Benefits of the Eating Together
The idea of people congregating is a central theme in Islam, whether it be the daily congregational prayers, the prayers of the Eid celebrations, the prayer for a rain, as well as gathering in circles of dhikr (remembrance) and knowledge. Islam recognizes the social importance of human interaction and bonding. Not just in times of need, but at times when the reason is nothing other than gathering for the sake of Allah and having good company.
When we share experiences beyond basic interactions, we create bonds. This is more so when other fulfill our absolute needs (physical or spiritual), or when we commonly share daily experiences that are either, such as eating, and praying etc., or significant ones, such as tragedies or triumphs.
Sharing meals builds communities
Other than being a physical necessity, food and meal times can fulfill different aspects of our human nature in myriad ways. One of these important aspects is the ability of food to bring people together and, from this, form personal relationships.
When people sit together to eat, even if they stay silent throughout the meal, they are automatically involved in a sharing process. The food itself becomes the connecting factor between each individual present. Young and old, rich and poor, black and white, scholar or layman: sharing the same food from the same source somehow renders everyone present equal for that moment in time.
Perfect practice in Yemen
One often sees this practice in Yemen. A person walks into a shop, hotel lobby, masjid, airport or even a police station, and sees the various employees: seniors, managers, workers, handymen, cleaners etc., sat on the floor in a corner or beside the front desk, around a large plate sharing a meal. Often 6 to 8 people huddle together.
Despite their sharing quite a small amount of food on the platter and passing just one flat bread between them, they sincerely turn to the person and say â€œMarhaba!â€ (welcome!) and shuffle around and make room without fail .
This is not dissimilar to the way they will ask a person if they prayed in congregation when they were going to pray during their break, just in case the individual may miss praying in the group. Some things just are communal for them, so much so that they go out of their way to check if another person needs or wants to join them.
Spirit in simplicity
Simple as it seems, there was something always very warming and comforting to see how they interacted with one another during those shared meals, as if they put aside their respective positions and roles of the day, and became, just as in prayer, equals.
When we share food, communication and connection is effortlessly made. The circle offers the opportunity for the sharing of thoughts, sometimes an exchange of cultures. It can be a point for people to share their daily happenings, and even worries and woes.
Similar to when one is tired, eating is a time when the physical, vegetative aspect of the body slightly overtakes the intellectual faculties, causing a relaxation on the mental-emotional sphere. This can result in a â€œletting downâ€ of oneâ€™s guard and the various mechanisms of psychological compensation we put up at other times. While it is important to be on guard of oneâ€™s tongue at all time, sitting and sharing with others, in good company, offers a comfortable space for everyone to speak in a relaxed state.
Sharing a Plate
Although it is perfectly fine to eat off separate plates, a further recommendation when sharing meals is to eat off the same plate, such as a large dish. There is something special and uniquely intimate about this practice where everyone puts their hands to the same plate, sometimes even sharing from the same piece of food. Not only do hearts draw closer together with each reach of the hand, but one of the main reasons for the magical feeling in this practice is the Divine blessings that descends upon the food.
The Prophet ï·º had a large bowl called Al-Gharraâ€™, which would be carried by four men. It is narrated that â€œOne day, when the Companions finished their Duha prayer, Al-Gharraâ€™ was brought full of sopped bread, meat and broth, and they sat down around it. When their number increased,the Messenger of Allah ï·º sat down on his knees and rested on the soles of his feet. A bedouin said to him. â€˜What sort of sitting is that?â€™ The Messenger of Allah ï·º said, â€˜Verily, Allah has made me a courteous slave not a fierce tyrant.â€™ Then he said, â€˜Eat from the sides of the bowl and leave the central part of it so that your food will be blessed.â€™â€ (Abu Dawud)
Lessons to be learned
He ï·º also said, â€œYou will be rewarded for whatever you spend for Allahâ€™s sake, even if it were a morsel which you put in your wifeâ€™s mouth.â€ (al Bukhari)
There are many lessons to be learned from these two hadith, especially from the sublime generosity, etiquette, consideration, humility, and tender nature of the beloved Prophet ï·º. What concerns us most in these words, are a) the instructions of the Prophet ï·º that taught those present how to maximize the benefit of such meal times, and b) the beautiful image and concept he ï·º instills of the idea of human intimacy and sharing through food.
Etiquettes of Sharing Meals
Below are some of the main etiquettes associated with sharing meals one should maximize, as well as those things that one should ensure when doing so:
1. That the food is halal.
2. That the company is good company, otherwise it is better to avoid it.
3. That there are no impermissible aspects to the group, such as prohibited gender mixing, alcohol, unlawful speech (backbiting, lying, obscenities).
4. Be considerate and think of others when eating. Prefer others to yourself.
5. Wash your hands before eating
6. Do not do anything that is off putting to others during the meal, such as putting greasy hands all over the water jug or glass, belching aloud, making noises when eating, or for some (unmarried students mainly), squirting ketchup and other sauces all over the food!
7. If the food is of one type, that one eats from the food that is closest to one, while if of different types, then one may choose and pick from different parts of the plate.
8. If one has been invited, to thank the host and tell them how much you like the food without excess and lying.
In fact, invitation is not a condition for the last recommendation, as it also applies to when your parents or spouse provides the meal, usually mother or wife, even if daily. At every meal, everyone should thank her and tell her how nice the food was. Every day, every meal.
It is important and normal for people to feel appreciated and not taken for granted. After all, it was her hard efforts that allowed everyone else to fulfill a sunna, and provides us with our needs, enjoyment and satisfaction.
As always, we end with a practical challenge for us all. The challenge this week is for anyone who doesnâ€™t do so already, to share a meal at least once a week, and if this is not possible, then once a month.
For families, it is a great idea to share a meal once a day. If this is not doable, then once on the weekend. Perhaps everyone could help prepare the meal to make the whole process quality family time.
For friends and couples, make time to share a meal. It doesnâ€™t have to be eating at a restaurant or take out. Cooking together (men included) can be fun and sitting down to eat afterwards can be a good and alternative way to spend time together.
It can be for any meal, including breakfast. Dry foods are particularly good for sharing in large platters. If cleaning up is an issue, keep some disposable plastic spreads (sufras) and paper cups in the house, so the hassle of cleaning is kept to a minimum.
If take-outs are resorted to, it is better than nothing. Buy food that everyone can share and enjoy.
Make the intention to follow a sunna, to spend time with one another as brothers or sisters, and even invite people you have met but are not necessarily close with. Donâ€™t forget to say Bismillah, and inshaâ€™Allah, not only will we satisfy our stomachs, other aspects of ourselves will be fulfilled and gratified simultaneously.
May Allah unite us all in Jannah where we may sit around together and share the delights of the Gardens with the very best of company. Amin.
by Shaykh Jamir Meah.