Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Allah's Guidance on Diet

Today all good things have been made lawful for you. The food of the People of the Book is lawful for you as your food is lawful for them. Quran 5:5
When reading Allah's guidance on food, it is important to remember that early Muslims had an identity complex. Early chapters in the Quran stressed that Allah was the same God described to both Jews and Christians. Prayers were made facing Jerusalem until the Prophet was given permission to change the prayer direction to Mecca. Early Muslims, therefore, could be forgiven for assuming that Jewish dietary practices applied to them. Early Quran commentators relate an incident of Jews questioning Muslims on their diet:

Said Abu Rawq and al-Kalbi: “This was revealed when the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, said: ‘We follow the religion of Abraham’. The Jews responded to this by saying: ‘How can this be so when you eat the meat of camels and drink their milk’. He said: ‘That was lawful for Abraham and so we make it lawful too’. The Jews said: ‘Everything that we take for unlawful today was unlawful to Noah and Abraham and so on and so forth until our time’. Asbab al Nuzul by Wahidi
Allah replies to this point by saying:
Except for what Israel made unlawful for himself, all food was lawful to the Children of Israel before the Torah was revealed Quran 3:93
Allah later clarifies that only a subset of the Jewish dietary laws appearing in the Torah apply to Muslims:
You who believe, eat the good things We have provided for you and be grateful to God, if it is Him that you worship. He has only forbidden you carrion, blood, pig’s meat, and animals over which any name other than God’s has been invoked. But if anyone is forced to eat such things by hunger, rather than desire or excess, he commits no sin: God is most merciful and forgiving. Quran 2:172-173
So eat of the good and lawful things God has provided for you and be thankful for His blessings, if it is Him that you worship. He has forbidden you only these things: carrion, blood, pig’s meat, and animals over which any name other than God’s has been invoked. But if anyone is forced by hunger, not desiring it nor exceeding their immediate need, God is forgiving and merciful. Do not say falsely, ‘This is lawful and that is forbidden,' inventing a lie about God: those who invent lies about God will not prosper— they may have a little enjoyment, but painful punishment awaits them. [Prophet], We forbade the Jews what We told you about. We did not wrong them; they wronged themselves. But towards those who do wrong out of ignorance, and afterwards repent and make amends, your Lord is most forgiving and merciful. Quran 16:114-119
So unlike the extensive Kosher dietary requirements, Muslims need only worry about avoiding:
  • carrion: dead and decaying flesh, ie roadkill
  • blood
  • pig's meat: note that this does not include skin (rinds) or bone (gelatin)
  • animal's sacrificed to another God, ie sacrifices made to false idols
Allah later expanded on these rules three times, responding to specific incidents. In one case, Meccans pointed out that carrion could be seen as slaughtered by Allah, and therefore it was illogical that Muslims forbade themselves carrion meat but ate meat sacrificed by humans or their hunting animals. As Wahidi explained:
The idolaters said: “O Muhammad, tell us: 'When a sheep dies, who has killed it?' He said: 'Allah killed it!' They said: 'How is it then that that which is killed by you and your Companions is lawful, that which is killed by a dog or bird of prey is lawful but that which is killed by Allah is unlawful?'
Said 'Ikrimah: “When Allah, exalted is He, revealed the unlawfulness of the meat of carrion, the Magians ...wrote...that Muhammad and his Companions claim that they follow the command of Allah but then say that what they slaughter is lawful and that which is slaughtered by Allah is unlawful. This caused doubt in the minds of some Muslims, and so Allah, exalted is He, revealed this verse”. Asbab al Nuzul by Wahidi
Allah responded to the arguments made by the Meccans and Magians with a verse that made it clear that carrion was still forbidden, but animals killed by Muslims or their dogs and/or birds while hunting were permissible because the hunters were pronouncing God's name:
So [believers] eat any [animal] over which God’s name has been pronounced, if you believe in His revelations. Why should you not eat such animals when God has already fully explained what He has forbidden you, except when forced by hunger? But many lead others astray by their desires, without any true knowledge: your Lord knows best who oversteps the limit. Avoid committing sin, whether openly or in secret, for those who commit sin will be repaid for what they do, and do not eat anything over which God’s name has not been pronounced, for that is breaking the law. Quran 6:118-121
Its noteworthy that Allah uses the phrase "oversteps the limit" in this verse. Every time the Quran uses this phrase, Allah is providing a specific verdict to answer a specific question raised by a specific incident. The "limit" is simply God's ruling on the incident. These verses are not designed to provide new regulations, but simply provide a ruling in a specific case, such as the inheritance ruling for Umm Kujjah in 4:14. Another food related ruling appears in the case of a man who made a peculiar oath:
Ibn 'Abbas who related that a man went to see the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, and said: “I have forbidden meat on myself because whenever I eat it I feel the urge to sleep with women”, and so the verse [5:87-88] was revealed. Asbab al Nuzul by Wahidi
Allah responded to this man, ordering him to begin eating meat again, and repent for breaking the oath:
You who believe, do not forbid the good things God has made lawful to you—do not exceed the limits: God does not love those who exceed the limits— but eat the lawful and good things that God provides for you. Be mindful of God, in whom you believe. God does not take you [to task] for what is thoughtless in your oaths, only for your binding oaths: the atonement for breaking an oath is to feed ten poor people with food equivalent to what you would normally give your own families, or to clothe them, or to set free a slave—if a person cannot find the means, he should fast for three days. This is the atonement for breaking your oaths—keep your oaths. In this way God makes clear His revelations to you, so that you may be thankful. Quran 5:87-89
The third case involved Muslims that were still obeying an ancient practice of avoiding the meat of certain animals, as both Wahidi and Ibn Kathir explained:
Reporting from Abu Salih, al-Kalbi said: “This was revealed about Thaqif, Khuza‘ah and ‘Amir ibn Sa‘sa‘a who forbade themselves certain foods and meats. They forbade the Bahirah, al-Sa’ibah, al-Wasilah as well as al-Hamiyah”. Asbab al Nuzul by Wahidi
 Al-Bukhari recorded that Sa`id bin Al-Musayyib said, "The Bahirah is a female camel whose milk was spared for the idols and no one was allowed to milk it. The Sa'ibah is a female camel let loose for free pasture for the idols, and nothing was allowed to be carried on it...Allah has not instituted things like Bahirah or a Sa'ibah or a Wasilah or a Ham. Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Surah 5
Unhappy that Muslims were forbidding themselves of lawful foods, Allah provided a more detailed explanation of his dietary rules. These updated rules provided a clearer explanation of what constituted carrion (which actually expanded the pool of permissible meat by including an easy exception), and providing a clearer explanation of what constituted meat that was sacrificed to another God (slaughtered on a false altar or divided by marked arrows). It is also noteworthy that these were some of the last verses revealed in the Quran, and the final say on the matter:
...Livestock animals are lawful as food for you, with the exception of what is about to be announced to you...You are forbidden to eat carrion; blood; pig’s meat; any animal over which any name other than God’s has been invoked; any animal strangled, or victim of a violent blow or a fall, or gored or savaged by a beast of prey, unless you still slaughter it [in the correct manner]; or anything sacrificed on idolatrous altars. You are also forbidden to allot shares [of meat] by drawing marked arrows—a heinous practice—today the disbelievers have lost all hope that you will give up your religion. Do not fear them: fear Me. Today I have perfected your religion for you, completed My blessing upon you, and chosen as your religion islam: [total devotion to God]; but if any of you is forced by hunger to eat forbidden food, with no intention of doing wrong, then God is most forgiving and merciful...Today all good things have been made lawful for you. The food of the People of the Book is lawful for you as your food is lawful for them. Quran 5:1-5
The only major modification to the rules presented in 2:172-173 and 16:114-119 is another relaxation; specifically Allah makes it clear that any food consumed by People of the Book (Jews/Christians/Sabians) is permissible for Muslims. This is probably because Allah re-iterates throughout the Quran that they worship the same God as Muslims and therefore their meat is not sacrificed to a false God.

In practice these rules mean that I don't eat roadkill. God makes it very clear that he wants Muslims to eat "good things" which God feels carrion does not satisfy nor pig meat. I freely eat gelatin because it is made from pig bones, not pig meat. I also make a special point of not eating meat that is sacrificed to a specific God. This has occurred only once in my life when I attended a party celebrating a Mormon friend returning from their mission. I politely declined the food after it was blessed. With those simple exceptions, I am perfectly free to eat any livestock because Allah clearly believes that raised animals are "good." Last, I don't consume pure blood, although I do consume incidental blood in red meat which is impossible to avoid.