Serving the Guest

What was the first thought that occurred to Abraham, the heart of generosity, when angels came to visit?

There came unto Abraham Our heavenly messengers, bearing a glad tiding.
They bade him peace; and he answered, "And upon you be peace!" —
and made haste to place before them a roasted calf.
Abraham Entertaining the Angels, Rembrandt, 1656. Click for larger image.

With the offer of food these celestial strangers became guests, invited by Abraham to forge an intimate bond.

Muhammad declared to his companions that "whoever believes in Allah and the latter day should honor his guest." On the other side of the equation, he called on Muslims to accept each other's invitations whenever possible. He never looked down upon any food offered to him, but ate it whether he was hungry or not. He affirmed the truth of the proverb, "A guest is a gift of God."

Although the Qur'an does not stigmatize solitary dining — "All of you, O believers, are brethren... nor will you incur any sin by eating in company or separately" (24:61) — Muhammad himself strongly encouraged togetherness at mealtimes — "Eat together and do not eat separately, for blessing is with the company." He enjoined both virtues of moderation and generosity: "The food for two persons is sufficient for three, and the food of three persons is sufficient for four persons." In food there is baraka, or blessing power; and the more people partake of a meal, the more baraka is there in it. Diners were counseled by the eighth-century Imam Jafar al-Sadiq, "When you sit at the table with your brothers, sit long, for it is a time that is not counted against you as part of the ordained span of your lives."

The goal of every human life is the conscious embodiment of the attributes of God; the circumstances of everyday life — particularly those relating to fundamental human needs and social interaction — are the arena in which that embodiment may unfold. The Prophets themselves are human; their example reveals the manner by which the potential of humanity may be fulfilled, as humans reveal it to each other.

Abraham receiving the Three Strangers and Sarah in the tent. Illustration from Jami' al-Tawarikh of Rashid al-Din. Tabriz, 1314. Click for larger image.
And even before thee, O Muhammad, We never sent as Our message-bearers any but mortal men, who indeed ate food like other human beings and went about in the market places: for it is thus that We cause you human beings to be a means of testing one another.
The Prophet was a man like you
so that you might be drawn to one of your kind, and might not lose your way.
For homogeneity attracts: wherever there is a seeker,
one of his kind is attracting him.

Early Sufi teachers warned that the need for physical nourishment can be satisfied too easily in a manner that maintains the human being at an animalistic level.

The temptation of Adam was in eating, and this is also your temptation until the day of resurrection.
The propensity of hunger is of paramount importance to the living organism. The self is endowed with it in order to provide it with food. It is good as such. But when it exceeds its limits and becomes gluttony, it becomes the source of countless vices.

This need may also be satisfied in the awareness of God — the source and essence of all sustenance — in love and companionship.

"I can't escape feeding the family, I break my back to earn a lawful living!"
"You escape from God, but not from your food;
You escape from religion but not from your idols.
Who will say, "Allah created everything!
If I eat my bread without this knowledge, I will choke."
Alanquva and Her Three Sons, from the Chingiznama of Rashid ad-Din, India, 1596. Click for complete painting.
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