Hunger can bring out the worst in us. In a wonderful scene in Shakespeare's As You Like It, a desperate and hungry Orlando comes upon Duke Senior and his exiled court in the forest, who are about to start dinner. Assuming the law of the jungle presides in Arden, Orlando brandishes his sword and demands food upon pain of death. Duke Senior rebukes him for his lack of civility, and wisely adds: "Your gentleness shall force, more than your force move us to gentleness." Orlando responds: "I almost die for food, and let me have it." Unfazed, the duke says: "Sit down and feed, and welcome to our table." Orlando is shamed by the duke's gallantry and explains that hunger had bred violence in him.
Almost four centuries later another bard, Bob Marley, melodically reminded us: "Them belly full, but we hungry / A hungry mob is an angry mob." We all know the primal nature of hunger; we have experienced the irritability that comes from missing breakfast or skipping our cup of morning coffee or tea. We hyperbolically talk of "starving" when a mealtime draws near. Our food trysts are now frequent every day in what sociologists refer to as "repeated food contacts" and farmers simply call grazing. At the drop of a hat, we indulge in lattes and biscotti. Many people no longer eat three "square" meals but rather graze all day, with Starbucks troughs sprouting up everywhere to ensure none suffer the pangs of hunger or the pain of caffeine withdrawal. In the lands of plenty in the west, we tend to forget that the abundance and easy accessibility of food was not always so and is not as widespread even now.
Few of us who have the luxury of reading the daily paper over a cup of coffee and a piece of toast slathered with rich butter and marmalade have ever gone hungry intentionally, unless we succumbed to some ridiculous crash diet. But there was a time in the west when Lent, which commemorates Christ's 40-day fast in the desert, meant fasting all day and eating one meal at night. As time passed that tradition devolved into a semi-fast and now means merely giving up something one really likes, such as chocolate.
Even our portions of food and drink are much greater than what our grandparents had. In the midst of this cornucopia of consumption, millions of Muslims voluntarily abstain from food, drink and sex during daylight hours in the month of Ramadan. They watch their co-workers eat and drink throughout the day, and occasionally have to apologise for not joining in due to their religious observance. Fasting for a month makes them aware of hunger as a palpable physical sensation, not a remote occurrence they read about in the newspaper. When the UN tells us that almost a billion people suffer from hunger and malnutrition and 25,000 people a day die from hunger, a faster appreciates these statistics in ways that remain distant to others.
RamaBut fasting is not just about giving up food and drink. It's about tending to "the better angels of our nature". The prophet Muhammad ﷺ said, "If one is not willing to give up bad behaviour during his fast, God has no need for him to give up his food and drink." Muslims are encouraged during this time to be better people, to treat others with more deference. If enticed to argue, the faster is advised to respond: "I am fasting."
There are many ways to be hungry. One can hunger for love, or fame or social justice, but hunger for food seems to curb all other cravings. In being aware of others' hunger, we contribute to a more empathic world. Perhaps, if, like Duke Senior, we responded to the cries of the myriad desperate Orlandos foraging in the forests of famine out there with hospitality and help, they might be coaxed into civility themselves. Certainly, hunger can bring out the worst in us. But it can also bring out the best. - Shaykh Hamza Yusuf (written for The Guardian, Oct 2007)