Eid-ul-Fitr Khutba: Eating the lawful and good things

Delivered at Lahore Ahmadiyya Centre, Wembley, London, 21 April 2023

by Dr Zahid Aziz

“And do not swallow up your pro­perty among yourselves by false means, nor seek to gain access thereby to the judges, so that you may swallow up a part of the property of (other) people wrongfully while you know.” — The Quran, ch. 2, v. 189

وَ لَا تَاۡکُلُوۡۤا اَمۡوَالَکُمۡ بَیۡنَکُمۡ بِالۡبَاطِلِ وَ تُدۡلُوۡا بِہَاۤ اِلَی الۡحُکَّامِ لِتَاۡکُلُوۡا فَرِیۡقًا مِّنۡ اَمۡوَالِ النَّاسِ بِالۡاِثۡمِ وَ اَنۡتُمۡ تَعۡلَمُوۡنَ ﴿۱۸۸﴾٪

“O people, eat the lawful and good things from what is in the earth, and do not follow the footsteps of the devil. Surely he is an open enemy to you.” — 2:168

یٰۤاَیُّہَا النَّاسُ کُلُوۡا مِمَّا فِی الۡاَرۡضِ حَلٰلًا طَیِّبًا ۫ۖ وَّ لَا تَتَّبِعُوۡا خُطُوٰتِ الشَّیۡطٰنِ ؕ اِنَّہٗ لَکُمۡ عَدُوٌّ مُّبِیۡنٌ ﴿۱۶۸


The first verse which I recited is the last verse in that section of chapter 2 of the Holy Quran which establishes fasting in Ramadan as an obligatory institution in Islam. During the fast we refrain from eating and drinking. This verse, using the same word for “eating”, ’akl, forbids unlawfully acquiring property, money or material possessions by false means or taking what rightfully belong to others. During the fast, a person gives up and avoids, for a period of time, the use of his own food and drink, which belongs to him legally and morally, and which he has every legal and moral right to consume. Thus he learns, or should learn, that in real life he must refrain certainly from wrongfully taking anything which belongs to someone else, and indeed, far from doing this, he should learn to voluntarily give up some of what he possesses, and some of his rights, for the benefit of others and of society in general.

The second verse contains a command to eat, which is rather opposite to the command to fast. With Eid-ul-Fitr we go back to eating and drinking without any restriction on the times when we may do so. But does it mean that we no longer restrain ourselves from misdeeds because that restraint was due to refraining from eating and drinking and now we are allowed to eat and drink? In this second verse, its second part, “and do not follow the footsteps of the devil”, conveys it clearly that, while eating and drinking, we must still avoid every kind of misdeed and wrongdoing.

Usually in this verse people consider “eating” as being literally eating food, and take this command to mean that we should eat only the things allowed by Islam as foodstuff (called here as ḥalāl) and that they should be clean and hygienic to eat (called here as ṭayyib). The question arises: does the second part, “and do not follow the footsteps of the devil”, mean that if you carry out the command to eat only lawful and good things, you will thereby be avoiding “following the footsteps of the devil”? Or, is the second part a separate and additional command? The vast majority of Muslims do carry out the first command. More interestingly, there is a huge number of non-Muslims in the world who also carry out this command because they don’t eat anything which we Muslims regard as non-halal or forbidden. Practising Jews don’t eat anything which a Muslim can call non-halal. Among Hindus and Buddhists, there are large numbers of people who are vegetarians. There are also an increasing number of non-religious people who are vegetarians or vegans and take great care about the source of their food. Does this mean that all these billions of people all over the world, Muslims and non-Muslims, are avoiding following the footsteps of the devil because they are only eating things which are allowed by Islam? If this were so, there would be hardly any crime, injustice or oppression in the world.

This second command, i.e., not to follow the footsteps of the devil, shows that the first command, to eat only lawful and good things, is meant in two senses. One sense is the obvious physical and literal sense. The other sense is that by eating “the lawful and good things” is meant lawful and good behaviour. Only then can anyone resist the devil. There are examples in the Quran where a bad deed is likened to eating some­thing harmful. It says:

“Those who swallow the property of the orphans unjustly, they swallow only fire into their bellies” (4:10).

Those religious leaders who distort the teachings of religion for their own interests are described as follows:

“Those who conceal anything of the Book that Allah has revealed and take for it a small price, they eat nothing but fire into their bellies” (2:174).

These religious leaders, in order to maintain their own position of leadership over people, or to gain wealth from people, misrepresent the teachings sent by God by concealing certain parts of those teachings. Another example is where the Quran condemns backbiting as follows: “Does one of you like to eat the flesh of his dead brother?” (49:12).

It also says that those people who, in this life, do not urge the feeding of the poor, in the next life they have no food “except filth, which none but the wrong­doers eat” (69:36–37). Those who are only interested in feeding themselves, and do nothing to ensure that others can also eat, are actually eating filth, even they might be eating the finest and most halal foods.

The word used in this verse for “good” food is ṭayyib. Although it is applied mostly to good things of various kinds in the Quran, it is also applied to good humans. A part of a verse says: وَ الطَّیِّبٰتُ لِلطَّیِّبِیۡنَ وَ الطَّیِّبُوۡنَ لِلطَّیِّبٰتِ , meaning: “good deeds are for good people, and good people are for good deeds” (24:26). The word ṭayyib here is applied to good deeds and to good people. What it indicates is that when a person starts doing good deeds with sincerity and devotion, he or she becomes a manifesta­tion of good deeds. These deeds become part and parcel of his or her nature so that it appears to him that good deeds have been created for him to do, and that he has been created to do good deeds. The Quran also speaks of a ṭayyib life:

“Whoever does good, whether male or female, and is a believer, We shall certainly make him live a good life (فَلَنُحۡیِیَنَّہٗ  حَیٰوۃً  طَیِّبَۃً), and We shall certainly give them their reward for the best of what they did.” (16:97).

Therefore, the verse which I am discussing indicates that our behaviour and deeds should correspond to how we should be eating. Just as we eat lawful things only, and from among these, the things which are good for us, we should lead lives of lawful and good, ḥalāl and ṭayyib, behaviour. That is how we will continue to resist the devil and our eating will be as spiritually beneficial as refraining from eating during Rama­dan. I may make two further points in this regard. In case of literally eating food that is ḥalāl, it is not only the constituents of that food and its manner of preparation that go to make it lawful. If a person has obtained money through dishonesty or any other false means, the food which he buys with it is not for him ḥalāl, even though it is ḥalāl for others. If government officials from a Muslim country, who have illegally amassed vast wealth in bank accounts in Europe, visit Europe, withdraw some of that money and then look for a shop selling ḥalāl food, it would really be both a depress­ing and a comical situation. The other point I wanted to make relates to applying the command “eat the lawful and good things” to our behaviour, as I mentioned earlier. “Lawful” in this situation means that in our behaviour we give to others what we owe them, and do not avoid it or fall short. In all aspects of life we should perform the duties to which we have committed ourselves through some promise or contract. And “Good” in this situation means that we go beyond this and do voluntary acts of good­ness and benefit towards others.

Islam requires us to make efforts for our moral and spiritual betterment even at the cost of what we regard as physical suffering. The Quran gives examples of followers of some prophets before the time of the Holy Prophet Muhammad whose interest in food was more than their interest in spiritual development. One example is from the time of Moses. After crossing the Red Sea, he and the Israelites found themselves in a wilderness while waiting for the promise of conquering the promised land. Here they faced a struggle, and only had what is called “manna” for food, which was said to have been sent down to them from heaven. However, they complained about this after a while. The Quran reminds them of this as follows:

“And when you said: Moses, we cannot endure one food, so pray your Lord on our behalf to bring forth for us out of what the earth grows, of its herbs and its cucumbers and its garlic and its lentils and its onions. He said: Would you exchange what is better for what is worse?” (2:61)

According to the Bible, they said: “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing…” (Numbers, 11:4–5). What Moses meant was that it was better for them to learn discipline and gain moral nourishment through the hardship they were undergoing than to hanker after physical food. They thought they were better off in Egypt as slaves of the Pharaoh because they got to eat what they wanted, in return for their servitude. But God, and Moses, wanted them to be an independent people even though it required suffering. We see this even today, when many countries, for the sake of material aid from the wealthy countries of the world, are prepared to give up their sovereignty. According to the Bible account, Moses then prayed to God in this regard, and God promised to send them Quails in abundance, blown from the sea by the wind and falling on them from above. While doing this, God also punished them for their greed by sending a plague. A Bible commentator writes about this: “The plague may have been a disease carried by the quail as a lesson to His people that often what they think they want is not good for them” (see link). This is the result when the followers of any religion ask God to do what they want, in pursuance of their low desires, rather than do what God wants them to do.

The other example the Quran provides is from the time of Jesus. It is as follows:

“When the disciples said: Jesus, son of Mary, is your Lord able to send down food to us from heaven? He said: Keep your duty to Allah if you are believers. They said: We desire to eat of it, and that our hearts should be satisfied, and that we may know that you have indeed spoken truth to us, and that we may be witnesses of it” (5:112–113).

According to them, the proof of the truth of religion is that it should satisfy their physical desires. The reply given to them by Jesus, “Keep your duty to Allah if you are believers” means that instead of praying to God to send food they should seek their spiritual betterment through keeping their duty to God and acting on His command­ments. It is recorded in the Gospel of John that, after Jesus had performed the miracle of feeding the five thousand from five barley loaves and two small fish, people were pursuing him, and he said to them:

“you seek me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. Do not labour for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life” (John, 6:26–27).

In the incident mentioned in the Quran, it is related that Jesus did pray to God to send down food from heaven for his followers, to serve as an everlasting sign (5:114). According to the Quran, God replied to his prayer as follows:

“Surely I will send it down to you, but whoever disbelieves (or is ungrateful) afterwards from among you, I will punish him with a punishment with which I will not punish anyone among the nations” (5:115).

What we learn from this is that one must not ask God for material benefits, in preference to, and instead of (and I stress, in preference to, and instead of) praying to Him for guidance to the right path. We also learn that when God bestows material benefits upon us we must express gratitude by our words and by our deeds, otherwise we are liable to punishment from God in the same measure and amount as the material blessings we received. According to the Gospels Jesus in fact said: “My food is to do the will of Him Who sent me, and to accomplish His work” (John, 4:34). Similarly, the Quran says that there are people who pray “Our Lord, grant us (good) in the world”, but it says that they ought to pray: “Our Lord, grant us good in this world and good in the Hereafter, and save us from the punishment of the Fire” (2:200–201).

So let us be thankful for the blessing of food and other physical necessities and comforts that God has provided us with, and resolve to use them within the proper limits, remembering our duty to provide the same to those people who are deprived of them. And let us pray that after Ramadan we are thankful to Allah for giving us the oppor­tunity to reform ourselves, and to re-dedicate ourselves to acquiring knowledge of His revelation, the Quran, which He sent for all mankind, and which our elders in this Movement tried to propagate in the world. — Ameen.