The Food of the People of the Book

By Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwi and translated by Usman Khan and Dr Abu Zayd

To access the original arabic, follow this link

Part 1

They said to me: We have some problems understanding verse five of Sūrah al-Māʾidah: “and the food of those given the scripture before you is lawful for you and your food is lawful for them.” So, please assist us in solving the ambiguity and unveiling its hidden meaning.

I replied: The book of God is surely worthy of our striving in understanding its vagaries, clarifying its difficulties, and explaining its secrets. I thank God that He granted you success in seeking to be guided by His definitive revelation.

I asked them: What is the source of your difficulty with this verse?

They replied: What is the meaning of ‘food’ here? And what is the meaning of the part of the verse which says, ‘and your food is lawful for them?’ Moreover, what necessitated the issuing of this ruling in the first place?

I replied: May your knowledge be beneficial. Indeed, questioning is half of knowledge. It is evidence of your endeavor to know the correct aspect of the interpretation of the verse. And it is right for you and others that they seek out an explanation regarding the verse. For indeed, this noble verse is of central importance within sūrah al-Māʾidah. Certainly, the books of tafsīr have erred in conveying its appropriate meaning and intent.

They said: Can you point out the exact error in the books of tafsīr?

I replied: Commonly, the books of tafsīr define ‘food’ (ṭaʿām) in this verse to refer to slaughtered meat (dhabīḥah). So the meaning of the verse would be that the slaughtered meat of the people of the Book is lawful for you. The problem is that the word ṭaʿām is never used in the Book of God for the meaning of dhabīḥah, nor did the Arabs use it in this way in their poetry or in their general speech. First, observe the usages of the word ṭaʿām in the various places in sūrah al-M āʾidah itself:

  • “And his mother was a supporter of the Truth, they both used to eat food.” Qurʾān 5:75
  • “So, its expiation is the feeding of ten needy people, from the average of what you feed your own families.” Qurʾān 5:89
  • “There is not upon those who believe and do righteousness blame concerning what they have eaten.” Qurʾān 5:93
  • “Or an expiation: the feeding of needy people or the equivalent of that in fasting.” Qurʾān 5:95
  • “Lawful to you is the game from the sea and its food as provision for you and the travelers.” Qurʾān 5:96

Next, observe the various usages from the others sūrahs:

  • “And recall when you said, O Moses, we can never endure one (kind of) food.” Qurʾān 2:61
  • “And upon those who are able (to fast, but with hardship) – a ransom (as substitute) of feeding a poor person.” Qurʾān 2:184
  • “So, whoever drinks from it is not of me, and whoever does not taste it is indeed of me.” Qurʾān 2:249
  • “Look at your food and your drink; it has not changed with time.” Qurʾān 2:259
  • “All food was lawful for the Children of Israel.” Qurʾān 3:93
  • “Creator of the heavens and the earth, while it is He who feeds and is not fed.” Qurʾān 6:14
  • “And they say, these animals and crops are forbidden; no one may eat from them except whom we will.” Qurʾān 6:138
  • “Say, I do not find within that which was revealed to me (anything) forbidden to one who would eat it.” Qurʾān 6:145
  • “He said, you will not receive food that is provided to you expect that I will inform you of its interpretation.” Qurʾān 12:37
  • “Except when you are permitted for a meal, without awaiting its readiness.” Qurʾān 33:53
  • “Is food for the sinful.” Qurʾān 44:44
  • “Nor did he encourage the feeding of the poor.” Qurʾān 69:34
  • “Nor any food except from the discharge of wounds.” Qurʾān 69:36
  • “For them there will be no food except from a poisonous, thorny plant.” Qurʾān 88:6
  • “And you do not encourage one another to feed the poor.” Qurʾān 89:17
  • “And does not encourage the feeding of the poor.” Qurʾān 107:3

In fact, the word ṭaʿām never comes in God’s book to mean slaughtered meat, whether in sūrah al-Māʾida or any other sūrah. Just think about this: If this were in fact the intended meaning, then what would the statement, “and your slaughtered meat is lawful for them,” really mean? Because the People of the Book eat wherever and whatever they eat, and it does not concern them what the Qurʾān makes lawful for them.

They asked: So then what is the meaning of the word in this particular verse?

I replied: The intended meaning of the Qurʾān in all of these verses, without exception, is for the term to refer to all things which are eaten, including animals and other things.

They asked: What is the tafsīr of the verse then?

I replied: Observe! Did God not use the word ṭaʿām in the context of the People of the Book?

They replied: Yes, for instance: “All food was lawful to the Children of Israel except what Israel had made unlawful to himself before the Torah was revealed. Say, (O Muhammad) so bring the Torah and recite it, if you should be truthful.” (Qurʾān 3:93)

I asked: Then what is the meaning of this verse?

They replied: Can you explain it for us.

I replied: Its meaning is that all good food was permissible for the children of Jacob, upon him be peace, except for what Jacob make unlawful for himself due to illness. And that was before the revelation of the Torah. When the Torah was revealed, God made unlawful for the Children of Israel some foods that were previously lawful. That was because of their injustice and transgression. Read the confirmation of this in God’s words: “And to those who are Jews We prohibited every animal of uncloven hoof; and of the cattle and the sheep We prohibited to them their fat, except what adheres to their backs or the entrails or what is joined with bone. (by) That we repaid them for their injustice. And indeed, We are truthful.” (Qurʾān 6:146)

I continued: So some foods were subsequently made unlawful for the People of the Book. Now, is there any mention in the Qurʾān of re-permitting certain foods which were forbidden for the Jews? Yes indeed, for God says: “Those who follow the Messenger, the unlettered Prophet, whom they find written in what they have of the Torah and the Gospel, who will enjoin upon them what is right and forbid them what is wrong and make lawful for them the good things and prohibit for them the filthy things and relieve them of their burden and the shackles which were upon them. So, they who have believed in him, honored him, supported him, and followed the light which was sent down with him – it is those who will be the successful.” (Qurʾān 7:157)

The verse indicates that from the signs of the unlettered Prophet, whom the Jews had been anticipating, is that he makes lawful the good things and makes unlawful the impure things. And the lawfulness of all pure and wholesome things necessitated the inclusion of those pure things that were previously made unlawful to the Jews due to their transgression. So the unlettered Prophet ‘will relieve them of their burden and the shackles which were upon them.’ The Jews had been awaiting this “unlettered Prophet whom they find written in what they have of the Torah.”

Thus, God announces this in sūrah al-Māʾidah, which is a sūrah representing the completion of blessings, the perfection of religion, and the fulfilment of pledges. In other words, the Messenger that you have been awaiting has now come to you at last. God said, “This day all good foods have been made lawful, and the food of those given the scripture is lawful for you and your food is lawful for them.” (Qurʾān 5:5) His statement, “This day all good foods have been made lawful,” fulfills the prophecy: “He will make lawful for them the good foods.” The statement, “And the food of those given the scripture is lawful for you and your food is lawful for them,” fulfills the prophecy: “and [he will] prohibit for them the evil and relieve them of their burden and the shackles which were upon them.” When He says, “and the food of the people of the Book is lawful for you,” it excludes impure foods because they were already forbidden for the People of the Book. However, from the perspective of some of the previously lawful things which were made forbidden for them, He states, “and your food is lawful for them,” i.e. from your food which was deemed lawful under the category of wholesome foods, some of which was later forbidden but is now allowed once again.

I further said: This verse confirms the good news of our Prophet, peace be upon him, for the People of the Book. Today, they see Muslims deeming wholesome foods permissible and forbidding filthy things, while eating those good foods which were once lawful for them and later forbidden due to their transgressions. The permissibility of those wholesome things has returned due to the blessing of the advent of this Prophet.

They said: The meaning of the verse is now clear to us. But are you forbidding us from the slaughter of the People of the Book?

I replied: No, I only intended to clarify the meaning of the verse, which is not about slaughter.

If you want to know how the Messenger, peace be upon him, deduced the permissibility of the slaughter of the People of the Book, then understand this: The third verse in sūrah al-Māʾidah establishes the impermissibility of the dead animals—which are those animals which are not slaughtered—as well as those offered to other than God. From this, it is known that for pure animals, there is in additional condition before they become permissible: that they be slaughtered and not offered except for God. So, the Prophet instructed his Companions to slaughter these animals with God’s name. When God mentioned that the food of the People of the Book is lawful for them, it is automatically understood that permissible animals are to be slaughtered with the name of God prior to consumption.

The food of the People of the Book and the Muslims is wholesome, and this includes animals, but they are only consumed after proper slaughter and the mention of God’s name. If you desire further clarification, read continuously from, “And lawful for you are chaste women from among those who were given the Scripture.” (Qurʾān 5:5) The chaste women from the People of the Book are lawful for us, like chaste Muslim women are lawful for us. However, the understood condition is marriage, which applies to chaste women of the People of the Book as it applies to chaste Muslim women. Similarly, the understood condition for consumption of lawful animals is slaughter and God’s name.

They asked: So why is the condition of reciting the name of God not mentioned in the verse?

I replied: There is no need to mention that, because it has been made clear two verses previous to that.

They said: Certainly, the meaning of the verse is now clear, and doubts have been removed. We also know the great position of the verse and that it came to us as a confirmation of what is in the Torah as good news. We also know that it is not about the command for the slaughter of the animals of the People of the Book, and that the translation of the word ṭaʿām as slaughter deprives the verse of its grandeur, loftiness, and proof of the Prophethood of the Seal of Prophets, and Master of the Messengers, prayers and peace of God be upon him.

They said: Thank you for what you have benefited us with.

I replied: Praise your Lord, the one who guided us and taught us. Had He not guided us or taught us, we would be misguided and ignorant. I call upon Him that He makes beloved to you the pondering of the meanings of His book, benefiting others by it, following its commands. It is surely the just word, and the complete command. “Falsehood cannot approach it from before it or behind it, (it is) a revelation from (a Lord who is) Wise and Praiseworthy.” Qurʾān 41:42.

Part 2

They said: People have raised questions and doubts concerning what you published about the verse: “And the food of those given the scripture is lawful for you and your food is lawful for them.”

I replied: Don’t you know that I am the furthest of people from being involved in unproductive arguments and debates which are only intended to overpower and denigrate others. I detest argumentation in the strongest terms and hate to dominate or win over others. I always strive to avoid fruitless pursuits or waste my time. I praise my Lord who cast into my heart love for His Book. I am eager to ponder over it and follow its guidance as much as I am able to do so.

They said: These people insist that the word ṭaʿām in the verse refers to slaughtered meat (dhabīḥah).

I replied: Let them insist upon their error as much as they want. The fact is that there are always some who look for numerical miracles in the Qurʾān, while others investigate scientific miracles, and yet others have made the Qurʾān a jurisprudential (fiqh) text covering subsidiary rulings corresponding to man-made schools of thought. All of these people effectively lower God’s Book to their base standards, either making it a book of natural sciences, one of legal opinions, or of matters related to experience or legal reasoning (ijtihād). They suppose human beings comprehend it by their intellects or perceive it through their normal senses without pondering or working their faculties of discernment and reflection. Why don’t they exert their energies instead in understanding heavenly guidance in order to arrive at the lofty meanings which God has placed therein? Can you expect the types of people who resort to analogical deduction in everything or those who live in their laboratories to be able to grasp the lofty and sublime nature of this divine book?

They said: Please don’t be so harsh with the questioners, for perhaps among them are some who would sincerely want to understand your words. In addition, since you consider yourself a teacher, shouldn’t teachers answer questioners courteously?

I replied: Yes, certainly. I am grateful to you that you admonished me towards gentleness and reminded me of tenderness. No doubt that gentleness is from those human virtues that are endowed only to those who are blessed with abundant shares from their Lord.

They asked: Please tell us from whom you took this understanding.

I replied: I took it from some of my teachers.

They said: So why don’t you refer it to them?

I replied: Because I have added some matters to it, and I do not want to attribute to anyone what they didn’t say.

They asked: And did anyone else have this view apart from your teacher?

I replied: Yes, many have.

They said: Name them to us.

I replied: That will be lengthy. However, know that all of them are dependent in their understanding on the leader of exegetes of our times, Imām Muḥammad Ḥamīd al-Dīn Farāhī, God have mercy upon him.

They asked: What did he exactly say?

I replied: He said: The statement “and your food is lawful for them” (Qurʾān 5:5) serves to clarify the abrogation of what God had prohibited them due to their transgression in 6:146, so they could not claim that the Torah’s prohibition persisted for them after Islam. [Taʿlīqāt 1/147]

They asked: Has anyone before Farāhī made a similar interpretation?

I replied: Certainly they must have, because this interpretation is the correct one. But not all of the previous exegesis has been transmitted to us, and I have not had the chance to study all tafsīr works past and present.

They said: If you could name one single person before our time who adopted this approach, it would serve to refute those who accuse you of innovation.

I replied: The erudite scholar and exegete Jamāl al-Dīn al-Ṣafdī (d. 696/1297) had this same view in his commentary on this verse in a work entitled Kashf al-asrār wa hatk al-astār (‘Unveiling the Secrets and Tearing the Veils’). He says: His statement ‘and the food of the People of the Book is lawful to you’, i.e. in the same way it is lawful to them, refers to the food they currently consume, not what they currently prohibit, from those things God allowed for us. His statement ‘And your food is lawful for them’ refers to all of our food, which informs us that with the advent of the Arabian Prophet, peace be upon him, who allows all wholesome foods, and whom it is obligatory to follow, now our food has become lawful to them again. However, they refused and continued to prohibit what he had allowed for them. That is why God said, ‘And your food is lawful for them,’ and not that ‘it was permissible for them,’ or that ‘they considered it permissible themselves (as they believed).’ Rather, it is lawful now. Since the Messenger came and they rejected him, God maintained the prohibition as a punishment. This is the meaning of His statement, “for wrongdoing on the part of the Jews, We made unlawful for them (certain) good foods which had been lawful to them.” (Qurʾān 4:160)

They asked: So why don’t you explain the term taʿām as slaughter like others did?

I replied: There is no need to mention slaughtering, for it is a well-known matter. God permitted the women of the People of the Book—and no single person doubts that this means after the contract of marriage. There was no need to place this condition in the Book for it is well-known.

They asked: And how is the condition of slaughtering known?

I replied: I have already explained that in a previous article, that when God prohibits dead animals, it means those that have not been properly slaughtered.

They asked: Why have the commentators collected so many sayings of the pious forebearers concerning the slaughter of the People of the Book in their commentary of this verse?

I replied: The customary practice of Qurʾānic commentators has always been to collect any statement that has the slightest connection to the verses. So everything which has been transmitted from the pious forebearers concerning the food of the People of the Book was collected under the commentary of this verse.

They said: You are right. However, it is narrated from Mujāhid and others that they interpret the term as slaughter.

I replied: They meant to dispel the misunderstandings of some simple-minded people who presumed that when God had made lawful the food of the People of the Book, it included their animals whether they slaughtered them or not, for God had categorically made their food lawful. So Mujāhid and others meant to teach people that proper slaughter is a condition for the consumption of their animals just as it was a condition for the consumption of their own animals. This is because of the unconditional nature of the verse, ‘Forbidden for you are dead animals.’ It is obligatory upon the people of knowledge to repel similar misunderstandings. This was related by Bukhārī and Muslim from Muḥammad b. al-Munkadir that Jābir once prayed in a loincloth which he tied behind his back while his clothes were on a hook. Somebody asked him, “Do you pray in a single cloth?” He replied, “I did so to show a fool like you. Which one of us had two garments during the time of the Messenger, prayers and peace of God upon him?”

They asked: Is it possible that some of the pious forebearers were incorrect in their commentary of this verse?

I replied: It is certainly possible, for the pious forebears are not infallible. There is no infallibility except for the messengers, upon them be peace. However, the errors of the pious forebearers are far fewer in comparison to those that came after them. The pious forebearers often disagreed with one another, as those that came after them often disagreed with them. Such examples of differences are extensive.

They said: What do you advise us?

I replied: Do not waste my time by presenting doubts of those who do not ponder over the Book of God and intend only trouble.

They said: Indeed, they disparage you.

I replied: Leave them to disparage me. This will only serve to bring me closer to my Lord, so long as we conduct ourselves with the character that He taught us: to say peace (salām) and pass over vanity with dignity.

Disclaimer: Translations have not been checked by the author and represent the work of the translator