Aishah reports: “God’s Messenger did not have his fill of bread made of barley on two consecutive days until his death.” (Related by Muslim, Ahmad, Al-Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah.) This Hadith describes a life of real poverty. Bread is the basic food in all communities, and it is cheap to provide. Eaten on its own, it is sufficient to quell the pangs of hunger. All languages speak of bread as the basic food whose absence signifies extreme poverty and starvation.
Bread is baked with different types of cereals in different communities, but one of the cheapest is barley bread. It is definitely cheaper than that made of wheat or even corn. Yet in this Hadith we are told that the Prophet did not have even barley bread available on any two consecutive days in his life. When we remember that he could have had endless riches, had he so wished, we realize that this was his choice so as to provide a practical example for his followers.
The Prophet’s preference for a life of poverty gives us the right perspective in looking at this world’s riches.
Moreover, the fact that the Prophet did not have his tummy’s fill of bread on any two consecutive days confirms the Hadith we related earlier on the authority of Abu Umamah who quotes the Prophet as saying: “God has offered me to give me the wide plain of Makkah in gold, but I said: ‘No. I would rather have enough to eat one day and remain hungry one day. Thus, when I am hungry I would turn to You in earnest supplication and remember You; and when I have my fill, I praise You and give thanks.” (Related by Al-Bukhari and Ahmad.)
Indeed, we see that this Hadith was practically implemented, with the Prophet not having his fill on any two consecutive days.
But this was not deliberate in the sense that the food was available but not eaten. Had the food been there, the Prophet would not have chosen to go hungry. To do so is wrong. This is confirmed by this Hadith which quotes Al-Nu’man ibn Basheer, a companion of the Prophet, as he said to people: “Are you not having all that you wish of food and drink? I saw your Prophet (peace be upon him) when he could not find his stomach’s fill of even low quality dates.” (Related by Muslim, Ahmad and Al-Tirmidhi.) This is, then, a clear explanation that the Prophet’s poverty was not self-imposed, even though he preferred not to be rich. His preference is clearly stated, with the purpose of appreciating God’s blessings as they should be appreciated. This means that those of us who are given plenty should use what they are given in ways that bring them closer to God. They should always be willing to help the poor and those who are in need. On the other hand, if one is poor, one should remember that the Prophet lived a life of poverty.
We should always realize that whatever hardship we may have to endure could be made worse, and whatever comfort or pleasure may be available to us can easily disappear and our situation may change completely, from one extreme to another. Therefore, we should always praise God and thank Him for the good things He has given us, which are plentiful even when we go through very difficult periods.
The Prophet’s poverty is confirmed in many Hadiths reported by several of his companions. Ibn Abbas, the Prophet’s cousin, says: “God’s Messenger used to go through several nights without having any dinner, and members of his household may not find anything to eat for dinner. The bread they had most frequently was barley bread.” This is confirmed by a Hadith reported by Aishah, the Prophet’s wife who says: “We might go through a whole month without a fire being lit for cooking. We subsisted on water and dates only. However, may God richly reward those women from the Ansar who might have sent us some milk as a gift.” (Related by Al-Bukhari, Ahmad, Al-Shafi’ie and Ibn Majah.)
It must be re-emphasized that had the Prophet been able to provide better for his family, he would not have denied them that. Islam does not look with contempt on wealth, comforts or worldly pleasures, provided that these conform to its principles of what is lawful and what is forbidden. To enjoy the best that one can have is perfectly legitimate. The Prophet simply was content to live a life of poverty so as to better appreciate the blessings God had given him.
The Prophet’s companions were aware of this situation. Most of them were poor and could hardly provide for their families. Abu Talhah reports: “We complained to God’s Messenger of hunger, and we lifted out robes to show him that everyone of us was tying a stone over his belly. The Prophet lifted his robe and we saw that he had tied two stones over his belly.” (Related by Al-Tirmidhi and Ibn Hibban.) This report means that this took place in a particularly hard period when hunger was commonplace among the Prophet’s companions.
They resorted to this crude method of silencing their hunger, placing a stone over their stomachs and wrapping it. The Prophet apparently was more hungry and could not find anything to eat. Wrapping one stone over his stomach was not sufficient, so he wrapped two.
The Prophet’s companions who witnessed this wanted later generations to appreciate what he and his community went through in those early days of Islam. Thus, we see Abu Hurayrah passing by a group of people who gathered to eat. They had a roasted lamb placed before them. They invited him to share their dinner, but he declined. He said to them: “God’s Messenger spent his whole life and passed away without ever having his fill of barley bread.” Compared with what the Prophet used to have, having a whole lamb roasted and placed before the people to eat is certainly very luxurious. There is no harm in that, but the people who can afford such meals are usually well off, if not affluent. They must remember that they have to pay zakah and to look after their relatives and friends who are less fortunate.