Faith, Fanaticism and food in Islam

Faith, Fanaticism and food in Islam

Roger Kershaw

IN the present world crisis, which even some moderates on either side see as a ‘clash of civilizations’, we are often called upon to ‘understand Islam’. Usually these calls, from Christian as well as Muslim sources, aim to have us realize that ‘not all Muslims are fundamentalists’, let alone ‘terrorists’. ‘Amen to that’, say I. Down with cross-cultural misunderstanding! But will there be reciprocation? If non-Muslims must brush up on their ‘understanding’, and with all the heavy loading of ‘tolerance’ carried by that word, it behoves the Islamic world to return the compliment. This essay will suggests in roundabout ways, that this could be as difficult for ‘them’ as for ‘us’.

My other niggling reservation is distinctly off-beat, but starts off from the cultural situation that makes understanding and tolerance potentially difficult for Muslims. In the course of an academic career in Southeast Asian Studies, I spent an aggregate of fifteen years in two Muslim countries of Southeast Asia: Malaysia and Brunei. I became well acquainted with Muslim practice and belief, even if, as a historian-cum-sociologist, I probably picked up more of ‘people’s Islam’ than the doctrines of the best theologians of Al-Azhar University in Cairo. But the odd thing was: the more I learned, the more ‘exotic ‘it all seemed. It was as if growing familiarity unearthed ever deeper layers of unfamiliarity. Like numerous Western observers of Islam since the Middle Ages, I became increasingly aware of cultural difference. In the course of time I felt more, not less, alien vis-a-vis the Malays. This is not a feeling that I have ever had with the Buddhist Thais, or the non-Muslim descendants of head-hunters in Born eo — even in non-convivial contexts! Conceivably, Malay society was changing year by year, as Islamic revival became institutionalised. Whatever the reason, it was salutary and saddening.

At any rate, my anxiety in the present climate is whether a serious attempt to understand ‘Islam today’ may have untoward results. In face of deeper incompatibilities, some natives of these islands may find themselves thinking that harmonious multi-culturalism is an impossible dream: at best, useless to strive for; at worst, a con or dangerous conspiracy. Might it not be better to stick with the reassurance from church pulpits, the Prime Minister, and Prince Charles about ‘shared basic values’, ignore the recruitment among the so-called ‘young Muslim men’ of Britain for war service with the Taleban, and generally avoid probing too deeply?

Then I hear another voice of conscience, insinuating that to steer clear of the subject might play into the hands of those who condemn any analysis of Islam as a form of ‘religious incitement’. I felt intensely nervous about the British law-to-be on this subject, knowing how vigorously newly empowered Muslim interests are likely to invoke it, while Christians maintain an ‘asymmetrical’ silence over the other side’s arguably blasphemous denials of the divinity of Christ. Is our civilization about to surrender its post-Renaissance and post-Reformation intellectual birthright? I feel bound to write, if only in symbolic support of the freedom of expression now under challenge. (Last month the Government removed the clause about ‘religious hatred’ after it was rejected by the House of Lords.) On a pessimistic view (not unjustified in the light of the pressure on political and religious leaders to sign a pledge in early November ‘to avoid using inflammatory language’), even security-conscious wake-up calls from the liberal establishment may not be immune from attempts to prosecute critics of Islam (e.g. Hugo Young, ‘A Corrosive Danger in Our Multicultural Model’, The Guardian 6 Nov, 2001).

This article is just diagnostic and, I hope, a small contribution to the comprehension of difference. At least for readers already inclined towards tolerance, a basis of solid fact should be more helpful than self-delusion. For the sake of accessibility, as well as stimulating interest, I am putting the spotlight on food.

To Eat or Not to Eat

The most basic feature of Islam, in fact its self-justification, is its claim to have unique understanding of God’s plan for mankind, thanks to His last and most authentic Messenger, sent to the Arabs in the person of Mohammed. By contrast, the Jews and Christians remain hopelessly superseded if not obdurately kafir (unbelieving). In this light, one may be surprised by some striking similarities between Islam and its two local forerunners. On the other hand, perhaps this should be partly expected, as the point of departure for a religion that was ‘corrective’ but equally monotheistic. As Jews, Christians and Muslims all draw on the Old Testament, Islam includes the first two as ‘People of the Book’. Islam even goes so far as to recognise Jesus as a great prophet. ‘The Son of God’ He could not be, but His immaculate conception is accepted. Even Mohammed had attributes which come competitively close to divine, considering his reported, temporary ascension (mi’raj) into heaven at one point during his ministry, t o learn the correct form of prayer for mankind, and his role ever since as an interceder. Interestingly, and not without relevance for present conflicts in the Middle East, Jerusalem is a holy place for Muslims because it was from there that Mohammed was translated heavenwards.

Among other features shared with the Jews, so bitterly execrated by the Koran, are not only the prescription of male circumcision but the taboo on pork. Nor may Muslims eat the flesh of snakes. This might be rather hypothetical anyway — unless someone were facing starvation in the desert. (But in such case, all bans are lifted whose strict observance would result in a Muslim starving to death.) However, horror at touching, let alone being licked by, a dog is ever-present. I am not sure if either the reptilian or the canine repugnance has a Jewish origin. But a prohibition which certainly stems from the Jews is the one that forbids Muslims to eat the flesh of an otherwise ‘clean’ species that was not ritually slaughtered by bleeding the animal to death, to the accompaniment of a prayer. Jewish/Hebrew kosher became Muslim/Arab halal, while the Christians’ departure from Jewish practice compromised their status as full ‘People of the Book’.

In Britain, immigrant Muslims find themselves in an environment where, to their advantage, the state and public opinion have a long habit of indulgence towards Jewish slaughtering practice. This is despite majority native sentiment in this area, let alone the views of the more militant animal rights lobby today. And Muslims are allowed to buy meat from a kosher butcher. Meanwhile, the halal principle and the pork taboo are putting down deeper roots all round the world as Islamic revival advances.

Many Western food products, and types of cosmetic, have become taboo because they are believed to contain animal gelatine of non-halal origin, or alcohol. Tooth-brushes are scrutinised for fear that the bristles came from the loathsome pig. Pork grease contributed to the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Muslim overseas students in Britain today often avoid the university refectory where they assume that cooking utensils have come into contact with pork. They tend to congregate in communally rented houses where only Muslims live and the refrigerator and frying pans cannot be ‘polluted’. According to the religious authorities in some states, even food cooked or served by non-Muslim hands is ‘unclean’.

This kind of phobia naturally cuts foreign students off from social contact with the local student population. A valuable arena for mutual understanding across national and religious lines has been lost to both sides. My wife and I, around 1980, invited two student couples, Malaysian Muslims studying in London, to a curry lunch in our garden in Canterbury. Authentic dishes from the north-east of the Malay Peninsula were laid on. But our guests brought their own lunch with them from London, in thermos canisters. In face of this degree of exclusivism, I find myself thinking how Muslim lodging houses, with the atmosphere as heavy with prayer as with curry, could offer a secure environment to a conspiratorial activist.

Sacrifice and Fasting

One highly favoured animal in Muslim eyes is the sheep. Lambs are preferred: lambs for sacrificial slaughter. Here again Jewish tradition comes to mind, with special reference to the Passover, and of course the revised Christian conception of Jesus himself as the Paschal Lamb. One of the highlights of the Muslim year is the slaughter of animals, mainly sheep, goats and cows, by all communities at the moment when kinsmen on the hajj (pilgrimage) reach the climax of their rituals outside Mecca. This is called in Arabic Id-ul-Adhha (Festival of Sacrifice). One way of storing up merit in preparation for the next life is to perform this sacrifice personally. The tradition is greatly powered by the belief that the animal sacrificed is so deeply affected by the privilege that it will reappear and offer itself to its killer, as a mount, on the day of his or her journey to heaven. The meat slaughtered at the festival should be offered charitably to the poor.

Another type of restriction on human feeding, one that greatly cements solidarity among Muslims, is the annual one-month fast. It may be useful to note, first of all, that the Muslim year is a lunar year of twelve months, that is, about ten days short of a solar year. No thirteenth month is inserted every third (or second) year as the Chinese do, in order to bring the calendar back into sync with the sun. Consequently, the Muslim festivals fall on earlier dates in the Gregorian calendar in each succeeding year. In A.D. 2001 Ramadhan 1422 was in November-December, but Ramadhan 1427 can be expected in late September 2006. At all events, the potential effect of a holy month that is out of step with the secular calendar of the rest of the world (and which Muslim countries themselves use for most practical purposes) is to heighten a feeling of solidarity-in-distinctiveness. An ‘ethnic boundary’ is secured.

More important than the timing, however, is the genuine physical hardship for those who take the fast seriously, since the rules require total abstinence from food or drink (and tobacco) between sunrise and sunset. In the northern summer, with which the Prophet was unfamiliar, this is an incredibly Draconian requirement. As for the Arctic Circle, a Muslim would simply have to invoke the rule that no penance or restriction should result in a Muslim’s death. Fortunately, it is permissible to postpone the fast and ‘catch up’ at some later date.

The rigour of the fast is attested by the fact that Muslim states mobilise their police forces to check up on any breaches, at least in public places. Some states allow shorter working hours in government offices. The ethical rationale of the fast is to teach self-discipline, humility, and empathy with the poor. In modem times, medical arguments have been introduced: purging the body, losing weight, etc. But most fundamentally, it is God’s command, as conveyed by the Prophet over thirteen hundred years ago. Correct fasting is argued to shorten any period in purgatory that might be due for expiation of sins, before the chosen are admitted to heaven. Socially speaking, shared obedience to the true and correctly understood God, plus the special rigours of the fasting itself, enhance a subjective sense of world-wide fellowship — within the favoured, universal umma (community of believers) of which Muslims are already members.

It can easily be imagined that the denial of food and water for fifteen hours or so in a hot climate can induce a feverish and suggestible state, sometimes hallucination, even without the sense of ethnic excellence aroused by any rigorous ritual, or emotive sermons, or motivational fatwa (rulings). Pride in self-sacrifice during this most holy of months can merge with a readiness for martyrdom. Western colonial governments of old had to look out for rebellions fomented by the ulema (religious scholars). In Algeria in the past decade, the cutting of hundreds if not thousands of Muslim throats in villages considered loyal to the established power (the anti-Islamist military) reached its highest levels during Ramadhan. In November – before the Northern Alliance swept into Kabul – the U.S. administration was under great pressure to consider a bombing halt over Afghanistan during the sanctified ninth lunar month.

Those who urged such restraint spoke, publicly, of ‘showing respect for the holy month’, but an essentially pragmatic (though slightly paradoxical) consideration may be suspected. This is that jihad (holy war), being more blessed during this time, could be more easily provoked. Nor would Muslim soldiers, once on active service, themselves have to fast.

In fact, the fast is only the prescriptive dimension of the ninth month. At the root of its very special status is the fact that it was during Ramadhan, while fasting in a cave, that the Prophet received the revelation of the Koran from the Angel Gabriel. In some Muslim states the date of the original gift of God’s Word is regarded as sufficiently certain – the 17th day – to be celebrated accordingly. Brunei knows it as Nuzul al-Quran and makes it a public holiday.

Holy Soil and Holy Food

Solidarity in defence of ‘Muslim territory’ is not a new principle, but in mediaeval times, when the Muslim empire of the Middle East was loosely drawn, and the concept of state sovereignty still undeveloped, the legitimacy of a Muslim ruler did not depend on precise levels of religious observance throughout his realm. Indeed Muslim writers point to the tolerance of Islam, historically, towards religious minorities. Residues of pre-Islamic religion, sometimes called ‘syncretism’, were tolerated among Muslims. As for European ‘infidels’ in Arabia, for centuries they have only been excluded from the specifically holy places. However, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as Western economic interests encroached, Muslim puritanism tended to define the whole territory more consciously as sacrosanct. In other words, the foreign presence in the country as a whole began to be seen as sacrilegious. (Fundamentalist propaganda during the Gulf War made particular play of ‘American body fluids’ – a medium, presu mably, for alcohol and pork traces to enter the soil.) And as the new Islamic revival has spread far and wide – the land of the hajj being its major source, as in previous waves – other states have developed a far greater sensitivity to what happens within their national borders.

An anecdote from a remote corner of Southeast Asia will illustrate. In Brunei, rural Chinese pig farmers were forced in the early 1990s to dispose of their stock and switch to chicken production. The point was not that Muslims were being tempted by pork, nor were they close enough to the pig farms to fear that their rivers were polluted for bathing. Nothing was done to prevent non-Muslims from eating pork, either. But it now has to be imported, and sold discreetly. The soil of Brunei, within its internationally recognised boundaries, has taken on an aura of sacredness since independence from British protection in 1984. This is in the context of a ‘Malay Muslim Monarchy’ whose legitimacy depends on the defence and development of Islam, as much as on welfare funded by oil. Pigs simply cannot be allowed to be reared on ‘blessed soil’.

Interestingly, this concept of ‘unsullied sovereignty’ has been extended to the national carrier (Royal Brunei Air), which has been ‘dry’, alcoholically speaking, since the late 1980s. This is in line with the doctrine now (but not originally) general around the Muslim world that alcohol consumption is sinful. In such ways has Brunei become a microcosm of the Saudi kingdom.


Numerous situations comparable to Saudi Arabia can be found throughout Muslim civilization today. Typically, monopolies of power by monarchies or other autocratic regimes are defended in alliance with conservative ulema, whose power base is the devout masses (or students who translate ritual conservatism into political and international radicalism, and then, ironically, threaten their rulers as well as their rulers’ foreign allies!). The Islamic identity of the masses (and militant students) is constantly consolidated by religious teaching, in which correct eating and drinking have taken on huge symbolic significance. In these circles Islamic ‘correctness’ seems to be defined more and more by reference to ritual behaviour, less by the ‘social responsibility’ that was promoted by the early Muslim reformists a century ago in place of archaic custom, as a response to Western modernity. The cultural boundaries cutting Muslims off from non-Muslims become increasingly difficult to bridge, in the absence of ‘commens ality’ – eating at the same table.

But in a subtle way, these non-rational taboos could discredit and pre-empt the application of rational criteria in other spheres. At least they may lend psychological reinforcement to the uncritical defence of ‘Muslim brothers’ such as Osama bin Laden, besides validating obedience to the various fatwa of these new-style, non-scholarly ‘authorities’. Not that conventional, ‘institutional’ rulings provide any counterweight when they stipulate that bin Laden’s guilt can only be fairly established by four Muslim judges! In general, the uphill task for Western propagandists is thrown into relief when a pragmatic nationalist leader, Dr Mahathir of Malaysia, sets the Serbian massacres of Muslims in Bosnia on a par with U.N. sanctions against Iraq, as examples of a perceived anti-Muslim agenda of the West, which explains, if not quite justifying, the suicide attacks in America.

Of course, it is not suggested that differences about food are a ’cause’, in any serious sense, of the incipient global confrontation. The unresolved Palestine issue and other political conflicts are fundamental on the political plane. A deeper historical legacy is the nostalgia for the Golden Age of Islam, and Muslim chagrin over the failure of the umma to fulfil their destiny as bearers of God’s Truth to the whole world. This, too, has political implications, since in its early days Islam was carried forward by an expanding empire, and the imperative remains to establish a global Islamic state, in which religion would govern every sphere. For not a few Muslims, including British Muslims, the attacks on America have revived that vision, so long in retreat. These are the essential components of the crisis.

Nevertheless, in a given situation of millenarian ferment, there could surely be some oblique reinforcement from pervasive taboos which condition, regiment and identify their subjects. On the one hand, there is the possibility of a ‘defensive’ response (of the kind that turns aggressive) towards the silent mockery of an uncomprehending global culture that is proud of its achieving, secular rationality. This can even affect Muslims in Britain for whom Islamic identity starts as a mere rationalisation for inherited skin colour. On the other hand, less directly, there is the possibility that the transcendental criteria which underlie the food taboos and other behavioural requirements become the yardstick for evaluating behaviour and policy much more broadly, with the effect of frustrating the influence of progressive luminaries and modern groups within Islam.

I refer here to intellectuals and groups who seek accommodation with Western civilization on the basis of values we all share — whether of the spiritual kind (e.g. resistance to pornography or runaway materialism) or relating to civil society (e.g. defence of human rights and the rule of law). These elements in Muslim societies (including British Muslim society, if they would stand up and identify themselves) need our recognition and support. With them bridges of brotherhood could be built, in a common pursuit of human survival. But is, for instance, Tony Blair’s presumed conviction justified, that his Muslim counterparts (moderate men of faith) will be the formative and controlling influence in the halal schools which he so eagerly promotes? The triumph of moderation is no foregone conclusion, for the rationality of Muslim moderates may seem like a ‘surrender’ to secularism or Christianity in the eyes of the regimented majority, let alone the militants.

Or, simply, they will be tarred with uncleanliness through association. Communications between the civilizations will be soured for as long as any sizeable segment of the umma is convinced, deep down, that Europeans, Christian or secular, are beyond the reach of divine reason, if not downright dirty. ‘Food for thought?’

COPYRIGHT 2002 Contemporary Review Company Ltd.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group