“Of course, you can find exceptions to every rule, but even the most marginally practising Muslim will usually abstain from pork,” says Shahina Siddiqui, president of the Islamic Social Services Association of Canada.
The many dietary guidelines Muslims are expected to follow are broken down into two groups: foods that are lawful (halal), and foods that are forbidden (haraam).
Pork tops the haraam list, but Muslims are also forbidden from consuming intoxicants (including alcohol and non-medicinal drugs), foods containing blood, and meat from carnivorous animals, animals that die of natural causes, animals with claws, and animals that slither on their stomachs.
“Islamic dietary restrictions are based on the premise that health and life come first,” Siddiqui says. “It’s explained in the Qur’an (Islam’s sacred book) … anything that is harmful to the human body or a threat to human life is forbidden.”
The restrictions also apply to substances that aren’t specifically mentioned in the text, but have subsequently been found to be harmful (think cigarettes, meat tainted by disease, and genetically-modified foods that cause illness), she notes.
As in the Jewish faith, there are laws outlining the means by which food must be prepared, and although there are similarities, these are not quite as stringent as those prescribed by the Talmud.
In Islam, meat must be slaughtered by another Muslim (male or female), although there are camps who believe it is OK to eat meat slaughtered by a Jew or Christian.
As with the Jewish faith, animals must be slaughtered using a quick, clean cut to the throat (again, to minimize any pain), and blood must be drained quickly away.
Food from the ocean (including shellfish) is acceptable to eat, and fish do not have to be slaughtered in the same manner, Siddiqui says.
Muslims are also required to fast between sunrise and sunset each day during Ramadan.
During those daylight hours, no food or water can be consumed, although Muslims can break their fast at sunset with a small meal.
The practice is observed by everyone past puberty, although expectant mothers, the elderly and the chronically ill are often exempt.
Asked if the practice doesn’t result in fatigue, Siddiqui says the opposite is actually true.
“You feel much more energetic,” she says. “After a day of fasting, you’re much more aware of what you’re eating. You eat less of it, but you eat healthier.”
Another misconception is that those adhering to the fast drastically lose weight, Siddiqui says.
“Unfortunately, we don’t,” she laughs.