Food: Understand the Basic Principles, Observe the Rules
Adil Salahi, December 22, 2006
Q. Muslims who live abroad have different views on what is permissible to eat and what is forbidden. Some insist on specific conditions with regard to meat; some refuse to eat non-meat products for fear that lard might have been used in frying; some fear that the food might have been contaminated by some other prohibited material. Others refuse to eat the food made by people of other religions, including Christians and Jews, except when they are invited by them. Could you please explain the nature of the correct attitude we should adopt in this respect?
A. There are basic rules which we must always observe, and certain principles that we must keep in our minds. The first of these principles is that the authority to forbid anything belongs to God alone. It is not up to a scholar, or a group of eminent scholars to prohibit anything, unless their verdict is based on a clear principle laid down by God. What the Prophet (peace be upon him) pronounced as forbidden falls within this category, because he did so only on God’s clear instructions. Another principle is that God has no wish to make things difficult for us. On the contrary, He always wants to make things easy for us. He says in the Qur’an: “God desires that you have ease. He does not desire that you be afflicted with hardship.” (2: 185) He also says: “God wants to lighten your burdens; for man has been created weak.” (4: 28) If this is what God wants, then it is wrong that people should make things difficult for themselves or for others. In fact the overriding rule of all Islamic legislation is to make things easy, not difficult.
Another basic principle is that our approach to Islamic legislation must always be one of understanding and obedience. When we are certain that Islam lays down a certain rule, or gives a specific order, we must obey it. We abide by it even if we cannot understand its purpose or discern the wisdom behind it. We must always trust that what God orders, and what His messenger teaches are meant for our benefit. Nothing we do or refrain from doing brings any benefit to God. He is in no need of anything or anyone.
However, this should not deter us from trying to understand the purpose and objective of any Islamic legislation. In fact, we should do so, because it helps us to strengthen our belief in the truth of our religion. When we understand the objective of a certain legislation, which may involve some effort or sacrifice on our part, and realize that it is for our own benefit or for the benefit of our community, we make that effort or sacrifice willingly, feeling that God is taking care of us.
We must also take into consideration the fact that people tend to make things difficult, rather than easy. They look for ways to make things stricter. This is described in the Qur’an: “And know that God’s messenger is among you. Were he to comply with your inclinations in many a case, you would surely come to harm.” (49: 7). You notice this in people’s attitude to everyday matters. It is always easy for people to say to one thing or another that it is forbidden, without any basis from the Qur’an or the Sunnah. Often people impose on themselves and on their families rules which they associate with religion when Islam does not have anything to do with them. Communities establish rules, giving them a religious character, while they are based only on social tradition that has no basis in Islam. It is, therefore, important for people to learn what Islam requires and abide by it.
When it comes to food and what is permissible, we must remember the basic rule that all things are allowed and permissible unless there is a specific text to make them otherwise. Things that were not known at the time when Islamic teachings were revealed can be pronounced as forbidden only on the basis of well-defined Islamic rules that are unquestionably applicable to them. One case in mind is tobacco smoking. Eminent scholars who have studied the issue of smoking and its effects on man’s health have returned a clear verdict of prohibition, based on a number of rules that prohibit anything that is harmful to man’s physical and mental health.
When it comes to food and drink, God has prohibited only what is harmful such as carrion, blood, pork and wines. He permitted the slaughter of animals for food, provided that the slaughterer takes into account that he can only take away the life of an animal by God’s permission. This is reflected in the fact that we have to invoke God’s name at the time of slaughter. If we are in doubt as to whether God’s name has been invoked, we mention His name before we eat the meat presented to us.
People’s approach in this area always tends to be very strict. They want to make absolutely certain that everything was done in the correct way, going too far in establishing details. God does not want us to do so. The Prophet made it clear that we need not investigate things that are not readily known to us with regard to worship and religion. We take the case of Umar who was walking with another companion of the Prophet when some water dropped over them from a building nearby. Umar’s companion started to inquire whether the water was clean or contaminated with impurity. Umar stopped him, saying to the man in the building that he should not answer the questions put to him. He also told his companion that the Prophet ordered that we do not go to such lengths in trying to establish details. This ties up with the rule mentioned above that everything is permissible unless pronounced otherwise. Similarly, everything is pure unless we are certain that it has been contaminated with impurity.
The reader says that some of his friends maintain that they would not eat the food prepared or processed by people of earlier divine religions except when they are invited into their homes. This adds a condition that has no basis in the Qur’an or the Sunnah. It is absolutely wrong. The meat sold in supermarkets or by butchers in Christian countries is permissible for us to eat, unless it is specifically forbidden, such as pork. God has granted us a concession in this respect, saying: “The food of those who were given revelations is lawful to you, and your food is lawful to them. And the virtuous women from among the believers and the virtuous women from among those who were given revelations before you (are also lawful to you) when you give them their dowers, taking them in honest wedlock, not in fornication, nor as mistresses.” (5: 5)
If you read this carefully, you find that God has not imposed any conditions that qualify this permission. Why would people impose such conditions is beyond comprehension. It can only be attributed to the fact that people tend to make things difficult for themselves and for others. This is the wrong attitude. If we are uncertain that God’s name has been invoked at the time of slaughtering such animals, we mention God’s name before we eat it, as indeed we are recommended to do every time we eat.
In short, an easy, relaxed approach is always better, as it is more in line with what God wants for us. It is He who has stated this, and we take His orders as they are stated, knowing that He only wants what is good and beneficial for us. All praise be to Him.