Over the last 7 years since I became a Muslim I have found myself in many situations where I have had to politely decline an offer of food or an invitation out. I am inevitably asked why I don’t eat pork or drink alcohol. Explaining that it is against my religion usually gets quick acceptance and even admiration that I take my religion that seriously. On more than one occasion someone has mistaken my aversion to pork as a religious obligation to mean that I am Jewish, and the ensuing conversation is usually amusing, especially given my background. Many think that I have always avoided pork and alcohol. Oh ho, not true. Let me be clear, before I became a Muslim I lived as any normal American. This means that I had an alcoholic drink at least once a week and pork was involved in at least 2 of every meal of every day. It wasn’t until I cut both out of my life that I realized how deeply ingrained they are in American culture and how difficult it is to avoid them. The level of dedication that this has taken has surprised even me. I remember they were the first things I gave up when I became a Muslim. I thought to myself, if I can give these two things up I can do anything!
The Quran addresses dietary laws in a number of places, most notably:
“He has only forbidden you dead meat and blood and swine flesh, and that (food) over which the name of other than God has been invoked; but if one is forced by necessity, without willful disobedience nor transgressing due limit, then truly God is Forgiving, Merciful.” (Quran 16:115 & 2:173)
“O you who believe! Intoxicants and gambling, idols, and raffles, are only a filthy work of Satan; turn aside from them so that you may prosper. Satan only wants to stir up enmity and jealously among you by means of intoxicants and gambling, and to hinder you from remembering God, and from praying. So will you not then abstain?” (Quran 5:90-91)
These two verses cover pork and alcohol as well as other dietary and lifestyle “rules”. There are many who see these laws and complain, saying that it is too difficult to abide by such laws. They ask how I can possibly do it. I tell them first and foremost it’s not just me. There are more than 1.8 billion (that’s BILLION with a B) Muslims in the world who don’t eat pork and don’t drink alcohol. Now, many of them have never eaten pork or a pork product. They have no idea what it tastes like. For those of us who give it up for the sake of Allah, we know the challenges it presents. 10 years ago I was the person who told you, if you want to make something better add bacon! Burgers, eggs, sandwiches, ice cream! Add bacon! I am supremely glad I found Islam before they made bacon ice cream.
Once you get past the idea of giving up food that you may or may not like, there is now a new problem: How to avoid pork products. Because it is a relatively cheap animal to raise and process, scientists have found ways to use pork in just about everything. From pharmaceuticals to food to hair care, it is astounding to find out just how much pork is in everyday life in America. When I gave it up I had NO idea what a lifestyle change it was going to require. It’s worse than going gluten-free. Gelatin is the pork by-product that is used the most everywhere. Gelatin is, in turn, everywhere. It’s not just in the obvious bowl of jello. Soon after I became a Muslim I found out my hair conditioner had gelatin in it. Then my favorite Noxema face cream. Next it was my hair gel. Nail polish and some nail polish removers. Make up. I found out that commercially produced cheesecake many times had gelatin in it. They use it as a setting agent to prevent the cheesecake from cracking during baking. Ice Cream, sour cream, I found gelatin in RICOTTA Cheese! REALLY GUYS? Pop Tarts and even store-bought cakes with fruit filling. The worst so far is medicine. I have yet to find a woman’s daily vitamin without gelatin. Children’s chewables were difficult, but I did find vitamins for my children. I have had to ask my pharmacist to make my prescriptions in tablet form, many times requiring my prescription to be re-written. I have had to open pills to get the medicine out, because the capsules they come in are pure gelatin. And yes, I do all this for the sake of Allah. Because Allah loves me so much, he told me what not to eat. He told me what is bad for me.
I have the same issue with alcohol. Not drinking alcohol is easy. But try going to a restaurant and ordering a meal that doesn’t have alcohol in it. Many foods are cooked in alcohol. Many times alcohol is simply used to de-glaze a pan. It in turn flavors the food. Now, there is MUCH debate about whether alcohol cooks off and how much you actually consume when you eat food that has been cooked in alcohol. But if your main goal in life is to please Allah (God), why would you risk displeasing Him? Seems easy enough to avoid it, right? I wish it were that easy. I have found alcohol in prepackaged foods. Sometimes I argue with myself about the “rightness”/”wrongness” in taking cold medicine with alcohol in it. It is not that Islamic Dietary laws have made me crazy. I truly want to do right. I trust that my decisions are the correct ones. And I believe that only Allah really knows.
We as Muslims face these challenges everyday as we strive to please Allah. It is our faith and our love for Allah that makes each difficulty easier.
“Rabbana la tu’akhizna in-nasina aw akh-ta’na. Rab-bana wa la tahmil ‘alayna isran kama hamaltahu ‘ala-lladhina min qablina, Rab-bana wa la tuhammilna ma la taqata lana bih, wa-’fu ‘anna wa ‘ghfirlana warhamna anta Maulana fansurna ‘alal-qawmil kafirin.”
“Our Lord! do not punish us if we forget or make mistake; Our Lord! do not lay on us a burden as Thou didst lay on those before us; Our Lord! do not impose upon us that which we have not the strength to bear; and pardon us and grant us protection and have mercy on us, Thou art our Patron, so help us against the unbelieving people.” (2:286)