8  Work, Food, Drink and Social Etiquettes

8.1 Alcohol

8.2 Halaal Food

8.3 Halaal Slaughtering

8.4 Eating

8.5 Visiting Muslim Homes and Families

8.6 Work

8.7 Humour, Islamophobia and Racialism

8.1       Alcohol

An astonishing amount of social interaction takes place in British society around alcohol.  Not only are informal networks in the workplace created in the pub, but most other gatherings which seek to build teams and organisations are lubricated with alcohol.  It may be thought that in common with other non-drinkers, Muslims can simply participate merely with non-alcoholic refreshment, but there are problems on several levels. 

Firstly in Islam, alcohol is considered dirty in itself.  Although it has valid surgical uses, it is otherwise treated as an impurity that needs to be cleansed from the body or clothing.  This is extremely awkward where drinks are handed around, spilt or mixed with non-alcoholic drinks.

Secondly whether or not Muslims are visibly conspicuous, they feel particularly exposed in pubs and clubs, where the general ambience is towards breaking down of inhibitions.  Muslim experience of lowering inhibitions among drinkers, is of increased racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia among some participants.

Thirdly, there is a corresponding lowering of sexual inhibitions among drinkers, and Muslim sensitivities about sexual propriety are ignored by drunken colleagues as well as strangers.  Sometimes Muslim propriety is directly challenged – awkward people, men and women, with alcoholically lowered inhibitions, believe it is appropriate to challenge the specific inhibitions of Muslims and goad them into a lower, more “integrated” standard of sexual behaviour.  This is not restricted to conspicuous, conscientious Muslims, but affects anyone who is known to come from a Muslim background.  It can be direct or surreptitious e.g. spiking soft drinks with alcohol would be considered amusing by many non-Muslims and outrageous by Muslims.

Quite reasonable Muslim reluctance to participate in activities in which alcohol is used, causes a major obstacle to Muslim participation in informal networks in the workplace, but it also limits the extent of Muslim involvement in many other aspects of life, e.g. in the local neighbourhood, in community, social, leisure and sports organisations and activities as well, because many of these activities are punctuated by alcohol use.

8.2       Halaal Food

Halaal is an Arabic word meaning ‘lawful’, and is used as a collective word to describe the Muslim diet.  The opposite, ‘prohibited’ is haraam.

Food that is halaal includes:-

  • All fruit, vegetables and vegetable products except those mixed with alcohol.
  • All fish and fish products, except those that are amphibious.  Thus many crustaceans – crab, lobster, shrimp and prawns are haraam, prohibited.  (There are different opinions among Muslim scholars over some shellfish, however.)
  • Meat or meat product which has come from an animal that has been slaughtered halaal, ie with its jugular veins cut through (and not its spinal cord) while conscious and not sick.  There are restrictions on which animals are lawful to be slaughtered, basically herbivorous ones, but not some beasts of burden such as horses.  It is forbidden to eat omnivorous animals such as pigs, dogs and other scavengers or carnivorous animals, regardless of how they are slaughtered.
  • Dairy products are halaal, provided they contain no ‘dead animal’ content that has not come from a halaal source.  Thus fresh milk and butter are invariably halaal, but cheese may have been made with rennet from a haraam, prohibited, source, e.g. the stomach of a calf that had been killed with a bolt or by electrocution, though vegetarian cheese or rennet is nowadays widely available and quite acceptable.
  • Eggs are halaal, as long as they have also been cooked in a halaal substance.

Anything that is marked ‘Suitable for Vegetarians’ is halaal except if it contains alcohol, even if the alcohol has been boiled out by cooking.  However vinegar is halaal even though its manufacture required fermentation of alcohol.

Cooking of halaal (lawful) food in a haraam substance makes the food haraam.  For example, if a piece of fish or an egg is cooked in vegetable oil, but the vegetable oil had previously been used to cook non-halaal meat or something with such meat in it, the vegetable oil would become haraam, as would the fish or egg cooked in it.  Obviously this is just as true for eggs fried in a pan in which bacon has been cooked, unless preceded by thorough cleaning of the pan and use of oil free of bacon fat.  Similarly, halaal food becomes haraam when it is prepared with an implement or on a surface that is contaminated with haraam substances, e.g. when the same knife or cutting block is used to prepare both halaal meat and haraam without being thoroughly cleaned in between.

The required degree of cleanliness of implements contaminated with haraam substances is achieved by normal cleaning to remove all trace of the impurity, followed by thorough rinsing under running water.

Many ready-prepared and catering food products have animal based ingredients, some of which are obscure.  Obviously away from Muslim countries, these are certain to be from haraam sources, so the product itself becomes haraam.  Common examples are gelatine, stock, suet, fat-based emulsifiers and cochineal.  These can appear in sweets, soups, glazes, puddings, sauces etc.

There are no restrictions on how or when halaal food is eaten or what item is eaten mixed with what.

8.3       Halaal Slaughtering

The supply of halaal meat raises a number of controversies.  Firstly there are differing opinions as to whether stunning an animal before slaughter is acceptable, because (i) the animal is then sick and it is not permitted to slaughter a sick animal for food, and (ii) in its stunned state the loss of blood is not fast enough to kill the animal quickly or ensure that it is sufficiently clean of blood when dead.  An unstunned and halaal-slaughtered sheep or cow will almost always be dead and still within six seconds, whereas a bolt-gun-slaughtered animal whether stunned or not, may return to consciousness even while being rendered because a critical part of the brain has not been destroyed by the bolt.

Secondly when being slaughtered, the slaughterer must pronounce the formula, ‘Bismillah wa Allahu Akbar’ – With the Name of Allah and Allah is Great’.  There are a number of large scale producers of meat that claim to sell a halaal product where the pronouncement is made by  tape loop playing in the background, or where the knife is engraved with the words, neither of which is acceptable.  Some high throughput poultry suppliers slaughter so fast that many animals have their spinal cord cut – this is not halaal.

Thirdly, there is a much greater retail supply of halaal meat than slaughterhouse supply.  A TV documentary exposé demonstrated that many butchers purporting to sell halaal meat were not in fact doing so, and that five times more ‘halaal’ meat was sold than actually produced.

Various attempts have been made by the Muslim community to regulate the production and supply of halaal meat, but with limited success due to the huge resources this entails if it is to be effective.

It may be thought that Indian restaurants are a source of halaal food, since the vast majority are run by Bangladeshi Muslims, but the extra cost of halaal meat and narrow profit margins mean that only those catering expressly for a Muslim market are likely to be halaal.  What the consequences are for habitués of Indian restaurants, in which neither the cooks nor the waiters have ever tasted the food they serve, are left for conjecture.

8.4       Eating

Traditional Muslim practices are determined by the Sunnah.  The Sunnah for eating is quite elaborate, but the most conspicuous features are sitting at a cloth spread on a clean, shoe-free floor or on a platform a few inches off the floor, washing hands immediately before and after eating, and eating and drinking with the washed right hand, not the left.  As with everything else there are differing degrees of knowledge and willingness to practice among Muslims, but anyone invited to a practising Muslim household should anticipate this sort of arrangement.

8.5       Visiting Muslim Homes and Families

Most of the points of etiquette associated with visiting Muslim homes has been covered in detail elsewhere already.  It will be normal to leave one’s shoes in the hallway, but to use the slippers provided at the entrance to the bathroom and toilet.  Men and women are entertained separately if the guests are outside the family.  Meals are often laid out on a cloth on the carpet, and hands washed just before eating, often by passing around a jug poured into a bowl if a washstand is not nearby.  It is normal to eat using the hands, so hands need to be washed afterwards as well, of course.  Religion is a normal topic of conversation; it is not considered intrusive to ask about religious issues nor particularly impolite to discuss them, even heatedly.

Parents continue to share their house with at least one of their married children and expect to be maintained by their children and grandchildren in their old age.  Many such extended families would consider it shameful for their parents not to be thus catered for, even where this makes the family home cramped.  It is quite common for two married brothers to continue to share the same house with their parents where this is practical.

8.6       Work

Following the Employment Equality (Religion & Belief) Regulations 2003, Muslims are now protected against discrimination in the workplace.  Also the recent Equality Act 2006 extends much of this protection to the provision of goods, facilities and services.

Issues concerned with facilities for salaah and other religious observances, food, dress, gender conduct, holidays, washing facilities, etc are covered extensively elsewhere in this booklet.

The Shari’ah forbids Muslims to receive or pay or do accounting of interest, except that where an interest-based debt has been incurred it has to be paid.  However given the extreme difficulty of acquiring property without a mortgage, most home-owning Muslim families have ignored the injunction.  Therefore they have been similarly uninhibited about careers in banking and accounting that are based on the money market and interest.  However as awareness has grown in recent years and as some formulae have been devised by which some banks can offer “Shari’ah-based” mortgages, many more Muslims have looked to ways of avoiding involvement in interest-based business.  This disadvantages Muslim employees who are thus unable to benefit from company contributory pension schemes, corporate home purchase plans and other similar employment benefits.  It also means that conscientious Muslims avoid jobs and careers in banking and finance.

Employees who work for clients of their employee may be placed in awkward positions where they are asked to serve clients in banking and finance, or alcohol, or a few other areas where the subject of the client’s business is clearly contrary to Islamic principles.

8.7       Humour, Islamophobia and Racialism

Conscientious Muslims are not noted for raucous humour and indeed Muslim ethics set much worth in a carefully restrained sense of humour.  This section is no exception. 

Unrestrained hilarity depends either on surprise or ridicule, and is invariably the luxury of the secure, well-established majority and its butt is the weak, insecure minority singled out for humiliation in circumstances where it cannot answer back.  That is why much humour is racialist or xenophobic.  Self-effacing and ironic humour exists where the target is one’s self or one’s own community, and is humorous because the person acknowledges some awkward or embarrassing aspect of one’s self or one’s own community.  Therefore self-effacing and ironic humour often reinforces the inferior position of the weak, insecure minority.  When the majority community uses ironic humour, the humour serves to acknowledge that something is wrong or perhaps hypocritical, without doing anything to change the situation.

Surprise as a feature of humour depends on an appropriate knowledge of what to expect.  If you know something well, the surprise hangs on a subtle change to what you expect.  If you don’t know the people well, if you only have general, stereotypical ideas about the subject or the people, the humorous element depends on a twist to the stereotype and plays those aspects up – it depends on prejudged notions about the people, i.e. racialist or xenophobic or Islamophobic notions in peoples minds.

In consequence Muslims are beset on several fronts – ethical reluctance to indulge in humiliation, defensiveness of an embattled minority, and reaction to reinforcement of racialist stereotypes.  Only when members of the Muslim community are in a strong and culturally secure position will it be possible to make jokes at Muslims’ expense, causing offence perhaps, but without causing real harm.

All the above features were present in the Danish cartoons affair.  A children’s publisher had unwittingly run into Muslim religious sensibilities about representing sacred figures, and a newspaper with a clear policy of antipathy towards Danish Muslims sought to mock these sensibilities by inviting satirists to provide ‘alternatives’, none of which had either any satirical merit nor the remotest suitability for any children’s book.  Although the main focus of Muslim protest was on the depiction of sacred figures at all, the purpose of the satire in the first place was racially-motivated and Islamophobic ridicule of the weak and small Muslim community in Denmark by using denigrating caricatures of stereotype Muslim figures.  At least no one in the world can now claim ignorance of the Islamic injunction against representing the figure of the Messenger of Allah Darood graphic in any way.  Orthodox Sunni Islam applies the same restriction to any of the Prophets or the Companions of Muhammad Darood graphic and is extremely averse to display of any pictures of human beings.  See 4.10 Pictures, Photos, Posters and Symbols for a fuller explanation.