Dietary Laws and the Birth of Islam © Tineke Rooijakkers

Dietary Laws and the Birth of Islam

Foodways are an integral part of identity, and the proto-Muslim community was no exception. Based on Quranic proclamations on dietary laws, Mehdy Shaddel shows that among the early opponents of Islam there probably were “gentile” adherents of “Jewish” food laws.

Relatively little is known about the emergence of Islam. For a long while, historians of Islam based their accounts of its rise mainly on Muslim sources. However, in recent decades an increasing number of scholars have become convinced that these sources cannot be taken at face value. In addition, those advocating the use of the Muslim tradition for reconstructing the early history of Islam are resorting to increasingly sophisticated methods, such as the so-called isnad-cum-matn analysis, in their work. Nonetheless, the question as to what methods, approaches, and sets of sources are (not) suitable for the purpose of studying the emergence of Islam is still open to debate.

I should like to contend that one such method that ought to be forced into obsolescence is the use of the sira (prophetic biography) to “contextualise” the Quran. While the sira may indeed be the best source we can ever have on the life of Muhammad the man, its use in reconstructing the historical context of the Quran and the emergence of the proto-Muslim community is very limited. This is because the context in which latter-day Muslim authors were writing was different from the one out of which the Quran emerged. There might be a “kernel of truth” to those stories, explanations, and “occasions of revelation” we find in the exegetical and biographical literature of the second and third Islamic centuries onwards. But the fact is that these narratives were repurposed to meet the needs of an imperial elite who claimed to rule as caretakers of a universalist imperial religion that had superseded all other religious traditions for good. This, however, is not the impression that one gets when reading the Quran against itself.

A case in point is the beliefs of the Quran’s opponents. According to the later tradition, they were downright idolaters who worshipped statues cut out of wood and stone. There is, no doubt, reason to believe that the tradition is being tendentious here: for instance, polemical compositions written by non-Muslims living under the early Islamic empire frequently accused Muhammad of having had Jewish or Christian mentors, thereby hard-pressing Muslims to prove that Muhammad’s inspiration was divine. In order to prove that Muhammad was divinely inspired, the tradition had to depict his surroundings as primitive and savage. But, if the Quran’s polemics against its opponents are anything to go by, said opponents were monotheists whose monotheism was deemed less than perfect by the Quran, as argued by Gerald Hawting and Patricia Crone.

This suggestion finds corroboration in quranic injunctions regarding dietary practices and food laws, of which there are quite a few. Perhaps the most elaborate of them can be found in Quran 6, the “chapter on the beasts” (surat al-an‘am), where, after a long discussion of matters culinary, the Quran’s messenger is asked to inform the opponents that “I do not find in what has been revealed to me anything forbidden to eat for any individual unless it is carrion, spilt blood, pork… or an uncleanliness hallowed to other than God” (Q 6:145). Yet, having just denied that there are any divine dietary prohibitions in addition to those just mentioned, the text goes on to state, “and to the Jews We forbade any beast of uncloven hoofs and the fat of bulls and sheep… thereby punishing them for their transgressions.”

The same curious argumentation occurs again in several other quranic passages, notably in Quran 16, the “chapter on the bee” (surat al-nahl). It first enumerates a limited number of prohibited foodstuffs, and then the text warns its opponents against falsely stating that “this is permissible, and that is impermissible,” denouncing such statements as “slandering God.” Then again, we are told that “and to the Jews We have forbidden what We have already recounted to you; indeed, we did not wrong them, but they themselves wronged [themselves].”

Here we are given to know that only a limited number of food items are forbidden to the Quran’s opponents, that they should not claim that God has imposed any additional dietary restrictions on them, and that it is only the Jews who have been punished by the imposition of an additional set of dietary restrictions. The insistence that the stringent dietary restrictions observed by the Quran’s opponents are only incumbent upon Jews and should not be observed by the opponents indicates that they observed the full range of dietary restrictions of Mosaic law. But the Quran, obviously, thought that they were mistaken in so doing. The Quran’s position seems to be based on the fact that, for the Quran at least, ethnic “non-Jews,” those who could not or did not claim Israelite ancestry, were not supposed to follow the same set of dietary laws as the Israelites proper. That the Quran’s opponents did not claim Israelite ancestry is clear from the fact that this does not seem to be a bone of contention in the disputations preserved in the Quran; it must therefore have been a point on which both sides agreed.

The proto-Muslim community, it seems, emerged out of disputations over proper belief and practice with fellow “monotheists.” At least a segment of these monotheistic opponents adhered to Jewish dietary laws, but did not claim to be ethnically Jewish themselves. They were local converts to Judaism, who very likely identified as Ishmaelites, as other quranic passages seem to indicate.

This picture is in stark contrast to the one provided by the later tradition, wherein the opposition to Muhammad mostly consists of idolatrous “Arabs” with no understanding of the sophisticated religious culture of the wider Near East. Only by dispensing with the factitious historical context constructed by the later tradition and instead reading the Quran against itself, can this different picture be revealed.

For more on quranic dietary laws and what they can tell us about socio-religious identity in the world of formative Islam, see Mehdy Shaddel, “Qurʾānic ummī: Genealogy, Ethnicity, and the Foundation of a New Community,” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 43 (2016): 1-60.


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