For Muslims, a little four-letter word on treats' ingredient lists can make or break snack time.
I am truly blessed to be an American Muslim. I can confidently say that nowhere else in the world can Muslims practice their faith in relative freedom and safety. But being a Muslim in America has its challenges. I'm not talking about being harassed or profiled because of my faith, or seeing my faith be viciously maligned in the press, or having to undergo more intense scrutiny solely because of my faith. No, I am talking about the challenge of making sure I do not eat pork.
The Qur'an prohibits Muslims from eating pork, which includes lard and other pork-derived products. This posed a major challenge for me when I was growing up. Many of the most appealing childhood snacks contained lard: McDonald's cookies, Hostess apple pies, McDonald's hamburger buns, Oreo cookies, and--most devastatingly--Twinkies. Definitely a bummer. I can't remember a time when I didn't pick up a snack package and scour the ingredient list for lard. Whenever I saw that dreaded four-letter word, my heart sank in despair.
Sometimes, I would get away with eating tasty snacks that had this on their ingredient list: "...and/or lard." That little phrase, "and/or," was my saving grace. In Islam, the presence of pork in a food item must be confirmed for it to be prohibited. "And/or" introduced enough uncertainty to allow me to eat said snack. True, I was harassed by family members who asked, "If you had a food item that had 'and/or poison,' would you eat it?" Well, no, but that didn't matter to me.
Thanks be to God Almighty, more and more manufacturers dropped lard from their ingredient stocks. I was thrilled. I could eat Oreos, McDonald's cookies, McDonald's hamburgers, and Hostess apple pies. In fact, Hostess replaced the lard in their Twinkies with...beef fat! Life was good again.
The challenges, however, didn't end there. I participated in quite a few extracurricular activities in high school, and many times we would have pizza parties. Frequently, my colleagues would order only pepperoni or sausage pizza, assuming that everyone likes (and can eat) those toppings. Alas, I could not partake. Sometimes, we'd have pizzas that looked like they were vegetarian or cheese. But after one bite, I would be surprised (to say the least) to find out that it was a pepperoni pizza in disguise. Many times I clandestinely spat out pieces of pizza that turned out to be "wolves in sheep's clothing."
During medical school, there would be evening meetings where pizza would be served for dinner, and thus I would starve myself all day in order to enjoy the pizza. In fact, all I could think about on those days was pizza, as I listened to lectures about biochemistry. Disastrously, however, meeting organizers would order only one vegetable pizza, one cheese pizza, and many pepperoni, sausage, and other pork pizzas. Being health conscious, most people would eat slices of the vegetable pizza, leaving me pathetic scraps. And peeling the pepperoni off the pizza does not count: the grease remains.
I am not as strict about eating meat as some of my Muslim brothers or sisters. There are a good number of Muslims who will not eat any beef or chicken if it is not "halal"--slaughtered in the Islamic manner. I do, however, ascribe to the opinion allowing Muslims to eat meat slaughtered by Jews or Christians. This opinion is based upon this verse in the Qur'an: "This day (all) things good and pure are made lawful unto you. The food of the People of the Book is lawful unto you and yours is lawful unto them..." (5:5). This can be a very contentious issue among Muslims, but I prefer the "easy" way out and I eat chicken or beef slaughtered here in the United States without any qualms. In addition, I do not look down upon any Muslim who chooses to eat only halal meat. To each his own.
It's not easy being a non-pork eater in a pork-eating world, but it could be a lot worse. So what if I have to pause and ask the waiter if a certain entree at a restaurant has pork in it; so what if I have to take a few extra minutes and read the ingredient list on a package of marshmallows? If I am ever in a restaurant where there is only pork, I can always eat the vegetarian or the Kosher plate. And there's always seafood, which is completely permitted by Islamic law. Unfortunately, I hate seafood.
In the end, it's part and parcel of the submission that Islam calls for. And to me, that's worth a whole lot of missed Twinkies.