Of Fermented Food, How Alcohol is Permitted for Consumption According to Islamic Jurists

Credit: Harvest Health Foods

Before anyone jumps the gun, let us delve into the realm of reason and clarity. "Alcohol" would mean differently to an individual. For some, and perhaps, the majority, it may well translate into the forbidden (from a Muslim perspective) form of beverage. Wine/beer.

It is interesting to note that the Quranic English translations and tafsirs for the term khamr, is 'intoxicants' rather than 'wine' or 'beer' alone. In fact, khamr, in Kamus Idris Al-Marbawi, is stated as meaning 'something that causes drunkenness (state of being intoxicated)'. Therefore, I am inclined to believe that this (using 'intoxicants') is the most accurate translation although throughout this post, the term 'wine' will be used to mean the same thing as wine and other intoxicating drink variants.

Wine contains alcohol (5 - 16% ABV - alcohol by volume, a unit for measuring alcohol content). Much like any other food or product that we have around us, be it naturally or produced, alcohol's presence is there whether we realize it or not. From the Qur'anic context, there is no questioning regarding the status of wine (khamr) itself. It is haraam (prohibited) and considered najis (impure). This can be seen clearly via Surah Al-Maidah (ayat 90) and the number of hadiths supporting this ruling (via Tafsir Ibn Kathir).

However, when it comes to other than wine, one does wonder regarding the status of those food/products containing alcohol - do we simply treat them as wine, or is there a differentiator of some sort to explicitly consider an alcohol as permitted consumable food/products?

While there are already rulings and opinions regarding this topic, the purpose of this post entry is to explore the basis by which the non-wine or non-khamr but alcoholic products are considered permissible by the Islamic jurists and scholars. It is not here to undermine the Islamic rulings/opinions of the affected parties but rather, to illustrate the beauty of diverse reasonings that are aligned with the Qur'an and As-Sunnah.

Alcoholic Food/Products

Across different cultures, we see different ways that 'alcohols' can be obtained and produced.

Sauerkraut is made from fermented raw cabbage. Its alcohol content is claimed to be 0.2% ABV during the first 9 days of fermentation.

Tempoyak is made from fermented durian.

Budu is made from fermented anchovies.

Tapai is made from fermented rice.

Soy sauce is made from fermented soy beans.

Kimchi, considered a staple of Korean households, is made from fermented collection of vegetables.

The list goes on, and they all have one thing in common - fermentation, a biological process by which sugar is converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide via a fermenting agent such as but not limited to yeast and bacteria. In some cases, fermentation can occur without the presence of such agents.

Fermentation is also part and parcel of one of the phases in wine-making. So, the question is posed, do we Muslims consider all alcoholic food/products as haram?

Is Tempoyak and the likes haram (forbidden) in Islam?

If it is any consolation, a ripe stage banana contains 0.05g of alcohol (0.2g per 100g, or 0.2% ABV - alcohol by volume). An overripe banana, on the other hand, contains a higher ABV, about 0.4%. As for a tempoyak, we refer the matter to the following views (manually translated) that were issued by the Fatwa Committee of the National Council for Islamic Religious Affairs Malaysia:

  1. The Fatwa Committee of the National Council for Islamic Religious Affairs Malaysia 22nd meeting discussion (Muzakarah) on 24 November 1988 has discussed (the issue of) Alcohol as Soft Drink Stabilizers. The Muzakarah has finalized that cordials containing alcoholic flavorings as a stabilizing agent, is permitted (harus) to be used in drinks given that:
    • the alcohol was not produced as a result of a wine-making process.
    • the volume of alcohol in the flavouring is small in quantity so as to not cause drunkenness (intoxication).
  2. The Fatwa Committee of the National Council for Islamic Religious Affairs Malaysia 7th Muzakarah on 11th - 12th April 1984 has discussed (the issue of) Alcohol from the Islamic View. The Muzakarah has finalized that:
    • Each and every wine contains alcohol. (However,) not all alcohol contains wine. Alcohol from a wine-making process is prohibited (haram) and considered impure (najis), but in the case where it does not go through a wine-making process, then the alcohol is not considered impure but it is still forbidden for consumption.
    • Soft drinks that have been made using the same process as a wine-making process regardless of whether the alcohol volume is less in quantity or that the alcohol has been distilled, are forbidden for consumption.
    • Soft drinks that were made not for wine or as a substance that can cause drunkenness (intoxication) and did not go through a resemblance of a wine-making process, is halal.
    • Tapai is halal for consumption.
    • Alcohol that is produced as a side-effect in a food manufacturing process is considered not an impure (najis) type and can be consumed.
    • Medicines and perfumes that contain alcohol is considered permissible (harus) and excusable.
  3. Based on a briefing, presentation, and elaboration delivered by experts from the Halal Product Research Institute, Universiti Putra Malaysia, and considering previous finalized decisions of the Fatwa Committee of the National Council for Islamic Religious Affairs Malaysia, the Fatwa Committee of the National Council for Islamic Religious Affairs Malaysia Muzakarah on 14th - 16th July 2011 has discussed (the issue of) Alcohol in Food, Drinks, Perfumes, and Medicines, and has finalized that:
    • Every wine contains alcohol. However, not all alcohol is wine. Alcohol that is obtained through a wine-making process is prohibited (haram) and impure (najis).
    • Whereas alcohol obtained through non-wine-making process is considered not an impure (najis) type, but is forbidden for consumption in its original form because it is poisonous and can be fatal.
    • Soft drinks that have been processed/manufactured not with the intention to produce wine and contain alcohol below 1% v/v (1% ABV) is permitted (harus) for consumption.
    • Whereas soft drinks that were manufactured with the intention and method as in wine-making processing be it large or small in quantity, or that the alcohol has been distilled, is forbidden (haram) for consumption.
    • Food or drinks that contain alcohol naturally such as fruits, legumes/pulses, or grains and their pressed produce, or that contain alcohol as a side-effect when producing the said food or drinks, is not an impure (najis) type and is permitted (harus) for consumption.
    • Food or drinks that contain flavorings or colorings that in turn contain alcoholic stabilizers is permitted (harus) for consumption provided that the alcohol was not produced from a wine-making process and that the alcohol volume in the end product does not cause drunkenness (intoxication) and is less than 0.5% (ABV, implied).
    • Medicines and perfumes that contain alcohol as a solvent is not an impure (najis) type and is permitted if the said alcohol did not go though a wine-making process.
Based on the facts and explanation above, we are inclined to state that food colorings containing 20% alcohol is forbidden (haram) because the volume exceeds the 0.5% threshold even if the colorings did not go through a wine-making process, just as finalized in the Muzakarah conducted by the Fatwa Committee of the National Council for Islamic Religious Affairs Malaysia. The best is for the inquirer to direct questions to JAKIM's Halal Hub Division.

From the above, we know that tempoyak and other fruit, legume, or grain based natural side-effects are allowed for consumption. So long as they abide by the rulings imposed in this fatwa (ruling/opinion), you can enjoy your tempoyak and what not without a doubt 😆.

The 0.5%

What is interesting to note about the fatwa is that there is a clear threshold in determining the allowed amount of alcohol in a food/drink. A fatwa is never given out of whim. It is always based or adhere to two primary sources, Al-Qur'an and the Prophetic traditions (As-Sunnah). A fatwa is issued whenever there are concerns that are not directly addressed in these two sources. In such cases, another level of Islamic jurisprudence is applied and they are qiyas, ijma', and ijtihad. That mentioned, all three methods are still made based with reference to Al-Qur'an and As-Sunnah or whose jurisdictions/opinions do not go against the principles set in both Al-Qur'an and As-Sunnah. We refer to the following excerpt from IIBI on the matter as to why Islamic rulings and guidelines are always adaptive throughout time:

The universality and permanence of Islam as a civilisation are intrinsically linked to the fact that the Qur'an and the Sunnah have introduced general principles and guidelines. These give Muslims the opportunity to develop practical solutions in order to regulate their continuous changing environment. Besides the Qur'an and the Sunnah, the sources of law in Islam are qiyas (analogy), ijma' (consensus) and ijtihad (disciplined, academic research).

As such, it is no surprise that while in the process of issuing the above fatwa, experts in the respective field were consulted for advice. 

Since we now know that a fatwa will always find its root to the Islamic primary sources, one may wonder how the 0.5% ABV threshold was decided.  An attempt to draw the answer is in progress. Nevertheless, based on an article by Anisah Ab Ghani & Muhammad Safiri Ismail (2010)1, we may get a few ideas how. We presumed that the said article may have been published later (since it claims to have been published in 2010) given their discussion on certain statements that were actually issued during the said Muzakarah (that was conducted on 14th - 16th July 2011).

Anisah & Safiri (2010)

The article constructively argues against evaluating the permissibility of consuming alcoholic food  merely based on its alcohol content. The authors contended that since a 5% ABV in a beer will definitely cause intoxication/drowsiness, than a 5% ABV in a tapai, it is the capacity to cause intoxication that should be the factor to determine whether a food/product is permissible for consumption or not.

Moreover, it was also pointed out that the rate of intoxication between different individuals are never the same. From a medical point of view, factors such as gender, body weight, the alcohol concentration, rate of consumption, age, and also if any accompanying food was present, contribute to an individual's blood alcohol concentration (BAC). It is known that if a person's BAC is at 0.08 g/100ml (or 0.08 BAC), this is the point at which one becomes euphoric i.e. drunk.

LPPOM, Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI)

Meanwhile, the MUI provides agreeable views to that of the Muzakarah with emphasis on the concern of a fruit's (i.e. durian) capacity to cause intoxication. However, no ABV threshold was mentioned. Basically, it is agreed that khamr is alcohol, and that not all alcohol is khamr. It is understood that from the diverse opinions (that in turn are also supported from Al-Qur'an and As-Sunnah), anything that causes one to be intoxicated will be haram for him/her. Therefore, if a person knows that eating a seed or two can cause intoxication on him/her, the prohibition is casuistic and cannot be applied to everyone else in general.

In a Nut Shell

We have seen from the fatwas and opinions presented that khamr (wine or other intoxicants) is prohibited without question. Although it contains alcohol, this does not mean that other products or food containing alcohol is prohibited (haram) for consumption.

Apparently, the 0.5% threshold is derived from the opinion of Dr. Nazih Hammad in his book entitled:

المواد المحرمة والنجسة في الغذاء والدواء

A source also stated that JAKIM previously used an unofficial threshold of 0.01% before the official 1% v/v.

Note that regardless of the threshold value, be it 0.01% or 1%, the fatwa explicitly mentions alongside them that the products/food that have been produced should not be with intention, what more to produce khamr/wine or to cause drunkenness. This is what would, insyaa-Allah, save us from being intoxicated.

Wallahu A'lam.

By: Abu-l-Khamsah

This is merely a write-up of an 'awam (layman). Any comment or correction is welcomed greatly and appreciated.

1 Ab Ghani, A., & Ismail, M. S. (2010). Penentuan Piawaian Alkohol Dalam Makanan Yang Dibenarkan Dari Perspektif Islam. Jurnal Fiqh, 7, 277–299. https://doi.org/10.22452/fiqh.vol7no1.14

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