By Dr Yamin Cheng
ONCE UPON A TIME, in many societies of the world, it would appear strange and awkward for someone living in those times to be told that religion is only one aspect and activity of the human life. Rather, for that person, religion is everything. Religion is society, politics, economics, culture, education, art, and everything that has to do with human living. Religion, Cosmos or Universe, Nature or Environment, Society and Family, Culture and Ethics, Self and Body are inseparable from one another. Rather, they are all related as a web of relationship, becoming mirror reflections of one another, and functioning as analogies for thought, feeling, and language. For instance, one finds in the Malay peribahasa or idiom, that someone is an ‘alim-alim kucing,’ a ‘pious-looking cat,’ if he is a pretender.
Religion has existed from the day our forefathers made their presence in this world, and even in modern times like ours, is still a vibrant dimension of human life. From the time the first humans emerged on earth, religion has always featured as an essential part of human life, giving us the story of our human identity - about where we come from, what we are doing in this world, and where we will be going after we die. It is only in modern times like ours that religion has been interpreted as the need of the oppressed and the weak-minded, and a salvation hope for the helpless and hapless. Religion is equated with myth, superstition, and things primitive. It is a thing of the past and can never feature in modern life that hails reason and science as liberation from religion. Religion is seen as old ways, old habits, old practices, old lifestyles, and all things outdated and obsolete. But above all, religion is seen as having only to do with worship, rituals, redemption for one’s misdoings, and matters of life after death. A religious place, or a place having to do with religion, for instance, is identified with the mosque where people come and pray, but not the bank, a school or a restaurant.
Against this view of religion, a bank, a school, and a restaurant are places of worship inasmuch as a mosque is a place of worship. Take restaurant for instance. Some Muslims will find it strange, and obviously very odd, to regard a restaurant as a place where religion happens, the same way religion happens in a mosque. This perception is made more pronounced with the presence of Western fast-food outlets that have swarmed Muslim societies. Young people like to frequent places like Pizza Hut, Burger King, A&W and other such places, and eating pizzas, hot dogs, and burgers have become a local habit these days. But these places carry with them Western names and, historically and culturally, Western things are foreign to the Muslim experience of religion. So what have Pizza Hut and Burger King got to do with religion?
Eating outlets with Western names nonetheless can be places where religion happens, the same way a Muslim restaurant that has a Muslim name. While names are important because they reflect what identity a restaurant carries, as long as the name is not one that touches on the sensitivities of the Muslim faith, it should not be a problem. Muslims in Singapore and Malaysia, for instance, are sensitive to dogs, but they have no problem eating hot dog. But if the restaurant is called ‘Doggy Restaurant’ then the restaurant should not expect Muslim customers.
Apart from names, as long as the food is halal, or permissible from the viewpoint of the Islamic dietary laws, the restaurant can be considered a religious place for Muslims. There is a misunderstanding however regarding what halal is. Halal is not only pork-free or lard-free or no pork served. Whether it is beef or chicken, halal beef and chicken refer to cows and chickens slaughtered according to the Islamic rituals. Thus, even if a restaurant serves beef and chicken but if their meat is not prepared according to the Islamic dietary laws, they cannot be consumed. The writer chanced to visit Sentosa Island in Singapore many years ago and was looking for a halal eatery. Incidentally, he saw two eateries adjacent to one another. One has this sign: Non-Halal Food Not Permitted Here. That’s comprehensible enough. The other reads: Halal Food Not Permitted Here. Sounds anything?
But for a restaurant to be a religious place, it is not enough for the food to be halal. The food must also be nutritious and of good quality, the place has to be hygienic and comfortable, and the services have to be prompt and appealing. It is these ‘extras’ that made many people, young and old alike, and especially the little ones, to want to come to Western-style restaurants to eat because they have the recipe to attract people to their places. They have quality control.
Muslim scholars have classified Islamic daily living into three broad categories. These are daruriyyat or necessary, hajiyyat or desirable, and tahsiniyyat or premium lifestyle. To be able to savour a piece of chicken so that one could go on living is daruriyyat. But nobody wants to eat just to avoid being hungry. They want to see the chicken properly cooked, tastes juicy, the meat is tender, and, of course, nice to see and wets the appetite. This is hajiyyat. But above all, the appetite becomes a full picture of a culture when one sees what culinary art could do to make the chicken dish something that trains a person to be a cultured personality with the way he sits around the table, how he behaves towards the food before, during, and after meal, and how he keeps his manners when he is eating. This is tahsiniyyat. Therefore, meals and restaurants could be religious things because they serve out the purpose of religious living which is to make a person conscientious about his manners and ethics of everyday living which would then mould him into a personality desired by religion, for Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) had said, ‘I have been sent but to bring into fruition the noble qualities in human character.’
For Muslims, religion is everyday, everywhere, and everything, past and present, traditional and modern. For a Muslim, religion occurs even to a restaurant. The restaurant can connect him to God. Through the restaurant, he is mindful that it is God who gave him his sustenance and therefore becomes careful with what he takes into his body so that the food becomes his source of health and energy, and not a cause of his illness and gluttony. Through the restaurant too, he understands why hygiene and cleanliness are essential to his well-being and comfort, for the Prophet had said, ‘Cleanliness is an aspect of religion.’ In sum, the restaurant is something through which we live our religious existence, fulfill our social meaning, and portray our human identity.
Mankind has always been religious from day one of their existence. It is they who need to know that they have been religious all along, even in modern times like ours. This speaks the same for Muslims where modernity has severed their understanding of Islam as religion and leaves it only as a ritual of the mosque but not the restaurant and other places where we go for our activities of life. This perception of religion has to change.