Living Simply: Active Minimalism

Do You Eat to Your Fill? The Real Minimalist Life

Shaykh Farid Dingle

In order to get through life with ease, the early Muslims (salaf) focused on certain key ways of living that would make it spiritually and practically easier and more fruitful. They coined a term for the variegated rules that they lived by, a term that summarized the system of living for the Hereafter. They called it zuhd: detachment from this world. For the purpose of this article series, we have found the best match in terms of meaning to be asceticism. Other terms to describe zuhd are indifference towards worldly matters or simple living. This is the eighth article from a series of articles and podcasts by SeekersGuidance scholar, Shaykh Farid Dingle.

Introduction to Asceticism (Part One)

Listening More, Talking Less (Part Two)

Entertaining Ourselves to Death (Part Three)

Being Extremely Moderate (Part Four)

Evaluation of the Self (Part Five)

Wronging Others in Word and Deed (Part Six)

Spreading Muck (Part Seven)

It is hard to claim detachment to the world yet still try to own it all. For this reason, the early Muslims lived a very spartan life and did a lot of doing without. This chapter discusses this “active minimalism” as demonstrated by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and those who followed him.

The Qur’an and Hadith are replete with descriptions and parables of the worthlessness of acquiring property, fame, money and power (i.e. worldly possessions) for the sake of themselves. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) once passed by a dead lamb that had been left forgotten on the road and said, “Can you see how little its owner cares about this? By Allah, this world is worth even less in Allah’s eyes than this is to its owner.” (Tirmidhi)

As mentioned in earlier chapters, disdain for this world does not mean disdain for other creatures of Allah, nor does it mean that one does not engage productively or emotionally in this life. Rather, it means that one uses everything in this life—money, power, food, time, even relationships—as a bridge and means to the next life. This is the alchemy that changes nothing into everything.

That said, the natural result of treating everything around one as a means instead of an end is that one simply has less. Abdullah ibn Mas‘ud said, 

“Whoever desires this life will lose out in the next life. Whoever desires the next life will lose out in this life. People, sacrifice that which is fleeting for that which is permanent.” 

Although it is perfectly possible to buy a new Mercedes, for example, with some kind of noble intention, it is normally far-fetched that one would buy, eat, and consume anything and everything one could get one’s hands-on. Rather, minimalism should permeate one’s modus operandi and one should tend to have smaller homes, fewer cars, and fewer clothes.

The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) gave two examples of worldly pleasures that can be changed into worship by a noble intention. He said, “Of your worldly interests, only women and perfume have been beloved to me.” The worldly benefit of marriage is a social one and is not restricted to the individual. There is another hadith in which relations between husband and wife are described literally as a charity. The same applies to perfume. With a pure intention, marriage can be a worldly pleasure that is actually a huge act of worship, and therefore not of this world. Wearing perfume is also considered an act of charity because the benefit of smelling nice is felt by all those around one.

Excessive eating is one noticeable worldly pleasure that has no benefit to oneself or others. Rather, if one overeats, other people who would’ve eaten the surplus food are harmed, and one risks harming one’s health as well. For this reason, countless hadiths encourage eating less, and a culture of eating with the extreme economy can be seen throughout the lives of the early Muslims.

The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Three morsels are enough to keep a man’s back straight. If you really can’t take it, then one third for food, one third for drink and one third to allow you to breathe.” (Ibn Majah)

The point is that eating one’s fill is not recommended, and one should only eat what one needs to in order to fulfill one’s religious and worldly obligations. Luqman the Wise told his son, “O my dear child, once you are already full, don’t eat more. It is better to give it to the dog than to do that.” And Ibn Umar said, “I haven’t eaten my full since who knows how long!”

Eating little is a product of a minimalist life that uses the pleasures of this life to get closer to Allah in the next. If one turns one’s back on the next life, and turns to eating food so much so that one harms oneself and deprives the poor of food, one is doing a great wrong. One of Samura ibn Jundab’s sons ate and ate until he became obese. Samura told him, “If you die, I am not going to pray over you.” This is a hyperbole of course, but the point is understood: why depart from the way of asceticism (zuhd) and wrong yourself by using a blessing of Allah to give yourself health problems?

Minimalism is not just in things that we consume, but also in words. Anas ibn Malik said, “It is wise to remain silent, and there are few who do it.” Speaking is also a type of lust, and one should only speak in order to make remembrance (dhikr) of Allah, or to fulfill necessary practical or social obligations. Speaking less is also a good way to protect one’s tongue.

In summary, minimalism is not a goal in and of itself, and, as mentioned in the first part of the series, “abstinence in this life means working with the assumption that you will not live long. It is not about eating coarse food or wearing poor clothes”. However, such a mindset dictates certain actions and ways of living that do not allow for having or consuming more than is needed. Sorry, McDonalds!