Sunday, June 1, 2014

It’s halal, no question about it

[An opinion piece from The Malaysian Insider on "halal-ness", and the quest for "halal-icity".

I like his very pragmatic and practical approach, though I can imagine, that some or most Muslims may not be comfortable with his approach.]

May 28, 2014

Abdar Rahman Koya

I had my usual tiff with my wife the other day and this time, it was not about who left the kid’s nappy on the bathroom floor. The subject is philosophical yet it had to do with the tummy.

We were invited by a non-Muslim friend to a birthday party. I always look forward to parties, because we will have plenty of hands to look after the twins, so that we can finally eat in peace. We were probably the only Muslim family. Yet, it was kind of her to assure us that the food catered on that day was halal.

That verbal assurance is good enough for me, but not my wife and understandably so, since this friend of ours does not have many Muslim friends.

Having been told who the caterer was, she called them to get reassurance that the food was halal and queried whether wine was used for the steak.

I told her that what she had done violates a basic principle of halal and haram (the lawful and the prohibited) in Islamic jurisprudence, and that is not to investigate when something is already known and accepted as halal.

By doing so, we risk creating doubts about the food we eat. And doubts are one of the main enemies in Islamic jurisprudence, the source of many evils and anti-social behaviour among Muslims.

One of the principles of halal and haram is that one should not pry into the origins of something which has been commonly accepted as halal. The same principle applies to many other things. When a host shows us the qiblah (the direction Muslims turn to during prayer) in his house, we do not click the compass app on our smartphone just to make sure.

Similarly, it is taken for granted that everybody performing the pilgrimage in Mecca and Medina is Muslim, or that a woman praying in the mosque is not menstruating.

It is on this same principle that I am not that excited when the halalness of a certain food or product is disproved through DNA tests. It opens up a Pandora’s box, in that doubts will emerge for all the food being mass produced and sold in the shops.

Although official halal watchdogs like Jakim have a duty to ensure a product is halal, since it is they who bear the responsibility as suggested by the phrase “ditanggung halal”, using DNA technology makes a mockery of the principles of halal and haram, as well as Islam’s claim as a religion choosing ease over hardship.

It is just a reflection of the quaint Islamicity practised in the country. The Muslim public in Malaysia are easily worked up over issues such as this, thanks again, as I have always stated in the past, to the way Islam is taught in this country.

If such an obsession with the halalness of the food was shown in political and economic principles, well-meaning Muslims in this country would not have to contend with so much ridicule because of the doings of the Muslim leaders and the salaried defenders of faith.

Already, since the discovery of pork DNA in two Cadbury chocolate products, we suddenly hear hitherto-muted Muslim voices coming to the fore. One wonders where these Muslim voices were when unIslamic racist DNA was bared for all to see through the loud mouths of Isma and Perkasa, parading loudly their ignorance in the name of Islam.

One group wants to initiate a class-action suit against Cadbury, while another calls for a boycott of all Cadbury products. If only the same zeal was shown by Muslims against tobacco companies, billions of ringgit from Muslim households would be saved, not to mention the saving of billions of ringgit in public money to fight cancer and other diseases connected to smoking.

Similarly, toilets in mosques and other institutions operating under the Islamic banner would be a far cry from their present filthy non-halal state, if only these groups were able to see halalness beyond pork in food.

It is thus comical when not long ago, the restaurant at Ikea, the Swedish furniture warehouse in Bandar Utama, had to undertake a major public relation exercise by carrying out a “purification session” of their cutlery, after claims that the meatballs they served might not be halal.

The fact is that such an act is not something instructed by the Quran or the Hadith. A Muslim can eat from any plate, even it was used to serve pork. Imam Nawawi, the 12th-century Islamic scholar whose writings form a major part of the Shafii school of thought, which is followed by Muslims in this country, said a simple wash suffices, and there is no need to do the silly act of purifying the plate seven times, as many have been led to believe.

In Islam, being doubtful is considered a disease, which is why the Quran, in a short chapter frequently used in prayers, teaches a Muslim to pray that he or she is protected from being doubtful about things.

Doubtfulness leads one away from moderation. It has led many Muslims to overdo things, thinking that their Islamicity is at stake. It is why some Muslim women cover their faces and without remorse spend big amounts of money on thick garb, when the dressing requirement in Islam is supposed to be about modesty.

It is also why many Muslims in Malaysia spend so much time performing the ablution, that act of washing one’s face, hands and feet before the prayer, forgetting that the act is not meant to physically cleanse one’s body, but just a symbolic gesture to imitate the Prophet’s practice, and which requires a little amount of water, or no water at all!

Mr Doubt is also behind the Malaysian-Muslim obsession with halal food, which for some reason has come to be all about shunning pork, and little else. It can even be used as a convenient weapon to play with the Muslim sentiments.

It has been done before, when a Muslim consumer group not long ago spread false messages about lard being used in High-5 breads, or when it endorsed an Arabic sounding toothpaste brand and tried to create doubts about other toothpaste brands through patronising holy verse-quoting radio advertisements.

With widespread ignorance, all it takes is to cry “pig” to create panic among the unquestioning Muslim consumers, who are not well educated about the philosophy of Islam’s dietary laws.

The Quran more than once tells us that God has subjected to mankind “whatever is in the heavens and what is on earth”. The prohibited in Islam is prohibitive in number and has been explicitly stated. The rest is lawful, because the general principle is that all things are permissible.

Yet, our Islamic authorities seem to be working based on the premise that all things are prohibited unless it is explicitly stated to be halal. And so we see products with halal logos on their labels, when the Quranic way would require that only non-halal products are identified.

There will be no end once we start classifying things as halal. What guarantee is there that the water we drink, from pipes which span hundreds of kilometres before they reach our homes, is halal? God forbid that a DNA test finds pork in our water!

Meanwhile, at the birthday party at the friend’s house, I and my wife left all our doubts and acted like any good hungry Muslim should: filling up our stomachs to our heart’s content and being thankful to God for His blessings! – May 28, 2014.

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