Ustadh Tabraze Azam gives a detailed account of the adab or proprieties of eating and sleeping according to the Sunna.
Imam Sha‘rani, the masterful gnostic of the inward sciences, noted that it may well be that the eternal divine pleasure of Allah Most High is found in an act of worship which most people are unconcerned with because of its relative insignificance; and on the other hand, the divine wrath may encircle a relatively meager sin, namely, in the eyes of people. The sunna in its entirety is important, as indicated in the words of the lawgiver, “And don’t deem anything of the good to be insignificant.” (Muslim) Allah Most High cares about the details, especially occasions where heedlessness is normally rife, and when you strive to be gratefully and gracefully prophetic, in whatever capacity you are able, He increases you in wondrous degrees.
One of the great blessings of life is food, so much so, that it serves as a reminder of one of the joys of the hereafter. Allah Most High says, “They will also be served any fruit they choose and meat from any bird they desire.” (Sura al-Waqi‘a 56:20-21) And the gift of rest is not lost on any of us! “And one of His signs is your sleep by night.” (Sura al-Rum 30:23) It is worth noting that food and sleep are mere means, and do not intrinsically cause satiation nor rest. Rather, it is Allah Most High’s creative act at work. But He has commanded that you take the means, as exemplified by His Beloved Emissary, Allah bless him and give him peace, so we strive to do so as servants seeking to attain unto the divine good pleasure in this life before the next.
1. Eating with Mindfulness
The first thing to keep in mind is the magnitude of the blessing that is food. To be fortunate enough to simply sit with a bowl of food in front of you is sufficient enough as a divine favor. Intend Allah Most High therein, by making His worship your primary aim in eating from the sustenance He has bestowed upon you. Clearly, there are many secondary intentions which may be made at this point, such as gaining strength to fulfill your obligations, to assist those in need, to increase in gratitude, and so on and so forth.
The Beloved Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, instructed us to wash our hands before eating because it brings about “blessings” (Tirmidhi), and to recite the basmala, ideally with the aforementioned presence of mind, heart and soul, “In the Name of Allah, Most Merciful and Compassionate (bismi Llahi Rahmani Rahim).” Some of the righteous would encourage the pronouncement of the short form of the basmala (bismi Llah) with each bite! Proceed to eat with your right hand, unless you have an excuse, as the right is used for noble matters. But there’s no harm in using your left to assist with eating and drinking whenever there is a need.
Once you’re done, you should end with a supplication of praise and wash your hands thereafter. It is reported that the Noble Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, said, “Praise be to Allah who has fed us, given us to drink, and made us Muslims (alhamdu li Llahi ‘lladhi at‘amana wa saqana wa ja‘alana min al-muslimin).” (Abu Dawud)
2. Eating in Moderation
The Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, informed us that the worst container a human being can fill is his stomach. (Tirmidhi) Accordingly, the sunna is to eat with restraint, and not out of mere desire or fulfillment. The prophetic encouragement was to reserve, “A third for your food, a third for your drink, and a third for your breath.” (ibid.) And as some of the righteous point out, everybody knows their own third! Nevertheless, it is permitted to eat until you are full, and praiseworthy if coupled with genuine, righteous intentions.
It’s also proper to eat when you’re hungry, and not to delay a meal until you are starving. The latter, more often than not, will be a distraction and lead to the kind of covetousness and heedlessness the lawgiver was seeking to direct us away from. It’s important to eat slowly and with dignity. You were created to worship, not eat, but this doesn’t mean that you cannot enjoy food. On the contrary, we actually know some of the favored foods of the Beloved Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, and on occasion, he would praise food too.
3. Eating with Sunna
From the guidance of the Beloved Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, was to eat from the side of the plate “and not from its middle” (Abu Dawud) because the “blessing descends in the middle.” (ibid.) This is of particular importance when eating from a shared platter, but equally, may also be implemented in your own, individual plate so that the blessing can continue to descend throughout your meal. Of course, if there are multiple types of food, or parts to the dish, this is excusable, as the recommendation is in the case that the food is of the same type.
One should avoid any form of disrespect toward the food, or any wastage of it whatsoever. This is considered to be a form of ingratitude (kufran al-ni‘ma), and showing such disregard for a tremendous blessing makes one liable to losing it altogether. Further, it is imperative to ensure that you do not use any utensils made of gold or silver. Note that the gold and silver in question is that which is comprised of more than fifty percent of those metals. Otherwise, cutlery or dishes would take the ruling of the preponderating metal used in the alloy.
Blowing on hot food in order to cool it down is acceptable, if without sound, but best avoided unless there is a need because it is indicative of haste and blameworthy covetousness. Moreover, it is reported that eating uncomfortably hot food is a means of its blessing leaving. So what’s proper, then, is to allow the food to cool, and eat when it’s comfortable to do so.
Licking your fingers after eating is also from the sunna because you “don’t know in which part of your food the blessing lies.” (Muslim) Again, remember there is a sunna, or an adab, of the sunna itself. If this isn’t realized, people can often conflate strange or unbecoming behaviour with sunna merely because the words match up. It is important to learn and appreciate true adab lest you ascribe something ugly to the Noble Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace. Finally, using a toothpick or the like is also established prophetic practice, if there is a need for it.
4. Sunna Drinking
The sunna is to begin drinking with the basmala, namely, the same manner in which you begin eating, holding the glass in your right hand. Our Master ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Abbas (may Allah be well-pleased with him) reported that the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, said, “Don’t drink in one [breath] like a camel, but drink [in pauses] twice or thrice.” (Tirmidhi) Try to drink with pauses, thanking Allah Most High each time you move the vessel away from your mouth. Further, it is proper to drink in sips and not gulps, which incidentally, facilitates pausing. Gulping is contrary to dignity and it is thus a mannerism disapproved of by the Beloved Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace.
Sitting to drink is a recommended sunna, and it is improper, yet not religiously wrong nor sinful, to stand without excuse. There are two notable exceptions, however. When drinking the blessed water of ZamZam, the practice of the Noble Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, was to stand in order to drink as much as possible. As a matter of fact, the sunnas of drinking ZamZam are generally the opposite of regular water, perhaps in order to distinguish it for its blessed nature. The same actually applies to the leftover water of the ritual ablution (wudu), for it contains a blessing by virtue of the act of worship which was performed with it.
Importantly, men and women should avoid drinking each others’ leftover water, unless they are spouses or unmarriageable kin (mahram) to one another, as it is something which can arouse sexual desire. This is why the jurists deem it to be generally disliked (makruh).
5. Sleeping with Mindfulness
Just as with food, and in fact, just as with anything, you should make an intention before sleeping. The secret to success in intentions is to direct them to Allah Most High. After that, make secondary intentions which will help you attain unto that one, central point. Thus, intend to strengthen your body for worship, for example, and to give the body its right. “Indeed, your eye has a right over you,” (Bukhari) remarked the Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, when he was informed of somebody who was regularly staying up through the night in devoted worship.
Before sleep, you should perform the ritual ablution (wudu), and spend a few moments reciting the prophetic supplications and remembrances (adhkar). There are numerous supplicatory utterances established in the sunna, but a simple formulation is: “O Allah, by Your name I die and I live (allahumma bismika amutu wa ahya).” (Bukhari) Similarly, it is recommended to recite Suras: Ikhlas, Falaq and Nas, and to also recite the tasbih (Subhan Allah), tahmid (Alhamdu li Llah) and takbir (Allahu akbar), thirty-three, thirty-three and thirty-four times respectively.
Then, repent for your missteps and erroneous ways so that if your soul is taken that night, your slate will be clean. Repentance takes only a moment of sincerity. And also try to sleep without anything in your heart against your fellow believers, a trait that famously astounded our Master ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Amr ibn al-‘As, may Allah be well-pleased with him, when he diligently observed one of the Companions who was prophetically singled out as a person of Paradise.
Next, lie on your right side, on a bed that is not too hard nor too soft, with your right hand under your cheek, facing the qibla. If it’s not comfortable for you, do it for a few moments, and ask Allah Most High to bless you with an increase in sunna in your life. Avoid sleeping on the stomach as it is a posture disliked by Allah Most High, the posture of the inhabitants of the Fire – may Allah protect us all. Of course, if you have an excuse or a reason to do so, then it would be fine, but the basis is that when you have a choice, you don’t choose this posture over others.
6. Sunna Sleep
One of the wonders of the prophetic sunna is the encouragement to take a midday nap (qaylula), ideally at some point between the Islamic midday (al-dahwa al-kubra) and the entry of the noon prayer (zuhr). The exception to this would be Fridays, where the scholars recommend doing so after the Friday prayer (salat al-jumu‘a). Our Master Sahl ibn Sa‘d, may Allah be well-pleased with him, commented, “We didn’t used to take midday naps nor eat our morning meals, except after the Friday prayer.” (Bukhari) If you cannot do anything more due to work or other commitments, laying down with your eyes closed for a few moments would minimally suffice.
You should also keep in mind that propriety in sleeping entails avoiding the disliked times, usually the kind of times which could lead a person to miss the congregation, or worse, the prayer entirely. According to some scholars, sleep after the mid-afternoon prayer (‘asr) is disliked, but Imam Tahawi explained that the soundest traditions (ahadith) actually permit sleep at this time. Sleep after the sunset prayer (maghrib) is particularly cautioned against, and the same principle applies to sleep after the entry of dawn (fajr). Generally, once the prayer time enters, a concerned believer would first pray, as he cannot rest with ease otherwise, and then consider sleeping.
If you experience something frightening in a dream, you should keep it to yourself, seek refuge in Allah Most High from the accursed devil, and then blow thrice to your left side. (Bukhari) If you see something noble, you may tell others about it, but it isn’t ideal to be distracted by dreams from the reality of your life. Dreams are only normally meaningful when godfearingness (taqwa) and piety (birr) permeates your being. Of course, there is a place for dreams, but the most important thing is the whereabouts of the Sacred Law (shari‘a) in your life. Good dreams don’t take people to Paradise.
We ask Allah Most High to increase us in love and following, that we be genuine in our concern, sincere and true in our emulation, and that we be joined with the Greatest Emissary, Allah bless him and give him peace, in the next life, for eternity.
And Allah alone gives success.