Beyond the Clinic:Health and Food Systems

Updated: Mar 19

“Did you think that We had created you in play (without any purpose) and that you would not be brought back to Us?” (Quran 23:115)

When I was a second-year, inexperienced resident learning the art of medicine in the United States, I had a challenging patient. His sugar levels were always uncontrolled in the clinic. At every visit, I had to increase his insulin to ungodly levels. One day, I just lost it with him and blurted, what are you doing? Why are your sugar levels so terribly controlled? I can’t keep treating you like this if you’re not going to take care of yourself! He paused, looked down, took a deep breath, and then told me: “Doc, I know, but what can I do? I have a fixed income, my social security. I live in a trailer. My wife was sick on and off this year and in and out of the hospital. The only place I can afford food is the food pantry, and all they have is bread. What else can I do?”

All the culture and life perspectives I had at that time changed instantly. I have never felt more ashamed of myself than in that moment, but I was also never more enlightened than I was than in that moment. For the first time, I truly understood a patient’s story and the importance of their story. My patient had diabetes, yes. He had a medical condition, yes. But his disease, and more importantly, his health, was so much more than the science of his blood sugars. His health was linked to his surroundings, environment, struggles, and pain. As physicians, we learn much about science, which is undeniably important. But, there was only so much I could do for my patient with science. His environment played a more significant role in his health than I ever could. For the first time, I truly saw what food insecurity looked like, not just what a textbook said.

Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves. (Qur’an, 13:11)

This incident opened my eyes. I witnessed the inequities in the healthcare system and how commercial interests drive many of our food decisions and behaviors. There are numerous social/commercial, and environmental determinants of health. The COVID-19 pandemic caused devastating impacts on the food system, with astronomical food insecurity worldwide. I also witnessed the sacred lands that were stolen and ancestral/indigenous/faith-based practices that were deliberately ignored for profit gains. But, what I didn’t anticipate learning from my patient was another dimension of health. At the end of our visit, after profusely apologizing, he tried to reassure me: “We’ll be alright. The Lord will look out for me.”

This patient of mine, and the countless that have passed on to the next life, each with their own unique story of joy and hardship, showed me how integral faith is to health. The Qur’an stresses the importance of pure food. Whenever the Qur’an mentions who a believer is, it’s very frequently joined with statements about those who eat good things that God has provided and who are grateful to Him. The Earth and all its resources are presented as blessings, not possessions. A believer is one who feeds the hungry, and not just with any food but pure, healthy food for which there are numerous examples.

My patient had an undeniable faith in God while living in a human-created system that was designed against him, and maybe that faith was the only thing that kept him going all those years. He helped me realize that it doesn’t have to be this way. We created this food system, so we can change it too.

Islam shows us what a food system could look like that is harmonious with health and our place in our environment: eating what is halal and pure, feeding the indigent and poor, avoiding waste. There is much wisdom in what the Qur’an prescribes, and science is consistent with that wisdom.

I increased my participation in IMANA (the Islamic Medical Association of North America), which focuses on direct medical relief worldwide. I wanted to integrate faith into my science career better where I could serve in this world but ultimately for the sake of Allah swt. At IMANA, we are committed to fighting climate change and its health impacts, including improving our food systems. We partnered with the Faith and Food Coalition to host dialogues with indigenous and faith actors on how to change our food behaviors and improve our food systems. By using Islam AND science, we can revolutionize how we produce, distribute, and consume healthy, equitable, and Earth/tradition-conscious food.

“Say: Travel through the Earth and deeply observe how God did originate the creation; then God produces the next creation; surely God has power over all things”

(Qur’an 29:19-20)

How to help:

Join IMANA’s initiative: email

For more information:

Islam and Food Systems: UN Environmental Programme Position Paper

Food as Medicine Collaborative

Health Care Without Harm

Feeding America and Food Pantries

Marium Husain, MD, MPH

The Ohio State University James Comprehensive Cancer Center, Hematology/Oncology Fellow

IMANA, President WAPPNA, President

Founder, Science Jummah

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