Tour the Muslim world, and you'll find two words that mark the foundation of any Islamic lifestyle: halal and haram. Despite their complexity, these terms have been simplified to mere synonyms of ‘permissible’ and ‘impermissible; the likes of ‘can I do this?’ or ‘can I do that?’ often demand a concrete yes/no answer of today’s jurists.
Unfortunately though, we have become a community that relies almost exclusively on the ‘can/cannot’ of Muslim jurists to dictate an Islamic lifestyle amidst the hustle and bustle of our daily chores. In fact, we’ve become so dependent on categorical scholarly approvals of our actions, that the notion of ‘fatwa-hunting’ easily comes to mind; before we do anything, we’re sure to quickly scavenge online Islamic databases for a scholarly opinion that hopefully makes it permissible.
But what about the ‘should’?
The’ should’ is a little complicated as it looks beyond the domains of halal and haram, and appreciates an understanding of right and wrong beyond what is mitigated by Muslim jurists. In other words, the ‘should’ incorporates the thoughts and opinions of accredited scholars, but demands a close look at personal context as well. We have unfortunately placed an extraordinary emphasis on the ‘can’ rather than then ‘should’ and thus, in my opinion, our overreliance on the ‘can’ decidedly contributed to the development of a generation of Muslims who would rather push to the limits of what they’re allowed to do – i.e. I don’t drink alcohol, but is going to bars really “haram”? - rather than attain the wisdom to live a righteous life without the constant need of scholarly approval. Many instances of this issue come to mind, so allow me to present one concrete example to avoid needless philosophizing.
The example is that of organic food - organic in the sense that the food is grown/raised in a manner that respects the ecological environment (i.e. plants, animals), as well as the people cultivating it. Now, if you are to conduct a social experiment examining how many Muslims believe Islam respects and dignifies God's green earth and its creatures, you will assuredly find the majority raise their hands in pride. Ironically however, if you were to investigate if this very same population followed a diet that reflects this respect of ecology, I'd be surprised if we'd get more than 5% (controlling for the awareness of just how badly the earth and its animals are treated in the vast majority of food industries – many people just don’t know).
So what's the cause of this discrepancy? Can we simply ascribe this to the good ol’ “Islam presents a set of ideals, yet people will never be perfect?” Of course we can - too bad that doesn't absolve us of our responsibility though. Thus, let's investigate the issue of why organic food is so readily dismissed in the Muslim community, based upon the theoretical premise – the ‘can’ and the ‘should’ - with which I began this article.
I argue that one of the main reasons why most Muslims disregard organic food is a function of the ‘can and cannot’ mentality. Essentially, we developed our entire Muslim identities as a function of limits (halal/haram); thus, unless a scholar categorically makes a fatwa to the effect that it's haram to eat food that actively encourages the destruction of the plant and animal kingdoms, most Muslims will simply not give up on non-organic food because, well, it’s ‘halal.’ For those who are wondering why scholars are NOT categorically prohibiting non-organic food items, the jurisprudence is well beyond my breadth of knowledge; nevertheless, at the very least consider how much more expensive organic food is to nonorganic food at the moment, and the number of people who don't possess such financial liberties. Rendering a thing illicit while so many people depend on it is much easier said than done, and I've yet to hear a scholar speak out against it. And yet, this whole discussion succinctly illustrates my point; why do we depend so much on scholars to tell us something is prohibited – the can and cannot – despite the plethora of evidence already suggesting its rather dramatic consequences? Why are pictures of beakless chickens and mutilated cows not enough to instill in us an Islamic dietary ethic that seeks to avoid supporting such an industry? If you find the example of organic food too far-fetched, consider the following two instances of what Muslims often rationalize as ‘can,’ despite the countless of scholars speaking out against such practices every day. For example, why do people smoke shisha, despite countless of studies demonstrating it’s worse than tobacco? Furthermore, why do people develop deep, intimate friendships with the opposite gender - not having sex, of course, because that’s obviously haram, but just developing profoundly emotional relationships – with no intention of getting married?*
Because, again, we’ve become a people of the ‘can-and-cannots’; a people who would rather push to the limits of what’s permissible, rather than attain the wisdom of living a righteous life.
I believe this distinction of ‘can’ and ‘should’ is telling of our worldview. The former perhaps holds to a stricter formulation of concrete worldly law – it stipulates a set of rules and regulations for the benefit of social harmony. The ‘should’, on the other hand, transcends the world of laws towards an ethical excellence towards God - ihsan, if you will. Furthermore, the ‘can’ is general and applies to a wide range of individuals simultaneously; the ‘should’, however, requires self-reflection that appreciates ones blessings and capabilities. As such, the ‘should’ necessitates wisdom. It requires one to continuously evaluate our actions and behaviour as a function of our own personal knowledge – to allow acquired information modify one’s behaviours in accordance to one’s abilities, without being instructed to do so by anyone else. None of this is to say that ‘can’ and ‘should’ are mutually exclusive; indeed, they go hand-in-hand, for the limits of ‘can’ serve to sustain order and unity, and the ‘should’ obliges everyone to rise beyond them and reflect on what’s specifically required from them as individuals.
Thus, it’s time to cultivate a mentality that looks well beyond the barriers of what we can or cannot do, and nourish an attitude of what we should be doing based on our own, very special characteristics and blessings. This is especially relevant for our kids and teens who, if only instructed as to what is halal and haram, will rarely develop the ethical mindset that allows them to adapt to the ever-changing moral frameworks of their environments.
Ultimately, this article isn't an attempt to tell you that you can’t eat non-organic; that would be outstandingly ironic in light of what I just explained. Instead, it only asks that each and every one of us reflects deeply as to what they ‘should do’, as opposed to what they ‘can do.’ What better way to end this topic but to remind ourselves of Allah, who summarizes the notion of ‘should’ quite beautifully in the Quran:
[Allah] who created death and life to test you [as to] which of you is best in deed - and He is the Exalted in Might, the Forgiving. (67: 2)
*Note: I’m not implying that any of these things are permissible, just listing common justifications for these behaviours under the guise of ‘it’s not haram.’