I’M a non-smoker, but when I read the Cape Argus headline that the South African National Halal Authority had banned smoking, I laughed like a drain.
SANHA is one of the four Halal certification bodies in South Africa which certifies that foodstuffs are permissible under Shari’ah, or Sacred Law. Halal is very similar to Jewish Kosher. Often Halal and Kosher stamps share the same space as Muslims can consume kosher products.
But after I’d picked myself up from the floor and wiped the tears from my eyes, I realised that this was a serious moment too. For if SANHA had delivered a fatwa (a judicial opinion) on smoking there would be repercussions.
Smoking may indeed be detrimental to one’s health, but SANHA was a certifying body and not a judiciary like, for example, Cape Town’s Muslim Judicial Council. In other words, SANHA was not authorised to issue religious edicts.
And yet it seemed to have done that, its proclamation headed by the statement: “Don’t Kiss up to the Kiss of Death.”
Whilst scholars of Al-Azhar in Egypt have moved to declare smoking haram, or impermissible, the fact is that the majority of legal scholars still consider it legally permitted – but only in the sense that it borders on the disliked.
There is no mention of smoking in Qur’anic texts or Prophetic traditions. Its permissibility has always been a question of scholastic deduction in which differences of opinion have to be respected.
When I contacted Maulana Saeed Navlakhi, a spokesperson for SANHA, he told me that the organisation had just issued a media “alert” about ingredients used in the manufacture of cigarettes.
He said that studies in Australia and the Netherlands had revealed that pig derivatives (prohibited in Islam) had been used in the chemical make-up of cigarette filters.
When confronted with the comments of the local tobacco industry (published in the Cape Argus) that they did not use such products, he replied that SANHA had not banned smoking.
“We have not banned cigarettes. In terms of our religious responsibility this was just an alert to the Muslim consumer who should not be smoking anyway,” he explained.
However, whether SANHA issued a fatwa or not, South African Muslims are facing an increasingly rugged terrain of nit-picking do’s and don’ts with regards to halal products. Smoking is but the most recent example. And if the truth be told, halalisation world-wide has become big business.
But unfortunately, it’s a multi-million rand industry that preys unmercifully upon consumer insecurity and ignorance. It also capitalises on producers who, fearing a loss of sales from their Muslim customers, are forced to join the halal bandwagon.
The bewildered South African Muslim consumer now faces growing lists of products deemed legally doubtful by the certifiers. Indeed, it could be said that the sultans of halal now tyrannise the supermarket shelves – right down to hot-cross buns.
That doubt should have entered the equation is scandalous, as in Islam doubt is regarded as a reprehensible thing. All Islamic legal scholars agree that the foundational principle of Sacred Law is its permissibility.
This is why, as the famous legal scholar Shaikh Yusuf Qaradhawi explains, Muslims can happily eat at the tables of Jews and Christians.
In other words, in Islam things are permissible before they can become impermissible – not the other way round. That is the law of the universe. Yet in many cases, I would accuse the halal bodies of flouting this very principle.
I would accuse them of engendering the idea that everything around us is impermissible until it gets their halal stamp. This back-to-front, upside-down legal theology seems to have as its departure point, the assumption that all Muslim consumers should never be able to think for themselves.
If one bears in mind that most products only become legally impermissible through intensive contact with impurities such as the flesh of swine, alcohol, urine or faeces, the application of products deemed “halal” today is mind-boggling in its range.
For instance, my random rifling through the grocery cupboard at home reveals that spring water, spaghetti, macaroni, oats, tuna, pilchards, cocoa, coffee and cornflakes have halal stamps on them. That all of these products are fundamentally permissible by their very nature seems to have escaped the notice of the zealous certifiers.
Without doubt, the most astonishing “halal” product here is the spring water. With all bottlers filtering their water (thus rendering it legally pure) one wonders how this particular company was persuaded to pay for a halal stamp.
Yet another example of this legalistic pedantry was when I discovered a halal toothpick in one of our local airline meal packs. On one end was halal stamp, and on the other was a kosher one. “Put a crucifix in the middle and we’ve solved the Middle-East problem,” joked my companion.
Of course, one of the biggest problems when a person deliberately splits the hair is that embarrassing paradoxes emerge. That’s why I could find a packet of halal bacon-flavoured noodles in a Far Eastern country. The flavour was entirely artificial.
Let it be said: I’m not against responsible halal certification. But the sense that a fundamentalist thread is weaving its way through the halal industry is growing in the community.
People are becoming sick and tired of fanaticism; a legalistic fanaticism which they say doesn’t represent the ethos of the Prophet Muhammad, a person of compassion and kindness who, traditions say, actively prevented his companions from indulging in pedantry.
“If he had the easier choice of two, he (the Prophet) would always prefer the easier one,” reports his wife A’isha, who also said that Muhammad – peace on him – was a man of moderation.
And to add to this, the Prophet himself had once said that Islam, like any religion, was a powerful thing. He warned that if people made it difficult for themselves, Islam would make it even more difficult for them.