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Right to Food
Oct 1, 1993

More than a billion human beings on this planet are chronically hungry: every 24 hours some 40,000 die directly or indirectly from lack of food; a child starves to death every 2.5 seconds. In short, more people die every two years from hunger than were killed in the First and Second World Wars.

Yet, never before has the world produced more food per head of population. While there are places where huge numbers die because they have no crops or no money, there are other places (notably in the West) where the granaries are overflowing with all kinds of foods. While food is stockpiled in some areas, then dumped or wasted in huge quantities in order to maintain price levels, elsewhere, helpless mothers, starving and unable to produce milk, watch their babies die in their arms. Uneven distribution mocks the theoretical sufficiency of global food supply: there should be no world hunger problem but there is (UNO, 1989, p.3).

The ‘world food order’ is a scandal crying out for remedy. It arises within the context of the prevailing economic and political ideologies which are rooted in a crude laissez-faire mentality. According to this mentality, individuals are entitled to absolute ownership over whatever they have acquired lawfully, that is, they have the right to use, to transfer and even to destroy their property (Article 1 of the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966) without being held legally accountable.

It is this mentality, entrenched in law, which prevents the right to food from becoming one of the binding principles of international human rights. Yet, without a right to food, all other human rights are of little value. Once starvation afflicts a people, the very human life for whose sake all human rights are proposed wastes (Alston, 1984, p.4).

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 provides that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food…”. Since then, many international documents and most of other normative instruments aiming to secure the right to food of peoples have been agreed upon (Tomasevski, 1987, p.19; see also the 1974 Universal Declaration on the Eradication of Hunger and Malnutrition, and the 1986 Food Aid Convention). However, in spite of the enthusiasm and unanimity with which the right to food is endorsed, the amorality of the economic order encourages its constant, continual violation. Measures against world hunger are temporary palliatives in the form of ‘charity’ from governments politically embarrassed by crises (Alston, 1984, p.90).

The impotence of the present world order to eradicate hunger and starvation contrasts sharply with the Islamic world order which enshrines the right to food not only in its ethos but also in its positive laws. To begin with, the Qur’an teaches that all resources are put at the disposal of all human beings by God, the Sustainer. Human beings have no right of absolute ownership, but have right as just trustees (2.30). As God’s vicegerent (khalifah), man is enjoined to deal justly with everyone (not every Muslim) (5.8). To act with justice in the use and management of one’s resources requires the satisfaction of at least the subsistence needs of everyone in society: nothing is more closely connected with the concept of justice than “human rights” (Ahmad, 1991, p.15).

Once the close relationship between justice and human rights is recognized as a fundamental principle, it is a natural next step to base the right to food on the socio-economic teachings of Islam. The aim of the concept of trusteeship (khilafat) is to establish ‘global justice’ in the use of the earth’s natural resources. No discrimination is made between Muslims and non-Muslims, as humanity is a single creation of God, and all have equal right to sustenance from God’s bounty (ni’ma). If one group of the human brotherhood is unable to provide sufficient food to sustain life, for whatever reason, they have a right (haqq) to provision from the wealth of others (Ahmad, 1991, p.17).

The ‘right’ of the hungry is not merely a moral claim; it has a positive, specific counterpart in the corresponding legal obligation to satisfy that right. The authority for this legal obligation is the Qur’an itself whose precepts are binding upon all Muslims (Ahmad, 1991, p.15). The refusal to feed the hungry and to urge the feeding of the hungry is equated with a refusal of religion: Have you observed him who denies religion? That is he who rebuffs the orphan and urges not the feeding of the needy (107.1-3).

In other verses, (e.g. 2.29), the Qur’an specifies that resources be used equitably for the benefit of all mankind (see Chapra, 1992, p207). No people have the right to dump or waste the resources at their disposal in order to manipulate prices (Qur’an 2.205).

The concept of a right to food is explicitly embodied in the teaching and practice of the Prophet, upon him be peace. The civilization of Islam is dated to the Hijrah, the migration to Madina. One of the first measures instituted by the Prophet was to ‘spread peace and distribute food’ (Hamid, 1989, p.l56). He explained that poverty can lead to kufr (ingratitude and rejection of God), and emphasised the link between Muslim solidarity and the right to food: ‘He is not a (true) believer who eats his fill while his neighbour goes hungry’. In another hadith, duty to provide food encompasses animals as well as humans: ‘Whoever brings dead land to life, for him there is a reward in that, and whatever creature seeking food eats of it, shall be considered as charity from him.’ (For other ahadith which clarify the duty to feed and the accountability for failure in it, see Nadvi, 1969 and Ishaque, 1969). The importance of land cultivation in Islamic Law may be gauged from the right of the legitimate authorities to sequester land which is being left idle and apportion it to those who are willing and able to cultivate it: absolute ownership of land is not recognized by the Law.

The right to food is so important in Islamic practice that it is not denied to enemies even in time of siege and war. During the lifetime of the Prophet, upon him be peace, some of his companions blocked the supply of food to Makka, intending to maintain the blockade until Makka surrendered. However, when the hunger of the Quraish was reported to the Prophet he ordered the blockade to be lifted. Following that example, Abu Bakr, the first Caliph, sent Yazid ibn Abu Sufyan on a campaign with the specific instruction that he should not destroy the crops and livestock of the enemy. The same principle is seen in action when the Ottoman army, for example, besieged Vienna, and the city’s poor and sick came to its outskirts to get food from the besieging forces. (What a contrast with the Serbian and Croat militias who are at this time attacking and preventing relief supplies from reaching the Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina with the explicit intention of starving them to death.)

Islamic Law provides for each individual’s basic rights to life and food through zakah and usr, two compulsory annual levies on, respectively the general wealth and the crops and livestock of the better off. Zakah is fixed at one-fortieth and usr at one-tenth of disposable wealth. In the event of the state being unable to meet its commitment to the needy from this revenue, it may compel the rich to give more. The Prophet, upon him be peace, said: ‘God makes it an obligation for the rich of a country to provide for the needs of their poor. Authority must compel them when the resources from zakah are insufficient’. Ibn Hazm and other Muslim savants, on the basis of this hadith, declared that if a person dies of hunger the individual’s neighbourhood is responsible and must pay the bloodwit (diya) by way of atonement (Belkacem, 1979, p.144). (One is bound to reflect how near Somalia is to oil-rich Saudi Arabia.)

Refusal to pay the obligatory levies is equivalent to denying the rights of the needy and a reversion to the values of paganism. Abu Bakr was prepared to go to war in precisely this issue.

Sadaqat al-fitr, a charitable donation made either in money or in kind, at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, is a further instance, in this case voluntary, of collectively meeting the sustenance needs of the poor.

There is a world of difference between the anthropocentric and egocentric philosophy which has taken such a firm root in the Western mind since the secularization of human rights in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the theocentric ethos of Islam. The latter sees the right to food as a duty, even a debt, owed by those who have a surplus to those who do not have the bare minimum. Further, Islam seeks to establish a social order which recognizes the essential community of all human beings. Without a feeling for that essential community, and a commitment to it in economic transactions, it is hard to see how solidarity can be realized even at a national, let alone an international level. Presenting human beings as objects of ‘charity’ cannot begin to address the problem-for, very soon, the rich become ‘fatigued’ by the demands made upon their compassion and their resources. For people to be dying of famine in a world of plenty, even of excess, is an intolerable scandal and shames us all (Bedjaoui, 1982, p.465). A new ‘world food order’ must be sought as a matter of urgency: if not, the threat of rumbling empty stomachs in Africa and Asia will disturb international peace in the post Cold War era rather more than the threat of nuclear war disturbed it during the Cold War.


  • AHMAD, Z. (1991), Islam, Poverty and Income Distribution, The Islamic Foundation,Leicester
  • ALSTON, P. (1984) ‘lnternational law and the human right to food’ in Tomasevski(ed.) 1984.
  • BEDJAOUI, M. (1982) ‘Are the world’s food resources the common heritage of mankind?’,Indian Journal of International Law, 22, pp. 459-67, (Bedjaoui is a former president of the International Court of Justice.)
  • BELKACEM, N,M.K. (1979) ‘The concept or social justice in Islam’, in GAUHAR (ed.) 1979, pp. 135-52.
  • CHAPRA, M.U. (1992) Islam and the Economic Challenge, The Islamic Foundation, Leicester.
  • FAO, 1985 The Hunger Project: Ending Hunger.
  • GAUHAR, A. (ed) (1979) The Challenge of Islam, Islamic Council of Europe, London 1979.
  • HAMID, A (1989) Islam: the Natural Way, IELS, London
  • ISHAQUE, K.M. (1979) ‘Islamic laws ideals and principles’, in GAUHAR (ed.) 1979, pp. 155-75.
  • NADVI, A.H.A. (1979) ‘Islam the most suitable religion for mankind’ in Gauhar (ed.) 1979, pp. 17-30.
  • TOMASE VSKI, K. (ed) (1984) The Right to Food, Martinus Nijhoff, Dordrecht. Extensive details and documents with regard to this right TOMASEVSKI, K(1987) The Right to Food. A Guide to International Law Documents. Martinus Nijboff, 1987.
  • UNO (1989) Right to Adequate Food as a Human Rights, Centre for Human Rights, New York.