Dietary laws form an integral part of Islamic jurisprudence. Some of these laws are mentioned in the Qur’ān, but most of them are based on ḥadîths, sayings or opinions allegedly expressed by the prophet Muhammad. Traditionally, the most prominent issues treated by dietary laws include allowed and forbidden animal species, methods of slaughtering, permission to eat “the food of the Ahl al-Kitāb (i.e. Jews and Christians)”, and the prohibition of drinking wine. Advanced technologies in the food industries have complicated matter in recent history. Muslims, especially those in western countries, are now confronted with new questions concerning the forbidden or permitted status of products with unrecognizable ingredients.
Dietary Laws in the Qur’an
For centuries, the three monotheistic religions have been writing the menu of Middle Eastern cuisine. The religion with the longest presence – Judaism – with its kosher dietary laws, has much in common with Islam, the youngest of the three siblings. As Islam enjoys the strongest representation, it contributes to the Middle East’s potluck more than its precursors. Christianity on the other hand, is primarily focused on faith and not on laws. As a result, it knows practically no dietary laws, and is in that sense, the region’s dietary oddity.
Islam comprises more than faith alone. The word Islam means submission which alludes to a complete surrender to God’s will. In the Muslim mind, this devotion to the Creator should cover all realms of life. Therefore, much like Jewish halakha, Islamic sharî῾a does not only prescribe rituals such as prayers and fasts but contains guidelines concerning even trade, clothing, sexuality, toilet visits, and food. In other words, and in the worldview of Islam, a person should let God determine his or her food intake. If a Muslim were to use a similar phraseology as Jesus of Nazareth, he might say that not just what comes out of the mouth defiles a man, but also what goes into the mouth. This philosophy stands in stark contrast to the directives of the initiator of Christian theology, St. Paul, when he writes in his Epistle to the Romans (14,17): “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
When Muslims decide to surrender their dietary habits to the will of God, the question that immediately presents itself is: What is – according to Islam – God’s will concerning foods and drinks? In other words, what are the dietary laws that a practicing Muslim should abide by? Consulting the first source of Islamic law, i.e. the Qur’an, we read the following:
Say: I do not find within that which was revealed to me anything forbidden for someone to eat, unless it be a dead animal, or spilled-out blood, or the flesh of swine – as that is impure – or it be something reprehensible, dedicated to another than God. But whoever is forced, neither desiring nor transgressing, then your Lord is Forgiving and Merciful (Sura 6,145; parallel verses: 2,173, 16,115)
Based on this verse, one would assume that Muslims only need to stay away from four kinds of food: dead animals (mayta), which means meat of an animal that died without being slaughtered; spilled out blood (dam masfūḥ), meaning blood that drains from the body during the slaughter; pork (laḥm al-khinzîr), and finally “something reprehensible, dedicated to another than God” (fisq uhilla li-ghayri llāhi bihî).
However, in Sura 5,3 we find a more extensive summery with ten forbidden foods:
Prohibited for you are dead animals, blood, the flesh of swine, and that which has been dedicated to another than God, and what was killed by strangulation, or by a violent blow, or by a head-long fall, or by the goring of horns, and that from which wild animals have eaten, except what you had [already] slaughtered, and that which was sacrificed on stone altars…
The most common explanation for these dissimilar texts is that Sura 5,3 with its longer enumeration elaborates on the concept of ‘dead animal’ (mayta). In other words, what is strangled (al-munkhaniqa), what is the beaten to death (al-mawqūdha), what has fallen to its death (al-mutaraddiya), “what was gored with horns” (al-naṭîḥa), and what was eaten by wild animals (mā akala l-sabu῾), are all subcategories of ‘dead animals’ (mayta). Mayta then comes to be understood as meat of an animal that died without properly being slaughtered or hunted. ‘That which was dedicated to another than God’ (mā uhilla li-ghayri llāhi bihî) and ‘that which was sacrificed on stone altars’ (mā dhubiḥa ῾alā l-nuṣub) are also two categories of one prohibition, namely meat slaughtered in dedication to anything but God.
Allowed and prohibited animal species
As noted, the only species forbidden for consumption by the Qur’an is ‘the swine’. Yet, that is by no means the end of it. Al-Imām al-Shāfi῾î (d. 820 CE), in his Kitāb al-Umm, argues against those who hold that only what the Qur’an forbids is effectively forbidden. He asserts that such individuals cannot object against eating worms or stool, or drinking urine, as this was not explicitly forbidden by the Qur’an. Al-Shāfi῾î quotes Sura 7,157 which establishes that the prophet Muhammad can issue prohibitions for deleterious things (yuḥarrimu ῾alayhimu l-khabā’ith). By using this argument, Al-Shāfi῾î strengthens the notion that the ḥadîth is an authoritative source of Islamic jurisprudence. Given the fact that Qur’anic dietary regulations are extremely succinct, consequently, Islamic dietary laws largely depend on the narrated instructions of the prophet.
The topic of forbidden species is much more particular in the sharî῾a than for example in the Torah. The Torah gives a few basic rules by which a species’ status can be determined. Thus, for a land animal the rule is that it needs to be a ruminant and have fully split hooves. The dual condition for fish is fins and scales. Islam does not have such ground rules. As a result, there are separate discussions on practically each species. In addition, there are common differences between Sunni and Shiite Islam, as well as between the various schools of law. In general, it can be noted that Shiites tend to be stricter in their dietary practice than Sunnis, and that Shiite scholars disapprove of all species that are forbidden in Judaism except for camel meat. My focus in this article is mainly on Sunni Islam.
Having already mentioned the Qur’anic prescription of pork, at first reflection its implication seems rather self-evident: no pork chops or prosciutto, no bacon and eggs, no pork belly, and no ham sandwich. But it’s a bit more complicated. For does the ban of pork only mean that the flesh of the pig (laḥm al-khinzîr) is forbidden? Or does it relate to other body parts as well, such as its hair and bones? Contemporary Muslim scholars who are confronted with this question, prohibit all parts of the pig. Yet, I have not found any ḥadîth that addresses this issue. Of course, that is not surprising. In a traditional society without highly-processed food, in which people could easily recognize what they eat, such a question was largely irrelevant. In contrast, in our day and age this question has become a meaningful one. For instance, paying attention to the labels on our grocery items, one can see how many food items contain gelatin. Gelatin is an animal protein often derived from pig bones. It is used in a plethora of products such as cakes, creamy puddings, gummy bears, ice-cream, Jell-O, and marsh mellows. When discussing this with Muslims, I am often surprised how little awareness there exists on the issue. Also, in many Islamic grocery stores, I have seen big assortments of brightly colored gummies, made with gelatin. A member of the Turkish community once asked me to explain what exactly gelatin was, and what is was used for. Somewhat bewildered, he drew the conclusion that pig products were possibly distributed to children in his mosque!
Concerning water creatures, the dominant opinion among Sunnites is that, everything that lives in the water is ḥalāl or permitted. Even fish that floats dead at the water surface are allowed for consumption. A few Ḥanafî scholars are however more stringent in this respect. In addition, some of them forbid water creatures that do not have the characteristic features of fish.
Carnivorous animals are generally forbidden to be eaten. This rule is supported by a great many traditions, such as “The messenger of God forbade (nahā) eating all wild animals with fangs and all birds with claws.” Yet, we find diverging opinions here as well. Al-Shāfi῾î, for instance, only forbids aggressive carnivores, that use their fangs or claws for hunting. Consequently, he allows eating hyena meat. Another influential jurist, Mālik ibn Anas, founder of the Maliki school of law, animals of prey are not ḥarām (forbidden), but merely makrūh (discouraged).
Within the ranks of Sunni scholars, we find different attitudes towards horse meat. By-and-large Shafi’i and Hanbali scholars regard the eating of horses ḥalāl while Malikis and Ḥanafîs forbid it. Those who approve base themselves on a ḥadîth that the prophet fed his companions horse meat. The opponents on the other hand, reason that this took place during an emergency on the Day of Khaybar, during a campaign in the seventh year of the Hidjra.
Within the recorded traditions, a distinction is made between wild and domesticated donkeys. Eating domestic donkeys is, according to most jurists, denounced, while eating wild donkeys is permissible.
Camel meat on the other hand, is permitted by all segments of Islam as the Qur’an mentions camels along with cows and small cattle as animals given for food. Consuming camel meat and, not to forget camel milk, constitutes an aspect of Islamic dietary law that most clearly diverges from its Jewish cognate.
Before ending our discussion of animal species, we need to address yet another category, in Arabic referred to as ḥasharāt al-arḍ, a term I am translating here with the Biblical expression “creeping things”. What is meant are several divergent species such as mice, snails, snakes, lizards, hedgehogs, scorpions and other insects. A discussion on this group of animals may not seem extremely relevant. Only few people would be inclined to put flies or mice on their menu. On the other hand, certain cultures are known for their esteemed cuisine which includes frog legs and escargots, snails in creamy garlic sauce. Additionally, many people are unaware of the scale insects they may habitually digest. I am referring to the dactylopius coccus, better known as cochineal. A red pigment is extracted from the female cochineal insects. This pigment has several names, such as carmine, cochineal, cochineal extract, crimson lake, E120, and Natural red 4. It is used as a coloring agent and is frequently added to yoghurts, juices, candy, ice cream, and other food items. One important reason why this color is so popular, is that the manufacturer can advertise that it concerns a natural coloring agent. While there may be minor differences of approach within Islamic jurisprudence towards specific species such as lizards, hedgehogs and jerboas, the overall attitude towards this category is dismissive apart from locusts. Thus, frog legs are certainly not allowed for Muslims, and consuming small insects, which would include the red dye from scale insects, is likewise rejected by most Muslim scholars.
As mentioned before, locusts are an exception within the category “creeping things”, for they may be eaten. According to most schools of law, excepting the Malikî, locusts are even halal when found dead. The prophet Muhammad allegedly said:
Two kinds of mayta are allowed for you, and two kinds of blood. The two kinds of mayta are fish and locusts. The two kinds of blood are the liver and the spleen.
Determining which species of animals are allowed for consumption is only one aspect of Islamic dietary legislation. Another key factor is ritual slaughter.
In Islam, ritual slaughter has several objectives. Among these is the proscription against digesting blood. This prohibition does not, of course, encompass each blood cell that can be found in an animal’s body. The law appertains to the above-mentioned dam masfūḥ (spilled out blood) which merely implies the blood that is drained as a result of the slitting of the animal’s throat. Ritual slaughter also serves to prevent unwanted participation in idolatry. This was a very real concern in Muhammed’s days when polytheists would invoke the name of one of their gods while slaughtering an animal, thereby dedicating it to that deity. To counter this practice, a Muslims butcher directs the animal’s head towards the Kaaba and dedicates it to the true God with the words Bi-smi llāhi; Allāhu Akbar (In the name of God; God is Great). It may sound strange when discussing the taking of an animal’s life, but an additional intention behind Islamic slaughter is compassion for the animal. The sharî῾a dictates that the instrument (normally speaking a knife) is sharpened to the extent that the animal experiences no pain. One must also calm the animal down. For example, to minimize fear and anxiety, it may not see another animal being killed before itself is slaughtered. Contrary to many supporters of animal rights organizations, Muslims regard their way of slaughtering as more civilized that the conventional methods used in most slaughter houses in the west.
Among all aspects of Islam’s dietary laws, ritual slaughter is most likely the closest to the laws of Judaism. Here, the difference between Islam and Judaism is in the details.
People of the Book
The Qur’an says in Sura 5,5:
Today, all good things have been made lawful for you, and the food of those who were given the Scripture is lawful for you, and your food is lawful for them…”
This verse allows Muslims to eat food of “those who were given the Scripture.” The question how far the implications of this permission go, stirs up discussions within the Muslim communities up to the present day. Who are to be considered part of these non-Muslims, generally referred to as Ahl al-Kitāb; People of the Book? What exactly is meant by “their food?” What if their dietary laws and practices diverge from the laws of Islam?
Such questions are especially important for Muslims who live in primarily non-Muslim societies, as it is they, much more than their brethren in Muslim countries, who are targeted by non-Muslims food producers and their products. All scholars of the Sunni schools of law agree that the food referred to in Sura 5,5 concerns meat from animals that were slaughtered by the ‘People of the Book’. In contrast, almost all Shiite authorities consider any meat slaughtered by non-Muslims forbidden.
The term Ahl al-Kitāb is universally understood to include Jews and Christians. As Islam recognizes these communities as recipients of authentic revelations, any danger of idolatry is believed to be absent. However, an issue arises with animals slaughtered by Christians as there is no Christian way of slaughtering. There are indications that in the days of Muhammad, Christian tribes that lived on the Arabian Peninsula used to slaughter by means of slicing the animal’s throat. Many Muslims reason that the permission to consume meat slaughtered by Christians has been invalidated as they now slaughter their animals in illicit ways.
Wine and other substances
Except for some Hanafî scholars, consuming alcohol is prohibited in Islam. In contrast to ritual slaughter, this facet of the Islamic dietary laws differs greatly for the Jewish laws of kashrut that admittedly has elaborate rules regarding wine but not concerning other types of alcohol.
Strikingly, when we consult the Qur’an on this topic, we do not find an unequivocal prohibition of wine. The oldest verses, from the first Meccan period, that refer to wine, describe it in anything but negative terms. We read in Sura 16,67:
And from the fruits of the palm trees and the grapevines you derive intoxicating drinks and good provision. Indeed, this holds a sign for discerning people.
By no means does this verse suggest that wine is something evil. Later, in the Medinan period, the verses become gradually more repudiating. For example, Sura 2,219 reads: “In both [i.e. wine and gambling], there is great sin and benefits for people. But their sin is greater than their benefit.” This text seems to say: Wine is okay, but only if you drink wisely. Chronologically next in line, Sura 4,43 does not contain an absolute alcohol prohibition either: “O, you who believe, do not enter into prayer while you are drunk, until you know what you are saying...” These words still do not imply that intoxication would be prohibited outside of the prayers, let alone moderate drinking. An interesting parallel in the Pentateuch is found in Leviticus 10, 8-10:
The Lord spoke to Aaron: Do not drink wine, not strong drink, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting […] so that you may distinguish between the holy and the profane, between clean and unclean.
Finally, the most dismissive verse in the Qur’an reads:
“O, you who believe, wine and gambling […] are only filth wrought by Satan. So, avoid it that you may succeed. Satan only wants to cause animosity and hatred between you through wine and gambling, and to distract you from invoking God and from prayer. So, won’t you desist?” (Sura 5,90-91)
No matter how negative this verse’s attitude is towards wine, the rhetorical question at the end is strictly speaking not a prohibition and, if one would were to base oneself only on the Qur’anic verse, could also be interpreted in terms of discouragement (makrūh). Be that as it may, if after studying the Qur’an, a Muslim should still have any doubts about Islam’s denunciation of wine, the ḥadîth does not mince words: Who drinks wine is an infidel, and drinking wine comes with a punishment of 40 or 80 lashes (depending on the school of jurisprudence). Moreover, someone who drinks wine is this world will not taste it in the hereafter, unless he or she sincerely repents. Cursed is not only he who drinks wine, but also who makes it, sells it, gives as a present, or is indirectly involved in any of these activities. Except according to some Ḥanafî scholars, this rigorous prohibition is not only directed against wine but also against other alcoholic beverages like beer, arak, vodka, and whisky. Everything that intoxicates or befuddles is included in the wine prohibition and thereby ḥarām. Furthermore, anything that intoxicates in large quantities is also forbidden in small quantities. Elaborating on this rule, contemporary scholars also forbid all sorts of drugs. Through the process of deductive analogy (qiyās), they base their condemnation of marijuana and other mind-altering substances on the principle that all that intoxicates is to be treated as wine.
Even though the warnings, admonitions, and hellish threats with respect to wine are many times more severe than – for example – regarding pork, my personal impression is that the psychological threshold for lenient Muslims to eat pork is nonetheless much higher than to drink alcohol. On several occasions, I have met Muslims who confided in me that while they would never eat pork, on occasion they enjoyed a glass of wine or a beer. Never did I encounter the opposite.
Present-day problems related to the dietary laws
Finally, let us consider issues that Muslims in a Western society are faced with. Examples of gelatin and cochineal-red coloring agents are just the tip of the iceberg. There are numerous additives, often marked with incomprehensible names or code numbers, that can be problematic in an Islamic diet.
Another dilemma in today’s age is genetic modification. What to think of an (allowed) tomato that is made resistant against mold through insertion of genetic material of a (forbidden) moth? Goat milk is naturally allowed. But what if the milk comes from a genetically modified goat that gives extra nutritious mouse milk? Anyhow, what should a Muslim’s attitude be towards genetic modification? According to Sura 4,119, Satan says to God:
I will mislead them, and I will arouse in them desires (…) and I will command them to change God’s creation…
It would be interesting to request a fatwā from an authoritative mufti if hybridization of species – be it conventional or by means of genetic engineering – is considered changing God’s creation. If that were the case, then not only the above-mentioned tomatoes and goat milk would be ḥarām but also certain newly developed fruits like limequats, tangelos, pineberries and orangelos.
Muslims in the West are becoming increasingly aware of the issues surrounding Islamic food. An editor of Al-Nisa, a Dutch magazine of a self-named organization for Muslim women, told me that most submitted questions fall in two categories: questions about the position of women in Islam (naturally), and questions about ḥalāl food. By the opaqueness of the problem, Muslims are often thrown back and forth between apathy and anxiety, between unnecessary mistakes and extreme stringency. I encountered a very peculiar type of consternation concerning food additives in the writings of Ahmad Sakr, an American professor of food chemistry. He writes: “Some chemicals were found (…) to cause cancer, toxicity, or to cause homosexuality…”
That less apprehensive Muslims are also worried about the status of Western foods will now be illustrated with a problem concerning cheese.
Among Muslims, one sometimes encounters the conviction that Dutch cheese is not ḥalāl. This is because in the Netherlands, cheese is often still produced with rennet from the stomach of a calf that has not been ritually slaughtered. There is however a ḥadîth on cheese, made by Persians who didn’t belong to the People of the Book, which proves that such cheese is permitted to be eaten.
During the campaign of Tabūk, they brought the messenger of God (God bless him and grant him salvation) a cheese. They said: “O messenger of God! This is food that the Persian people make. We are afraid it may contain mayta. He [Muhammad] said: Pronounce the name of God over it and eat!”
Based on this ḥadîth, many scholars allow such cheese, but some others don’t. Many Muslims prefer vegetarian cheese made with microbial rennet. In some cases, such rennet comes from microbes that have been modified with genetic material from calves, thereby producing calf rennet.
Most Muslims have no problems to figure out which species of animals to eat. With some effort, one can also avoid food products that contain alcohol. Ritual slaughter too, is not often an issue in most cities in the West unless the country of residence issues a ban on ritual slaughter, in which case such meat needs to be imported if one does not want to rely on the above-mentioned leniency for meat slaughtered by Christians. Of all discussed themes within the Islamic dietary laws, food additives constitute the most complicated issue. It is helpful for the sake of clarity that there are now organizations that supervise the production of certain foods and issue Halal certificates for these products. In addition, I believe that such organizations could further help their coreligionists, especially in countries with smaller Muslim communities, by issuing annual lists with supervised products that are available in regular supermarkets as is done by the Jewish communities in Europe. This could bring more clarity and calm in the desire of Muslims to align their dietary habits with the principles of Islam.
 This article was originally published in Dutch in: Marjo Buitelaar et all., Eet van de Goede Dingen, Culinaire Culturen in het Midden-Oosten en de Islam, Bussum 1995, 70-88
 Compare Matthew 15,11
 Verses from the Qur’an are cited in my own translation
 Al-Imām Abū ῾Abd Allāh Muḥammad ibn Idrîs Al-Shāfi῾î, Al-Umm, Būlāq, 1312-25 AH, vol. 3, Kitāb al-Aṭ῾ima, 241
 Either as prohibition (taḥrîm), or as dissuasion (ikrāh).
 The scholars arrive at this ruling through analogical reasoning (qiyas).
 Of course, it is possible that the awareness of the problem has increased since I first wrote this article. It is also possible that the gelatin in these candies are derived from alternative sources, such as cow bones, sheep skin of fish bones. By the way, the final product, provided it is pure, is chemically speaking completely identical.
 ῾Abd al-Raḥmān Al-Jazîrî, Kitāb al-Fiqh ῾alā l-madhāhib al-arba῾a, 2nd edition, [Cairo], 1933, vol. 2 (mu῾āmalāt), Kitāb al-Ḥazr wa-l-Ibāḥa, 7
 Sunan Abî Dāwūd, Cairo, [no date], vol. 3, Kitāb al-Aṭ῾ima, 355-356.; Ṣaḥîḥ al-Bukhārî, Cairo, 1345 AH, vol.7, Kitāb al-Dhabā’iḥ wa-l-Ṣayd wa-l-Tasmiya ῾alā l-Ṣayd, 124
 However, I was told of a peculiar custom that seems to be observed by some people on the Arabian Peninsula to bathe oneself as a means of purification after consuming camel meat or milk.
 Likewise, in the Torah, locusts are the only permissible insect. See Leviticus 11, 20-22.
 Sunan Ibn Māja, [Cairo], 1953, vol. 2, Kitāb al-Aṭ῾ima, 1101-1102
 Both prohibitions are present in the New Testament as well. See: Acts 15,29.
 According to Shiites, the permission only concerns non-meat items such as vegetables, fruit, grain, or bread, which may be produced or sold by People of the Book.
 Who else, besides Jews and Christians, should be considered Ahl al-Kitāb, is a matter of some discussion.
 However, Maimonides, in his codex Mishne Torah, greatly limits the permission to drink alcohol and prohibits intoxication; De’ot, Chapter 5, Law 3.
 A decision in religious matters
 Ahmad Hussein Sakr, A Muslim Guide to Food Ingredients, 5th edition, Lombard (Illinois), 1989, 10-11
 To be precise: the fourth stomach called the abomasum.
 Taken from an animal that wasn’t slaughtered correctly.
 ῾Abd al-Razzāq al-Ṣan῾ānî, Al-Muṣannaf, Beiroet, 1392/1972, vol. 4, Kitāb al-Manāsik, 542, trad. 8795
 Ironically, should genetical crossbreeding be considered ḥarām, this would mean that traditional Dutch cheese is ḥalāl, and vegetarian cheese ḥarām!