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Food and Feasts

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Food and Feasts

    Customs involving food and feasts serve as an important part of most religions. For Muslims, following Islamic dietary rules and restrictions and participating in religious celebrations serve as acts of worship that help to unify the Islamic community.

    Rules and Customs.

    In Islam, acceptable food and drinks are referred to as halal, meaning lawful; impure products are haram, or prohibited. Both the Qur'an and hadith provide guidelines to indicate which foods and drinks are classified as halal. Muslim scholars refer to the Qur'an and other traditional sources to decide whether certain dietary practices agree with Islamic law.

    According to the Qur'an, God forbids the eating of pigs, blood, animals found dead, and animals over which the slaughterer invokes any name other than Allah (God). The Islamic holy book also prohibits the consumption of alcohol and foods sacrificed to idols. Muslim teaching further bans the eating of dogs, reptiles, carnivorous mammals, insects, and rodents. It urges Muslims to avoid eating animals that have not been slaughtered according to Islamic law. Moreover, believers may not consume foods that contain substances designated as haram. Examples include gelatin, which typically contains pig parts, and vanilla, which is extracted with alcohol.

    Cows, sheep, and chickens must be slaughtered according to halal regulations, which call for slitting the throat of the animal with a sharp instrument and the draining of the blood before the head is removed. The name of Allah should be recited over the animal. Some Muslims play a taped recording of the Qur'an.

    In addition to providing food guidelines, the Qur'an also encourages Muslims to eat a nutritious, balanced diet. It recommends a selection of beef, fowl, fish, grains, milk, fruits, and vegetables. The Qur'an further calls on Muslims to avoid waste and excess when eating. Muhammad extolled the benefits of moderation. He cited the belly as an individual's worst weakness. To help Muslims avoid gluttony, he taught that they should stop eating before they became full. He recommended filling one-third of the stomach with food and one-third with water, leaving the last third empty.

    Muhammad also delivered rules for proper eating etiquette. He stated that, before eating, Muslims should wash their hands and praise Allah. They should eat using only their right hand. At the end of each meal, Muslims should give thanks to God and praise God for the food, the ability to swallow it, and the ability to allow it to exit. He entreated Muslims to wash their hands after meals.

    Over the years, Muslims have addressed many questions regarding their dietary regulations. Islamic scholars do not always agree on certain issues. For example, some traditionalists believe that Muslims should not eat food prepared by Christians or Jews. Reform-minded scholars, however, allow this practice, stating that Christians and Jews are People of the Book and that the Qur'an permits marriage among the groups. Islamic authorities also disagree on whether Muslims should take medications that contain traces of alcohol or other forbidden substances. Most hold that patients may take such drugs only if they need them in order to survive and have no recourse to substitutes. Scholars also ponder whether Muslims may work in places that serve alcohol, whether they may attend events involving intoxicating beverages, and whether they may serve alcohol to their non-Muslim guests.

    Setting Muslims Apart.

    Since the religion's founding, Islamic teachings about food have served a variety of functions. For example, Muhammad used dietary rules to help distinguish Muslims from Arabia's many warring tribes and to help unite them in faith. In places like India with strict social castes, Muslims of all classes ate together and followed the same customs. This practice reinforced their sense of community. Though influenced by Hebrew law, Islamic dietary customs also set Muslims apart from Jews. The Qur'an's ban on alcohol serves as the most profound distinction. (Jewish people use wine in many rituals and feasts.)

    Muslims believe that their religion's teachings on food result in physical benefits, which in turn aid in spiritual development. For example, the balanced diet recommended by the Qur'an promotes growth, strength, and healing. Fully removing the blood from a slaughtered animal decreases the amount of harmful bacteria the meat may contain. Following Muhammad's teaching on moderation reduces health problems related to obesity. Moreover, the Prophet's rules promote hygiene and combat the spread of disease.

    Celebrating Religious Occasions.

    In addition to observing various dietary practices, Muslims use food to celebrate holidays. Religious gatherings form an important part of Islamic worship, and feasts serve as major components of most Islamic festivals. Such events promote a sense of community as Muslims gather with family and friends.

    The two most widely observed feasts are the Feast of the Breaking of the Fast of Ramadan (Eid al-Fitr) and the Feast of Sacrifice (Eid al-Adha). The former begins with the first sighting of the moon on the last day of the Ramadan fast and lasts for three days. Before the festivities, Muslims make contributions to charitable organizations. During this festival, school is cancelled. Muslims serve special foods and sweets to their guests and give gifts to the children. The final day of Eid al-Fitr involves great feasting and celebration.

    The Feast of Sacrifice takes place at the end of the hajj—the annual pilgrimage to Mecca—and is observed by both pilgrims and nonparticipants. During this three-day holiday, Muslims commemorate Abraham's faith in God when God commanded him to sacrifice his son. Muslim families sacrifice an unblemished animal and consume one-third of the animal's meat during the feast. They give the rest to the poor. Muslims who do not make the hajj visit mosques and the graves of their ancestors instead. As with Eid al-Fitr, they also visit relatives, exchange gifts, and eat sweets.

    Muslims observe many other feasts as well as the two major ones. Newly wedded couples hold a walimah, or wedding feast, attended by family, friends, and neighbors. The feast of Mawlid an-Nabi celebrates Muhammad's birthday. On Lamu Island off the Kenyan coast, mawlid serves as the main holiday of the year and involves week long Qur'an recitation competitions. Muslims hold another feast on the Night of the Middle of Sha'ban, the month before Ramadan. Muhammad taught that, on this night, God records each person's actions for the coming year, as well as who will be born and who will die. During Ramadan, Muslims celebrate the Night of Power, the night on which Muhammad received the teachings of the Qur'an, with a feast. Many believe that God forgives their sins on this night.

    Foods and feast traditions serve as an integral part of religious life for Muslims around the world. The faithful go to great lengths to ensure that the food they buy at stores and at restaurants does not contain haram substances. Supermarkets in the United States increasingly sell meat slaughtered according to Islamic law. North Carolina, a state that raises chickens for sale, exports halal birds to some Muslim countries. In areas of the United States with small Muslim populations, Islamic lobbyists continue to press for a greater availability of food prepared in accordance with Islamic dietary guidelines. See also Abraham; Calendar, Islamic; Dietary Rules; Eid al-Adha; Fasting; Ramadan.

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