One of the principles covered in our advance jurisprudence classes with Shaykh Haider Hobbollah on the topic of Food and Drinks was the Principle of Prohibition of Khabā’ith and Permissibility of Ṭayyibāt (Taḥrīm al-Khabā’ith wa Ḥillīyyah al-Ṭayyibāt). Below is an edited and reorganized version of the transcripts written in class between October 13 2019 to October 15th 2019.
The discussion on this principle originates in the following verse:
الَّذِينَ يَتَّبِعُونَ الرَّسُولَ النَّبِيَّ الْأُمِّيَّ الَّذِي يَجِدُونَهُ مَكْتُوبًا عِندَهُمْ فِي التَّوْرَاةِ وَالْإِنجِيلِ يَأْمُرُهُم بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَيَنْهَاهُمْ عَنِ الْمُنكَرِ وَيُحِلُّ لَهُمُ الطَّيِّبَاتِ وَيُحَرِّمُ عَلَيْهِمُ الْخَبَائِثَ وَيَضَعُ عَنْهُمْ إِصْرَهُمْ وَالْأَغْلَالَ الَّتِي كَانَتْ عَلَيْهِمْ ۚ فَالَّذِينَ آمَنُوا بِهِ وَعَزَّرُوهُ وَنَصَرُوهُ وَاتَّبَعُوا النُّورَ الَّذِي أُنزِلَ مَعَهُ ۙ أُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ
[7:157] —those who follow the Apostle, the uninstructed prophet, whose mention they find written with them in the Torah and the Evangel, who bids them to do what is right and forbids them from what is wrong, makes lawful to them all the good things and forbids them from all vicious things, and relieves them of their burdens and the shackles that were upon them —those who believe in him, honour him, and help him and follow the light that has been sent down with him, they are the felicitous.’
If this jurisprudential principle is proven to be correct, it will be a principle that can be used and applied by an individual. It is not a principle that can be used to prohibit food and drinks in their essence, rather one will use this principle to prohibit food and drinks due to an accidental quality attributed to them. For example, Shaykh Ṭūsī uses this principle to prohibit eating mice and snakes.
Proponents say the aforementioned verse is very clear: the khabā’ith are those things which one detests, due to their ugly and disgusting nature and therefore anything that fits into this description will be prohibited to eat. On the contrary, ṭayyib are things which one finds nice, pure and pleasant, and these things are ḥalāl to eat.
Another verse that is used as a strengthening factor for the principle is as follows:
يَسْأَلُونَكَ مَاذَا أُحِلَّ لَهُمْ ۖ قُلْ أُحِلَّ لَكُمُ الطَّيِّبَاتُ ۙ وَمَا عَلَّمْتُم مِّنَ الْجَوَارِحِ مُكَلِّبِينَ تُعَلِّمُونَهُنَّ مِمَّا عَلَّمَكُمُ اللَّهُ ۖ فَكُلُوا مِمَّا أَمْسَكْنَ عَلَيْكُمْ وَاذْكُرُوا اسْمَ اللَّهِ عَلَيْهِ ۖ وَاتَّقُوا اللَّهَ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ سَرِيعُ الْحِسَابِ
[5:4] They ask you as to what is lawful to them. Say, ‘All the good things are lawful to you.’ As for what you have taught hunting dogs [to catch], teaching them out of what Allah has taught you, eat of what they catch for you and mention Allah’s Name over it, and be wary of Allah. Indeed Allah is swift at reckoning.
Muslim jurists have not only used these verses to derive this principle for determining permissible and impermissible food and drinks, rather some have understood the principle in its absolute sense and have argued for its application in all individual actions related to that specific food or drink – such as buying, selling or transporting such foods and drinks. For example, ‘Allāmah Ḥillī uses this principle to say one cannot pray in clothes that have become impure (mutanajjis) due to human urine, because it is from the khabā’ith.
Nevertheless, the principle has caused a lot of confusion as well and that is due to the inquiry into the criterion for what constitutes khabā’ith and ṭayyibāt. Is the determining of the khabā’ith or ṭāyyibāt based on one’s individual and personal opinion? Is it generic to what most people might say?
Criterion of Khabā’ith
Given the claim made by the proponents of the principle who say that anything that happens to be from the khabā’ith is prohibited, then it behooves us to know, what does it mean for something to be khabīth? How do we know whether a snake or a mouse is khabīth? One criterion says ‘urf is the criterion, but which and whose ‘urf? Some people in Asia eat animals that would be considered pleasant and a delicacy to them, but for people in another part of the world they may be considered disgusting.
Muqaddis Ardabellī (d. 993) even goes as far as to say villagers do not have any food that is from the khabā’ith, rather all their foods are from the ṭayyibāt. Since there is no consistent human ‘urf in this case, a few other possibilities have been given:
1) ‘Urf of urban people: Muqaddis Ardabellī relays this possibility, but what is the justification for this possibility? Are urban people more beloved to Allah, for example, than villagers? Furthermore, even urban people themselves have differences of opinions and this is something we all witness today. The tastes of urban people are in fact even more subject to differences because what could be consider khabīth or ṭayyib is heavily influenced by media, technology and so on.
2) Some Zaydī and Ahl al-Sunnah jurists have said the criterion is the ‘urf of the Arabs since they are the audience in the verse.
This possibility is a bit more reasonable than the previous one, because at the very least the Arabs would apply it on the correct instances, given they were the audience. Despite that, it is still not a very clear and consistent criterion since Arabs of the city and Bedouins themselves had differences of opinions.1. In fact, even if the determination of the Arabs was binding, who says their tastes and determination of khabā’ith and ṭayyibāt today is still binding, given how much tastes have changed over the centuries?
The Shāfiʿī scholar Imam Nawawī (d. 676) says the criterion is the determination made by the urban Arabs, not the rural Bedouins. Once again, this is just a mere claim without any evidence. How does Imam Nawawī know this? He goes on to say, if there happens to be a difference of opinion amongst the urban population then the majority opinion must be preferred. Further, if they come across food which they are not familiar with, such as some Persian food, then they need to do qiyās.
Ibn Qudāmah (d. 620) in his al-Mughnī says the criterion is the determination by Ahl al-Hijāz from Medina – not even the Makkans.
None of these explanations make much sense, some of them are strange, and they seem to be extraneous attempts for justifying a baseless position.
3) Muqaddis Ardībellī in Majmaʿ al-Fā’idah says the criteria is the general majority (aʿamm al-aghlab) of humans. For example, the general majority does not eat insects, hence it would not be allowed.
The question is, what does he mean by the general majority? If by majority he means all humans who lived during all times and places, then this is near impossible to investigate. If he meant during each era, then that means the verse is subjective in the sense that khabā’ith can change, which means ḥalāl and ḥarām can change. This is while the principle of taḥrīm al-khabā’ith is meant to be a path to determine what things are prohibited to eat in the divine Sharīʿah.2
Muḥaqqiq Nārāqī critiques possibility by saying there are things people do not like, but they do not consider it khabīth, for example certain types of medicines. This seems to indicate that there is a difference between something that is khabīth and something which is personally detested.
4) Muḥaqqiq Nāraqī says the criterion of what is khabīth is that which human nature detests eating, touching, or to even looking at – such as vomit. This is what is being prohibited in the Qurān objectively, not subjectively.
Even this criterion is not very clear. There are many things people have no issue touching or looking at – for example, certain types of flies that may appear to be very beautiful, but yet still would not eat them. We say there is no way to offer a universally agreed upon instance – perhaps save a few – for such a criterion since this aspect of our nature is conditioned by society and the environment, we are brought up in.
Revisiting the Verse of Khabā’ith
We want to investigate whether [7:157] is really informing us of a jurisprudential principle which we would then be able to use as a means to determine what food and drinks are prohibited. In this regards, a number of interpretations can be offered for this verse:
1) al-Khabā’ith is a word used to refer to things which are detested by humans; hence this law is universal and objective.
Critique: The problem with this interpretation is what we have already shown in the previous section above, which is that there is no way to say this is a clear universal criterion.
However, there is an additional problem we can mention. Let us assume for a moment that this understanding of the word khabā’ith is correct. Then as long as there are other more plausible explanations, this will become just a mere possible interpretation and in fact a weaker one. If it remains stronger than the other possibilities that will be offered, then we will accept it, and if two or more interpretations are equally possible, then we will be forced to say that this word is ambiguous (mujmal) in its meaning.
2) Shaykh Jawad Maghniyyah in his Tafsīr al-Kāshif and Sayyid Ṣādiq Rūhānī in his Fiqh al-Ṣādiq say the word is vague.
They say, after investigating how the word khabīth is used in the Qurān and Sunnah, we see that it is used in various different meanings:
a) For shayṭān in a tradition:
لا تعودوا الخبيث من أنفسكم بنقض الصلاة فتطمعوه
b) For humans in [3:179]:
مَّا كَانَ اللَّهُ لِيَذَرَ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ عَلَىٰ مَا أَنتُمْ عَلَيْهِ حَتَّىٰ يَمِيزَ الْخَبِيثَ مِنَ الطَّيِّبِ
Allah will not leave the faithful in your present state, until He has separated the bad ones from the good.
c) For food which is not ripe and is ruined
d) For sodomy in [21:74]:
وَلُوطًا آتَيْنَاهُ حُكْمًا وَعِلْمًا وَنَجَّيْنَاهُ مِنَ الْقَرْيَةِ الَّتِي كَانَت تَّعْمَلُ الْخَبَائِثَ
We gave judgement and knowledge to Lot, and We delivered him from the town which used to commit vicious acts.
e) For onion and garlic in a Prophetic tradition:
من أكل من هذه الشجرة الخبيثة فلا يقربنا
f) For a dowry in a Prophetic tradition:
مَهْرُ الْبَغِيِّ خَبِيثٌ
g) For a word in [14:26]
وَمَثَلُ كَلِمَةٍ خَبِيثَةٍ كَشَجَرَةٍ خَبِيثَةٍ
And the example of a bad word is like a bad tree
And many other places, hence its use in this verse is vague. We cannot prefer this explanation until we have evaluated other possibilities.
3) Sayyid Khū’ī and few of his students have said: the verse is describing the Prophet’s (p) qualities of perfection (ṣifāt kamālīyyah). Understanding the phrase regarding khabā’ith as a prohibitory command, “do not eat khabā’ith” – something the Prophet (p) already did not do – does not fit in context with the verse which is enumerating his (p) positive qualities.
Sayyid Khū’ī says khabā’ith here means bad, evil acts that result in harm (mafsada). His evidence is verse [21:74] where khabā’ith is used in its plural form, referring to the evil act of sodomy. In conclusion, according to Sayyid Khū’ī this verse cannot be used in the discussion of food and drinks.
Critiques on Sayyid Khū’ī:
a) Shaykh Muntaẓarī responds to this by saying, khabā’ith is a word the ‘urf understands, and God did not define any legislative meaning for it. What ‘urf understands from this word is essentially anything one’s nature and fiṭrah considers to be ugly and detested – whether it is an entity or one’s actions. There is also no necessity for there to be any harm in it like Sayyid Khu’i implies in his claim. Shaykh Muntaẓarī says, if we are to accept the idea that harm has to exist for something to be a khabīth, then this harm is related to one’s soul.
Sayyid Faḍlullah agrees with Shaykh Muntaẓarī’s arguments in his discussion on food on drinks. This is not a bad argument, but it needs an additional point which we will mention in the next critique.
We would also like to mention a side point and that is, Shaykh Muntaẓarī says the harm of eating something khabīth exists for the soul – but what is his evidence for this?
b) The contextual indicators Sayyid Khū’ī uses to say the word refers to evil acts can be critiqued further:
i) Firstly, the fact that the Qurān uses the word khabā’ith in the meaning of an evil act is not a contextual indicator (qarīnah) to restrict its meaning in this verse to that. Our claim is that the word khabā’ith is an adjective and is coined for a general meaning which is applicable to material and immaterial entities and as well as actions.
For the word to be used in a specific instance in other verses – where the instance is often established through contextual indicators – does not mean the word was coined for that specific instance and therefore is being used in that meaning in this verse as well.
This is also how we can also respond to Sayyid Ṣādiq Rūhānī and Jawād Maghnīyyah who were simply enumerating instances. None of these instances mean that a specific instance of the word khabīth has been intended in this verse, rather the word is being used in its general meaning and is not vague.
ii) Secondly, ‘urf uses the word khabā’ith for both material and immaterial entities – this water is khabīth and this person is khabīth (i.e. their soul). Why is Sayyid Khū’ī taking the description of the people of Lot as mentioned in [21:74] as a means to assume that the fundamental and primary use of the word khabīth is for actions? This is while we find the word being used for immaterial entities in other verses, such as in Surah Āl ‘Imrān [3:179] and Sūrah Nūr [24:26].
d) Sayyid Khū’ī is presuming that the word khabā’ith in this verse has either been used in reference to food or actions and that he has to choose between one of these meanings. Why is he presuming this? Why can’t the verse be understood absolutely?
4) Imam Khumaynī offers an interpretation that is unique and this is the position we will also propose.3 He says we must understand this verse in light of what has already been legislated.
In other words, the Qurān is not saying we are prohibiting khabā’ith on you, rather it is a description of the fact that the Prophet (p) is prohibiting those things which are khabā’ith and permitting those things which are ṭayyibāt. The verse is not doing inshā’, rather it is an ikhbār.
In more technical terms, the Prophet (p) is not prohibiting the category (‘unwān) called “khabā’ith” and permitting a category called “ṭayyibāt” – rather he is prohibiting or permitting instances (mu‘anwan), be it speech, action, physical entities etc. and these are hence khabā’ith or ṭayyibāt respectively.
This is a very probable interpretation and also falls in line with the context of the verse which is in praise of the Prophet (p).
Shaykh Muntaẓarī responds to this and says that the word al-khabā’ith is a plural accompanied by an alif-lām (jam‘ muḥalla bil-lām) and conveys generality (‘umūm). Though the sentence is not legislating prohibition, but through its generality it conveys a report about the prohibition of all things which become an instance of khabī’th in ‘urf or through the Sharī‘ah.4
However, Shaykh Muntaẓarī has not understood the precise point Imam Khumaynī is alluding to. It is obvious that Imam Khumaynī accepts the word al-khabā’ith is a plural accompanied by an alif-lām and that the Prophet (p) has prohibited all khabā’ith, but this is not the argument Imam Khumaynī is making. Rather, the point is whether the verse is legislating prohibition on instances through the category of khabīth by prohibiting the category itself, or is the verse simply an ikhbār regarding the fact that the Prophet (p) has prohibited all things which are khabīth in reality?
To add to that, the verse implies all things which are khabīth are prohibited, but who says everything that is khabīth in the eyes of ‘urf is inclusive of this verse? ‘Urf here has no role to play since all it can do is conventionally consider something khabīth or ṭayyib. As long as the verse is an ikhbār and not an inshā’, how can we argue that the verse is inclusive of what ‘urf also conventionally legislates as khabīth? Perhaps the verse is conveying the fact that the Divine Law only considers things prohibited if they are ontologically khabīth, not that which we identify as khabīth based on our own personal tastes, environment and upbringing. This is the point Imam Khumaynī is trying to make.
In summary, the verse is simply saying, whatever the Prophet (p) commands towards is good and he does not command towards anything evil, whatever he prevents is evil and he does not prevent anyone from doing good, whatever he prohibits is khabīth and he does not prohibit that which is ṭayyib, whatever he permits is ṭayyib and he does not permit the khabīth. What does this have to do with a juristic principle called taḥrim al-khabā’ith? This verse is more appropriate for a discussion in theology than for a jurisprudential principle.
An additional critique that can be made on those who have interpreted the verse within the domain of what we as ‘urf detest, hate, dislike and consider khabīth, is that, if this was indeed the case and al-khabā’ith is a plural accompanied with an alif-lām conveying generality, then the same has to be said about the opposing word al-ṭayyib. In other words, we ought to say that permitting all things which are ṭayyib means anything we love, desire, and find its taste likeable is permissible. In this case, this would permit many things, from music, to singing, to alcohol, to all sorts of food simply because many people consider them as al-ṭayyib. The only way to consider them prohibited would be to look for a restrictor (mukhaṣṣiṣ) for the generality signified in the verse. I’m not sure whether proponents of this view would ascribe to the implications of this interpretation or not.
Although it should be pointed out, Shawkānī has said some Muslim jurists did indeed cite this verse as evidence for the permissibility of listening to music and singing.5
In any case, the implication of such an understanding would mean the permissibility of anything which we personally desire and find it in accordance with our tastes. This is something the general message of the religion does not fit well with as generally speaking Islam does not grant our own personal desires and tastes the criterion for what is permissible or prohibited, in fact, many times our own personal desires, opinions and tastes are spoken about in a negative connotation.
Therefore, the view that the meaning of ṭayyib as pure and clean is preferred over the meaning of what we desire and love. The Prophet (p) has prohibited those things which are impure in their very essence and nature – and we do not mean impure in the jurisprudential sense here – and he has permitted all those things which are pure and clean in their very essence. This is the interpretation we have preferred, and this is also the opinion of Sayyid Khumaynī.
Conclusion: We cannot derive a Qurānic principle from this verse that would be specifically applied to determine which foods are ḥalāl and ḥarām. As for the traditions, we will discuss them later.
Sayyid Ali Imran studied in the seminary of Qom from 2012 to 2021, while also concurrently obtaining a M.A in Islamic Studies from The Islamic College of London in the summer of 2018. He continued his seminary studies in legal theory, jurisprudence and philosophy, eventually attending the advanced kharij of Usul and Fiqh in 2018. He is also a regular instructor for Mizan Institute.