Once, while in college, I was hanging out with some friends in the Masjid lobby. An uncle sat down and started talking to us. After a brief moment of silence, he dropped something on me that has stuck with me for life. And that's hard to do by the way, figuring out what makes an idea stick is a holy grail that everyone is after. He sat next to me and said, "Let me explain you something." Just kidding - although it would be much cooler if it started out that way. Here's what he really said, "Let me tell you something, everything in Islam orients around food." I started laughing, indulging him politely. But this made him upset.
"This is not a joking matter, I'm serious." I perked up, taken aback a bit. He then decided to wax philosophical on me by expounding his theory. Ramadan is a great example. We begin and end our fasts together - with food. When we want to increase the bonds of brotherhood, we can't go out partying or hanging out at bars - so we eat. When we need the community to pitch in and support the masjid, we have a fundraising dinner. When we want the community to come and socialize at the masjid, or even learn, we provide dinner or have a potluck. Some Muslims can't be bothered to pray Dhuhr on a weekday, but they'll drive 3 hours to get halal meat on the weekend. Food is the way in which diverse Muslim cultures show each other up. Eating is what we are most passionate about, and halal meat is what we fight about most passionately [Click here to tweet that].
Foodie culture in general has been on an uptick in past years. It's no surprise that the internet has been a major facilitator of that. We have access to millions of recipes from around the world along with accompanying photographs. We have online review sites where we can discuss food quality at various restaurants - or even provide amateur investigative journalism on where a halal restaurant really gets its meat. We share what we're eating with everyone. In fact, the oldest joke in the book about social media is, "Why do I need Twitter, no one cares what I ate for breakfast! ha ha ha!"
Food culture is clearly here to stay - and by extension networking around food. As the conversation takes place on social media, the medium will dictate the form of communication. Currency online is in likes, shares, retweets, and comments [please go ahead and share this article on Facebook].
A number of critical questions come up though. These are a few that I have had, and although I don't have answers, please leave your thoughts in the comments section:
- Is food for sustenance only, or is it meant to be enjoyed? Are there any Islamic proofs giving credence to one side over the other?
- What is the line between being thankful for the food and showing off?
- Are there any limits to appreciating the artistic nature of food?
- Are pictures of food really about food - or something else altogether?
As with all things social media, it boils down to intention. It doesn't seem like we will ever reach a codified answer of right and wrong. Rather, what is important is to understand why we are sharing a particular photo. I'll do this with my own Instagram feed. These are actually photos of food I have shared with my friends. Underneath each photo I will highlight a number of different intentions that one could have in posting such a photo. These are not necessarily my intentions, but instead of picking on someone else's photos, I'm using my own to prove how the same photo can be perceived in different ways.
This picture can show:
- I'm such an amazing cook - everyone look at me
- Hey I'm learning how to cook, here's a try, I want to connect with other friends who are doing the same
- I'm an awesome husband
- I'm such a hipster, I'm having something you've probably never tried before
- If you're ever in Atlanta, this is a cool place to try
- Forget the milkshake, I want the world to know my fiqh opinion on marshmallows
- Everyone's been waiting to try this, I have, so ask me for my feedback
- I'm more cultured than you because I tried this zabihah burger before you did
- Attempt at humor
- Cry for help, wife not home and hoping someone [my mom] sees this and brings food to my house
- Please hit the like button to give me validation
This one is a little easier. Nothing is ever wrong with some Texas pride. http://instagram.com/p/TrlLQ-pVKV/?modal=true
- I'm adding cooking to my array of awesome skills
- I read a book and am using the hashtag to share my experience and connect with other readers of the book
- Maybe this is a dish you'll enjoy so I'm just putting it out on the internets
- Appreciating the artistry of the restaurant
- Doing a public service by geo-tagging the photo so others considering this venue can see real photos
- I'm a foodie and know all the cool places to eat at in Dallas
Again - Texas pride is practically fard.
- Look at me, I like Pakola (i.e. I really am Desi).
- I found a really cool local Muslim business everyone should support.
- If you don't think a Pakola snow cone sounds appealing, then you're not a good person inside.
- I want to show off who I was eating with
- My friends think I talk about important things
- Maybe I didn't want to post this, but because my friend did, I wanted to acknowledge it by re-sharing it
- I appreciate well done latte art, but just don't want to be too in your face about it
- I'm courageous enough to try foods you've never heard of
- I'm cooler than you because I eat food like this
- Step up to my instagram food photography skills
- Look at me, I'm in California
- Look at me, I'm so cool because I'm eating with Imran
- I'm sophisticated because I can find cool foodie places that aren't touristy
- Had a good time eating with a friend and wanted to document the experience
The hadith, "Actions are judged by their intention," forms the foundation of how we view social media. Sharing photos of food can be an expression of yourself or part of your personality. It can be a service to others. It can be purely entertainment. It can be artistic appreciation. It might be a way of connecting with others around a common interest or shared experience.
When posting a photo, ask yourself what you're trying to get across. This doesn't mean that everything has to have some unique value to make the world a better place. Maybe it's just pure entertainment - that's ok, and there is room for that.
Food can also be a way of connecting with family - sharing photos from family dinners or parties, or reminiscing on something specific from a particular family member.
But food photos can also be self-serving, a sign of ingratitude, or for those who constantly post everything they eat - a sign of some serious issues. For some it can be a means of hoarding and attention - craving likes and shares at all costs.
Before you post that next food photo online, just slow down and ask why. Be comfortable with your answer and go from there. Just have limits - like standing on a chair at a restaurant to get a better shot. In that case, you're better off not documenting it and just enjoying the meal instead.