Ethanol as ingredient in food and other products

Q: Is Ethanol najis? If a product contains ethanol and something comes in contact with it, does it need to be purified? Is it permissible to consume products that contain ethanol in their ingredients?

A: Ethanol, which can also be called (ethyl) alcohol or spirit(s), can result from natural reactions occurring in nature (whenever yeast metabolizes, during the ripening of fruits and vegetables for instance) or chemical production. This latter is sometimes called synthetic ethanol, depending on the process used to produce it.

Islamic legal scholars are in agreement that everything that falls under “wine” (in the chemical process sense) that is made from grapes is both a) najis (impure) and b) its consumption is forbidden. Our scholars are all in agreement (in principle, I would like to add) that anything that intoxicates – or to be more technical, anything that may diminish someone’s rational faculties – is forbidden. So there is no need to spend any time explaining the difference of opinions here, even if the arguments and rationales vary, since the bottom line is the same for all.

As for everything else, that does not meet these conditions, there is disagreement. So this entry is about those alcoholic by products that are NOT contained in wine and other common alcoholic drinks, but about alcoholic by-products that are found as an ingredient in food products and others (soap, creams, cleaners, perfumes, mouthwash, medicines, etc.) While some by-products of alcohol are an ingredient of wine, alcohol and wine should be considered two different substances. With that in mind, we can group the opinions in the following groups:

– Those who consider all alcohols both najis as well as forbidden. (S. M. Saeed Al-Hakim) According to this opinion, it is only permissible to consume anything containing any alcohol if it constitutes a medicine, when the alcohol is not extracted from an intoxicant that is originally in liquid form (i.e. wine), and only when it is necessary and not doing so poses a considerable health risk to one’s life, and there is no alternative. The only case in which an alcohol is not najis is when it changes chemically to the point of losing its intoxicating characteristic. Otherwise, its minute quantity or dissolution in other products does not change the fact that it is still najis in itself and that it renders najis everything else it touches.

– Those who consider any alcohol that is not extracted from an intoxicant that is liquid in its natural state (i.e. wine) tahir. This is generally the opinion of the students of S. Khoei and the large majority of our scholars ((S. Al-Sistani; Sh. Al-Fayyadh; Sh. Al-Khorasani S. Al-Shirazi, S. Al-Haydari, Sh. Al-Sanad…). Some of them (S. Al-Sistani; S. Al-Haydari) have actually explained that the minute quantity or dissolution of this type of alcohol in other products is sufficient to render them both tahir and fit for consumption. Therefore, the presence of such substances in products like perfumes, toothpastes and medicines is not problematic.

Unfortunately, there are still huge gaps and much catching-up to do with regards to fiqh, both in terms of making accessible the works and opinions of legal scholars to the world, as well as our scholars actually addressing many topics that are important for the day-to-day lives of Muslims. It is very difficult to tell whether the scholar has researched the topic and has an opinion, albeit it difficult to find; or whether the scholar has not given his opinion on the topic, in which case it is pointless to keep researching his books and lectures for an answer… So with this in mind, there are some other opinions that are worth keeping in mind here:

– Alcohols (except those from wine) are tahir but they all render anything they come in contact with najis, and also not fit for consumption. (seems to be the opinion of S. Al Haeri)

– Synthetic / Industrial… alcohols are fit for consumption and tahir. In addition, so long as the alcohol (except those from wine) does not cause intoxication, the product containing it may be consumed (seems to be the opinion of Sh. Makarem Shirazi; S. Rohani; S. Shirazi; Sh. Yaqubi). What is not clear here is whether they are talking about the alcohol contained in the product causing intoxication, or the product itself causing intoxication, and whether the amount required to intoxicate is a factor of relevance.

– For an alcohol (not extracted from wine) to be najis, it must meet all three criteria of being (a) edible, (b) originally liquid; and (c) intoxicating. Otherwise it is tahir. (S. Al-Khamenei) This is similar to the opinions mentioned previously, but the criteria used (for instance, its being edible) are slightly different.

So the bottom is the following:
If you are a follower of S. Saeed Al Hakim, then you must abstain from anything containing alcohol in any of its shapes or forms.

Otherwise, virtually all other scholars seem to consider non-edible products containing ethanol tahir. In addition, the crushing majority is also of the opinion that the presence of ethanol in foods and drinks does not render them prohibited, but for various reasons (because its chemical constitution is changing, because its amount is too minute, because it is simply not wine…).

I hope this has helped you!

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