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"Removing the Middleman" Chapter 2 - Surah Al-Baqarah (The Cow): Verses 169-173

Translation:

He (Devil) encourages you to commit evil and indecent actions and speak about God without (proper) knowledge. (For example), when they (followers of the Devil) are asked, “Follow what God has revealed,” they say, “No, we follow only that which we found our forefathers believing in and doing.” (God’s reply) is “Are you following them even if your forefathers had neither proper reasoning nor followed proper guidance?”  

The parable of those who continue to deny the truth is like the call of the shepherd to the beasts, who hear nothing but a call or a cry. These people are deaf, dumb, and blind, lacking all senses and not thinking or reasoning.

People of Faith! Eat the good things that We (God) have provided for you, and give thanks to God if He is the one you truly serve. He has forbidden (haram) for you only animals that died of itself, blood, the flesh of swine, and those which were (slaughtered) with names other than God’s. But if one takes out of necessity and without willful neglect or without desire, then there is no sin on such individuals. God is Forgiving and Merciful (to humans).

Interpretation:

It is critically important for today’s Muslims to understand the underlying message of God’s challenge to the people who blindly follow their previous generations without questioning. If God demands of the disbelievers that they do not follow their forefathers without validating their beliefs and actions, it is equally imperative for every generation of Muslims to distinguish between practices of a particular country, cultural heritage, and historical continuity and the practices and values based on Qur’anic and prophetic teachings. Many of our current weaknesses and our lack of progress come from following cultural norms, such as biases against women, Arabic style dresses being considered more Islamic, avoiding broad-based education, emphasis on religious rituals, tribal mentalities and kingships, over-extended loyalty to ethnic communities and national origins, and the selective interpretation of the Qur’an and the Sunnah (the Prophet’s teachings and examples from his life) to defend cultural norms. Instead, we should be following the universal Islamic values of equality of sexes, superiority based on proven righteous work, equal acceptance of all branches of knowledge, human equality and dignity, and service to humanity.

The specifics of what is forbidden for us to ingest are given here along with a message of God’s forgiveness for involuntary violations in this matter of dietary norms and prohibitions; yet, some people are quick to jump to conclusions and are overly restrictive in dietary matters. For example, unless something is expressly halal, some Muslims consider them to be haram, i.e., meat from a halal store or with a halal label vs. meat from a grocery where perhaps God’s name had not been taken. On the other hand, a name other than God’s name may not have been taken and as such cannot be haram. In another part of the Qur’an it says that the food of believing people (including people of the Book such as Jews and Christians) is considered halal for Muslims. My opinion is that unless something is expressly haram, it should be considered halal. This is a broader definition, acceptable according to the Qur’an, and it is easier for people to follow, especially in communities where halal food or food with halal labels may not be available or may be difficult to obtain due to distance or inconvenience. There are two traditions of the Prophet that provide principles that favor such interpretations: (1) The Prophet mentioned that whenever there are multiple acceptable options it is better to choose the one that is more convenient for people, and (2) In a hadith, the Prophet mentioned that angels do not like the smell of onions and that they stay away from people with such a smell. Upon hearing this, some of his followers commented that perhaps the Prophet should declare onions as haram, to which the Prophet’s response was swift and decisive—he said, “How can I do something haram which God has made halal?”

Reflection:

Thinking and reasoning are integral parts of the Islamic upbringing; however, there are many people and some scholars who feel otherwise. Also, the injunction related to a halal and haram diet is relatively clear in Islam, and one should not complicate matters by inventing circumstances or situations which are clearly omitted by the Qur’an and the Prophet.

Action:

This issue is more prominent in Western countries where growing Muslim communities find themselves lacking an adequate supply of halal shops and may be ambivalent about the lawfulness of grocery foods. We ought to take the broader view that the food of the people of the Book is acceptable by Qur’anic statement and simultaneously create a quality supply chain for halal food throughout the world. Until such a supply chain is established, our religious scholars and leaders should take the view that what is explicitly not stated as haram should be considered halal.

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