Yemenis debate whether swarm of locusts during famine is halal, a blessing or curse
When the locusts settle in the trees at night, Ali Murshed al-Jawfi and his family get to work.
"We put a piece of fabric under the tree, then shake the tree and locusts fall out of it,” he said.
Swarms of locusts devastated crops in Yemen this summer. The plague of insects has occurred in several countries around the world in recent years but presents the most severe threat to people there and at the India-Pakistan border, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Crops of lentils, peas, barley, carrots and garlic suffered a lot of damage in the Bani Matar District where al-Jawfi lives, he said. The Hamdan District to the north was spared. Hamdan is known for growing khat, chewed as a stimulant similar to tobacco. The locusts don’t like it.
Between the districts is Yemen’s largest city, Sana’a. It is controlled by Houthi rebels who have been at war with the Saudi-backed Yemeni government since 2015. Al-Jawfi, 32, sat outside the Old City of Sana’a with a sack of cooked locusts, which are fried in oil and often eaten with rice or bread. He bartered with potential customers, asking 150 Yemeni rial per scoop, about 60 cents.
Yemen’s civil war has worsened a famine that started in 2016, with 20 million Yemenis (70% of the population) facing food insecurity and 10 million “one step away from famine,” according to the U.N. Saudi Arabian-led air strikes have killed civilians and targeted water sources, while blockades have restricted and slowed humanitarian aid.
While crop-destroying swarms of locusts present an obvious threat in such conditions, they also act as a bumper crop. Residents in Sana’a took to their roofs with nets to collect the flying insects, which many Yemenis believe have health benefits for certain conditions, like diabetes.
“It is a good food because it eats from all kinds of crops,” said Ahmed Rabia, a scholar of Islam in Sana’a. He was standing with Saleh al-Muqri, another elder scholar, inside the city’s ancient Grand Mosque. Islamic scriptures date the mosque to the time of the Prophet Muhammad.
The men discussed the locusts’ religious meaning, oscillating between two interpretations: punishment and blessing.
"Locusts were sent by Allah as a warning for all people wherever they were," Rabia said. "When locusts arrive, people should fear Allah and return to him through repentance."
The insect is mentioned twice in the Quran. One is as a punishment for the Israelites, Rabia said. He cited the scripture: “So we sent upon them the flood and locusts and lice and frogs and blood as distinct signs, but they were arrogant and were a criminal people.”
The second reference uses them as a metaphor for life after death: "Their eyes humbled, they will emerge from the graves as if they were locusts spreading.”
To al-Jawfi, it could go either way. He quoted another verse: "Locusts are like the rain, where God is 'afflicting therewith whom He pleases and turning it away from whom He pleases,'" he said.
Another vendor in the market near the Old City’s main gate was selling locusts beside his other goods. Abdul-Majeed Hamid said the insects are clearly a blessing, eaten by many to treat hypertension and diabetes.
Yet another man, Abdullah Al Sayaghi, said he has diabetes and doesn’t believe locusts are a remedy. "I've eaten a tumbler and nothing changed," he said.
The two interpretations don’t contradict each other, said Rabia. The Prophet Muhammad declared locusts halal, or permissible to eat. That applies even if they are sent as a warning, he said.
His companion al-Muqri disagreed. He said the locusts sent to the people of Pharaoh, as the Israelites are called in the Quran, had a different effect than those that filled the air this summer.
"When Allah sent locusts, frogs and lice to Moses's people, it was locusts that eat wood and doors," al-Muqri said. "It wasn't like nowadays' locusts that are a blessing."
He has been eating locusts since the 1970s, as have generations of Yemenis.
As the discussion continued, someone invited a man passing by to give his view. The man, who did not give his name but said he was a soldier, rejected any idea that there could be different interpretations and insisted that the Prophet does not permit locust-eating.
The Quran is clear because Allah made it understandable-- any Arabic speaker can read and understand it without help from scholars, he said.
He believes that some Sunni scholars have manipulated the Prophet Muhammad’s words until they contradict the Quran, only to serve themselves over Allah. "Those who destroyed Islam are the ones who circulate Hadiths [Prophet’s sayings] that are only in their own interest," he said.
In short, he believes Yemenis are eating God’s punishment. He urged the gathered men to consider that the locusts don’t eat khat, perhaps to their benefit.
"We Yemenis eat it. We have become worse than locusts,” he said.
Eating locusts, he added, amounts to punishing Allah’s punishment.
But most Yemenis take a lighter view. After the people of Sana’a significantly diminished one swarm in about three days, a boy mocked them on YouTube. The locusts urged the U.N. to help them get out of Yemen, he said. They were being shot at, chased and eaten. “We were 80 million,” he said. “Now we are only one million.”
The writer is a Yemeni journalist reporting from Yemen whose identity we are concealing for safety.