Dietary Law in Islam
This chapter is not a legal verdict on what is lawful and forbidden to eat in Islam. It is a collection verses from the Quran and of authentic narrations on the subject, interspersed with legal verdicts and opinions from Muslim scholars. Where I myself express an opinion contrary to the majority, it is a personal opinion that has no legal standing, and should not be taken as such.
Taking into account the above disclaimer, the broad categories of what is legal and good to eat and what is forbidden is laid out in Quran, 5:4:
They ask you what is lawful for them. Say: ‘Lawful to you are the fine things. And (from) those beasts of prey you employ as ‘hounds’, trained and taught to catch in the manner directed to you by God, eat of what they catch for you. But pronounce the name of God over it, and have awe of God. Verily, God is swift in reckoning.
God also makes lawful the food of the Christians and the Jews (as long as it does not contravene a primary regulation): He says:
Made lawful to you this day are the fine things. The food of the People of the Scripture is lawful to you, and your food is lawful to them. [Quran, 5:5]
Even if you are not certain the food has been slaughtered in God’s name or not, it is still lawful to eat, being made so by uttering what a non-Muslim might term as “grace”.
It is reported that the Messenger of God (may God praise him) taught his step son, Umar bin abu Salamah, saying:
‘Mention God’s name, eat with your right hand, and eat from the part of the plate directly in front of you.’ [Bukhari & Muslim]
They asked, ‘O messenger of God! Some recently converted people from disbelief have brought us some meats, and we do not know if the name of God has been mentioned over them or not.’
He said, ‘Mention God’s name on it and eat from it!’ [Bukhari]
Even unlawful food is allowed, with the mention of God’s name, if you are in dire need and there is no other provision to be had. God says:
But as for him who is forced by severe hunger, with no inclination to sin, he can eat of these (forbidden) categories. Then surely, God is Oft Forgiving, Most Merciful. [Quran, 16:115]
The categories referred to are mentioned clearly in other parts of the Quran:
Lawful to you are all beasts of cattle (and game) except that which will be announced to you herein. [Quran, 5:1]
Forbidden for you is carrion, blood, and the flesh of swine, or that which has been slaughtered as a sacrifice to other than God. Also forbidden are animals which are killed by strangulation, a violent blow, a headlong fall, or the goring of horns. That which has been partly eaten by wild animals is also forbidden – unless you are able to slaughter it before it dies. And that which is sacrificed on stone alters. [Quran, 5:3]
However, we are told to beware. God says:
Do not eat of that which God’s Name has not been pronounced, for it is surely disobedience. Verily the devils (shayatiyn) inspire their friends to dispute with you, and if you obey them, then you would indeed be polytheists. [Quran, 6:121]
The word for polytheist in Arabic is Mushrikíyn, which literally means associationists: Those associating others as partners with God. Derived from the preceding we get just one species of animal forbidden in the Quran itself by name: Swine. All other prohibitions concern the manner of death (except blood). Animals ‘gored’ to death include animals killed by carnivores, unless they are tamed hunting animals released on God’s word. Of course, when God makes lawful the cattle and game, the unspoken assumption is that the beast of prey, the hunter or scavenger, is itself unlawful.
God makes no restrictions on sea food. He says,
Lawful to you is the pursuit of water game and its use for food. [Quran, 5:96]
It is He Who has made the sea subject to you, that ye may eat thereof flesh that is fresh and tender, and that you may extract there-from ornaments to wear; and you see the ships therein that plough the waves, that you may seek (thus) of the bounty of God and that ye may be grateful. [Quran, 16:14]
The two seas are not alike. This is palatable, sweet and pleasant to drink, while that is salt and bitter. And from them both you eat fresh, tender meat and derive the ornaments you wear. And you see the ships cleaving, that you may seek of His Bounty, and that you may give thanks. [Quran, 35:12]
Other restrictions are known that tally with some of the restrictions in the Torah; those of forbidding the eating of frogs, donkeys, and raptors and carnivorous land animals, for example. All these prohibitions are known through authentic narrations from the companions of the Prophet. Three short narrations are in Muslim:
Jábir bin Abdullah narrated:
On the day of Khaybar, the Messenger of God (may God praise him) forbade the eating of donkey’s meat, but permitted the eating horse meat. [Bukhári & Muslim]
Ibn ‘Abbas narrated:
The Messenger of God (may God praise him) prohibited eating any bird which had talons or any animal with canine teeth. [Muslim]
‘Abdur-Rahman bin ‘Uthman al Qurayshi narrated:
A physician consulted he Messenger of God about extracting medicine from frogs, so he so he prohibited killing them. [Musnad Ahmad bin Hanbal]
Generally speaking, Muslims will include in this prohibition not eating any ‘fanged animal’, including snakes or animal ‘with tusks’, to be on the safe side, and most Muslims include all amphibians in the prohibition against frogs – though this is not a consensus of opinion.
If we list what is included above, Muslims are forbidden:
3. Carnivorous land mammals. According to the majority opinion, other land animals, including reptiles, with tusks or fangs, such as elephants, hippos, crocodiles and snakes, fall under this category
5. Frogs (and, according to some, other amphibians)
Also forbidden is the following:
7. Carrion meat,
8. Animals specifically slaughtered on stone altars and in the name of pagan deities,
9. Animals killed by stunning or strangulation (before the blood has flowed out of them).
Any of the above can be eaten if there is dire need, and the name of God is mentioned before eating.
The verses above are backed up by explanatory narrations. For instance, we know that sea mammals, living wholly within the sea, are acceptable because of an authentic narrationabout a stranded whale, and this confirms that sea food is allowed even if it does not have gills, fins and scales. Abu Zubair, narrated:
Jábir reported: ‘Messenger of God sent troops to capture a caravan of the Quraysh and appointed Abu ‘Ubaida as their chief, and they were 300 men. Our journey food was dates, and Abu ‘Ubaida kept on giving us our daily ration from it little by little until the supply had got so low that he was giving us but one date each per day.’
I said: ‘What did you do with it?’
Jábir said: ‘We sucked the date just as a baby sucks and then drank water after that, and it sufficed us until night. We would then beat tree branches with the help of our staffs, and soak the fallen leaves with water, and then eat them.
Then we reached the sea coast, where we found a fish like creature the size of a small mountain. It was a spermaceti whale. Abu ‘Ubaida said. “It is dead.”
We know, and they knew, Islam forbids the eating of slain animals (carrion) except when there is dire need, as in Quran, 6:145
Then he said: “No, we have been sent by the Messenger of God and we are out in the cause of God, and are hard pressed for food, so we should eat it.”
We were three hundred in number, and stayed there for a month, until we grew bulky. I saw how we extracted pitcher after pitcher full of fat from the cavity of its eye and sliced from it compact pieces of meat equal to a bull or like a bull. Abu ‘Ubaida called for thirteen volunteers from us and he made them sit in the cavity of its eye, and he took one of the ribs of its chest and fixed it (in the sand, like an arch), and a camel rider passed under it (without touching). And we provided ourselves with pieces of boiled meat.’
Jábir continued: ‘When we returned to Medina, we informed Messenger of God about it (what we had done).
He said: “That was a provision which God had brought forth for you, so give us some if you have any (meat) left.”’
Jábir said: ‘Some of us gave Messenger of God some of its meat and he ate it.’ [Muslim]
The significance of this narration is that the Prophet was not in need when he ate of the creature’s meat, which proves that if a sea creature dies of itself, without being slaughtered, we can eat from it even if it is a mammal.
Another authentic narration explains the part of the verse about hunting, and using hounds to hunt. ‘Adi bin Hatim reported the following:
I asked the Messenger of God (may God praise him) about the game hunted with a throwing stick.
He said, ‘If the game is killed with its sharp edge, you can eat of it, but if it is killed by its broad side (shaft), you cannot eat of it, for then it is like an animal beaten to death with a club.’
I said, ‘O Messenger of God! I let loose my hound after a game and mention God’s Name on sending it.’
the Messenger of God (may God praise him) said, ‘If the hound catches and kills the game for you, then eat from it, for killing the game by hound is like slaughtering it. But if you let loose your hound after a game, and you mention God’s Name on sending it, but the hound then eats of it, then it is not lawful to eat of it, for it has killed it for itself.’
I said, ‘Sometimes when I send my hound after a game, I find another hound along with it and I do not know which of them has caught the game.’
He said, ‘You must not eat of it because you have not mentioned, the Name of God except on sending your own hound, and you did not mention it on the other hound.’ [Bukhari and Muslim]
The above story is from combining two narrations in the order of narration in Muslim. Muslim mentions the killing by hound being like slaughtering, and Bukhári mentions the game being eaten by the hound making the meat forbidden. Some people have a problem reconciling what Muslims are allowed to eat with what the Jews were prohibited from eating, such as lizards, rabbits, sea mammals and shellfish. These are allowed by specific authentic narrations. For example, we know that it is permissible to eat camel, rabbit and lizard, because the first is mentioned as recommended for sacrifice in the Quran,
And the camels! We have made them of the signs of the religion of God for you. Therein you have much good. So mention the name of God over them when they are drawn up in lines. Then when they fall on their flanks (dead), eat thereof and feed such as (beg not but) live in contentment, and such as beg with due humility. Thus have We made them subject unto you, that you may be grateful.[Quran, 22:36]
and the latter two endorsed as legal in the Prophetic traditions. Narrated Ibn ‘Umar:
The Prophet said, ‘I do not eat Sand Lizard, but I do not prohibit its eating.’ [Bukhari]
Narrated Anas bin Malik:
Once we provoked a rabbit at Marr-az-Zahran till it started jumping. The people chased it till they were exhausted. Then I overpowered it and caught it and brought it to Abu Talha, who slaughtered it and then sent both its thighs to the Prophet and the Prophet accepted it. When asked if the Prophet ate from it Anas confirmed: ‘He ate from it.’ [Bukhari]
Other narrations make legal what is made legal in the Torah and prohibits a thing that which is prohibited therein. Narrated ibn Abî Aufa:
We participated with the Prophet in six or seven military expeditions and we used to eat locusts with him. [Bukhari]
Ibn ‘Abbas narrated:
‘The Messenger of Godprohibited the killing of four creatures; ants, bees, hoopoes and shrikes.’ [Abu Dawood and Ahmad Hanbal]
Having dealt with the prohibited, or forbidden, we can now turn to that which is permitted. There are five categories of food that are permitted.
1. Slaughtered with the name of God
Bovine Cattle, such as cows, oxen, buffalo
Ovine or Caprine Cattle such as sheep, goats
Other Artiodactyls such as camels, llamas
Equine Cattle, such as domesticated horses (but not donkeys)
Herbivorous game of the ground or
(Seed eating) Birds of the air, which are neither scavengers nor raptors
2. Not slaughtered, but eaten with the name of God mentioned
All sorts of river and seafood that live wholly within the water
Locusts; this category may include grasshoppers, as they are of the same species.
3. Slaughtered by the people of the Book
All the animals above, mentioning God’s name before you eat, except if you are sure that it was slaughtered in the name of idols.
4. Slaughtered by non-Muslims who are not from the category 3, above
If you are not sure who slaughtered it, one of the opinions of scholars, and perhaps it is the majority opinion from the schools of thought, is that it is forbidden. However, I am not satisfied by the proofs, based upon the narration quoted earlier from A’isha in Bukhári, when she asked about some new Muslims bringing with them meat. It is not mentioned whether the new Muslims were from the Christians, Jews or the Arab idolaters. In my own opinion, which may not be that of the majority opinion, even if they were from the idolaters, perhaps all those animals that are mentioned in the first category, so long as you are not sure they have been slaughtered in the name of idols are permitted, God willing, on the obligatory condition that you mention God’s name on the food before you eat it.
‘A’isha said that some Bedouin people used to bring us meat, and we did not know whether they had mentioned name of God (when slaughtering it) or not. The messenger of God (may God praise him) said, “Mention the name of Allah (over it) and eat.” [Nasa’i 43/39. 4441]
However, this is just an opinion, not a legal verdict, and one should consult an Islamic scholar over interpretation.
5. Forbidden food
Only in dire need, and as much as is necessary to survive, mentioning God’s name before eating.
6. Living among non-Muslims
If a Muslim is part of a minority living in the lands where people of the Book or idolaters are the rulers, it is better, and safer, to eat food from Muslim butchers if it is available, or slaughter it themselves. It is also preferred to eat out of tableware belonging to Muslims.
The Muslim Dietary Laws are based on the principle that anything not specifically forbidden in the Prophetic traditions or the Quran is permitted. As such, they are very practical Laws with built in leeway. In fact, a narration from Abdullah Ibn ‘Abbas tells us:
The people of pre-Islamic times used to eat some things and leave others alone, considering them unclean. Then God sent His Prophet and sent down His Book, marking some things lawful and others unlawful; so what He made lawful is lawful, what he made unlawful is unlawful, and what he said nothing about is allowable.
And he recited: ‘Say: I find not in that which has been inspired to me any (meat) forbidden to be eaten by one who wishes to eat it….’ up to the end of the verse. [Abu Dawood]
And the Quran says,
All food was lawful to the Children of Israel, (the descendants of Jacob) except what Israel (Jacob) made unlawful for himself, before the Torah was revealed. [Quran 3:93]
Say: ‘I find not in that which has been inspired to me anything forbidden to be eaten by one who wishes to eat it, except….’ the 4 categories of forbidden food already quoted, before. [Quran 6:14]
The Muslim dietary Laws dispense with the earlier rulings in the Torah and Gospel, providing a simplified code to follow. This code releases you from the self imposed restrictions the Jews made for themselves in slavishly following their elders to the expense of the Criterion (The Evidence that distinguishes between Truth and Falsehood, Wrong and Right) given to Moses, which is the Torah. And they put no hardship upon you. Adopting them will bring you one step closer to God, and strict monotheism, for, in Hadiyth Qudsi, God tells us directly:
I am as My servant thinks of Me. I am with him when he makes mention of Me. If he makes mention of Me to himself, I make mention of him to Myself; and if he makes mention of Me in an assembly, I make mention of him in an assembly even better than that. And if he takes one step towards Me, I take ten steps towards him. And if he comes walking to Me, I go running towards him. [Bukhari]
So why not take the first step, and turn back towards Him by eating according to His command?
Read on: The Spirit and The Letter