Last week at my remote office, a man came to the bar to order the Duke's most excellent fish and chips for takeout. Then he asked a question: is the fish beer-battered? Well, yes, of course it is; it's a Scottish pub.
Unfortunately for the pub's sales and the customer's stomach pangs, he was an observant Muslim, and believes alcohol is haram. So we got into a conversation about whether beer-battered fish was in this category. (Pubs in London have many more Muslim customers than pubs in Chicago, so they generally don't use beer in their fish batter.)
I'm not religious, not even a tiny bit, but I understand some people keep strict dietary laws like halal. Some people in my own family are strictly Kosher too. But putting aside my feelings that dietary laws in the 21st century make no sense except as a way to keep the observant ethnic group separate from society, the question "is beer-battered fried fish haram" actually interested me.
Again, as a rational person, I would have assumed that the reason alcohol is haram has to do with its intoxicating effects. Since ethanol boils at 78°C, well below the oil's temperature (150-175°C or so), it pretty much evaporates completely when the fish is fried. People get intoxicated on fish-and-chip nights at the Duke (all you can eat Wednesdays and Fridays!), but from the 90 single malts and half-dozen beers on draught, not from the fish.
But it turns out, once it touches alcohol, it's haram:
Fire/cooking does not remove impurity, and the Shafi’i School considers alcohol, like beer, impure. Therefore, even when cooking removes all the alcohol, contamination with the impurity makes eating it problematic.
And Allah knows best.
In fact, most imams seem to agree that food becomes haram as soon as it touches impure oil, even if it is chemically purified by frying:
So long as we know that most of what is fried [with this oil] is impure [for the Muslims to eat] from dead [meat (of the animal which had died prior to slaughter)] or pig [meat], then it is imperative that we ask. However, if we do not know whether most of what is fried [with this oil] is impure [for the Muslims to eat] or other than that, then it is not obligatory to question. And Allaah has the complete knowledge [of all affairs].
But there may be an out:
Hanafi muftis allow the consumption of products containing alcohol from sources other than grapes or dates so long as: 1) it does not intoxicate and 2) it is not used in vain. Also, the amount of alcohol must not exceed 0.5%. Thus, if the amount of beer used is disproportional to the extent of more than 0.5%, then such a product would not be permitted. If the amount of alcohol is 0.5% or less, then they would allow it.
Why Allah decided on 1/200th as the magic amount, what "in vain" means, and how the Hanafi muftis in question learned these specifications, are beyond the scope of this blog post. And it seems to be an open question whether the 0.5% refers to the ethanol itself or to the beer as a whole, but I'm going with the actual alcohol content. I will endeavor to find out from Colin Cameron how much beer exactly gets used in the preparation of fish and chips, and what kind of beer, so that the guy who just wanted a chippie to take away can have it from the Duke without going to hell.