When you invite your Muslim friends over for dinner, what will you serve?

Most of us know that Jews don’t eat pork.  Fewer of us know that there are other dietary restrictions for Jews who follow “kashrut,” the technical way to say one “keeps kosher” or only eats kosher foods.  Probably even fewer of us know Muslims also have certain foods they are commanded not to eat.

Yesterday we noticed that this section of the second surah discusses how good people relate to money, justice, and sexuality.  Today we finish that section noticing what it says about how good people approach food and time.  Muhammad is to command the people to have control over what they put into their bodies.  Good people have restraint.  They must not eat food that is already dead when found (carrion), meat containing blood, meat that comes from pigs, or any food that has been associated in some ritualistic way with a god other than Allah.  God offers mercy to cover those rare times when extreme hunger might drive one to eat these prohibited food, but otherwise good people have the restraint necessary to stay away from these foods.

Good people also possess the self-control to control the times at which they eat.  There is a time for fasting.  Fasting is greatly beneficial and has a way of bringing “ease,” “guidance,” and “thankful[ness]” to a person.  The Qur’an began to be revealed during the month of Ramadan so Muslims set aside this month for day-time fasts.  Fast from when “the white thread becomes distinct from the black” of night (love that image!) until nightfall.  Then you can eat your fill.  Good people are not enslaved by their stomachs.  Again, notice Allah is generous in how fasting is observed.  People who are ill or traveling during Ramadan can fast at a different time.  People who are simply too unhealthy to fast can gain the same benefit by feeding needy people.  This is another reminder that we are not talking about rigid legalism here.

Halal: "i'm loving it!"

Ramadan can be discussed further when it recurs later in the Qur’an.  The important Islamic practice of keeping a halal diet is introduced for the first time in this passage, and it remains very important for how Islam is practiced still today.  The Muslim term “halal” is roughly synonymous with the Jewish term “kosher.”  In addition to the restrictions mentioned above (blood, carrion, swine, and food offered to other gods) Muslims also avoid alcohol or other intoxicants.  Bear that in mind when you plan your menu!

To fill out our understanding, the Jews had a great number of dietary restrictions as well (see Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14):

  1. No animals without split hooves and who do not chew the cud (i.e., pigs and camels; good news, as of 2008 giraffes have been declared kosher)
  2. No meat from animals that were dead when found (carrion, or “roadkill” as we would say in these parts!)
  3. Only fish with fins and scales (i.e., no lobster or shrimp)
  4. No birds of prey (really, who eats an owl?)
  5. Only hopping insects (chocolate-covered grasshoppers anyone?)
  6. No animals that move about on the ground or close to it (i.e., rats, lizards, snakes)
  7. No blood (Lev. 7:27)

Later, as Judaism developed, other restrictions were put in place for anyone who wished to keep kosher:

  1. Meat and milk products cannot be mixed in a dish (chicken alfredo?) or on the same dishes (yep, that’s twice the number of dishes to wash!)
  2. Meat is to be slaughtered and prepared in a special way to ensure as much blood is eliminated from the meat as possible (one of the grocery stores in my part of Memphis well populated by the the good-sized Jewish population of our city even has its own kosher butcher)

Notice the great number of similarities between keeping kosher and halal.  In fact the Qur’an says:

The food of the People of the Book [Jews] is lawful for you as your food is lawful for them. (5:5)

The purpose for the Jewish food laws has been debated but I like what John Hartley (Leviticus, Word Biblical Commentary) says.  He emphasizes the symbolic message of holiness or “otherness” sent out to the observing world by keeping kosher (and theoretically it would apply to Islam as well):

In following these dietary laws, the Israelites obeyed God’s instructions several times each day, developing deep in their consciousness an attitude of obedience to God.  That all the people observed these laws at every meal was a mighty force of solidarity, uniting the people as God’s special treasure (Exod 19:5).  It separated the Israelites from their polytheistic neighbors and became a distinguishing mark of their national identity.  The importance of these dietary laws increased when the Jews became dispersed among the nations,  They have become a significant force in preserving Jewish identity.  They erect a high barrier against assimilation and amalgamation of the Jewish people, which would lead to the loss of their racial identity.  Today, keeping kosher is a distinguishing mark of a very devout Jew and communicates the understanding that that person belongs to the chosen people of God. (p.163)

What about Christians?  Based on the amount of pork BBQ eaten in Memphis on Sundays after church Christians don’t seem to place the same limitations on themselves.  However, the issue of diet was in fact quite a vibrant discussion in the early church.  Most of the first Christians were Jewish and they naturally assumed they should keep the same food restrictions they grew up with once they became Christians.  Good Christians maintain Law, don’t they?  The council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 was about this exact topic: how “Jewish” does a Christian have to be?  At Paul’s encouragement especially, the decision was made to remove every barrier possible to make coming to Christ easier (Acts 15:19).  Only blood, meat from strangled animals (which would retain a great amount of blood), and food sacrificed to some other god were forbidden (Acts 15:29).  Pigs and lobster were open game!  Yet, within years of this decision Paul said not to even worry about food sacrificed to idols if your conscience allows and you are not causing your brother or sister to transgress his or her conscience (Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 8 & 10).  The Church had taken the words of Jesus in Mark 7:14-23 to their logical conclusion:

14 Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15 Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”

17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

20 He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”

It does not matter what you eat.  Physical food does not contaminate a person; a diseased heart makes the whole person unclean.

What do you think?  Getting caught up in physical rules (for food or many other things) can make you miss the real point, as Jesus said.  But are we missing a great opportunity to say to the world we are a different and distinct people, as seems to be the spirit of keeping kosher and halal?