Tayyib & Fitrah: Food and SalvationWritten by Mohammad Hashim Kamali
Tayyib is often used in juxtaposition with halal and often as synonymous with it. But a less well-known aspect of tayyib is its role as a conduit between the physical and the spiritual dimensions of halal, that of the body and the soul.
“Intelligent people know that seeking salvation in the hereafter,” wrote the twelfth-century polymath, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, “depends on learning and practice.”
For only a healthy body can provide consistency for salvation of the soul. Al-Ghazali added that serenity of the body is not possible without food and nourishment.
In the light of this wisdom, some pious ancestors held that eating is part of the teachings related to salvation in religion.
Quranic dispensations on tayyibat also imply that lawful things and foods that are appealing to the senses should be enjoyed and celebrated.
Philologists helpfully and interestingly point out that the elements of pleasure and delight are included within the idea of purity and lawfulness.
Thus the crucial responsibility of caring for the body involves both an element of observing ethics and an element of pleasuring the body.
Since body and soul are not essentially separated, for this reason caring for the body is like caring for the soul.
In other words, the integrity of the soul becomes manifest and takes form in the integrity of the body.
Hence, there is an elaborate practice of caring for the body, starting with the nourishment of the body in Muslim practice.
The reasoning goes like this: if the body is the vehicle for the soul, then it attains the same inviolability as the soul.
However, Muslim teachings differ as to whether the body attains sanctity on its own, irrespective of the soul or whether the body is instrumental to the needs of the soul.
Since the purpose of human existence in Muslim thought is related to an after worldly salvation, the body and its needs have also become an important aspect of the same, according to some Muslim thinkers at least.
In order to attain salvation, the body has to be disciplined through learning and practice.
Since the body is the locus of such discipline, the etiquette of consuming food also acquires a certain importance in the overall scheme of salvation.
The spiritual dimension of food is further expressed by Islam’s outlook on food, which views food as a manifestation of divine mercy and beneficence.
Whether it is to safeguard food sources or for aesthetic purposes, perhaps for both sets of reasons, Muslim teachings also strongly advocate the protection and preservation of the natural environment.
The protection of trees, agricultural land, the sources of food and water and their purity, are all vital components of a balanced Muslim environmental ethics through which the human body and self can obtain felicity and fulfilment.
This ties up, in turn, with Islamic teachings on the preservation of naturalness (fitrah).
To preserve uncontaminated nature coupled with the celebration of a healthy and sound human nature is viewed as one of the Islamic ideals.
The human fitrah has many dimensions, one of which is the inborn, intuitive ability to discern between right and wrong, and therefore is of central importance to Muslim physical and ethical integrity.
“So direct your face steadfastly to faith,” enjoins the Quran, “as God-given nature (fitrah), according to which God created humanity: there is no altering the creation of God” (al-Rum, 30:30).
God in the Quran is also described as the original creator (fatir), who created the heavens and the earth without any model.
Fitrah is essentially supra-religious and permanently inclined to the fatir, the creator of fitrah, as in the Quran (al-An’am, 6:79).
Preservation of fitrah thus becomes an indispensable part of Islamic spirituality and ethics.
Further endorsement of this is seen in Islam’s identification of itself as din al-fitrah, a religion inherently inclined to fitrah, that is, to protect the natural fitrah in all things.
Fitrah in bodily terms is best preserved through consumption of tayyibat.
To understand fitrah for the most part also implies understanding the limits of human intervention in God-ordained nature and the inherent qualities of food and beverage.
Human intervention through scientific methods, such as in the case of genetically modified food, is thus acceptable within the inherent limitations of fitrah.
Some of these limitations are also imbedded in the syariah conceptions of halal and haram and of the fitrah-based naturalness.
As for the rest, intervention in the natural endowment of victuals must pass the tests of rationality, human need and benefit, and avoidance of harm to the natural environment.
For without these limits,the fitrah is also known to be susceptible to distortion and corruption through bodily indulgence in transgression and disobedience.
Mohammad Hashim Kamali is founding chief executive officer of the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies Malaysia.
Published in: New Straits Times, Friday 11 January 2019