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

How Islam Addresses Challenges of Food Security

Al-Hafiz Yunus Omotayo, Nigeria

In Somalia, Suray misses her children. She took all seven of them on a two-week trek to Baidon in a desperate search for food, but one by one they weakened and died; the last one, a baby, she was breastfeeding. Kind villagers helped her dig a shallow grave in the hard ground. “I was not in my senses anymore,” she says. “I was lost in grief. I don’t even know how I got here.” [1]

The disturbing fact is around the globe, millions of people face the same fate – hunger, malnutrition, starvation, and death. Approximately 9 million people die every year of hunger and hunger-related diseases. This is more than death from AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. A child dies from hunger every 10 seconds. Poor nutrition and hunger are responsible for the death of 3.1 million children a year; that is nearly half of all deaths in children under the age of five worldwide. [2]

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? Islam offers practical approaches and measures to addressing the challenges of food security. This piece sets about to examine all this.

Hunger – Meaning, Causes and Global Fatalities 

According to the United Nations’ 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.[3] 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. [4]

Well into the 21st century, hunger has continued as one of the gravest health crises worldwide. And there is tendency for it to become worse, most particularly now that the world begins to face the effects of Covid-19. In fact, restrictions on movement have already begun to affect the incomes of the vulnerable, disallowing food from getting to those who need it, which is causing millions of people globally to miss meals and snacks. Also, hindering the delivery of seeds and farming tools to farmers in many countries implies the possibility that this global hunger pandemic could grow and threaten the lives of 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. [5]

It is noteworthy that, in 1990, the United Nations set the development goal to halve the number of people suffering from hunger. However, while global hunger was reduced by 2 billion people between 1990 and 2015, a 2019 UN report indicates that the number has been rising in the last three years [6] – from 784 million in 2015 to 804 million in 2016; 821 million in 2017, and 822 million in 2018. Similarly, the number of the undernourished has also been increasing – 10.6% in 2015; 10.7% in 2016; 10.8% in 2017, and 10.8% in 2018. Of the 822 million undernourished in 2018, 113 million face acute hunger. [7]

In Nigeria, 27% of families experience foodless days. In India, it is 24%; and in Peru, 14%. [8] One in every nine people go to bed hungry each night, including 20 million people currently at risk of famine in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria. 98% of the world’s hungry live in developing regions. The highest number of malnourished people – 520 million – live in Asia and the Pacific. In sub-Saharan Africa, 243 million people face hunger in arid countries. And millions of people in Latin America and the Caribbean are struggling to find enough to eat. [9] “Even in England and the United States of America,” observed Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad (rh), the fourth worldwide Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, “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. [10]

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. [11]

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?  As many food experts would maintain, the straightforward answers are that families in the hungriest countries 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. [12] Furthermore, bad governance and inaccessibility of food also constitute some of the challenges.

How Islam Addresses the Challenges of Food Security

As a universal religion, Islam recognises the necessity of sustainable food security for all mankind. In this context, Islam proffers the following approaches and measures towards ensuring that humanity secures food, particularly for the most vulnerable – the needy and 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.’ (The Holy Qur’an, 41:11).

Commenting on the above verse in his Qur’anic exegesis, Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad (ra) expounds: ‘The words, “provided its food in proper measure,” signify that the earth is fully capable of 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 fertiliser and water use), lowered post-harvest 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 mobilisation 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 devise mechanisms 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 occur all along the food chain, from field to fork. Reducing food loss and waste by 25% by 2050 would close the food gap(*) by 12%, the land gap(**) by 27% and the GHG mitigation gap(***) by 15%. 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.’ (The Holy Qur’an, 20:119-120) 

In his book Islam’s Response to Contemporary Issues, Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad (rh) 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…..is to fully participate in pooling resources to meet the challenges of wide-scale 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 do not have steady access to it. [18] In this context, it is therefore the responsibility of governments to put in place social security, infrastructure and systems 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. For example, the penalty for breaking of oath is feeding ten poor persons with such average food as they feed their own families (The Holy 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 quadruple of poor persons as expiation (The Holy Qur’an, 5:96). More so, while fasting in Ramadan is compulsory, it is prescribed for those who are unable to fast to feed the poor for the 30 days of fasting (The Holy 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 (The Holy Qur’an, 58:5). All this is calculated to alleviate the challenge of hunger of the downtrodden in society.

Institutionalisation of Capital Levy (Zakat)

To achieve a sustainable social security for the vulnerable sections of society – which will in turn ensure their purchasing power, and consequently facilitate their food security – Islam mandates payment of alms by the haves to cater for the haves-not (The Holy 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.’ (The Holy Qur’an, 9:60)

Encouraging Scientific Research into Agriculture

Another way Islam addresses challenges of food security is through encouraging scientific research into agriculture. This is deducible from the following Qur’anic imperative: 

‘Now let man look at his food: how we pour down water in abundance, then We cleave the earth – a proper cleaving – then We cause to grow therein grain, and grapes and vegetables, and the olive and the date-palm, and walled gardens thickly planted, and fruits and herbage. Provision for you and your cattle.’ (The Holy Qur’an, 80:25-33) 

Aside from its literal denotation, the word ‘look’ (as used in the verse and in similar verses: Qur’an, 86:6; 88:18-21) also implies an imperative to mankind to take a scientific look or conduct research into food production to maximise productivity. The above verses beautifully highlight such related areas of research which broadly range from plant and soil sciences to rainfall conditions and water management (irrigation etc.); production practices (tillage etc.); crop cultivation systems (shifting and annual systems etc.) and categories of food crops, among others.

Of course, such a continuous study of the laws of nature (science) and its application (technology) to food production are keys to achieving high agricultural outputs. According to a report by the International Food Policy Research Institute, agricultural technologies will have the greatest impact on food production if adopted in combination with each other. Using a model that assessed how eleven technologies could impact agricultural productivity, food security and trade by 2050, the International Food Research Institute found that the number of people at risk from hunger could be reduced by as much as 40% and food prices could be reduced by almost half. [19]

General Exhortations on Feeding of the Poor

The Holy Qur’an emphatically declares that anyone, particularly a Muslim who 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’ (The Holy Quran, 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.’ (The Holy Quran, 90:11-17) 

In his book, The Economic System of Islam, Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad (ra) 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 feel 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.’ [20]

The Qur’an 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.’ (The Holy Quran, 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 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…’ (The Holy Qur’an, 74:40-45)

In the Ahadith [sayings of the Holy Prophet (sa)], it is reported that the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa) emphatically declared that, “Such a person is not a believer who passed the night with filled stomach while his close neighbour remained hungry.” [21] In the perspective of the Holy Prophet (sa), the best of Islam is ‘that you give food and express the greetings of peace upon the one known or unknown to you!’ [22]

About the author: Al-Hafiz Yunus Omotayo is an Imam of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Nigeria, and Chairman of the Muslim Writers Guild of Nigeria, and a news correspondent to the Truth Newspaper, Nigeria.

*The food gap – the difference between the amount of food produced in 2010 and the amount necessary to meet likely demand in 2050. We estimate this gap to be 7,4000 trillion calories, or 56 percent more crop calories than were produced in 2010.

**The land gap – the difference between global agricultural land area in 2010 and area required in 2050 even if crop and pasture yields continue to grow at past rates. We estimate this gap to be 593 million hectares (Mha), an area nearly twice the size of India.

***The GHG mitigation gap – the difference between the annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions likely from agriculture and land-use change in 2050, which we estimate to be 15 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent (Gt CO2e), and a target of 4 Gt that represents agriculture’s proportional contribution to holding global warming below 2oC above pre-industrial temperatures. We therefore estimate this gap to be 11 Gt. Holding warming below a 1.5oC increase would require meeting the 4 Gt target plus reforming hundreds of millions of hectares of liberated agricultural land. [23]


  1. Facing Famine: Battling Hunger with Hope in East Africa – World Vision https://www.worldvision.org/hunger-news-stories/facing-famine-hunger-hope-east-africa – retrieved 10th July, 2020.
  2. How Many People Die From Hunger Each Year? – TheWorldCounts https://www.theworldcounts.com/challenges/people-and-poverty/hunger-and-obesity/how-many-people-die-from-hunger-each-year – retrieved 6 June, 2020.
  3. FAO Statistical Yearbook 2012: Part 2 Hunger Dimensions, (PDF) FAO 2012 – retrieved 8 June, 2020.
  4. Hunger, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hunger?wprov=sfla1 – retrieved 8 June, 2020.
  5. Global Hunger Facts – What You Need to Know | Mercy Corps https://www.mercycorps.org/blog/quick-facts-global-hunger.
  6. Ibid.
  7. How Many People Die From Hunger Each Year? – TheWorldCounts Global Hunger Facts, Op. Cit.
  8. Global Food Security: 10 Challenges – The Globalist https://www.theglobalist.com/global-food-security-10-challenges/ – retrieved 8 June, 2020.
  9. Global Hunger Facts – What You Need to Know | Mercy Corps, Op. Cit.
  10. Ahmad, Mirza Tahir, Islam’s Response to Contemporary Issues, (1997), Islam International Publications Ltd., UK, p.211.
  11. Global Hunger Facts – What You Need to Know | Mercy Corps, Op. Cit.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Global Hunger Facts – What You Need to Know | Mercy Corps, Op. Cit.
  14. Ahmad, Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud, The Holy Qur’an, English Translation and Commentary, [2008], Nazarat Nashro Ishaat, India, vol. 4, pp. 2322-2323.
  15. How Many People Can the Earth Feed? on JSTOR https://www.jstor.org/stable/2137520?seq=1 – retrieved 8 June, 2020.
  16. How to Sustainably Feed 10 Billion People by 2050, in 21 Charts | World Resources Institute https://www.wri.org/blog/2018/12/how-sustainably-feed-10-billion-people-2050-21-charts.
  17. Ahmad, Mirza Tahir, Islam’s Response to Contemporary Issues, (1997), Islam International Publications Ltd., UK, pp. 212-213).
  18. Global Hunger Facts – What You Need to Know | Mercy Corps, Op. Cit.
  19. International Food Policy Research Institute (2014) Food Security in a World of Growing Natural Resources Scarcity. Croplife International. Archived from the original on 5 March 2014 – retrieved 1 July 2013.
  20. Ahmad, Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud, The Economic System of Islam, (2013), Islam International Publications Ltd., UK, pp. 25-26.
  21. Narrated by Abdullah bn Abbas and reported by al-Mustadrak of al-Hakim.
  22. Narrated by Abdullah bn Amr in Sahih al-Bukhari (Hadith no. 11) and Sahih Muslim (Hadith No. 56).
  23. Creating a Sustainable Food Future – A Menu of Solutions to Feed Nearly 10 Billion People by 2050, World Resources Institute, (2019), Executive Summary, p. 1.

1 Comment

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  • Thank you Hafidh sahib for this inspiring and challenging work on one of the critical world problems.

    Hunger is no friend of anyone. I hope our leaders and the well-to-do in the society can heed the priceless recommendations herein especially as it relates to feeding the poor.

    Jazak’Allah khairan.