Caring for Hungry Humanity – How Islam Addresses Challenges of Sustainable Food Security


An untold pathetic story that has continued to linger on in my memory occurred over a decade ago during my times in the villages and towns situated in the east of Kogi State, Nigeria, preaching the message of peace to the people as an Islamic Missionary. It was a case of a young lady who became pregnant from a premarital relation she had with a poor man. She had no option than to courageously bear the pregnancy through nine months of hunger and malnutrition.

The worst, however, was to happen on the day of her delivery. Though she had been lucky to have a safe and successful child delivery experience; but, the joy was not to last long. Just few moments following the delivery, while still lying on bed in the labour room, her cry from the pangs of child-birth was quickly sequenced by that of the agony of hunger as she cried out in her Igala language: Ebi a pu’mi (I’m hungry). Me du ujeun mi agba (give me food, please)! Unfortunately, as loud as her cry of anguish vibrated, it could not draw food from the poor father of her baby; neither could it get from her or his families, nor from even the people around her at the clinic. Consequently, the poor girl gave up the ghost!

The disturbing fact is, from the continent of Africa, to Asia, South America and the rest continents that lie beyond, millions of similar cases are occurring round the year in a global world populated by millions of acutely hungry humanity. Specifically, around 9 million people die every year of hunger and hunger-related diseases. This is more than from AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. A child dies from hunger every 10 seconds. Poor nutrition and hunger is responsible for the death of 3.1 million children a year. That’s nearly half of all deaths in children under the age of 5. The children die because their bodies lack basic nutrients. (1)

What is hunger and who is hungry? Why are people hungry?  How fatal are the effects of hunger in the world? What are the challenges militating against food security in the world? What approaches and measures does Islam offer mankind in the bid to address the challenges of food security for the hungry world? This piece sets about to examine all this.

Hunger – Meaning, Causes and Global Fatalities

According to United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and preferences for an active and healthy life. Undernourishment or hunger exists when caloric intake is below the minimum dietary energy requirement (MDER). The MDER is the amount of energy needed to perform light activity and to maintain a minimum acceptable weight for attained height.(2) In politics, humanitarian aid, and social science, hunger is a condition in which a person, for a sustained period, is unable to eat sufficient food to meet a basic nutritional needs. (3)

Well into the 21st century, hunger pandemic has continued as the gravest health crisis worldwide. And there is tendency for it to become worse, most particularly, now that the world begins to face the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, especially, the agronomic backdrops. In fact, as restrictions on movement already devastating the incomes of the vulnerable, disallowing food from getting to those who need it or they getting to where food is, making over 368 million of global children to miss meals and snacks because schools have been shut down, and hindering the delivery of seeds and farming tools to farmers in many countries, there is possibility that the global hunger pandemic would grow and threaten the lives of the more vulnerable sections of our global human family.  Altogether, an estimated 265 million people could be pushed to the brink of starvation by the end of 2020. (4)

Though, earlier, about 2 billion people have been freed from hunger since 1990, when the United Nations set the development goal to halve the number of people suffering from hunger by 2015. However, in 2019, the United Nations reported that after nearly ten years of progress, the past three years have seen an increase in the number of people suffering from hunger. (5)

It is regrettable that, while global hunger statistics had earlier showed progress, in recent years, the positive development has stopped.  Particularly, since 2015, we have seen an increase in hungry people globally every year: 2015: 784 million; 2016: 804 million; 2017: 821 million; and 2018: 822 million. Globally, 822 million people suffer from undernourishment. More so, the statistics of undernourishment people in the world has also seen an increase: 2015: 10.6%; 2016: 10.7%; 2017: 10.8%; and 2018: 10.8%. It is also important to note that, of the 822 million undernourished people in the world, 113 million face acute hunger, meaning they are in urgent need of food and nutrients. (6)

Furthermore, in Nigeria, 27% of families experience foodless days. In India, it is 24%; in Peru, 14%.(7) One in every nine people goes to bed hungry each night, including 20 million people currently at risk of famine in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria. Ninety-eight percent of the world’s hungry live in developing regions. The highest number of malnourished people, 520 million, lives in Asia and the Pacific, in countries like Indonesia and the Philippines. In sub-Saharan Africa, 243 million people face hunger in arid countries like Ethiopia, Niger and Mali. And millions of people in Latin America and the Caribbean are struggling to find enough to eat, in places like Guatemala and Haiti. (8) “Even in England and the United States of America”, observes Hadhrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad (rt), “There are hundreds of thousands of people without shelter and those who have to dip into dustbins to find some scrap of food to satiate their hunger.” (9)

Hunger is a perilous cycle that passes from one generation to the next: Families who struggle with chronic hunger and malnutrition consistently go without the nutrients their minds and bodies need, which then prevents them from being able to perform their best at work, school, or to improve their lives. People suffering from chronic hunger are plagued with recurring illnesses, developmental disabilities and low productivity. They are often forced to use all their limited physical and financial resources just to put food on the table. (10)

Challenges of Food Security

Why are millions of people finding it difficult to secure food to eat and beat both the “apparent” and “hidden” types of hunger – starvation and malnutrition?  The straightforward answers are, as many food experts would maintain, in the hungriest countries, families struggle to get the food they need because of several issues: lack of infrastructure, frequent war and displacement, natural disaster, climate change, chronic poverty and lack of purchasing power. More so, there is the challenge of food wastage. In fact, up to one-third of the food produced around the world is never consumed. Some of the factors responsible for food losses include inefficient farming techniques, lack of post-harvest storage and management resources, and broken or inefficient supply chains. (11)

More so, bad governance and inaccessibility of food also constitute some of the challenges. Furthermore, people living in poverty — less than $1.25 USD per day — struggle to afford safe, nutritious food to feed themselves and their families. As they grow hungrier they become weak, prone to illness and less productive, making it difficult to work. If they’re farmers, they can’t afford the tools, seeds and fertilizer they need to increase their production, let alone have the strength to perform laborious work. The limited income also means they often can’t afford to send their children to school or they pull them out to work to help support the family. Even if children are lucky enough to go to class, their malnourishment prevents them from learning to their fullest. (12)

How Islam Addresses the Challenges of Food Security

As a global religion of life, Islam recognizes the necessity of sustainable food security for all mankind to enable them eat to live healthily, actively and productively. In this context, Islam proffers the following approaches and measures towards ensuring that humanity secure food, particularly, for the most vulnerable – the needy, the poor.

Assurance of Earth’s Capability of Maximum Food for Humanity

The world’s population is projected to rise to around 10 billion by 2050 — up from more than 7 billion today. That means there will be over 2 billion more people who need food by 2050. Making sure there’s enough for everyone to eat will be an increasing concern as the population multiplies. (13)

However, regarding the above concern, the Qur’anic declaration of earth’s capability to afford maximum food for humanity is preeminently reassuring. Allah says: “He placed therein firm mountains rising above its surface, and blessed it with abundance, and provided therein its food in proper measure in four days – alike for all seekers.” (Qur’an, HA MIM Al-Sajdah, 41:11).

Commenting on the above verse in his Qur’anic exegesis, Hadhrat Mirza Bashirudeen Mahmud Ahmad (ra) expounds: ‘The words, “provided its food in proper measure,” signify that the earth is fully capable pf providing food for all the creatures that live on it. The expression, “Alike for all seekers” may signify that the foods which God has provided in the earth are equally accessible to all seekers who try to get them according to the laws of nature. It may also mean that all the physical needs and requirements of man have been adequately met in the foods that grow out of earth. So the fear that the earth may not someday be able to grow sufficient food for the fast increasing population of the world is groundless.’ He concluded with a quote from Professor Colin Clark, Director of the Agriculture Economics Research Institute of Oxford University, who forecast that, “The world can provide food, fibre and all other agricultural requirements for 28 billion people.” (14)

Our earth can feed 28 billion people! This reassurance is further accentuated when read in the light of the following expert projection documented in a journal article titled, How Many People can the Earth Feed: “A combination of improved agronomic practices (above all, higher efficiencies of fertilizer and water use), lowered postharvest waste, and healthier eating (mainly reduction of fat intake) could provide adequate nutrition for an additional 3 billion people without any increase in existing inputs. Furthermore, realistic mobilization of new productive inputs could secure enough food for yet another 2 billion people. Consequently, there appear to be no insurmountable obstacles to feeding the global population of about 10 billion people expected by the end of the middle of the twenty-first century. (15)

Various governments must continue to device mechanism to reduce food loss and waste. In a food research article published by World Resources Institute, the writers maintained that, approximately, one-quarter of food produced for human consumption goes uneaten. Loss and waste occurs all along the food chain, from field to fork. Reducing food loss and waste by 25 percent by 2050 would close the food gap by 12 percent, the land gap by 27 percent and the GHG mitigation gap by 15 percent. Actions to take include measuring food waste, setting reduction targets, improving food storage in developing countries and streamlining expiration labels. (16)

Declaration of the Four Basic Amenities

The Qur’an declares: “It is provided for thee that thou wilt not hunger therein, nor wilt thou be naked. And that thou wilt not thirst therein, now wilt thou be exposed to the sun.” (Qur’an, TA HA, 20:119-120)

In his Islam’s Response to Contemporary Issues, Hadhrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad (rt) noted that ‘Islam establishes minimum rights in the form of four-point charter by defining the basic needs which a state should procure:  Food, clothing, water and shelter… Governments have both national and international responsibilities. These responsibilities on the national level are to fulfil the basic needs of each member of society by ensuring that all are fed adequately, clothed, and provided with water and shelter. The international duty… to fully participate in pooling resources to meet the challenges of widescale natural disasters or man-made calamities and to help such countries as are by themselves incapable of appropriately handling the crisis. As such, it is the duty of the state to set the matters aright by transferring back to the beggars and poor people what truly belongs to them. So the four fundamental requirements of food, clothing, water, and shelter, will have preference over all other considerations.’ (17)

It should be noted that many hungry people live in countries with food surpluses, not food shortages. The issue, largely, is that the people who need food the most simply don’t have steady access to it. (18) In this context, it is therefore the responsibility of governments to put in place social security, infrastructure and system that would facilitate food accessibility, particularly, for the poverty-stricken citizens.

Prescription of Feeding of the Poor as a Means of Expiation

Perhaps, among world religions, Islam has the distinction of adopting the prescription of feeding of the poor as a means of expiation of omissions and commissions by Muslims. For example, the penalty for breaking of oath is feeding of ten poor persons with such average food as they feed their families (Qur’an, 5:90). Similarly, a Muslim who is guilty of intentional killing of game in a state of pilgrimage faces the penalty of feeding a number of poor persons as expiation (Qur’an, 5:96). More so, while Ramadan fast is compulsory, it is prescribed upon those who have no capacity to fast to feed the poor for the 30 days of fast (Qur’an, 2:185). Furthermore, a Muslim guilty of Zihar (the pagan custom of calling one’s wife “mother” with a view to cease conjugal relations with her) will have to expiate by feeding sixty poor persons (Qur’an, 58:5), etc. All this is calculated to alleviate the challenge of hunger of the downtrodden in the society.

Institutionalization of Capital Levy (Zakat)

To achieve a sustainable social security for the vulnerable sections of the society which will, in turn, ensure their purchasing power, and consequently, facilitate their food security, Islam mandates payment of poor alms by the haves to cater for the haves-not (Qur’an, 24:57). The beneficiaries of this provision are also clearly stated: “The alms are only for the poor and the needy, and for those employed in connection therewith, and for those whose hearts are to be reconciled, and for the freeing of slaves, and for those in debt, and for the cause of Allah, and for the wayfarer – an ordinance from Allah. And Allah is All-knowing, Wise.” (Qur’an, 10:60)

General Exhortations on Feeding of the Poor

The Holy Qur’an emphatically declares that anyone, particularly, a Muslim that neglects or does not urge the feeding of the poor has rejected or denied the essence of religion, “Hast thou seen him who rejects religion? That is the one who drives away the orphan, and urges not the feeding of the poor” (Quran, al-Maun, 107:2-4).

The Holy Qur’an exhorts uplifting of the poor as a necessity for national progress and censures every well-to-do that refuses to channel his wealth towards this path of material and spiritual progress: “And We showed him two ascending paths of nobility. But he did not follow the path of ‘Aqabah’. And what should make you know what the ‘Aqabah’ is? It is the freeing of a slave, or feeding in a day of hunger, an orphan near of kin, or a poor man lying in the dust.” (Quran, al-Balad, 90:11-17) In his The Economic System of Islam, Hadhrat Mirza Bashirudeen Mahmud Ahmad noted on the foregoing verses that, “Feeding of an orphan, near of kin does not mean that one should only feed the orphan who is a relative….There are orphans who do not have relatives. These orphans are so helpless and friendless that at times even the most stonehearted of men would fell sympathy and feed them…The last part of the verse asks why ‘a poor man lying in the dust’ was not fed….However, God expects us to have such sympathy and love that we must seek out the helpless poor who do not even have the capacity to protest and beg at someone’s door…he remains hidden away in sickness and grief; he is friendless with no hope or energy left.” (19)

The Quran assures those who feed the poor of the Bliss of Paradise. It says: “And they feed, for love of Him, the poor, the orphan, and the prisoner, saying, ‘We feed you for Allah’s pleasure only. We desire neither reward nor thanks from you. So Allah will save them from the evil of that day, and will grant them cheerfulness and happiness.” (Quran, al-Insan, 76:9-12) On the other hand, about those who do not feed the poor, it presents a dramatic scenario that would unfold between them and the people of the right hand – dwellers of the Paradise – on the Day of Judgement: “Except those on the right hand. They will be in Gardens asking one another concerning the guilty ones. ‘What has brought you into the Fire of Hell? They will say, ‘We were not of those who offered Prayers, nor did we feed the poor….” (Quran, al-Muddaththir, 74:40-45)

In the canonical Traditions, it is reported that the Holy Prophet Muhammad (saw) emphatically declared that, “Such a person is not a believer who passed the night with filled stomach while his close neighbour remained hungry.(20) In the perspective of the Prophet of Islam (saw), the best of Islam is “that you give food and express the greetings of peace upon the one known or unknown to you!” (21)

Al-Hafiz Yunus Omotayo is a Missionary of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Nigeria, and Chairman, Muslim Writers Guild of Nigeria.