A gracious host, and too many rich dishes. Enough to feed twenty hungry guests – but only ten at the dining table.
This oft-repeated scenario of well-intentioned hospitality is quite common in Middle Eastern and Asian cultures. Sadly, however, the misplaced sense of generosity, leads to vast amounts of good food going waste, particularly during Ramadan. Millions of Muslim families throughout the world will break their fasts with lavish meals, in quantities invariably more than those present actually need. All, of course, quite contrary to the very essence of contemplation, caring and restraint that this holy month prescribes.
Extravagance and waste, however, are universal issues affecting societies everywhere. Even Pope Francis, a very committed advocate of support for the deserving, bemoans the ever-growing “culture of waste” as he calls it, equating the despicable practice of discarding food to stealing from the many individuals and families suffering from hunger and malnutrition.
Global statistics too are alarming. About 14% of the food we buy is destroyed for some reason or other; and the UN Food and Agricultural Agency claims that 1.3 billion tonnes, almost a third of food produced worldwide, is wasted annually. Despite our many advancements, we still lose vast quantities of produce through distribution deficiencies. Large quantities become spoilt in transit when unseasonal food products are transported to far-flung wealthy markets, with a corresponding impact on the environment. Perfectly edible wholesome products are discarded because they will not “look good” on supermarket shelves. And to maintain price levels, substantial volumes of good food have to be destroyed or sent to landfill sites, rather than be given to the needy.
Allah, quite simply, abhors the wasteful. The Holy Quran repeatedly cautions against excesses, leaving no doubt about the gravity with which it deals with this subject. It introduces the concept of Israaf, that of exceeding limits, being extravagant, utilsing resources recklessly and even over-indulging in food; and Tabdheer, wasting on unworthy causes in general matters of life. Eat of the wholesome things we have provided for your sustenance, it says, but commit no excess therein, lest Allah’s condemnation fall upon you. And it permits you to “wear your beautiful apparel at every time and place of prayer; and eat and drink but waste not by excess, for Allah loveth not the wasters.” This is not a call for being miserly, but is more a cry against gluttony and extravagance.
Priorities too seem to have gone awry. A drop in the stock market index can become an alarming global crisis, while the many homeless and dying everywhere no longer draw the compassionate attention that they deserve. Perhaps we need more introspection into why we do certain things, and on the impact of our actions.
For a start, our egos. We will conspicuously overdo some things, just to be one meaningless step ahead of someone else. Ahmed’s iftar party has to be better than Yusuf’s; and his son’s wedding has to be more ostentatious than that of Ismail’s daughter. Many cultural traditions and religious rituals perpetuate wastage, with vast sacrificial offerings of food having to be thrown away, because these cannot be consumed by humans. And tonnes of leftovers from restaurants, or unsold food from supermarkets, will be sent to dustbins.
While such waste is surely a monumental violation of everyone’s human’s rights, I am very heartened by the recent initiative of Mumbai’s famous ‘dabbawalas’. They have vowed to collect large quantities of leftover food from India’s famously grand weddings, and to neatly distribute it to homeless street-dwellers.
But its not only food that we blatantly fritter away. Wasteful habits pervade many more aspects of our daily lives. We will cut millions of trees for paper to make unnecessary copies and to distribute junk mail. Unbalanced industrial and economic activities affect our environment, the negative impacts of which are all too apparent today. And just to unnecessarily feed our greedy frenzies, we continue to deplete the world’s valuable natural resources.
Control is what we need. This Ramadan, restraint, piety and giving will become bywords for Muslims everywhere. But charity alone will not eliminate hunger and malnutrition. The focus should be more on providing opportunities for better education and implementing well-considered poverty elimination initiatives that can hopefully offer long term sustainable solutions to chronic wastefulness.
Towards that end, let our inspiration come from the very perceptive words of Prophet Muhamed (PBUH): “When you see one who has more, look at the one who has less”.
And finally, let the guiding mantra be: Waste not; want not.