Food represents one of the most common activities in human life. It is essential for survival. People go to great lengths to ensure that they and their families have enough food. Moreover, eating is associated with social activities. People invite relatives, friends and neighbors to a meal. They are keen to offer them the best they can have. Moreover, eating together becomes a social function in which certain manners and practices are observed. People often speak of table manners, indicating that those who observe them are refined people, well brought up and deserve respect and friendship. On the other hand, people who lack table manners are considered as vulgar and uncouth.

The Prophet (peace be upon him) has taught us the best of manners in every situation. His teachings were often by example. However, he added instructions to ensure that people observed the right manners. For example, people in high position of authority were used to have a rich variety of foods spread before them. They would recline and eat at leisure. This used to be the mark of affluence and power. The Prophet made clear that he would have nothing of that. He is quoted to have said : “I do not recline and eat.” (Related by Ahmad, Al-Bukhari, Muslim and others.) Ubayy ibn Kaab, a close companion of the Prophet famous for his fine recitation of the Qur’an, reports: “The Prophet used to sit on his knees when he ate. He never reclined when eating.” (Related by Abu Al-Shaykh)

For most of his life, the Prophet lived in poverty. He never complained. Prior to his marriage to lady Khadeejah, he lived in his uncle’s home, Abu Talib, who was poor. However, there always seemed to be enough food to go round. Khadeejah was rich and the Prophet worked in conducting her business. He was living comfortably. After her death and for most of the time until his death, he was poor. Sometimes, he might not find food for his family’s needs. He would be patient until God’s help was forthcoming. Thus the Prophet experienced all the problems of poverty. Therefore, when he had plenty, he did not forget the times of need, and he always remained kind to the poor.

Anas ibn Malik reports: “Some dates were brought to the Prophet. I saw him eating while sitting and his head brought forward, indicating his extreme hunger .” (Related by Ahmad, Muslim, Al-Tirmidhi and Abu Dawood)

The fact that the Prophet experienced poverty and hunger made him always grateful for having enough to eat. Abu Hurayrah reports : “The Prophet never criticized any type of food. If he liked it, he would eat; otherwise he would not touch it.” (Related by Ahmad, Al-Bukhari and Muslim) This is the proper approach to food. If you do not like the type of food available, do not start criticizing it. You can refrain from eating, allowing others to eat. You should always remember that people have different tastes. What you think to be of horrible taste, others may find delightful. Therefore, do not try to influence others by criticizing what is after all a blessing from God.

Another aspect of table manners that the Prophet taught both by example and instruction was that he would eat of what was close to him. This is particularly true when people sit around and the food is in a large plate in the middle. Each should eat from what is close to him. Lady Ayesha reports: “When God’s Messenger sat to eat, he would eat from what was close to him. If dates were brought to him, he would move his hand in the plate.” (Related by Abu Al-Shaykh and Al-Bazzar) Dates and fruit generally are taken out individually. Therefore, one can choose from the plate whatever one wants. This is what Ayesha referred to as she said that the Prophet moved his hand in a plate of dates, choosing what he wanted.

Nowadays, a new aspect has been added with people eating in individual plates, bringing the food closer to them. What they need to do is to ensure that they take into their plates only what they know they will eat. Sometimes, when food is served in an open buffet, people tend to put in their plates more than they can possibly eat, with the result that they leave a portion of food in their plates, which gets thrown away. This is contrary to Islamic manners, which consider throwing food away as an act of wasting what is essentially a blessing from God. Making good use of food by eating it or giving it as a gift to neighbors, or as a charity to poor people, or putting it out for animals to feed is strongly encouraged by Islam.

It is also important to remember to mention God’s name at the start of eating. This is a form of giving thanks to God for providing us with what we need to live. It also ensures that the food is blessed. Abu Ayoub Al-Ansari reports : “We were with the Prophet one day when food was brought up. I could not think of any food that was better blessed at the beginning and less so at the end. We asked the Prophet how come that this should happen. He said: ‘We started by mentioning God’s name before we ate. Someone later joined us, eating without mentioning God’s name, thus allowing Satan to eat with him.” (Related by Ahmad, Al-Tirmidhi and Al-Baghawi)

Needless to say, this is a figurative image explaining why the blessing was removed when someone joined the group and ate without mentioning God’s name. The Prophet expressed this notion in different ways. One way is reported by Ayesha, his wife, who said : “The Prophet was eating some food with six of his companions when a Bedouin came and joined them. The Bedouin finished the food in two bites. The Prophet said: ‘Had he mentioned God’s name when he joined you, the food would have been sufficient for you all. ” (Related by Ahmad, Al-Tirmidhi, Ibn Majah and Al-Darimi). The amount of food remained the same, but when God’s name is mentioned by everyone, the food is blessed and an aspect of its blessing is that a small quantity is enough to feed people better than a larger quantity of unblessed food. Nothing blesses food better than mentioning God’s name, acknowledging that whatever we have is given to us by His grace.