Alcohol—A Great Sin and Some Benefit
Roger M. Othman, Regional Director
People have consumed alcoholic beverages for centuries. Every Divine Scripture has prohibited the consumption of alcohol, but yet, it continues to be a major source of business and evil in society. What is alcohol and what does the Final Divine Scripture, the Quran, has to say about it?
Alcohol is the name of a family of chemicals containing an organic chain and a hydroxyl group (OH). Alcohols are colorless, volatile, flammable liquids with distinct odor and a burning taste. Some are toxic and others seem to give people pleasure when they are consumed. Since alcohols consist of an organic chain and the hydroxyl group, they combine the characteristics of organic compounds and water. This allows alcohols to dissolve in or to be dispersed in both oils and water. As we will discuss later, this property is utilized by the food industry.
The simplest alcohols contain one hydroxyl group and include the chemicals methanol, ethanol, propanol, as well as larger molecules. Methanol is toxic and is used as antifreeze for gasoline. It absorbs water and lowers the freezing point. Products such as Heet® contain methanol. Ethanol, also known as ethyl alcohol, is commonly considered to be what the Quran refers to as “Khamr”. It is used to make alcoholic beverages as well as in other food related applications. Ethanol is commonly referred to as alcohol. It is also used in gasoline to produce gasohol. Isopropyl alcohol is used in the health care industry as rubbing alcohol. It is used to prepare the skin for injections. While isopropyl alcohol is non-toxic, it has an unpleasant taste so it is not used in the food industry. Larger alcohol molecules are not commonly used in the food industry.
Another group of alcohols contain two hydroxyl groups. These compounds include ethylene glycol, propylene glycol, and larger glycols. Ethylene glycol is toxic and is used to produce automotive antifreeze. That is what is likely to be in your car radiator. Propylene glycol is non-toxic and is used in the food and drug industries as a solvent, emulsifier and mold inhibitor.
Alcohols are produced in a number of ways. Some are found naturally in fruits and other products. Fruit juices may contain up to 0.04% natural alcohol, while fresh fruits may contain up to 0.1% alcohol. Fresh milk, pickles, fermented dairy products, natural vinegars and salad dressings contain anywhere from a trace to 0.5% alcohol.
Alcohol is produced from a number of sources. It can be produced from oil and gas. This is the common method of producing the glycols, ethylene glycol, propylene glycol, etc. and isopropyl alcohol. Alcohol is also produced by fermentation of fruits and grains. This method is the common method for producing alcoholic beverages and the ethanol used in gasoline. It is also the method used for producing the alcohol used in the food industry for technical applications.
Some alcohols, such as lanolin alcohol and cetyl alcohol are produced from lamb’s wool. This is done without slaughtering the lamb. These alcohols are used in cosmetics and ointments.
For the remainder of this article, we will restrict our discussion to ethanol or “Khamr” and will use the word “alcohol” to refer to ethanol or “Khamr”. As we have seen, alcohol is a chemical with many uses and applications. In ancient times, it was mainly used to produce intoxicating drinks. Alcohol was made by fermentation from fruits such as grapes and dates, and from grains such as rye, hops, barley, corn, etc. If the fermentation process was not stopped in time, the alcohol was converted to acetic acid, or vinegar. Then it was no longer used for producing intoxicating drinks.
The major uses of alcohol are for alcoholic beverages and as a processing aid in the food, cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries. Alcoholic beverages are liquids containing 0.5% to 80% ethyl alcohol by volume. In the United States, the federal government taxes alcohol and it has set standards for alcoholic beverages. On the other hand, the government does not tax medicines, even though they may contain more alcohol than some of the alcoholic beverages and it even subsidizes ethanol for gasohol production.
There are 3 major classes of alcoholic beverages:
Fermented beverages, which are made from agricultural products, including grains and fruits. The normal alcohol content of these products is 3% to 16% and includes beer, wine, wine coolers, malt liquors, ale·, stout, and sake.
Distilled or spirit beverages, which are made by distillation of fermented beverages. Distillation increases the alcohol content these products as high as 80%. Distilled products include whisky, vodka, rum, gin, brandy, liqueur, tequila and other spirits.
Compound or fortified beverages, which are made by combining fermented or spirit beverages with flavoring substances. The alcohol content of these products can also be as high as 80%. They include port and vermouth.
Alcoholic beverages can be consumed directly or added to foods, either as ingredients or during cooking. When alcohol is an added ingredient, the ingredient label of the food product must list the specific alcoholic beverage that has been added, if it is greater than 0.5%. Examples of this would be liqueur-flavored chocolates, cakes and meals containing wines, such as beef stroganoff in wine sauce. However, if the alcohol is part of one of the ingredients, such as a flavor, it does not have to be listed separately on the ingredient label. When meals are cooked in alcohol, this is done to enhance the flavor or to impart a distinctive flavor. Some people consider foods cooked with wine to be a delicacy, so it is sometimes used by chefs to increase the stature of the meal. Wine is the most common form of alcohol used in cooking. While it may seem the alcohol all evaporates or is burned off, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has prepared a table listing the amount of retained alcohol in foods cooked in alcohol. The retained alcohol varies depending upon the cooking method. The following gives some of the retained alcohol content of foods prepared by different cooking methods:
Added to boiling liquid and removed from heat 85%
Cooked over a flame 75%
Added without heat and stored overnight 70%
Baked for 25 minutes without stirring 45%
Stirred into a mixture and baked or simmered for 15 minutes 40%
Stirred into a mixture and baked or simmered for 30 minutes 35%
Stirred into a mixture and baked or simmered for 1 hour 25%
Stirred into a mixture and baked or simmered for 2 hours 10%
Stirred into a mixture and baked or simmered for 2 hours 5%
In the United States, food-labeling laws consider alcohol as GRAS (generally recognized as safe). The USDA supervises all meat and poultry items. All products cooked in wine are required to say, “this meat cooked with wine” on the label. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) supervises all other food items containing less than 7% alcohol by volume. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) supervise foods with more than 7% alcohol. The BATF also supervises all alcoholic beverages.
As a processing aid, alcohol is used for a number of reasons. The main reason it is used is to facilitate the mixing of oil-based ingredients into water-based products or water-based ingredients into oil-based products. Remember that alcohol combines the characteristics of organic compounds and water. Most flavors are oils. For example, orange flavor is oil derived from orange skins. Orange flavor would not dissolve in water but will dissolve in alcohol. The mixture of alcohol and orange flavor will then dissolve in water. So to produce an orange flavored carbonated drink, like Sunkist Orange or Miranda Orange, alcohol is used to make sure the orange flavor is fully mixed and dissolved in the carbonated water and remains dissolved over the expected shelf life of the product. That way you can get the orange flavor in every sip you take rather than having the orange flavor floating on the top of the drink.
Alcohol is also used to standardize the concentration of flavors. Quality Control demands that each can of soda must have the same taste. If the concentration or potency of the flavoring used changes from batch to batch, it would be very difficult to control the flavor of the final product. By dissolving the flavor in alcohol, it is easier to control the flavor content. This way the soda manufacturer can use a standard recipe and add the same amount of the flavor into every batch; confident the final product will always have the same flavor, batch after batch.
Alcohol is also used in pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and topical products. Alcohol is frequently present in cough syrups and mouthwash, though these days one can find some alcohol free products.
In perfumes, the use of SD alcohol is common. SD alcohol is ethanol that has been denatured. Denaturing involves adding substances to the alcohol to make it harmful for consumption. The denaturing substances are very difficult to remove from the mixture, so denatured alcohol cannot be used in food or drink. Denatured alcohol is used in products intended for external use, such as perfumes. This is done to prevent the product from being used as a source of intoxicating drink. Remember, alcoholic beverages are taxed by the federal government (US) and cosmetics and perfumes are not, so we wouldn’t want anyone avoiding the tax by recovering the alcohol from the perfume!
Now that we know what alcohol (“Khamr”) is, where it comes from and how it is used, let us review the Divine guidance on the use of alcohol. Throughout history, Divine revelations have prohibited the consumption of alcohol, yet some people continued to consume it. When the revelation of the Quran began, drinking alcoholic beverages was not uncommon. Many of the Sahaba (companions of the Prophet, salla ALLAHu alaihi wa sallam) also drank them, prior to the prohibition in the Quran.
The prohibition came in 3 stages. The first revelation came in Surat Al-Baqarah, ayah 219:
They ask you (O Muhammad) concerning “Khamr” and gambling. Say: “In them is a great sin, and some benefits for men; but the sin of them is greater than their benefit.” And they ask you what they ought to spend. Say: “That which is beyond your needs.” Thus ALLAH makes clear to you HIS Signs in order that you may give thought. (Al-Baqarah – 219)
This ayah informed the believers that drinking “Khamr” is a great sin. Even though some may derive a benefit, it imparts greater sin than benefit. (The scholars have listed some of the benefits as being a digestive aid, an aid in cleansing the bladder, a tasty drink and a source of income.) We have also seen it can be a useful processing aid in foods and cosmetics. However, the evil associated with alcohol far exceeds the benefits, so it should not be used. This ayah gave some insight into the prohibition, but was not clear guidance to totally prohibit the consumption of alcohol.
The next revelation on the subject of alcohol came in Surat An-Nisa, ayah 43:
O you who believe! Approach not As-Salat (prayers) when you are in a drunken state, until you can understand (the meaning) of all that you say, nor when you are in a state of Janaba (a state of sexual impurity before having taken a bath) except when traveling on the road, until after washing your whole body. And if you are ill, or on a journey, or one of you comes back from answering the call of nature, or you have been in contact with women (by sexual relations) and you find no water, then perform Tayammum with clean earth and rub therewith your faces and hands. For ALLAH doth blot out sins and forgive again and again. (An-Nisa – 43)
In this ayah, the believers are told not to offer their salat while they are under the influence of alcohol. Doing so will prevent them from understanding what they recite or hear and salat is a very special form of worship where the worshipper is in contact with his LORD and perfect concentration is in order. Since salat is prescribed 5 times a day, at specific times, one may conclude it is nearly impossible to drink alcohol if one is to perform the required prayers on time. While this may be the case, it still did not clearly say alcohol must be avoided, so some believers continued to drink.
Finally, the clear command was issued in Surat Al-Maida, ayat 90-92:
O you who believe! Intoxicants and gambling, Al-Ansaab (sacrifices at stone alters), Al-Azlaam (arrows for seeking luck or decision-making) are an abomination of Satan’s handiwork. So avoid (strictly all) that (abomination) in order that you may be successful.
Satan wants only to excite enmity and hatred between you with intoxicants and gambling, and hinder you from the remembrance of ALLAH and from As-Salat. So, will you not then abstain?
And obey ALLAH and the Messenger (Muhammad), and beware (of even coming near to drinking alcohol or gambling or Al-Ansaab or Al-Azlaam). Then if you turn away, know that it is Our Messenger’s duty to convey (the Message) in the clearest manner. (Al-Ma-ida – 90-92)
Here was the final word on alcohol: IT MUST BE AVOIDED. There is no ambiguity: consumption of alcohol is totally prohibited.
Additional enlightenment comes for the Hadith. Ibn Umar, radiya ALLAHu anhuma, narrated that the Prophet, salla ALLAHu alaihi wa sallam, said: “Every intoxicant is “Khamr” (alcohol) and every intoxicant is haram (prohibited).” In another narration it is: Every intoxicant is “Khamr” (alcohol) and every “Khamr” is haram (prohibited).” Reported by Muslim.
Ibn Umar, radiyaALLAHu anhuma, narrated that he was called by the Messenger of ALLAH, salla ALLAHu alaihi wa sallam, and that the Prophet, salla ALLAHu alaihi wa sallam, ordered that the wine vats be emptied (or destroyed), and then He said: “Cursed are alcohol and those who drink it and those who offer it to others, and those who sell it, and those who buy it, and those who carry (transport) it, and those to whom it is being delivered and those who make it and those for whom it is being made and those who profit from it (financially).” Report by Ahmed.
Jaber bin Abdullah narrated that the Prophet, salla ALLAHu alaihi wa sallam, said: “Anything which intoxicates in large quantities is prohibited even in small quantities.” Reported by Abi Dawud.
There are other Ahadith concerning “Khamr”. These Ahadith teach us that anything that causes intoxication is encompassed by the word “Khamr”. They also teach us that not only is the consumer of the alcoholic beverage guilty but essentially anyone involved in the business of alcoholic beverage production, from the farm or fields, the production and processing, the packaging, transportation and delivery of it and anyone buying it, selling it or otherwise profiting from it, such as one who may sell advertising for it, etc.
While alcohol is prohibited for consumption, some alcohol is also najis (impure) while other alcohol is not. Alcohol derived from grapes, dates, raisins and com is najis. Use of alcohol from these sources in cosmetics, perfumes, etc., is not allowed because it is najis. Alcohol derived from other sources, such as oil, gas, wheat or rice, is not najis, even though it may be haram for consumption. Use of alcohol derived from these sources in cosmetics, perfumes, etc. does not make the use of the cosmetics or perfumes haram. However, they may contain other ingredients that are haram.
Now that we know the definition of alcohol, where it comes from, how it is used, the Divine revelations concerning it and the additional interpretation from the Hadith, we can conclude the following:
Alcoholic beverages of any type are prohibited in Islam. (i.e., drinking wine, beer, whiskey and all other alcoholic drinks.)
The use of alcoholic beverages in any food or drink production is prohibited in Islam. (i.e. eating or drinking products which are not considered alcoholic beverages on their own, but have alcoholic beverages added to them, such as spiked punch, chocolate containing liqueur, or cakes containing brandy, etc.)
Cooking with alcoholic beverages is prohibited.
Consuming fresh fruits or other foods that may contain some naturally occurring alcohol is Halal. However, allowing these fruits or foods to age and ferment so the alcohol content increases above the normal levels in fresh fruit is prohibited.
It should be noted that chocolate liquor is not an alcoholic product and is Halal.
Use of cosmetics containing alcohol is acceptable is the alcohol used is not najis.
Use of gasohol is acceptable.
After considering all the guidance and consulting with Islamic scholar(s), IFANCA has adopted the following policy for certifying products containing alcohol (ethanol).
Natural products containing the natural amount of alcohol qualify to be Halal.
Alcohol contained in a concentrated essence of a natural product must be below 0.5% to qualify as Halal.
Addition of any amount of fermented alcoholic drinks such as beer, wine, liquor, etc., to any food product or drink renders the product haram. It cannot qualify to be Halal. if the essence is extracted from these products and used in foods so it makes up less than 0.5%, the product can qualify to be Halal.
Use of alcohol in any concentration in an industrial process is acceptable. The final product of such industrial application must be reduced to less than 0.5% (by evaporation or conversion to acetic acid) if it is to be used in food products. This means flavors that will be used in food production must contain less than 0.5% alcohol to qualify as Halal.
Consumer products with added ingredients that contain alcohol must have less than 0.1 % alcohol to qualify as Halal.
We will continue to re-examine these standards and consult with Islamic scholars and may modify the certification standard for alcohol.
Some of this information was extracted from the article Alcohol—A Drink/A Chemical by Roger Othman and Mian N. Riaz, Ph.D., appearing in the Fall 2000 issue of Halal Consumer.