Staying Hungry for Long Period of Time

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What happens when you stay hungry for too long?

Sometimes Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) suffered from hunger for long periods of time due to the shortage of his means. When he had abundant means, he was content with having only a little and gave the rest as charity to the needy. This characteristic of the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) constitutes the basic principle of his ascetic life. Abu Talha (r.a.) narrates: “We complained to the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) and showed him our bellies. Everybody had a rock tied to his belly. Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) showed his abdomen to us. We saw that he had a stone tied over his belly, too.”[1]

According to the narration of Abu Hurairah (r.a.), one day a warm meal was brought to the Messenger of Allah (pbuh). After he finished his meal, he said: “Praise be to Allah, I have not had a warm meal in my stomach for quite a while.” (Ibn Majah, Zuhd, 10)

Allah’s Messenger was faced with such situations many times throughout his prophetic life. Jabir (r.a.) talks about the trenches they dug in Battle of the Trench as follows:

“We were digging the trench on the day of Al-Khandaq (i.e. Trench) and we came across a big solid rock. We went to the Prophet and said,

“There is a rock appearing across the trench.” He said,

“I am coming down.” Then he got up, and a stone was tied to his belly for we had not eaten anything for three days. So the Prophet took the spade and struck the big solid rock and it became like sand.” (Bukahri, Maghazi, 29)

On another day Fatimah (r.a.) brought a piece of the pie she had baked to the Prophet (pbuh). When he asked what it was, Fatimah replied:

“It is a pie that I baked. I could not eat it without you.” Upon this the Prophet (pbuh) said to her:

“This is the first morsel that your father ate for the last three days.” (Ibn Sa’d, I, 400; Haythami, X, 312)

Companions, who were always ready to give their lives and possessions for him, also experienced similar hardships. Abu Hurairah narrates that during his days of poverty and hardship he used to lay on the ground on his abdomen and sometimes he used to bind a stone over his belly because of hunger. (Bukhari, Riqaq, 17)[2]

As it is seen, the Prophet’s mission began and continued for a long period of time under very hard circumstances. Our Prophet (pbuh) never complained about these problems. On the contrary, he reminded his companions about the great rewards that they will receive for the hardships that they endure in the presence of Allah and advised them to stay calm and be patient. For instance, some of the companions of Suffa could not stand up in prayer and would fall down because of hunger. Allah’s Apostle (pbuh) comforted them saying: “If you knew what Allah the Almighty has prepared for you, you would asked to be poorer and needier.” (Tirmidhi, Zuhd, 39)

The following incident is also a significant one that shows the extent of which the Prophet’s two distinguished companions’ hunger went through. Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) went out of his house one night, and there he found Abu Bakr and ‘Umar also. He said:

“What has brought you out of your houses at this hour?”

They said:

“O Allah’s Messenger, it is hunger. Thereupon he said:

“By Him in Whose Hand is my life, what has brought you out has brought me out too; get up.”

They got up along with him and walked to the house of an Ansari, but he was not at home. When his wife saw the Prophet (pbuh) she said:

“Most welcome,” and Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) said to her:

“Where is so and so?”

She said:

“He has gone to get some fresh water for us.” When the Ansari came back and he saw Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) and his two Companions, he said:

“Praise be to Allah, no one has more honorable guests today than I (have). He then went out and brought them a bunch of ripe dates, dry dates and fresh dates, and said: Eat some of them. He then took a knife (to slaughter an animal). Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) said to him:

“Beware of killing a milking animal.”

He slaughtered a sheep for them and after they had eaten of it and of the bunch and drank, and when they had taken their fill and had been fully satisfied with the drink, Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) said to Abu Bakr and Umar:

“By Him in Whose Hand is my life, you will certainly be questioned about this bounty on the Day of Judgment. Hunger brought you out of your house, then you did not return until this bounty came to you.” (Muslim, Ashribah, 140)

There is an important aspect of this report. Even the closest friends of the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) did not know that the Prophet was in need. He often did not tell his needs and did not want to be a burden to anybody. As in the above mentioned hadith, although hunger, which took him out of his house with the hope of finding something to eat, also took his two best friends, Abu Bakr and Umar (may Allah be pleased with them) out of their houses, none of them told and complained about their suffering to anybody. They came across each other because of the same problem. Because all of the companions had adorned themselves with the morals of the Prophet (pbuh), they would prefer to hide their personal issues from others. Only when they were under extreme difficulties, they would ask for help from one of their brother.

Another significant point that we need to pay attention to is that the Prophet (pbuh) regarded the provisions attained after hunger as great blessings and stated that believers were going to be questioned for these blessings. This is an important message for the believers who have means, more or less.

At the head of the food list in the Prophet’s home came dates, milk, and barley bread; however he did not always have dates and milk. As a matter of fact sometimes there was no cooked meal in his house for one or two months and during such days his family members were nourished by dates and water. (Bukhari, Hibah, 1) According to one report of Aisha (r.a.), the family of the Prophet (pbuh) never ate barley bread for two successive days and according to another report they never had wheat bread for three days consecutively. (Muslim, Zuhd, 20-22)

Even though barley and wheat breads were scarce during the Prophet’s time in Hijaz, Allah’s Messenger was one of the people who had the means to obtain it. However, he never tried to be different and have a better life than his community. When his people suffered from hunger, he and his family were among them; whereas Allah the Almighty offered to turn the valley of Mecca into gold for him. He did not accept his Lord’s offer and preferred to spend some of his days full and some of them hungry. He asked Allah for a life that was accordant with the requirements of the social laws and did not prefer a miraculous and privileged life saying: “O Allah! I pray and ask for Your help when I get hungry and when I get full I say my thanks and praises for You.” (Tirmidhi, Zuhd, 35)

On the other hand, he displayed a dignified stance and never surrendered to privation. In other words, his sunnah presented a profile of a firm, optimistic, hopeful and upright standing person instead of a fallen, hopeless, overwhelmed, rebellious, and sad person. Prophetic attributes, such as altruism, patience, gratitude, and contentedness, are towards realization of this object.

We learn from the books of hadith and life of the Prophet that Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) consumed a modest sustenance and he did not have any special foods compared to his companions. He did not attach too much importance to eating. According to Ummu Aiman’s (r.a.) report, one day she sifted some flour and wanted to bake a special bread for the Prophet (pbuh); but Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) did not allow her saying: “Remix the whole-wheat, which you sieved with the flour and knead dough with it.” (Ibn Majah, At’imah, 44)

Jabir b. ‘Abdullah reported that Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) asked his family for a condiment. They said: We have nothing with us but vinegar. He asked for it and then said the following:

“What good condiment vinegar is! What good condiment vinegar is!” (Muslim, Ashriba, 166)

Once the Prophet (pbuh) took a piece of barley bread and put a date on it and said: This date is the condiment of this bread.” (Abu Dawud, At’imah, 41)

According to the narration of Aisha (r.a.), the Prophet (pbuh) used to eat melon with fresh dates, and then he said: “The heat of the one is broken by the coolness of the other, and the coolness of the one by the heat of the other.” (Abu Dawud, At’imah, 36)

What Allah’s Messenger liked best was tharid which was made by mixing pieces of bread in a meat stock. (Abu Dawud, At’imah, 22) It is also reported that he liked sweets especially honey. (Tirmidhi, At’imah, 29) However, it is also a fact that he usually did not have those foods at his dinner table.

However, we should not think that the Prophet (pbuh) was subjecting his family with complete hunger. A date grove of Bani An-Nadir was given to Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) as a gift in the fourth year of migration. He used to sell the harvest of this garden and store enough food for his family that would cover their needs for a whole year. (Bukhari, Nafaqat, 3) As Ummu Salamah (r.a.) was talking about the milking animals of the Prophet (pbuh), she said that: “we were making most of our living from camels and sheep.” (Ibn Sa’d, I, 496)

On the other hand, not only were the members of the Prophet’s family but also some homeless and poor companions (the companions of Suffa), who stayed next to the Prophet’s mosque and spent their entire time with learning Islam, were maintaining their living by means of the Prophet’s support. Because of his responsibility of being head of the state, Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) considered those companions’ support equal to supporting his household. In fact, when Abu Hurairah (r.a.) was asked about why the Prophet (pbuh) suffered from hunger, he made the following statements:

“It was because of the number of the people around him and the multitude of his guests; for the Prophet (pbuh) would not eat anything without accompanied by some of his companions or some needy people from his mosque. After Allah the Almighty bestowed the conquest of Haibar upon believers, they felt a little relief. However they were still having financial problems.” (Ibn Sa’d, I, 409)

The companions of Suffa were the guests of Muslims. Neither did they have families to depend upon, nor did they own any money or property. Whenever an object of charity was brought to the Prophet (pbuh), he would send all of it to the Companions and would not take anything from it, and whenever a present was given to him, he would send some to them and keep some of it for himself. (Bukhari, Riqaq, 17) Therefore, the reason for having just water and dates for food in the Prophet’s home and his hunger for long periods of time was because he was sharing generously whatever he had with the needy. In other words, the reason for the financial hardship that he experienced in his life was not because he did not have the means but, as it was mentioned above, the numbers of the needy that he was helping. Thus, the Prophet (pbuh) personally lived in accordance with his following saying:

“The one who eats to fill while his /her neighbors are hungry is not a true believer.” (Hakim, II, 15)

On the other hand, companions who attained wealth by means of conquests made after the time of Prophet (pbuh) had serious concerns about benefiting from their wealth even though it was licit for them. In this respect, they sometimes spoke about their earlier state of privation. For instance, one day a richly prepared dinner table was prepared for Abdurrahman b. Awf (r.a.) while he was fasting, and he said:

“Mus’ab b. Umayr was martyred and he was better than I am, and he had nothing except his mantle to be shrouded in. Hamza or another person was martyred and he was also better than I am and he had nothing to be shrouded in except his Burd. No doubt, I fear that the rewards of my deeds might have been given early in this world.” Then he started weeping and left the table. (Bukhari, Janaiz, 27)

Once Umar (r.a.) ran into Jabir (r.a.), who was holding a piece of meat, and asked him:

“What is this?” Jabir replied:

“I bought some meat because of my craving for it.” Then Umar (r.a.) warned him:

“Do you buy everything that you long for? Are you not afraid of being one of those who are mentioned in the verse: “You received your good things in the life of the world, and you took your pleasure out of them…” (al-Ahqaf 46; 20)” (Ibn Hanbal, Zuhd, 124)

In conclusion, as a significant aspect of their ascetic lives, both the Prophet (pbuh) and his companions who would stay hungry for extended periods of time and who were content with less

[1] It is reported that from time to time Haji Bayram Wali would tie a rock over his belly in order to follow this tradition of the Prophet (pbuh). This rock has been exhibited in the Museum of Ethnography in Ankara under the name of “Black stone.” In those days people were tying rocks over their bellies to suppress their hunger, while modern age people fill their stomachs to satiety and turn their bellies into rocks.

[2] What we understand from such reports is that binding a stone over someone’s belly was a custom among Arabs in those days. Tying a stone over the abdomen reduces the pain caused by hunger and it is helpful in moving around. (Ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bari, XI, 274-75)

Source: An Excellent Exemplar, Osman Nuri Topbaş,  Erkam Publications

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