Feeding God or feeding the needy people

Friday Khutba by Dr Zahid Aziz, for Lahore Ahmadiyya UK, 31 May 2024

“And surely this is a revelation from the Lord of the worlds. The Faithful Spirit has brought it, on your heart that you (O Prophet) may be a warner, in plain Arabic language. And surely the same is in the Scriptures of the ancients.” — ch. 26, Al-Shu‘arā’, v. 192–196

وَ اِنَّہٗ لَتَنۡزِیۡلُ رَبِّ الۡعٰلَمِیۡنَ ﴿۱۹۲﴾ؕ  نَزَلَ بِہِ الرُّوۡحُ الۡاَمِیۡنُ ﴿۱۹۳﴾ۙ  عَلٰی قَلۡبِکَ لِتَکُوۡنَ مِنَ الۡمُنۡذِرِیۡنَ ﴿۱۹۴  بِلِسَانٍ عَرَبِیٍّ مُّبِیۡنٍ ﴿۱۹۵﴾ؕ  وَ اِنَّہٗ لَفِیۡ زُبُرِ الۡاَوَّلِیۡنَ ﴿۱۹۶

“And certainly We have made the Word to have many connections for their sake, so that they may be mindful.” — ch. 28, Al-Qaṣaṣ, v. 51.

وَ لَقَدۡ وَصَّلۡنَا لَہُمُ الۡقَوۡلَ لَعَلَّہُمۡ یَتَذَکَّرُوۡنَ ﴿ؕ۵۱ 

In the first passage that I have recited, the last verse, “And surely the same is in the Scriptures of the ancients”, indicates that the revelation which the Holy Prophet received contains teachings and principles similar to those which were in the previous scriptures. The second verse states that there are many points of connection or similarity between the Word of God in the Quran and in the scriptures of different religions. This was discussed by me in the Friday Khutba of three weeks ago.

The examples of this similarity are sometimes unexpected and surprising. In the Hindu religion, it is an essential practice to offer food to gods. One Hindu writes: “There is no Hindu festival or worship without offering food to God first. It could be kheer or sweetened rice or fruits or whatever or it could even be meat as in some tribal and rural communities” (see link). The Encyclopaedia Britannica says under Prasada: “It is believed that the deity (i.e. the god) partakes of and then returns the offering, thereby consecrating it. The offering is then distributed and eaten by the worshippers. The efficacy of the prasada comes from its having been touched by the deity” (see link). A website about Hinduism says: “It is a common practice in Hinduism / Hindu Dharma to offer food to the Deities during ritualistic worship or puja at home or temples. … every Deity has some favourite food item which is offered to Him” (see link). A Hindu educational website says: “The food offering ceremony is an important custom of Hinduism. The priests serving in the temple offer it three times a day to the deities. … It is believed that offering food to the Lord shall ensure that all the living beings remain free of hunger and starvation” (this link).

Of course, everyone can see that the God to whom the food is offered does not consume it, and it remains in its entirety for people to consume. So the priests have to give explanations about how the offering works. For example, they say that the flavour and aroma of the food, rising up, reaches God, or that He is simply pleased at being honoured by the offer, and blesses it for you to consume.

Now the Quran tells us about God:

“He feeds and is not fed” (6:14).

God Himself says about humans:

“I desire no sustenance from them, nor do I desire that they should feed Me. Surely Allah is the Provider of sustenance, the Lord of Power, the Strong” (51:57–58).

And about the sacrifice of animals at the Hajj and Eid-ul-Adha, it says:

“Not their flesh, nor their blood, reaches Allah, but to Him is acceptable the observance of duty on your part” (22:37).

So how can there possibly be a connection between what the Quran says here and the Hindu fundamental practice of offering food to God? The Quran describes the righteous as follows:

“And they give food, out of love for Him (i.e. Allah), to the poor and the orphan and the captive, (saying to them) We feed you, for Allah’s pleasure only — we desire from you neither reward nor thanks” (76:8–9).

This suggests that the Hindu concept of feeding God may have been a misunderstanding of this kind of teaching. Perhaps, in the distant past, long before Islam, a prophet arising in India might have given a teaching like what is stated in the Quran: that you should feed the destitute out of your love for God and for seeking God’s pleasure. In the course of time, people and their priests began to take these words literally. So they started this practice of putting food in front of an image of God, indicating that they are seeking His pleasure by distributing the food, and doing it out of love for Him.

I may mention an interesting point here about the words “We feed you, for Allah’s pleasure only”. The word translated as “pleasure” is wajh, which also means “face”. Several translators of the Quran into English translate these words as: “We feed you only for the Face of God”. Those translators mean that the person doing the good deed of feeding will go to paradise, and one of the highest blessings of paradise is said to be that the righteous will see God face-to-face. We may speculate that perhaps some ancient prophet in India taught that you should feed people “only for the Face of God”, but it later got misconstrued as meaning that the food should first be presented to the face of God by placing it in front of an idol which represents God.

Interestingly, there is a hadith in Sahih Muslim that on the day of Judgment Allah will say to a person:

“O son of Adam, I asked you for food but you did not feed Me.”

The person will reply:

“My Lord, How could I feed You when You are the Lord of the worlds?” Allah will reply: “Didn’t you know that such and such a servant of Mine asked you for food but you did not feed him? Didn’t you know that if you had fed him, you would have found him alongside Me?” (hadith 2569)

No Muslim takes this literally to mean that if he feeds a deserving, hungry person, then he will find Allah sitting next to that person. The meaning is that if you feed a hungry person, you will achieve closeness to God, as if He is sitting there while you provide that person with food. In this hadith, God identifies Himself with the hungry person and says that that person asking for food is like God asking for food. It is possible that the same teaching was given in the Hindu religion originally, but later it was misunderstood to mean that you must offer food to God before offering it to people.

I have only quoted a part of this hadith. In full, it begins by saying that Allah with say to a person: “O son of Adam, I was ill and you did not visit Me.” He will reply: “My Lord, How could I visit You when You are the Lord of the worlds?” Allah will reply: “Didn’t you know that such and such a servant of Mine was ill but you did not visit him? Didn’t you know that if you had visited him, you would have found Me alongside him?”

After this, it mentions the person asking for food, as I quoted above. After that, it is similarly mentioned: “O son of Adam, I asked you for water to drink but you did not give it to Me.” Again, he will reply: “My Lord, How could I give You water to drink when You are the Lord of the worlds?” This time also, Allah will reply: “Such and such a servant of Mine asked you for water to drink but you did not give it to him. If you had given him water to drink, you would have found him alongside Me.”

So Allah identifies Himself with the sick and the thirsty and places Himself alongside them. If you meet their needs, it is as if you are meeting Allah’s needs. But as the Quran tells us repeatedly, Allah is above all needs that humans, or any of His other creation, can provide. It says: “And whoever strives hard, strives for himself. Surely Allah is above need of (His) creatures” (29:6). Allah is اِنَّ اللّٰہَ لَغَنِیٌّ عَنِ الۡعٰلَمِیۡنَ . He is not dependent on you for any need. In fact, even the hungry, thirsty and ill are actually not dependent on you because Allah has other ways of meeting their needs. What you are doing for them is for your own self-improvement.

Like this hadith which I have read out, there is a similar statement made by Jesus in the Gospels, but it is put in a different way. Jesus said that on the Day of Judgment people will be divided into two groups: sheep and goats. The sheep are the righteous ones and the goats are the wicked ones. Then, said Jesus, “the King” will pass His judgment on them. Christians claim that by “King” is meant Jesus, but we may take it to be God. The King will first address the righteous, telling them that they have inherited paradise. The reason for this, the King will say, is this:

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was ill and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew, 25:35–36).

The righteous will be surprised and they will ask: “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison and go to visit you?” (vv. 37–39). The King will reply:

“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

The description “one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” refers to the ordinary people. The King, or God, will say: whatever you did for the most ordinary of people, you did it for me.

In the same way, this King will address the wicked and say that they are being sent to the fire of hell because: “For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, … etc.” The wicked will ask the same question: “when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or ill or in prison, and did not help you?”. This King will reply: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” It is then added: “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (See Matthew, 25:40–46.)

I have given examples here from two religions: the Hindu and the Christian religions. These show that even those beliefs and practices of other religions which appear to us Muslims as being wrong have originated from some true and correct teaching which later became misunderstood and distorted. We should not simply dismiss these beliefs and practices as being totally baseless, and in many cases, as being ridiculous and laughable, but try to see what aspect of them agrees with Islam.

May Allah enable us to study and ponder on these matters, and to correct others by showing them where they are right and where they have drifted away from what is right — ameen.