To Eat (or Not to Eat) Unclean Meat

My wife and I, both of whom are Christians, once had some Muslim friends over for a meal, and we made the mistake of offering them meat that was not halal. (For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, halal means 'permissible' in Arabic, and is the only kind of meat religious or observant Muslims will eat.) We apologized profusely to them when we realized our error, and quickly put together a vegetarian meal.

Our guests were gracious enough, but the blunder prompted a discussion I haven't forgotten. One of our guests was Sunni and the other Shi'ite, and they reacted somewhat differently. Our Sunni friend seemed inclined to overlook the mistake, and quoted a Qur'anic passage that gave Muslims permission to eat with Christians, while our Shi'ite friend reacted more cautiously. I was a bit surprised, and wondered at the difference, as we actually had spent more time with our Shi'ite friend and had gotten to know her better.

Some years later, I came across a reading on Shi'ism that appeared to shed some light on our experience. The Qur'anic passage that gives Muslims permission to eat with Christians can be found in chapter 5:5, which reads: "This day are all things good and pure made lawful unto you. The food of the People of the Book (Jews and Christians) is lawful unto you and yours is lawful unto them..." But according to the scholar Ignaz Goldziher, Shi'ites interpret this verse differently from Sunnis. He writes, "Despite the explicit permission given in the Qur'an (5:5), Shi'i law regards food prepared by Christians and Jews as forbidden meat, and the meat of animals slaughtered by them as forbidden meat (216)." For more on this, see Goldziher's Introduction to Islamic Law and Theology.

Christians, it must be remembered, have also encountered the question of whether to eat unclean meat. The first Christians were Jews, who like Muslims, had dietary laws by which they abided. But in the book of Acts 10:9-23, Jesus's disciple Peter received a vision from heaven in which he was encouraged to kill and eat unclean animals. Peter responded as a devout Jew might: "Surely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean." The answer from heaven came back: "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean."

The passage is significant for many reasons, none the least the directive that the early Christians need not worry about ritual cleanliness as they had before. But the text also addresses Jewish friendship with non-Jews, or Gentiles. Peter's vision was immediately followed by God's instruction to go with three men who had arrived at his door to the Roman centurion Cornelius, a 'God-fearing' Gentile. The book of Acts seems to be saying here that Peter's worry over ritual uncleanness should not deter him from visiting a Gentile who was spiritually receptive to Peter's message about Jesus.

My experience with our Muslim friends reminds me that dietary laws are still a live issue for some, if not many. Yet I wonder how often we let cultural barriers, whether it be worries over breaking dietary, dress, or gender taboos, stop us from offering hospitality to others. I take heart in the encouragement that we should not let issues of "cleanliness" deter us from opening our hearts and homes to those who are different from ourselves. Don't get me wrong; of course we ought to try and be culturally or religiously sensitive to others. But as my wife and I discovered, sometimes our "blunders" lead to some of the most illuminating conversations.