Explained: Hadith about eating in one or seven intestines


Waqar Akbar Cheema


Ignorance of the idioms and expressions of classical Arabic will mislead interpreters who study the Qur’anic and Hadith Corpus. An example of such a misinterpretation is the literal exegesis of the hadith on the overeating of a disbeliever due to his “eating in seven intestines”. This paper answers the would-be empirical criticisms against this hadith by making clear that the hadith was referring to a single person and that it is indicative of the prescribed frugal nature of a believer vis-a-vis a disbeliever, and that it should not be interpreted generally or literally.

1. Introduction

It is imperative to have a fluent understanding of the idioms and expressions of a language in order to comprehend the real implications and significance of a discourse in that language. Obliviousness to this simple rule is what gives rise to misgivings about Islamic texts. An example of this is the hadith about overeating.

عن أبي هريرة رضي الله عنه، قال: قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم: «يأكل المسلم في معى واحد، والكافر يأكل في سبعة أمعاء»

Abu Hurairah narrated that Allah’s Messenger said, “A Muslim eats in one intestine while a Kafir [disbeliever] eats in seven intestines.”[1]

The issues raised against this hadith are that empirically a person has only one intestine and that the beliefs of a person have no effect on the involvement of intestines in the digestive system. Another version of the same hadith, it is said, highlights this problem even more.

عن أبي هريرة، أن رجلا كان يأكل أكلا كثيرا، فأسلم، فكان يأكل أكلا قليلا، فذكر ذلك للنبي صلى الله عليه وسلم فقال: «إن المؤمن يأكل في معى واحد، والكافر يأكل في سبعة أمعاء»

Narrated Abu Hurairah: A man used to eat much, but when he embraced Islam, he started eating less. That was mentioned to the Prophet (ﷺ) who then said, “A believer eats in one intestine and a disbeliever eats in seven intestines.”[2]

Moreover, even taking the possible metaphorical meanings, the assertion that believers eat less than disbelievers plainly contradicts regular observation.

2. Reference to One and Seven Intestines is a Metaphor

The phrase eating in one and seven intestines in the hadith is just a metaphor respectively signifying eating sparsely and excessively.

Ibn Athir al-Jazari (d. 606/1210) writes:

هو تمثيل لرضى المؤمن باليسير من الدنيا، وحرص الكافر على الكثير منها

It is a metaphor for the contentment of the believer on a little of this world and a disbeliever’s craving for an excess of it.[3]

Ibn Hajar (d. 852/1448)[4] and al-‘Ayni (d. 855/1451)[5] among others have mentioned the same.

And al-Qastalani (d. 923/1517) clarifies about the significance of the number seven in the narration.

وتخصيص السبعة قيل للمبالغة والتكثير كما في قوله تعالى: {والبحر يمدّه من بعده سبعة أبحر} [لقمان: 27]

The specification of seven is by way of hyperbole, showing excess as in the words of Allah, ‘And if whatever trees upon the earth were pens and the sea [was ink], replenished thereafter by seven [more] seas, the words of Allah would not be exhausted.’”(31:27)[6]

3. The Statement was Specific to Individual(s) and Event(s)

Various narrations give the context of a person taking much in the state of disbelief and then after accepting Islam being content with a little, and they actually help us understand the hadith better.

Abu Ja’far al-Tahawi (d. 321/933) explained this point in detail in his Sharh Mushkil al-Athar.[7] Al-Malati (d. 803/1400) summarized his argument in the following words:

فعلم أنه كان في رجل معين في حال كفره وإسلامه ويكون الحديث خرج مخرج المعرفة لم يتعد من قصد به إليه إلى من سواه ومنه قوله تعالى: {إِنَّ مَعَ الْعُسْرِ يُسْراً} فقيل: لا يغلب عسر يسرين لأن العسر معرفة فهي لواحد واليسر نكرة فهما غيران وكذا كل ما يجيء مجيء المعرفة إلا أن يكون فيه دلالة على الصد إلى ما هو أكثر كقوله تعالى: {وَالْعَصْرِ إِنَّ الْأِنْسَانَ لَفِي خُسْرٍ إِلَّا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا} فإن المراد به الجنس لا الإنسان الواحد وسمعت من ابن أبي عمران يقول: حمل قوم هذا الحديث على الرغبة في الدنيا كما يقال: فلان يأكل الدنيا أكلا أي يرغب فيها ويحرص عليها فالمؤمن لزهادته يأكل في معا واحد وهو قدر البلغة والكفار يزيد فيها لرغبته

This is about a specific person in his state of disbelief and in Islam. The hadith has a particular background and it does not go beyond that to anyone except the one intended. An example of this is the saying of the Almighty, “So, undoubtedly, along with the hardship there is ease. Undoubtedly, along with the hardship there is ease” (94:5-6). It has been said, “One hardship cannot overcome twofold ease.” Because the hardship is specific and it is singular and ease is mentioned as common noun and they are different in the two instances. And the same is true for whatever is mentioned as particular except when there is evidence that it is meant for more as in the words of Almighty, “Truly the man is in loss except those who believed…” (103:2). It means mankind and not a specific human. And I heard Ibn Abi ‘Imran saying, “A [group of] people have interpreted this hadith to mean desire for the world as it said, “So and so eats the world”, i.e., he desires it and craves for it excessively. And the believer for his austerity eats in one intestine.”[8]

Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr al-Qurtubi (d. 463/1071) says:

أن الإشارة بالألف (واللام) في الكافر والمؤمن في هذا الحديث إلى ذلك الرجل بعينه وإنما يحملنا على هذا التأويل، لأن المعاينة -وهي أصح علوم الحواس- تدفع أن يكون ذا عموما في كل كافر ومؤمن. ومعروف من كلام العرب الإتيان بلفظ العموم والمراد به الخصوص ألا ترى إلى قول الله عز وجل الذين قال لهم الناس إن الناس قد جمعوا لكم وهذه الإشارة في الناس إنما هي إلى رجل واحد أخبر أصحاب محمد صلى الله عليه وسلم أن قريشا جمعت لهم وجاء اللفظ كما ترى على العموم … ومثل هذا كثير لا يجهله إلا من لا عناية له بالعلم

The article “al” attached with the words “kafir” [disbeliever] and “mu’min” [believer] in this hadith points out that it is specific to a particular individual and we go for this interpretation because observation, the most reliable of the physical senses, dispels the idea about the hadith being general about every believer and disbeliever.  It is common in the speech of the Arabs to use general wording and meaning the specific thereby. Do you not see the Word of Allah, “Those to whom people said, the people have gathered against you”; here the word people refers to an individual (i.e. Nu’aym bin Masood al-Ashja’i) who informed the companions of Prophet Muhammad, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, that the Quraysh had gathered against them, yet the word used, as you see, is general… examples of this kind are numerous and only the one without any knowledge is ignorant of it.[9]

4. Companions used it as an Idiom to Condemn Overeating

The companions used the words of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) uttered in this specific context as an idiom to show their disgust for overeating.

عن عمرو، قال: كان أبو نهيك رجلا أكولا، فقال له ابن عمر: إن رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم قال: «إن الكافر يأكل في سبعة أمعاء» فقال: فأنا أومن بالله ورسوله

Narrated ‘Amr: Abu Nahik was an avaricious eater. Ibn ‘Umar said to him, “Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) said, “A Kafir [disbeliever] eats in seven intestines.” On that Abu Nahik said, “But I believe in Allah and His Messenger.”[10]

Here we see that Ibn ‘Umar said it to a Muslim who used to eat avariciously which shows that he considered it only as an idiom to suggest that eating excessively was a habit of disbelievers and not befitting a true believer. [11] Another example of an actual happening used also as an idiom is about creation of woman from a crooked rib.

5. Overeating is Disliked in Islam

To understand the hadith fully one needs to know that overeating is disliked in Islam.

Allah Almighty says in the Qur’an:

وَالَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا يَتَمَتَّعُونَ وَيَأْكُلُونَ كَمَا تَأْكُلُ الْأَنْعَامُ وَالنَّارُ مَثْوًى لَهُمْ

But those who disbelieve enjoy themselves and eat as grazing livestock eat, and the Fire will be a residence for them. (Qur’an 47:12)

And we find the same theme in the narrations of the Prophet (ﷺ). For instance:

عن مقدام بن معد يكرب، يقول: سمعت رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم يقول: «ما ملأ آدمي وعاء شرا من بطن، حسب الآدمي، لقيمات يقمن صلبه، فإن غلبت الآدمي نفسه، فثلث للطعام، وثلث للشراب، وثلث للنفس»

Miqdam bin Ma’dikarib said: “I heard the Messenger of Allah say: “A human being fills no worse a vessel than his stomach. It is sufficient for a human being to eat a few mouthfuls to keep his spine straight. But if he must [fill it] then one third for food, one third for drink and one third for air.”[12]

6. A Believer Eating Excessively does not Contradict this Hadith

This, however, does not mean a believer does not or cannot ever eat more than a disbeliever. It is true that overeating is disliked and condemned in Islam but doing so does not take one out of the pale of Islam. Moreover, it is possible that at particular times a believer or someone not habitually avaricious in eating consumes a lot. This may be due to extreme hunger or weakness. This is not condemned.

Therefore, we maintain that Muslims eating excessively does not contradict the hadith in question. It only shows their weakness in falling into gluttony and failing to keep up with Islamic etiquettes.

7. Summary and Conclusion

– Eating in one or seven intestines is a figure of speech suggesting little or excessive eating.
– The mention of the number seven is only to signify excess as it is common in Arabic.
– The statement was originally made by the blessed Prophet (ﷺ) about a specific individual and cannot be generalized.
– Later, his companions used it in an idiomatic way.
– Overeating is disliked in Islam.
– A believer eating excessively shows his weakness but it does not contradict the hadith.


Notes & References:

[1] al-Bukhari, al-Sahih, Translated by Muhammad Muhsin Khan (Riyadh: Maktabat Dar-us-Salam, 1997) Hadith 5396

[2] Ibid, Hadith 5397

[3] al-Jazari, Ibn Athir, Jami’ al-Usool fi Ahadith ar-Rasool, (Damascus: Maktaba Al-Halwani, 1971) Vol.7, 406

[4] al-‘Asqalani, Ibn Hajar, Fathal-Bari, (Beirut: Dar al-Ma’rifah, 1367 AH) Vol.9, 538

[5] al-‘Ayni, Badr Al-Din, ‘Umdat al-Qari Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari, (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ at-Turath al-‘Arabi, n.d.) Vol.21, 41

[6] al-Qastalani, Ahmad bin Muhammad. Irshad al-Sari, (Cairo: Matba’ Al-Kubra Al-Amiriya, 1323 AH) Vol.8, 29

[7] al-Tahawi, Abu Ja’far, Sharh Mushkil al-Athar, (Beirut: Al-Risalah Publications, 1994) Vol.5, 258

[8] al-Malati, Jamal ad-Din Yusuf. Al-Mu’tasar min al-Mukhtasar min Mushkil al-Athar, (Beirut: ‘Alam Al-Kitab, n.d.) Vol.2, 221

[9] al-Qurtubi, Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr. Al-Tamhid lima fi Muwatta’ min al-Ma’ani wa al-Asanid, (Morocco: Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs, 1387 AH) Vol.21, 265-266

[10] al-Bukhari. al-Sahih, Hadith 5395

[11] al-Baji, Abu Walid. Al-Muntaqa Sharh al-Muwatta, (Cairo: Darul Kitab Al-Islami, 1332 A.H) Vol.7, 235

[12] Ibn Majah, Muhammad bin Yazid, Al-Sunan, Translated by Nasiruddin al-Khattab (Riyadh: Maktabat Dar-us-Salam, 2007) Hadith 3349

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