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date: 16 October 2019

Muslim Food Culture

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Please check back later for the full article.

The anthropology of Islam has for a long time been concerned with questions of rules, orthodoxy, ritual practice, and piety. The idea that Muslim life can be studied through food practice is, therefore, a welcome reprieve from an over-determined association of Muslims and Islam with prayer, austerity, and un-freedom. Bringing Muslim culinary practices into view affords a lens onto the intersections between Islamic discourse, ritual practice, political economy, and changing notions of health, food, and the body in the contemporary world.

Food offers a unique opportunity to explore these overlapping developments, since what we eat is always subject both to past traditions, memory, and family histories as well as contemporary availability, affordability, and desirability of particular items. New ideas about medicine and the body can inform new notions of what counts as good food. Muslims, always in the world, are no different. However, the specific ways in which particular Muslims choose to include, avoid, or desire certain products may offer insights into the local political and economic expressions of Islam.

Halal, meaning permissible, is the name given to meat that is allowed for Muslim consumption. Islamic legal prescriptions evolved from the basic Quranic stipulations towards a complex regional, geographic, and sectarian taxonomy of animals. In practice, however, halal is assured, not through complicated legal discussions, but rather through consumption and trade within Muslim networks. Supply by a fellow Muslim constitutes halal. In the absence of obvious signs or evidence of dubious activity, halal must be assumed. Within Muslim networks of trade and consumption, the unintentional transgression of halal does not accrue sin. The practice of halal has thus been based on a communally charged notion of trust that has always been ripe for the articulation of regional and sectarian differences.

In recent decades, neoliberal developments have transformed the terrain of global food consumption, trade, and supply. Muslims increasingly consume through networks of non-Muslim producers, manufacturers, and suppliers. Advancements in food production technology mean that animal enzymes may end up in seemingly harmless everyday non-meat items. A new regime of halal certification has been established in a bid to standardize and regulate the supply of halal foods, cosmetics, and even tourist services. The new terrain of molecular halal that relies on DNA testing, and production and supply chain management, has been central to the ubiquity of halal as a label of assurance as well as a marketing tool. Many Muslims, particularly in the developed world, have become aware of the product ingredient listing of their favorite chocolate products and may even search for a certification label on bottled water. However, this development has not been hegemonic. Even in the face of new material and discursive arrangements, Muslims continue to draw on an older ethical basis for practice as they seek to trade, compete, and consume in the contemporary capitalist economy.

In many contexts, the explicit investigation and concern about halal among Muslims is subdued. Different interpretations of Islamic law produce different authoritative notions of what counts as halal. A famous hadith commands ignorant companions to recite the name of God before consumption. A Quranic verse declares the food of the people of the book (ahl-al-kitab, which refers to the Christians and Jews) as halal. Although the certification industry produces arguments to negate these sources, many Muslims continue to draw on these sources for practice.

Importantly, these instances of thinking beyond halal afford an opportunity to consider how food features in broader Muslim life. Festivals of sacrifice and fasting are focused on the preparation, distribution, and sharing of food. The famous Muslim notion of hospitality is emphasized around festivals and ritual events in different parts of the world, as Muslims articulate sharing and feeding each other as a way of extending God’s grace (barakat). To eat is to remain entangled in relations of reciprocity, friendship, and community. Food cooked in the home is considered of higher value as it carries the well wishes of the host. Indeed, instances of gifting are also opportunities for competition as households outdo each other in the lavishness of preparation and the amounts distributed.

Finally, the theme of ingestion is carried over into medicine. In India, the Unani (lit: Greek) system of medicine links foods substances to prophetic sources and complex medical theory. In Africa and Asia, the words of the Quran are handwritten in ink onto wooden boards. The ink-water, once washed away, is consumed as a cure for physical and spiritual ailments. And around the world, newborn babies are offered a taste of honey as part of the ritual name-giving ceremony. In each case, authoritative notions from a discursive tradition of past text and practice are articulated and contested in locally specific ways.