He asked, “Who is this?” She replied, “So-and-so,” and told him about the amount she prayed. He said, “Stop! You must only do what you are able. By Allah, Allah does not grow weary [of giving rewards] as you grow weary. He likes best is the one in which there is constancy.” (Agreed upon)
What it means, I believe, is to make it habit of denying our nafs what it wants, even if it is initially something small, like not hitting the snooze button a second time or not walking into that store you love so much or foregoing that second piece of baklava. Like a spoiled child, our nafs needs to be denied so our virtuous side begins to rule our nature and not the animalistic side that covets material and sensual things. It is very difficult, but essential as it is training that potentially leads to pious servitude, obedience, and ultimately Jannah, insha Allah, where we can be immersed in the Divine Presence.
May Allah (SWT) grant us success in this greater jihad.
J. Samia Mair is the author of five children’s books, the most recent Zak and His Good Intentions (2014) and The Great Race to Sycamore Street (2013). She is a staff writer for SISTERS Magazine and Discover, The magazine for curious Muslim kids, and has published in magazines, books, anthologies, scientific journals and elsewhere.