The 10 Benefits of Hunger by Hujjat al-Islam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali.
The Prophet (pbuh) said: “combat the self with hunger and thirst, for there is reward in that.”
One might perhaps ask: “wherefrom is this great virtue of hunger? What is the reason for it when there is but pain for the stomach and harmful suffering? And if it is to be so, then man should be granted greater rewards for allowing the self to suffer such harm in denying the flesh what it craves and forcing it to accept the objectionable and the like.”
Know ye that this (question) resembles the saying of the one who drinks medicine and benefits there from thinking that this benefit is due to the repugnance of medicine and its bitterness. So he proceeds to taste all that he hates. This is wrong. Benefit derives from the peculiar quality of medicine, not from its being bitter. Doctors attest this particular quality. Likewise, nobody speaks ill of the benefits of hunger but the brokers of the ulema.1Whoever suffers himself to endure hunger as an act of faith in keeping with the Shar’i`ah’s commendation thereof, he will benefit there from, even if he does not understand the effect of the benefit, in the same manner as he who drinks medicine benefits there from, even if he does not know the nature of the benefit.
We say, then, that hunger has ten benefits, the first being purification of the heart and awakening of intuition, as well as giving vent to perception. Satiation causes dullness and blinds the heart. It increases fuziness in the brain, in the same manner as does drunkenness, until it overpowers the elements of thought, burdens the heart, and slows down both the thinking process and quickness of perception. The lad who indulges food is unable to memorize (the Koran); his thinking is distorted, his understanding and perception slowed.
Abu Sulayman al-Darani said: “indulge hunger because it humbles the self, renders the heart tender, and allows one to inherit (lit. acquire) heavenly knowledge.” The Prophet (pbuh) said: “enliven your hearts with less laughter and less satiation; (for it is by means of) hunger that they (hearts) are purified and softened.”
Shibli said: “I hungered not a day (for the sake of God) without experiencing in my heart, like nothing before, a door opened by wisdom and example.’
The second benefit is tenderness and purity of heart, which prepare it to attain the delight of contemplation and the impact of dhikr. How often (lit. many) rememberances (dhikr) flow on the tongue with the presence of the heart but there is no delight for the heart nor any satisfaction because it is screened by coarseness. Occasionally the heart might soften under certain circumstances permit dhikr a greater impact there on; indeed, it might even delight in contemplation. A precondition for this experience (lit. inducement) however is an empty stomach.
Abu Sulayman al-Darani declared: “the best form of worship for me is an empty stomach attached to my back.” Junayd16 said that “one (should) leave between the self and the chest17 a space free of food in order to discover the delight of contemplation.”
The third benefit lies in submission, humiliation, the elimination of ungodliness, rejoicefulness, and what is more evil, namely oppressiveness and obliviousness of God Almighty. Nothing will curb the self and humble it more than hunger. For through hunger the self reposes in its Lord and reveres Him, becoming thereby aware of its incapacity and abject nature. If its quest should be weakened and its urges circumscribed by means of a morsel of food, the world would turn away from the lower self and cast its darkness upon it (in reward) for not having food or drink for one day. If man does not recognize the abject nature of his self and its limitations, he cannot see the glory of the Lord, nor His power. His happiness lies in always reflecting upon the self with the eye of humility and incapacity, and upon his Lord with the eye of glory and capacity. So let him go hungry at all times and depend on his Lord, a witness for Him by choice. It is for such reason that when the world and its treasures were offered to the Prophet (pbuh) he said:
“No, I would rather hunger a day and be filled a day; for if I were to hunger, I would become patient and humble. Were I to be filled, I would be grateful.”A
s he put it, “the stomach and the genitals are gateways to Hellfire.” The cause lies in satiation. Humility and submission constitute one of the gateways of Paradise. Both originate in hunger. He who closes one of the doors of the Fire (Hell) opens one of the doors of Paradise by necessity, because they are as opposite as east and west; for nearness to one (is) distance from the other.
The fourth benefit lies in not forgetting the affliction of God and His torment, nor for those afflicted to forget; for, he who is satiated is oblivious of the one who hungers, and of hunger itself. The mindful servant does not see the affliction in others without remembering the affliction of the Hereafter. He becomes mindful through his own thirsting – the thirsting of created beings in the halls of Resurrection – and own hungering – the hungering of those destined to the fire (Hell). Indeed they will hunger, and (they) will be fed humiliation (lit., the big udders) and deadly food. They will be given purulent substances to drink and the puss of corpses.19
It is fitting for the servant to be mindful of the torments of the Hereafter and its pains, for it is indeed what excites fear. He who has not suffered depravity, or affliction, or wantonness, or ailment, forgets the torment of the Hereafter and sets no example through himself, nor exercises control over his (own) heart.
The fifth benefit, and one of the greatest of all, is in curbing the lusts of all defiance’s. To take charge of the self is to overcome evil. The source of all defiance’s is lust and power, and the ingredients thereof. Without doubt, lust is (a form of) nourishment; curbing it weakens every desire and urge (lit., potency). Happiness lies in taking charge of one’s self, and misery is in it (the self) taking possession of it. The self is like unto a runaway beast of burden, it can be controlled only when weakened by hunger. Should it be fed to fill, it gains strength, becomes uncontrollable and runs away.
Such is also the self. When someone was told, “why is it with age you have shown no concern for your body, which has deteriorated?” to which he replied: “because it is quick to enjoy merriment in excess of most evil. So I fear that it might overwhelm and hurl me into the abyss. It is better that I make it (the self) endure hardship than to let it propel me towards (committing) excesses.”
Dhu ‘1-Nunsaid, “I never was satiated without becoming defiant or being preoccupied by it.” `A’ishah, may God be pleased with her, said, “the first innovation (bid’ah) after (the passing away of) the messenger (Muhammad, pbuh), was satiation. When the stomach of man is filled, the self propels him into the world” (i.e. twowards worldliness.)
In this there is not just a single, but rather a store of benefits, on account of which hunger was deemed one of the treasures of God. A leading benefit is (to be able) to contain through hunger the lust of both genitals and speech. He who hungers is not affected by the lust of inquisitive talk.
The sixth benefit lies in warding off sleep and (in maintaining) continuous wakefulness. He who satisfies his appetite drinks a lot, and he who drinks a lot sleeps a lot. For this reason a certain (Sufi) shaykh said when food was being prepared: “0 disciples, do not eat a lot because you will drink a lot and become content a lot, so you lose a lot.”
Life is a most precious tool and the servant’s capital, with which he trades. Sleep is (like) death, by increasing it one, decreases life. The virtue of night prayers are not hidden, but in sleep they elapse; and when sleep overtakes night prayers, there can be no rewards
The seventh benefit lies in facilitating continuous worship. Food prevents many acts of worship because it requires time, thus preoccupying one with eating. Perhaps it would also require time to buy food and to cook it. Then one has to wash his hands and to excrete; this might entail frequenting the bathroom on account of drinking (which accompanies eating). The time spent on all this if spent on dhikr and contemplation would redound with greater benefit to him (the worshipper).
Sari (al-Sagati) said: “I saw a gruel of arched barley (sawq) in the possession of `Ali al-Jurjan who was picking at it. I said to him: what has made you do this? His reply: Between each picking and chewing I recited seventy praises (of God), and have not chewed bread for forty years.” Behold how he carefully apportioned his time (lit. taken pity upon it) and did not waste it in chewing.
Every soul is a precious jewel of life that has no value (in itself), so one must distill from it a lasting unending store for the Hereafter by devoting himself to the dhikr of God and obedience to Him.
The eighth benefit is in the soundness of body. It is achieved by eating less and warding off sickness caused by excessive food intake and by much mixing in stomach and veins. Sickness detracts from acts of worship, impairs the (functioning of) the heart (galb), prevents dhikr and thinking, increases the pressures on life, necessitates bloodletting and cupping, 2 (recourse to) doctors and medicine. All this requires provision (money or payment in kind) and expenses which man cannot avoid after much striving to combat defiance’s and curb lusts. In hunger are the means for preventing all this.
It is told that al-Rashid gathered together four doctors: an Indian, a Greek, an Iraqi, and a Black. He told them: let each one of you describe the (cause of) disease that has no cure. The Indian replied: “for, me the incurable disease is (caused by) myrobalan (al-lhliraj);” the Iraqi replied: “it is the white seed of garden peppergrass (habb al-rashad)”; the Greek said: “for me, it is hot water;” and the Black, who was the most knowledgeable among them, answered: “myrobalan, because it causes constipation for the stomach and this is a disease, while peppergrass renders the stomach slippery, which also is an ailment. Hot water loosens the stomach, and this too is an ailment.” He (Harun al-Rashid) said to him: “what do you suggest?” And he (the Black doctor) replied: “I say that one should not eat so much food as would (make him) lust for more, and that he should stop (eating) while he is still in need of more.” Harun answered: “you are right.”
Addressing a certain philosopher and doctors from the People of the Book, Harun related (to them) the saying of the Prophet (Muhammad, pbuh): “a third (of food intake) is for nourishment, a third for drink, and a third is for (satisfying) the self.” He (the doctor) was surprised and said: “I never heard words about food wiser than these. It is indeed the words of a wise man.”
He (the Prophet, pbuh) said: “gluttony is the cause of disease; dieting is a source of treatment, so train everybody to (accept) what it has been accustomed (to accept).” I (al-Ghazali speaking) believe that the surprise of the doctor stemmed from this, not the other saying.
Ibn Salim said: “he who eats the bread of pure wheat with propriety will be afflicted with no more than the affliction of death.” When asked about propriety, he replied: “that you eat after being hungry, and stop before you are full.”
The ninth benefit is in lessening the intake. He who eats less requires little money; but he who is accustomed to satiation becomes a constant debtor to his stomach, which has him by the throat every day asking him: “what will you eat today?” So he is obliged either to seek unlawful gain, and thus commit a crime, or (seek) lawful gain, and is thus humiliated. Perhaps he is compelled to extend imploring looks at people, which is an extreme form of humiliation and contemptibility.
The faithful require light provision. A certain wise man said: “I usually satisfy my needs through abandonment. It is more restful for my heart.” Another said: “If I had to borrow from others to satisfy a lust or an excess, I would rather borrow from myself, thus abandoning lust, for it is the best debtor for me.”
Ibrahim ibn Adham,God rest his soul, used to ask his companions about the price of food; and when told that it was expensive, he would reply: “render it cheap by abanondoning it.” Sahl (al-Tustari), may God forgive him, said that food can be blamed in three situations: rendering a worshipper lazy, afflicting with evil (misfortune) the gainfully employed, and preventing the one who is (easily) affected from giving of himself freely to God Almighty.
In short, the cause of perdition for people is their possessive attitude toward the world; and the cause of their eagerness for things worldly lies in both the belly and the genitals; and the cause of the genital’s lust is the lust of the stomach. So in reducing food intake, one finds barriers to all of these entries as they are the gateways to Hell.
The tenth benefit is in being responsive and generous by giving food to orphans and to the poor so that on the Day of Resurrection one would dwell in the shade of His generosity in accordance with a tradition that states: “what one eats is stored in a public lavatory; and what one contributes is stored in the grace of God Almighty.”40 The servant does not possess other than what he contributes. If he hoards and eats, he is lost; if he clothes himself, he is afflicted. So being generous with surplus food is more commendable than (suffering) indigestion and satiation.
When repeating the words of God, “We did indeed offer the trust to the heavens and the earth, and the mountains but they refused to undertake it, being afraid thereof. Man, however, undertook it and he was indeed unjust and foolish,” al-Hasan, may God forgive him, interpreted it to signify that He offered it to the Seven Heavens, to match the paths which He adorned with stars and the bearers of the great Throne
These are the ten benefits of hunger. From each derives countless other benefits whose rewards are endless. Hunger, then, is a great store for the rewards of the Hereafter. On account of it a righteous forefather once said “hunger is the key to the Hereafter and the gateway to piety, while satiation is the key to the world and the gateway to lust.” This is clearly evident in the accounts that we have related. In knowing the details of these benefits, one perceives the meaning of these accounts, a realization based on cognition (`ilm) and perception. If one is unaware of this and becomes righteous by virtue of hunger, he would be ranked among the imitators of the faith (mugallidun).
God knows best what is right.