Instilling the Ethic of Moderation
Disillusioned with Abundance
There are certain habits my parents held onto when they came from India more three decades ago. One of the staunchest was that they were keen not to
waste-and not to waste anything, whether it was time, water, napkins, electricity, paper, or whatever else we consumed.
My father would blanch when we ripped off five or six sheets of napkins to wipe up a spill. He would tell us to blow our noses in the bathroom sink (gross, you say?), to put the water pressure on the absolute minimum when we washed dishes, to turn off any light that wasn't in direct use, and to use the reverse side of used paper for grocery lists, notes, homework problems and anything else that basically wasn't a court document.
But food took most of the focus of this training. If my mother opened a can of tomato sauce, she wiped that can spotless. If she poured food from a pot into a serving bowl, she scraped it into the serving
dish-and to make sure she did, she plunged her finger into the pot (forget that spatula!) and left nothing behind
My father would call us back when we emptied out the milk gallon but left behind an eighth of a cup. He would tell us passionately: "Look at this remaining milk! Every drop of this is precious food!" He would then proceed to balance the milk gallon against the counter at a 45 degree angle, at precisely the point that it would gather up the last drops in a pool in the bottom corner of the plastic jug, and then pour it out for the person who wanted the next glass of milk.
We always ate leftovers. My mother would cut around the rotted portions of fruit that others would think had long gone bad and ate it proudly. We had to clean our plates, and that meant every grain of rice, and I mean every grain of rice. My parents would tell us that whatever food we left behind, even the seemingly insignificant, aforementioned, grain of rice, would testify on the Day of Judgment as a blessing of Allah, wasted and unacknowledged.
Would food really stand before Allah and speak, I wondered. As a child with a wild imagination, I pictured a grain of rice, standing on my plate and speaking, and I was dubious. Was this true or a trick?
Glorying in Our Anti-Prophetic Character
However my child-mind resolved that dilemma, one thing was not lost on me-and by the exhaustive list I wrote above, I'm sure it's not lost on you
either-but I'll say it anyway. Things were not to be wasted, most especially food.
And isn't that how we all grew up and how we run our households? Apparently not. For years I have watched, and not silently, as individuals, our families, our homes, our schools, and our communities waste inordinate amounts of, well, everything, without the slightest qualm.
We dwellers of the West see our ability to "throw away" as a sign of wealth and power, of class and refinement. We can always have more; we can afford it. We can afford to waste it. We can afford new,
fresh-and that's always so. We don't have to save, conserve, reuse. That's for 21st-century
hippies-or needy people, right?
Wasting stems from an arrogant attitude toward the material goods that flood our lives, from looking at these provisions from Allah as commodities rather than as Heavenly blessings.
What's more, we've taken it a step further and attached value to wasting. Isn't it just plain embarrassing to eat after someone else even if you are hungry and that person is determined to throw away their leftovers? It's un-classy. It's unhygienic. It's downright cheap!
To be refined and civilized is to leave food behind on your plate. Licking your fingers is a barbaric practice. We modern and "evolved" human beings want to distance ourselves from the reality of our clay creation, removed from our bodily functions, establishing ourselves as refined and cultivated. Yet true refinement is quite the opposite, as found in the teachings of the Prophet, sallallahu alayhe wasallam, for who was more refined and cultivated than him?
He sat on the floor, ate with his hands, out of a communal plate and licked his fingers clean. His dish, when he was finished with it, looked as if it were never eaten out of. The theme behind this is that humility is expressed in every aspect of eating, and it wipes out the arrogance that produces wasting.
But the problem of wasting is a little more complicated. What we have that the community of the Prophet did not is abundance. Having so much makes us think we can waste. In fact, the Prophet, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam, told us not to waste water even if a stream ran to our door. The interpretation of this hadith is to never waste something, even if you find it in abundance, that not only those things that are scarce are worth conserving.
It is in the midst of scarcity that Islam's first community was formed. It's their habits we're supposed to emulate. And true class is found
there-true hygiene, and the truthfulness of Islam. How else would washing yourself with water after using the bathroom, making ghusl after impurity, and making wudhu' daily, if not multiple times a day, come to a desert-dwelling people and become common practice?
They did all this on parched land, wasted little, and maintained the highest standard of cleanliness and purity. They were refined, but not hung up. And that's who my parents were. That's what never made them shy away from using their fingers to clean the can and the pot, but in a clean and sophisticated manner. They joined the characteristics of humility and cultivation in dealing with their persons and material blessings.
Part of why my parents were so particular about not wasting is because they came from India, the land of the three "P's" as my first-generation peers would joke: population, pollution, and poverty. There, hunger had a face and thirst had a cry.
But how do you teach a people that have never felt need, who see so much abundance, that never see the pain of starvation on a child's face, or see a shower as a luxury, or new clothes as a rarity, the importance of food, water, clothing, and shelter?
You read the seerah and you trust and follow the example of the Prophet, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam, and his Companions. So, for example, when the Prophet instructs not to fill your stomach completely, to leave at least a third of it empty, if you must eat to a maximum amount, it ensures that you will be just a pinch hungry, and that will naturally make you finish everything on your plate. We have no need to make fake displays of cultured habits. We've got the real deal.
Aren't we afraid that this abundance will be taken away from us if we continue to waste and squander? Don't we fear that that we will fail the test of prosperity and be relegated to poverty?
I see us scrape heaping plates of food into the garbage, and I worry that Allah's wrath will seize this blessing from our very hands. But before you write me off as too negative, I will say that whenever I caution those around me, they respond with an intuitive sense that wasting is hateful.
It's fitrah, I guess. But it makes me hopeful that we can reverse the tide and be a grateful people who heed the advice of the Prophet, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam, and appreciate the blessings of Allah, and, thereby, gaining His divine love, for Allah loves not the wasters.
"O Children of Adam! Don your adorning apparel when setting out for every place of worship. Moreover, eat and drink [freely]. But do not be excessive. For, indeed, He does not love those who are
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