Food: Of the People of the Book

Q226 :1. In his book, "The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam," Mr. Y. Al-Qaradhawi argues that all imported tinned meat and chicken originating with the People of the Book are lawful for Muslims to eat. He quotes verse 5 of surah 5, but ignores the word "Tayyibat" included in it. He mentions that pork and intoxicating drinks are forbidden even though they may be part of the food of the People of the Book. Please explain this question in detail. 2. You have argued that the meat available in countries like the U.S. is lawful for Muslims to eat. My son who studies in that country says that it is a secular not a Christian country, with a large proportion of its population being atheists. Some of those working in slaughter houses may be Hindus or belong to polytheistic religions. I find his arguments more convincing. When I will go there, I will follow his suit and abstain from eating meat.


A226 : These are only two of many letters I regularly receive about this particular question. These show a welcome sign of people's strong feeling that they must make sure that what they eat is permissible. However, they also show that sometimes it is not enough for people to have a ruling well argued by a scholar. They still go to great lengths to question and find opposite views. Yet the whole question does not come high on the scale of what is forbidden in Islam, because it is a question of practice, not one of beliefs. The attitude of the Prophet's companions and their successors, i.e. tabi'een was totally different. When they learned a ruling, they accepted it and did not worry too much over its being correct. That is the proper attitude, because all that God requires of us is to take reasonable steps to know what is permissible and what is forbidden. You certainly meet that criterion when you read a book by a high authority like Sheikh Yousuf Al-Qaradhawi or when you ask a scholar. Such questions may have different answers by different scholars. Each will give a ruling on the basis of the evidence he considers to be stronger. Weighing up the evidence of a particular view does not come haphazardly. It is subject to rules and scholarly principles. However, we should not consider the fact that we have different views on a question like this to be an element of weakness. Indeed it is an element of strength. No scholar worth his salt has ever considered difference of this type to be a negative element. Indeed, it is the flexibility which such differences provide that add to the practicability of the religion of Islam. It is in this light that I say to the second questioner that he should follow the view that he feels to be more strongly based. I welcome his frankness and support him on his choice, although I differ with him on most points. To the first reader I would like to say that Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi is ranked among the leading scholars in the Muslim world today. I would count myself among his students and I have certainly benefited a great deal by his books and public lectures. Other scholars have expressed some reservations about certain rulings he gives in his book, but that does not detract from its great value. Let us remember here Imam Malik's words of wisdom when he said as he sat in the Prophet's mosque: "You may accept some and reject some of the views of any human being with the exception of the dweller of this grave (and he pointed to the Prophet's grave.)" The first point the reader raises concerns the term "Tayyibat" in the Qur'anic verse. I do not think that the author ignored this word, which means "wholesome." The verse may be translated as follows: "They question you: What has been made lawful to them. Say: Lawful to you is everything that is wholesome. And the food of the People of the Book is made lawful to you and your food is lawful to them." The question of ignoring this term does not arise unless we consider that "the food of the People of the Book" to be set in contrast to what is wholesome. Such an interpretation is erroneous because the contrast would also include the food of Muslims which is made lawful to them. But our food is wholesome since it has been made permissible to us as the above quoted verse explains. The correct understanding of the meaning of the verse considers the second sentence in the above quotation to highlight, for the sake of emphasis, certain types of food that are included among what is "wholesome." This special style of emphasis is frequently used in the Qur'an, and in the Arabic language generally. It is known as adding details to what has been given in a general context. Another example is found in verse 3 of the same surah which begins by stating the four types of meat that are forbidden in Islam and goes on to give several kinds of the first of these four, which is carrion. The reader also raises the point that these days we are almost certain that no slaughter in any European or American country mentions God's name at the time of slaughter. Verse 121 of surah 6 gives a clear instruction: "Do not eat of the meat of any (animal) on which God's name has not been involved (at the time of slaughter.)" Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi mentions in this connection a Hadith which tells us that the Prophet's companions put to him the question that they might have meat but they would not know if God's name was invoked at the time of slaughter. He told them to mention God's name and eat it. The reader feels that this Hadith does not apply these days when Western people have more or less abandoned their faith and cannot be considered to belong to the category of the People of the Book. Having lived for many years in the West, I disagree. These people are mostly Christians who have reduced the influence of their religion on their practical life. However, this is not a major point of contention. What worries me is the attitude of many Muslims who seem to try to find reasons to pronounce things as forbidden or unlawful, as if the religion is no more than a set of prohibitions. I have often pointed out that this is a perverted approach, because we have an indisputable rule of Islam which makes it clear that "every thing is lawful unless it is pronounced otherwise." Moreover, the authority to forbid any thing belongs solely to God. There are certain things that the Prophet specified as forbidden but he did so on God's authority. Bearing that in mind, we have to have a sound basis before we could slam a verdict of prohibition on any matter. When the Prophet told his companions and succeeding generations of his followers to mention God's name before eating meat slaughtered by non-Muslims, he was showing them the way to make certain that such meat was lawful. We do well to follow his guidance, and indeed that is all that is required of us today. Besides, I invite both readers to reflect on Verse 145 of surah 6 which instructs the Prophet in this way: "Say: I do not find in all the revelations given to me anything that is forbidden to eat by anyone, unless it be carrion, running blood, and the flesh of swine - for these are unclean - and any flesh that has been profanely consecrated to beings other than God." You cannot have a more definitive statement. So, what is all the argument about? Yet, when everything has been said and clarified, people should choose the line of action with which they feel more comfortable. If either of my readers feels more at ease if he abstains from eating this type of meat, let him do so. All that is required of him is to respect the views of those who differ with him. After all, this is a matter of worship that belongs totally in the field of the relationship between the individual and His Lord, the Merciful, whose grace brings forgiveness to all human beings. A holier-than-thou attitude is totally un-Islamic.


Our Dialogue ( Source : Arab News - Jeddah )