On May 21st, I gave a khutbah at the University of Pennsylvania in which I talked about food as it relates to Muslims but examining the Qur’ānic imperative:
كلوا من الطيبات واعملوا صالحا
“Eat from that which is good and perform righteous acts.” Qur’an, 7: 100.
This statement crossed my mind again that day as I stopped in at a 7-Eleven to get a sports drink. Across the cooler, laying inconspicuously, was an attractive looking package [for a junk food addict that is], which read on the front: “Chocolate Cupcakes: rich, chocolaty goodness — mouthwatering chocolate cake covered with chocolate frosting”.
At the same time, a recent converstaion I had with a close friend of mine, in which we discussed the modern woes of food production as well as the absence of any critical Muslim dialog and involvement in it, entered my head. In the conversation, the brother asked me to watch a video entitled, “Food Inc.“. The video, which can be seen on Youtube, lays out and illustrates a reality about food production that should of interest to Muslims, especially given the above imperative. During our conversation, I became aware of my own lack of congnisance regarding the subject and have thus endeavored to make myself more aware of its importance. But in doing so, my desire was to take the conversation about “healthy food” away from the fringe, where it is perceived to be the property and proclivity of vegans, vegetarians and other minority groups who are conscious, and steer it towards the mainstream of the typical Muslim. In essence, it is my hope that we can have a communal conversation and perhaps even change of action, regarding food, that goes beyond the halāl/non-halāl dichotomy. I also saw it as a missed opportunity that Muslims could have in terms of da’wah and dialog with the broader American public.
But back to our story … So there I was, in a spot we’ve all been at, at some time or another. Tempted by some sweet delicacy. And as my hand reached for its cellophane wrapper, brother Muhammad’s voice and conversation entered my head, and I recalled the verse I had recited from the minbar again: “Eat from that which is good and perform righteous deeds“. And as I did, I glanced down at the ingredients and I must say, it was startling. Not only for its sheer incomprehensibility and daunting chemical vocabulary, but also at some of the ingredients themselves—my concsiousness made aware from Food Inc.—a few of them stood out, for which I have highlighted. This is a far cry from the chocolate cupcakes my mother made me as a child!
Sugar,water, corn syrup, enriched unbleached flour and bleached flour (wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), high fructose corn syrup, soybean oil, palm oil, eggs, cocoa (natural and processed with alkali), contains 2% or less of the following: modified food starch, dextrose, leavening (baking soda, sodium acid pyrophosphate, monocalcium phosphate), cornstarch, calcium carbonate, wheat gluten, mono- and diglycerides, chocolate liquor [say what?!], salt, calcium sulfate, methylcellulose, agar, soy lecithin, datem, sodium stearoyl lactylate, cellulose gum, polysorbate 60 [what happened to the other 59?], guar gum, titanium dioxide (color – titanium for color? C’m on!), artificial flavors, lactic acid, sorbitan monostearate, sodium hexametaphosphate, annatto (color), citric acid, xanthan gum, caramel color, preserved with potassium sorbate, sodium propionate, and sodium benzoate.
In light of the above verse and this laundry list of chemical agents, it is high time for Muslims to have a voice in the public discourse on health. We have our own long tradition of health-related eating practices [both Qur’anic, Prophetic and from the Tradition]. One can walk into any hospital and find a large number of Muslim doctors but how many Muslim public health officials do we have? I am reminded of Dr. Jackson’s talk on the “quietism” on behalf of Muslims when it comes to race. I would indeed agree, though I would push it further and contest that Muslims are “quite” on the vast majority of topics that are of interest to the society that they live in as a whole. How can we remain quiet in the face of not only racial injustice, but of practices on the part of the food industry that have the potential to affect us all?
Food for thought.
- Halal Scanner: www.halalscanner.com/
- Halal and kosher food safer?: Scientist Live [is it really? And does halal necesarrily equate “tayyib”/”good”?]
- American Halal Association: americanhalalassociation.com/