Nor Amin | Chairman, Global Haltech
| why we should change the way we think of alcohol in the consumable products
THERE are literally thousands of chemical compounds with their own molecular structure and characteristics. The nomenclature for all those chemical groups depends mostly on the type of functional group attached to those molecular structures. By definition, a functional group is a group of atoms responsible for the characteristic reactions of a particular chemical compound. Among those chemical compounds having their characteristics is alcohol, which carries its own functional group, – OH.
THE (IN)FAMOUS SUBSTANCE
Alcohol is categorised as an organic compound that contains a single or more functional group – OH. It was founded by a Muslim scientist, JABIR IBN HAYYAN, who lived between 0712 – 0825 A.D. This was narrated in a book titled Ikhraj Ma Fi Al-Quwwa Ila Al-fi’l. The alcohol findings refer to research done on ethanol, which is one of the components of the alcohol group.
Essentially, this group of alcohol has their own ‘members’ and every single ‘member’ is named based on the number of carbon atoms in its molecules. Members in the alcohol group include methanol, ethanol, propanol, and others. As for the one found in the intoxicating alcoholic beverages (our main discussion for this interview), ethanol is the one contributing to that effect.
THE PERCENTAGE MATTERS
The percentage of ethanol contained in an alcoholic beverage determines how quick and severe one would be intoxicated by it. That percentage is also used as a cutting point for the Ministry of Health to determine whether the beverage falls under the status of an alcoholic beverage or not. The cutting point is set at two per cent and above in general. The level of ethanol percentages that naturally occurs from fermentation is also used as a guideline by JAKIM (Malaysian Halal Authority) for the halal certification process for beverages. The ethanol percentage allowed is set below one per cent.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
This has created a misconception and confusion in using the term ‘alcohol content’ to prohibit alcoholic beverages for Muslims. If we study deeply into the hadith and verses from the holy Quran that broadly discusses the prohibition of alcoholic beverages, only two words are used to describe its prohibition. Those two words are ‘intoxicants’ and ‘intoxicates’, translated into English. In the hadith and verses from the Quran, intoxicants are mentioned as (khamru) while intoxicated or intoxicating is mentioned as (muskir).
However, the public has publicly and widely used the word ‘alcohol’ when speaking of alcoholic beverages. Seems fitting, given that the level of alcohol in those beverages is the reason why it is haram. However, using the term alcohol to describe its prohibited nature could carry a bigger effect elsewhere in certain ways. You see, by using the word ‘alcohol’ as a term to describe the prohibition of alcoholic beverages, we generally will presume that alcohol itself is haram.
This brings up a lot of confusion among consumers, especially for products that have alcohol content.
Among them are:
1. Alcohol-free fragrances
There is a misconception saying that only alcohol-free fragrances are allowed to be used by Muslims because it is thought that alcohol itself is haram. Hence, ‘Alcohol-free’ labels were created to show that the product is now supposedly shariah compliant. And those who are not interested in going alcohol-free may be viewed as trying to avoid shariah guidelines in their business practices. Referring back to the Quran and hadith, the only words used in relation to alcohol are intoxicants, intoxicated and intoxicating. Thus, it clearly refers to beverages that are intoxicating.
Perfumes or deodorants are not intoxicants and do not cause intoxication, therefore do not fall into the same category as a haram alcoholic beverage. The factor which makes it haram is when the level of alcohol is high enough to cause intoxication, not the alcohol itself.
In fact, the reason for the usage of alcohol in fragrances is for dilution, as it increases the dispersion of the perfume molecules. In this case, a product is not haram and can be used by Muslims despite it containing alcohol because it is not for consumption.
2. A product’s ingredient containing the word alcohol
There have been many cases where a certain product’s halal status is misinterpreted because of an ingredient in the packaging that contains the word alcohol. A prime example is lozenges. The main ingredient for many lozenge products is Dichlorobenzyl alcohol. Dicholorobenzyl alcohol, or its full name 2,4-dicholorobenzyl alcohol is a mild antiseptic that kills bacteria and viruses associated with mouth and throat infections. Unfortunately, due to how alcohol is commonly interpreted as haram, these lozenges suffer the same misconceptions by Muslims.
|In the case of dichlorobenzyl alcohol, the name is actually trivial and does not actually contain intoxicating substances. The specific name is 2,4- dicholorobenzyl methanol. The methanol, in this case, is just part of the whole molecular structure. Thus, this chemical compound or ingredient does not stand as one of the members of the alcohol group and does not carry any alcohol characteristics. The lozenges are a victim of misconception because of the name of their ingredient.
3. Alcohol-free beverages made by alcoholic beverage manufacturers
This is an issue Muslims worry about the most. It may as well be, as it promotes misinterpretation by the public who might not be in-depth in Islamic law well enough. This is because they think the reason for the prohibition of alcoholic beverages is because of the alcohol itself. When a commonly-alcoholic beverage such as beer is now ‘alcohol-free’, then this new formulation of beverages is viewed as no longer haram for Muslims.
Traditionally, the creation of these alcohol-free beers is done to promote a more responsible way to drink. Non-Muslims who want to drink beer still but don’t want to get drunk can choose to have alcohol-free beers. However, this creates significant confusion in Muslim-majority countries such as Malaysia. It is our responsibility to understand why alcohol-free beers are still haram. Remember, we identify a prohibited beverage: Being categorised as an intoxicant, having an intoxicating effect. Therefore, if the product is promoted as ‘alcohol-free’ but still leaves drinkers intoxicated, then it is haram for Muslims. Likewise, if a product is advertised as ‘alcohol-free’ but is manufactured by an alcoholic beverage manufacturer, it is haram for Muslims despite leaving no intoxicating effect.
The harmonisation of the Muslim communities worldwide could be shaken if this mindset continues without any corrective effort. Based on the misinterpretation and misunderstanding leading to the opposite decisions, there is a need to change the usage of the word ‘alcohol’ as a definition for haram. The term ‘alcohol’ shouldn’t be the defining factor, and it should be replaced with intoxicants, intoxicating, and intoxicated.
Here are some simple guidelines as to why alcohol shouldn’t define the halal or haram status of a product:
i) Alcohol was never mentioned as haram in the Quran and hadiths. The only words used to define alcoholic beverages are intoxicants and intoxicated.
ii) Any product consumed by Muslims is considered haram whenever it fulfils the two factors mentioned in the Quran and hadith, which are intoxicants and intoxicated.
iii) Alcoholic beverages are intoxicants and leave drinkers intoxicated, thus haram for Muslims regardless of how small or big the volume consumed or whether there is any alcohol left in the finished product.
iv) Wine vinegar, which is widely used in hotel kitchens, is considered intoxicant, even though it does not leave people intoxicated and there is little to no alcohol in them. Thus it is haram for Muslims.
v) Fragrances and deodorants are not intoxicants, do not leave people intoxicated, and are for external use only. Thus it is halal for Muslims to use as intended even though it contains alcohol.
vi) Tuak water, a traditional drink in Malaysia (juice from fermented palm), Nira (juice extracted from coconut blossom, palm or sugar palm), or Tapai water (juice from fermented rice) are not intoxicants and do not leave people intoxicated. Thus it is halal by law to consume. However, when said substances are taken too much, they cause intoxication. Therefore, it is considered haram when the level has reached intoxication.
vii) Recreational drugs are not intoxicants but can cause intoxication. Thus it is still haram even though there is no alcohol content.
DEFINING FACTOR SHOULDN’T BE ALCOHOL
In conclusion, the term ‘alcohol’ shouldn’t be a determinant of whether a product is a haram or halal. It is how the product is categorised as an intoxicant and can leave people intoxicated are the things to be considered. Most intoxicants that are intoxicating normally contain alcohol. However, not all products containing alcohol are intoxicating intoxicants. That’s the importance of Halal Science, that’s the value of the Halal logo, and that’s the beauty of Islam. Islam is easy, and we are at ease about it. But don’t take things too easy.