The companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) were keen to give us a full picture of the Prophet’s actions, practices, and habits, knowing that this is all part of the guidance he was sent to deliver. They realized that some of his actions were no more than a personal approach and that we have free choice in these. Nevertheless, they wanted to transmit a full picture of his behavior. They realized that even in personal matters, his choices were good ones. God made his nature always inclining toward what is good and beneficial. Moreover, they told us how they behaved in his presence in order to transmit a picture of what life was like in the community he established, which was fundamentally different from the tribal society that prevailed in Arabia before the advent of Islam.
Jabir ibn Abdullah reports: “When we had a meal with the Prophet, we would not start unless he was the first to start.” (Related by Ahmad, Al-Hakim and Abu Al-Shaykh). This Hadith tells us of the good manners of the Prophet’s companions and the respect they showed to the Prophet. They might be hungry and the food is placed before them, but they would not touch it until he started. Indeed, this sort of manner continued to be practiced in the Muslim community. Children would not start eating before their parents, particularly when they are grown up. When some people are having dinner, the most distinguished personality is normally the one to start. When he begins to take food into his plate, others would follow.
During the Prophet’s lifetime, the Arabs normally ate with their hands. They did not have the sort of cutlery we use nowadays. They held a piece of bread in their fingers and scooped some food to lift it to their mouths, eating it with the piece of bread. Some of the sauce or the fat might stick to their fingers during the meal. Hence, it is important to wash one’s hands before eating. People also wiped or washed their hands after the meal. The Prophet’s companions told us how he ate. Thus, Kaab ibn Malik tells us: “The Prophet used to eat his food using three fingers. He did not wipe his hand until he had licked it.” (Related by Ahmad, Muslim, Abu Dawood and Al-Tirmidhi). There are other Hadiths confirming this practice. Anas reports: “When the Prophet had finished eating, he would lick his three fingers.” (Related by Ahmad, Muslim, Abu Dawood and Al-Tirmidhi)
Kaab ibn Ujrah reports: “I saw the Prophet eating with his three fingers, his thumb, the one next to it and the middle finger, and I saw him licking his three fingers before wiping them.” (Related by Abu Al-Shaykh, Al-Tabarani and Ibn Saad).
These Hadiths give us a picture of a proper approach to food. Using three fingers means that one scoops a small amount. This is better than using one’s whole hand, taking a rather large piece of bread, and lifting more of the food in one bite. People who do that show an unsightly appearance, with their mouths being too full, like gluttons. On the other hand, licking one’s fingers is another aspect of being grateful to God for providing us with the food we need to survive. It means that we do not wash away or waste any portion of food, however small.
The Prophet’s food was always very simple. It was placed on the floor, and no elaborate means were used to give it a refined taste. This is clear from the following Hadiths: Anas ibn Malik reports: “The Prophet never ate at a high table, nor did he eat in small plates. Never was thin bread baked for him.” Someone asked: “On what did they serve their food, then?” The answer was: “On mats placed on the floor.” (Related by Ahmad, Al-Bukhari, Al-Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah). This Hadith shows how simple the Prophet’s life was. He could have had all the luxuries he wanted, but he never looked for any standard higher than what was easily affordable by ordinary people in his community.
Anas said: “The Prophet (peace be upon him) never ate thinly baked bread; nor did he eat of a sheep whose hair was removed by boiling water .” (Related by Ahmad, Al-Bukhari and Ibn Majah). Such elaborate preparations were not used in cooking the Prophet’s food. He preferred a simple life, with no refinements. This does not mean that he did not like what was comfortable, or refined or tasty. His approach was that whatever was easily available and simply prepared, giving no trouble to anyone, was good enough for him.
Sahl ibn Saad, a companion of the Prophet, was asked by Abu Hazim whether the Prophet ate bread made with refined flour. He answered: “The Prophet never saw refined flour from the day God sent him with His message to the day when God gathered his soul.” Abu Hazim asked: “Did you have sieves during the Prophet’s lifetime?” He said: “Never did the Prophet see a sieve from the first day of his mission to the day when God gathered his soul.” Abu Hazim asked: “How did you, then, eat barley without using sieves (to remove the outer skin and dirt)?” He said: “We used to grind it and blow the dirt away. Much of that was blown off, and we then used water to remove more before we prepared it to eat.” (Related by Ahmad, Al-Bukhari, Al-Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah).
Such a simple and contented approach to food needs no comment from us. While we enjoy a great variety of foods today, with fruits and other products brought from all over the world to make everything available in all seasons, we need to show our gratitude to God for blessing us with such plenty. We must never forget that many millions of people hardly find enough to eat. Many suffer from poor diet and from famine. We must always remember this, thank God for what He has given us, and ensure that we try our best to relieve the suffering of those who do not have enough. Otherwise, we will be questioned by God and we have to account to Him for our failure to help those in need of help.