There has been a lot of fuss over which products are halal (lawful) and which are haram (prohibited), leading to lengthy lists of inconspicuous culprits from S.O.S. pads to VO5 hot oil treatment. This preoccupation with the lawful and prohibited is a good sign - it shows that Muslims are not willing to sacrifice Islamic principles for material convenience. However, many prohibitions are the result of hasty judgment combined with an unsophisticated knowledge of Islamic principles. Thus, it is quite common to find average Muslims abstaining from products that are lawful by unanimously accepted Islamic principles. One of the problems with excessive prohibition is that it puts undue hardship on its adherents, often resulting in frustration, which can in turn lead to abandoning major aspects of Islam. For example, most milk in North America is fortified with vitamins A and D. These vitamins are produced in large quantities in a medium possibly derived from pig fat. Thus, some Muslims abstain from milk (and all milk products) containing added vitamins A and D. Similarly, most breads and pastries contain mono and diglycerides, which are sometimes derived from animal fats. Thus, many Muslims abstain from such breads and pastries. I can imagine a group of well-meaning Muslims abstaining from milk, milk products, breads, and pastries for some time, and then, having suffered the abuses of excessive prohibition, eventually becoming quite sloppy and indifferent in their eating habits.
By writing this article I do not
seek to marginalise the issues of the lawful and prohibited, nor do I wish
to make lawful that which Allah has prohibited in His book (the Qur'an)
or through the words of His messenger (the Sunnah). Rather, it is my purpose,
by the will of Allah, to clarify two Islamic principles that are unknown
to many Muslims. These principles, which are unanimously accepted by scholars
of Islam, are breaths of fresh air to Muslims suffering from the suffocation
of excessive prohibition. I should emphasise that these principles are
not the result of my own research nor are they drawn from my personal opinions.
In the last section of this document I indicate how I came to learn of
One might be tempted to contest the validity of this principle by mentioning the well-known and authentic hadith indicating that if a large amount of a substance intoxicates then even a drop of it is forbidden. However, Islamic texts have to be interpreted wholistically; taking one particular verse from the Qur'an or one hadith and ignoring all other texts can lead to strange and contradictory rulings. Scholars have interpreted this hadith in combination with the previous two situations to mean that if a large amount (which a human being can reasonably ingest) of a substance intoxicates, then even a drop of it is forbidden. As an example, trace amounts of alcohol are present in some colas. (The alcohol is used to distribute the dye.) Even if a man were to drink cola containing trace amounts of alcohol all day, he would never be affected by the alcohol since the concentration is so minimal.
We exercise the principle of istihlak on a daily basis: most breads contain yeast, which produces alcohol during anaerobic respiration. However, the amount of alcohol is so small that no amount of ingested bread could cause intoxication. (These traces of alcohol are further decimated by the baking process.) Similarly, most cheeses are formed with the help of milk-coagulating enzymes, such as pepsin or rennet, which can be taken from pigs and other animals. However, enzymes are catalysts, meaning that they do not actually become a part of the cheese but only aid in its formation. After the milk coagulates and the curds fall to the bottom of the basin, the remaining liquid and enzymes are drained off. While it is possible that some enzymes remain in the cheese, the concentration is minimal. Yet another example of the principle of istihlak is the medicinal use of certain chemical compounds extracted by dissolving plant tissue in alcohol. The end product is virtually rid of alcohol, although it might contain some infinitesimal traces.
However, one should be aware of abuses
of this principle. For example, cough medicine containing alcohol is clearly
prohibited since the effects of the alcohol are very noticeable. More generally,
any product that contains a measurable amount of a prohibited substance,
or in which the properties of a prohibited substance are noticeable, is
in itself prohibited. As a rule of thumb, if alcohol, or anything else
prohibited, is listed as an ingredient, the product should be avoided.
There are several examples of the
principle of istihalah in everyday life: gelatin, mono
and diglycerides, glycerol, lecithin, and several other inconspicuous and
unpronounceable chemicals in our food products can be derived from animals,
including pigs. However, none of these chemicals bears any resemblance
to its original source. Furthermore, it is impossible to differentiate
between a chemical derived from an animal source and the same chemical
derived from a plant source or formed synthetically. What used to be animal
fat, possibly even lard, is now a chemical compound that could have been
made in a laboratory or derived from vegetable oil. This is altogether
different from comparing vegetable oil shortening to lard as ingredients:
they are two very different substances - one is lawful and the other is
One of the scholars who attended this conference was Sheikh Nazih Hammad of North Vancouver, B.C. He is a well-known and respected scholar, having taught at Umm-Ulqura University (in Mecca) for seventeen years. In fact, our former imam, Sabir Zakeieh, would consult with him on various issues. He holds lessons every Saturday evening at 225 West 5th Ave., Vancouver.
Dr. Hammad's book, Al-mawaad Al-muharramah wa Al-najisah fee Al-ghadhaa' wa Al-dawaa', is available in Arabic from Amanah Publications in the United States, (301) 595-5999. Grab a Marshmallow and Relax by Moustafa Elqabbany, firstname.lastname@example.org