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Dieting the Islamic Way

Posted by Arqustany Putra Monday, September 14, 2009


Praise be to Allah, the Forgiver of Sin, the Acceptor of Repentance, the Severe in Punishment, the Almighty. I bear witness that there is no god except for Allah, and that Muhammad is His slave and messenger, may the mercy and peace of Allah be upon him, his family, companions, and all those that follow his guidance.
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 these principles.

The Principle of Istihlak (Extreme Dilution)
Let me first explain this principle with an example: if an animal urinates in a lake (which happens all the time), the water of this lake is still lawful for drink and ablution (wudu) so long as the colour, odour, and taste of the water are unchanged by the urine. This is an example of the principle of istihlak, or extreme dilution, which can be stated as follows: When a prohibited substance is diluted in a lawful medium to the extent that none of the known properties of the prohibited substance are noticeable in the lawful medium, then the prohibited substance can be ignored. This principle is based on analogous situations that happened at the time of the Prophet Muhammad (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam). For example, some people asked the Prophet (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam) about a well in which carrion fell. (Carrion is considered impure and anything contaminated by it is prohibited.) The Prophet (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam) responded that if the water was more than a specified amount then there was no harm in using it. Similarly, the companions of the Prophet Muhammad (may Allah be pleased with them) would continue to drink fruit juice until it showed signs of fermentation; thus, they would only stop drinking from the juice if its smell or taste indicated that it had become wine. Fermentation of fruit juice begins almost immediately, especially in the heat of the desert. However, these untraceable amounts of alcohol, which do not affect taste or smell, were ignored by the companions of the Prophet Muhammad (may Allah be pleased with them).
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.

The Principle of Istihalah (Substantial Change)
This principle is best illustrated by two examples: if a pig is buried under an apple tree, the apples from that tree are lawful (halal), even though some of the nutrients in the apples are ultimately derived from the pig's carcass. Secondly, if a person eats pure food his feces are clearly impure even though his food is pure. In the first example a prohibited substance is converted into a lawful substance while the second example demonstrates the reverse process. Both of these examples demonstrate the principle of istihalah, or substantial change, which can be stated as follows: When a substance is converted into a new substance, the lawfulness of the new substance is not determined by the lawfulness of the original substance. According to another well-known Islamic principle, all substances are lawful (halal) and pure (tahir) unless they are explicitly labeled prohibited (haram) or impure (najis). The classical books of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) show that Muslim scholars have used the principle of istihalah in the past: there is a general consensus that oil contaminated by impurities can be made into soap to be used for cleaning purposes. Clearly, the end product (soap) is a new substance with properties quite different from the original oil, and based on its properties, there is no reason to prohibit it. Thus, the classical ruling (fatwa) of Muslim scholars is far more lenient than the practice of many modern Muslims, who avoid soap made of impure fats. (This is not to say that it is lawful for a Muslim to purchase lard, or encourage others to do so, for the purpose of making soap.)
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 prohibited.

Sources
As I mentioned in the introduction, these principles are not my own conclusions or opinions. Rather, they are unanimously accepted principles of Islamic Law. However, the specific application of these principles to chemicals found in modern food products was the subject of a conference of Muslim scholars. Before attending the conference, each invited scholar was first given a lengthy paper outlining the chemical processes that various food products undergo. After studying this paper for some months, the scholars attended the conference to discuss these processes in the context of Islamic Law. This article summarised two aspects of their discussion.
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, elqabbany@iname.com

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