Friday, May 9, 2014

Religious Meaning of Food: Muslim Perspective


This is the first of two blogs in a series. In creating a directed study, I have chosen to do a sort of comparison between Halal and Kosher foods. This first entry will do most of the set up while the second blog will introduce kosher rules and provide the comparison. Since I will unfortunately leave off with a cliff-hanger, I will go ahead and provide a special recipe treat for readers at the end.

World Religions

From the time I was very little, I began asking complex spiritual questions. What really happens to us after we die? If I am a Baptist and my mom is a Catholic, does that mean she is going to Hell? Can I be "saved by God" and then believe in a second religion in order to increase my chances of getting into Heaven? It never occurred to me what I was wrestling with until I came to college and took my first Theology class. After taking this class however, I was soon invited by a friend to write a Richter Grant to study the intersection between religion and poverty in Nepal, and I've been fascinated by world religions ever since. I even decided to pick up a World Religions minor.
Mountain view in Nepal
Temples in Nepal

As I have studied world religions, I have become fascinated in not only the differences but in the commonalities that people of different religious and cultural backgrounds share. What - despite the differences - can bring these people together?

Religion and Food

In class we have discussed how food is a powerful tool to bring people together. Families travel from all over to join each other at Christmas and Thanksgiving, and when they get together they eat and they share their lives, their stories; a piece of themselves.

Norman Rockwell

National Lampoon's Family Vacation

If food can be a powerful uniting mechanism then it makes sense that it can also be very divisive. Food can be used to create a barrier between "Us" and "Them" and this point can be illustrated in the way that people of different  social classes, races, and religious backgrounds do or  - more importantly - do not share meals.

In Foreigners and Their Food, Freidenreich describes differences between Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the ways that they construct and adhere to dietary laws. Where do these food laws come from? And given these food laws, what types of meals can people of different religious backgrounds share? We're going to take a look at halal food and later kosher food to attempt to answer some interesting questions.

Halal Food

Halal is an Arabic word that means "acceptable". It's opposite "haraam" is forbidden. These notions of permissable and unacceptable action have come to Muslims from the Qur'an, their religious text. While Islam is typically seen as vastly different from Christianity or Judaism, it's interesting to note that Muslim's believe that their text comes from the same divine source and has the same divine wisdom as the Torah or the Bible. As such, the Qur'an's food restrictions are somewhat similar to the Torah's.

I think it's safe to say that Christian food laws - if there are any - are much less strict than Jewish and Muslim laws. So the trick to answering my initial question of interest - what kinds of foods can these two groups share? - is finding commonalities between Halal and kosher food.  This task is not too difficult, but I will save it for next week. For now, here is a link to several halal dinner recipes.  Below is a video of a street vendor preparing gyro, one of many foods sold by Halal food vendors I met in New York.

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