The way we were: Lists of stuff not to buy

What do Skittles (the candy) and Ivory soap have in common?

Pigs. Pretty much everywhere we looked, hiding behind apparently benign words like "gelatin" or unfamiliar chemical compound-ish words like "diglycerides." Ugh.

Pigs. Pretty much everywhere we looked, hiding behind apparently benign words like “gelatin” or unfamiliar chemical compound-ish words like “diglycerides.” Ugh.

If you answered that both of these items were included in photocopied lists of grocery items with haraam ingredients that were passed out by earnest bearded brothers after Friday prayers back in the ’80’s… you get ten points. Add another ten points if you read those lists carefully, and refused to buy or use any of those items forever after (add only five points if you tried, but weren’t always consistent). Add another ten points if you then used the “principles” underlying the list and further extended them to screening every single purchase you made. And, add another five points if you still find yourself automatically avoiding items on the list when you buy groceries today, or you buy them sometimes but feel guilty about it.

Interpreting your score:

Ten points = You were there. Maybe you lived in my community. Did I know you?

Fifteen points = Back in the day, I would have thought you didn’t take your deen seriously enough. Nowadays, I suspect that actually, you just have a more balanced and sane outlook on life than I did.

Twenty to thirty points = You probably have a lot of the same memories as I do—like busing to a health food store miles away to buy overpriced cheese that didn’t have any forbidden ingredients in it, back before the local halaal meat store had started selling cheese.  Looking high and low for vanilla extract that didn’t have some kind of alcohol/propylene glycol/anything ending in -ol in it. Standing in the drugstore looking at all the soap and toothpaste and trying to find the one or two brands that weren’t on the avoid-list… and trying not to think about the fact that these were more expensive than the other brands, and they never seemed to go on sale.

Over thirty points = Hard core. Props. Can’t say anything more than that.


Those lists. Until I encountered them, I had been reading labels to avoid things like lard and other obvious pig products. But I had never thought about gelatin before, or rennet, much less all that chemical-y sounding stuff. I had been avoiding alcohol, but hadn’t thought to worry about minute amounts of alcohol-ish stuff used in things like vanilla extract. It certainly hadn’t occurred to me that I should be worrying about what was in my toothpaste… or even more strangely, in soap. After all, I wasn’t exactly eating soap, was I?

It turned out that pig and pig by-products lurked just about everywhere. And where there wasn’t pig, there was some kind of cow by-product… derived from a cow that hadn’t been slaughtered in a halaal way, of course. This was the ’80’s, before vegetarian options were mainstream where I was living, before most people had heard the word “vegan”… and there was no panic about transfats. Simply avoiding lard and/or beef tallow in most breads (and a number of other baked goods) was challenging.

Some immigrant Muslims energetically circulated those lists.  Others voiced their doubts about them, or refused to take them seriously. After all, how could ingesting something which had a minute amount of something that had been originally derived from a pig or an animal that hadn’t been slaughtered in a halaal way, but which had undergone significant chemical changes… be equated with eating pork or “dead” meat? Some of those “doubters” didn’t see what the whole debate about eating meat from the supermarket was about, either—after all, doesn’t the Qur’an say that the food of the People of the Book is permissible?

What we didn’t realize at the time was that we had walked smack-dab into an immigrant debate that was more about some people’s anxieties about their identity than about “Islam” per se. Worries about pig enzymes in toothpaste were a handy way of channeling fears about one’s children becoming strangers… just make sure you and your family is using an approved brand. Trying to convince others to be deeply concerned about the content of every kind of food (not just meat) was another way of asserting one’s unique identity.

We did notice that generally, those immigrant Muslims who were most concerned about eating only halaal and parsing the contents of their soap came from communities abroad where the question of who eats or doesn’t eat what and who can share food with whom were burning issues. Other immigrant Muslims coming from parts of the world where this hadn’t been much of an issue were rather bemused by the zeal of the list-makers. As converts, we didn’t really understand the politics of it all (or for that matter, the science behind a number of the claims…), but we wanted to be safe from eating or otherwise ingesting any forbidden substances. We wanted to be on the right side of the debate. So a lot of us gravitated towards the more stringent approaches.

But what did this sort of thing do to us who were raised eating pork? (Not all converts are in that category, of course… a friend of mine was a vegetarian when she converted.) How did people like me end up developing a strong aversion to pork, and to alcohol, and to any byproducts associated with either, when we had never cared about it before? An aversion that until today is visceral??

I suspect it had less to do with piety, and more to do with developing a sort of conditioned response. Conservative, often immigrant Muslims we knew and hung around with who followed the whole avoid-list approach and refused to buy meat that wasn’t from halaal butchers (or in some cases, even went to farms and slaughtered their own because they didn’t trust most halaal butchers…) make it clear that they avoided what they believed to be forbidden not just because God has forbidden it, but because it is intrinsically disgusting. And, we were taught that it is a mark of true faith to be disgusted by things that God has forbidden.

It was not acceptable in those circles for anyone to admit to missing or longing for “forbidden” things. And I hardly ever heard anyone do that—especially not any converts. I still remember how shocked I was when I read Daughters of Another Path, and a convert was quoted as saying that she misses eating bacon sandwiches. How could she say that? I wondered. How disgusting. What weak faith she must have. Didn’t she know that once you have been saved from kufr you should hate to be thrown back into it, just as anyone would hate to be thrown into a burning fire??

I believed that I didn’t miss them… until halaal chicken bacon became available in my community, years later. Then, I realized that I wasn’t going to listen to the hyper-conservatives I knew who were saying that Muslims shouldn’t eat it because it is intended to be an imitation of a forbidden thing, so it opens the door to the forbidden.

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  1. #1 by ki sarita on November 28, 2013 - 7:50 pm

    hey they could have saved themselves a lot of lists had they just told people to look for the trademarks of the various jewish kosher certifying organizations, foremost the Orthodox Union, next the Organization of Kashruth and products that are no more expensive than those without.

    And here I thought i was being so liberal since i sometimes i on checking the ingredients, and eat food items that aren’t cerfitied by the system…..

    I don’t see it as extreme or crazy, whether its extreme or crazy depends on how it affects your life and relationships.

    • #2 by luckyfatima on December 8, 2013 - 8:48 pm

      Except that there was/is also info circulating that Rabbis allow minuscule amounts of haraam ingredients in everything so kosher isn’t really halaal, and all those K’s and U’s are practically just a conspiracy by the Juice to trick pious, innocent Muslims into eating the haraam :S

      • #3 by xcwn on December 10, 2013 - 2:21 am

        Luckyfatima—Never heard that one, but I remember an absolutely awful article, “From the palms of their hands,” that was published in Islamic Horizons back in the day. Written by a convert (wouldn’t you know…), who claimed that eating kosher was somehow “bad” because it was, well, produced by The Jooz.

        That was one of the many times that I should have really asked myself where the hell my life was going….

  2. #4 by ki sarita on November 28, 2013 - 7:52 pm

    and oh yeah… we have the same debate about imitation bacon. Except since many of us have never seen bacon, we don’t know that its an imitation, so the debate is irrelevant to us…

  3. #5 by ki sarita on November 28, 2013 - 7:53 pm

    (we don’t apply it to non- food items though)

  4. #6 by luckyfatima on December 8, 2013 - 8:52 pm

    I saw something funny on FB this week. It was something like:

    Do NOT eat Ferrero Rocher,
    Lindt, Cadbury,
    Haagen Dazs, Gino Ginelli,
    Baskin Robbins, and
    Magnum ice cream


    • #7 by xcwn on December 10, 2013 - 2:22 am

      Especially the Baskin Robbins. 🙂

  5. #8 by luckyfatima on December 8, 2013 - 8:56 pm

    Oh, the ones that really had me doing a head-desk were when I would hear someone say “Don’t drink Coke on Thursdays cuz Coke gives all of their profits to Iz-reel on Thursdays and they use that money to kill Palestinians!” (A real text message some years ago when I was living in the Mid East.)

    And I was just like, if that were true, why would anyone drink Coke any day of the week (not to mention that it is acidic chemical processed sugar liquid poison to begin with) and how in the hell would Coke come up with hmmmm, Thursday’s a good day to forego our profits every week!

    I mean, SUCH inanity.

    I can understand food taboos, but some of this stuff is just utterly stooopit.

    • #9 by xcwn on December 10, 2013 - 2:31 am

      Oh yes, politically-inspired boycotts. Fun times. Not.

  6. #10 by ejay on December 19, 2013 - 4:14 pm

    I’m sorry but this post brings back too many memories! I don’t come from a Muslim cult, but I was raised in a very connected and strict Muslim community in America. There were too many times when we would seriously discuss whether skittles were really forbidden. I didn’t really care at the time, because I’m not a candy person. But when someone told me coke wasn’t allowed either, I started to realize how ridiculous this all is. There was already so many other things I wasn’t allowed to do – you’re taking my coke away now, too? Not without a fight!

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