How Caviar Became Halal
How Caviar Turned Out to Be Halal
When the shiite clergy acquired control over the Iranian state in 1979, they found themselves in a position where, in addition to enunciating the prescriptions of divine law (shari’a), they also had to supervise the actual enforcement by the state of the religious injunctions it comprises. Islamic law contains detailed rules about food, drink, and culinary etiquette, and although the actual practice of Muslim societies has never fully conformed to these rules, the obvious importance of food and drink in the daily lives of people confers upon religious dietary laws a subjective importance for Muslims that helps define the boundaries of their community.
An Islamic state, as defined by modern-day Islamists, must therefore be a state in which Islam’s dietary laws are legally enforced. The Koran explicitly forbids the consumption of only three things: pork, alcohol, and carrion. The consumption of pork and alcohol was indeed outlawed soon after the revolution of 1979, there being no need to prohibit carrion since Iranians are not particularly fond of it. Caviar, however, posed a delicate problem. Shiite jurisprudence considered it haram (forbidden), but since its production and export were a state monopoly, caviar procured the Iranian treasury millions of dollars in revenue. Trading in what is forbidden being equally forbidden under the shari’a, the Islamic Republic faced the alternative of either reneging on its promise of applying divine law or depriving itself of valuable export earnings. Moreover, caviar is the epitome of luxury and culinary refinement in Western culture, which alone must have rendered it suspect in the eyes of the populists who took power soon after the revolution. To find a way out of this dilemma, the status of caviar under religious law was revisited. At the end of a laborious process involving both clerics and fisheries experts, the traditional ruling was reversed, and caviar was declared halal (permitted).
Seafood in Muslim Dietary Law
The various juridical schools of Islam differ on which animals Muslims are allowed to eat. As a general rule, Hanbali, Shafi’i, and Maliki Sunnis are more liberal, with Malikis being the most liberal of all. Hanafi Sunnis (who constitute over half of all Sunnis) and Shiites are more restrictive, with Twelver Shiites (the main branch of Shiism, dominant in Iran and Iraq) being the most restrictive of all. Regarding seafood, the three liberal Sunni schools permit all aquatic animals, often justifying this by refer-ence to Koran 5:96: “Permitted to you is the catch of the sea and the food of it.” Hanafi Sunnis and Ibadis (the third branch of Islam, adherents of which live mainly in Oman) permit all fish but no other aquatic animals. Shiites as a rule consider only fish with scales to be halal, and they are guided in this by the traditions of the Imams. Fish without scales were already singled out as unfit for sacrifice to the gods by Numa, Rome’s legendary second king, but the Shiite prohibition of nonsquamous fish is more probably related to the injunctions contained in Leviticus 11:9–12, where we read: “Of the various creatures that live in the water, you may eat the following: whatever in the seas or in river waters has both fins and scales you may eat. But of the various creatures that crawl or swim in the water, whether in the sea or in the rivers, all those that lack either fins or scales are loathsome for you, and you shall treat them as loathsome. Their flesh you shall not eat, and their dead bodies you shall loathe. Every water creature that lacks fins or scales is loathsome to you.”For contemporary Twelver Shiites the standard law text where this ruling is explained is the Lum’a, written in the fourteenth century by a scholar known as the First Martyr (Shahid al-Awwal). In its chapter on food and drink, “Kitab al-at’ima wa l-ashriba,” fish and roe are actually considered at the very beginning, before land animals. The first rule concerns fish: “Among sea animals, a fish that has scales is permitted, even if its scales have fallen off, like the kan’at.... Nor are turtles, frogs, crabs, and other sea animals permit- ted. And a fish that feeds on impurities is not permitted, unless it is cleansed by feeding it clean food in the water for a day and a night.”
The one nonichthyic water creature allowed by Twelver Shiism is shrimp, which in Iran is eaten mixed with rice (meygu-polo), in an herb stew with cilantro and fenugreek (qallieh meygu), or salted and dried as a snack. The licit-ness of shrimp derives, depending on the sources, from its being considered either fish or fowl. The first classification appears in a number of recent and contemporary Shiite “manuals of practice” for the faithful, which base themselves on an old eastern Arabic convention that knew shrimp as samak al-irbiyan (Irbiyan fish). Another, probably related, account has it that a man from Basra took a shrimp to the Sixth Imam, Ja’far al-Sadiq, and asked him to rule on its status. The Imam responded that it was a kind of fish, asking the man: “Do you not see how it wiggles in its qishr?” The Arabic word qishr denotes an outer cover or husk, and in an aquatic animal this, by implication, qualifies as fish scales, the usual word for which is fals (usually pronounced “fils”). The second line of reasoning uses a syllogism. It posits that the shrimp is an aquatic locust and argues that since the locust is a bird, the shrimp can also be considered a bird, rendering it halal. Spelled out laconically in a self-help manual for Muslim travelers to the lands of the infidels, this demonstration invites ridicule, but it should be remembered that it is premised on the isomorphist theory, which is attested in classical sources and rests on the idea that aquatic and terrestrial animals can be paired off and that an aquatic animal is halal if its terrestrial counterpart is. This bodes ill for the sturgeon, the most prized variety of which is called sag-mahi (dog-fish) in Persian, although it is more com- monly known by its Turkish name ozun borun (long nose).
Sturgeon and Caviar
Caviar is the roe of sturgeons, fish belonging to the order of Acipenseriformes, which comprises more than two dozen species. Sturgeon was once the dominant large fish in every major river system on all three continents of the tem- perate northern hemisphere, but its range has been reduced by overfishing, and many species are now extinct.
In the Caspian Sea the sturgeon is still found in large (but rapidly declining) numbers, and in Iranian waters three species have been fished: the beluga, the Russian (or Persian), and the stellate sturgeon, called in Persian fil-mahi, tas-mahi, and sag-mahi (ozun borun), respectively.
According to the Lum’a, as far as permissibility is concerned, “the eggs of the fish follow the fish itself. And if there is suspicion, the hard eggs should be eaten, not the soft.” This means we have to ascertain whether sturgeon have scales or not. Acipenseridae are so ancient an order that even the modern species within it have been traced as far back as the Upper Cretaceous, 100 million years ago. For this and other reasons, naturalists have had difficulty placing sturgeon on the fish family tree. For the purposes of this article, suffice it to note that according to taxonomists “it has few scales, and these are not round and thin like a salmon’s, but rhomboid, with peg-like extensions overlapped by the adjoining scale.” The technical term for these lozenge-shaped bony scales is ganoid. Do they render a fish halal? Since Shiites, as we saw earlier, follow the Levitic code in matters of seafood, one place to start looking for an answer is Jewish dietary laws. In one guide to these, we read: “‘Scales’ are defined as ones that can be scraped from the skin without tearing the skin from the flesh. These are cycloid (round) and ctenoid (comblike) scales. Other types of scales such as placoid and ganoid (platelike, armorlike) are embedded in the skin, and it is necessary to remove some of the skin or flesh in order to remove them....The lumpfish, sturgeon, sharks, swordfish, and some of the turbots (European flatfish) are examples of fishes with types of scales that are not of the kosher variety.” But the subject apparently lends itself to ambiguity in the Jewish tradition as well, for in a different book we read: “Bony tubercules and plate or thorn-like scales that can be removed only by removing part of the skin are not considered scales in this context. Some fish that have such scales, such as eels, lumpfish, shark, sturgeon, and swordfish, are not kosher. Only the eggs of kosher fish, such as fish roe or caviar, are allowed....”
Assuming that observant Shiites had a close look at the sturgeon in the centuries before the Iranian revolution, the answer seems to be that, like Jews, they did not consider ganoid scales to be fals in the religious sense. Traditionally, the sturgeon was considered haram, as was its roe. This suited the Russians, who began exploiting Iranian fisheries in the Caspian Sea in the middle of the nineteenth century (the Iranian government granted concessions to both the Russian  and Soviet  governments). Article 3 of the 1927 agreement established different regimes for halal and haram fish and explicitly placed sturgeon in the latter category. The Soviets were entitled to all the haram fish caught in Iranian waters, and any haram fish caught by local fishermen had to be sold to them at prices the Soviets determined. By contrast, local fishermen could keep the halal fish they netted but were free to sell it to the Soviets.
By the mid-1950s only 10 percent of Iran’s fish and caviar production remained in Iran, the rest being taken home by the Soviets on terms that were quite unfavorable to Iran. And so when the 1927 agreement expired, the government of Mohammad Mossadegh did not renew it and in fact nationalized Iranian fisheries in the Caspian Sea. To exploit these fisheries, the government established a state-owned company, the Shilat company. But for the time being, two- thirds of the company’s sturgeon catch and half of its caviar production were still being exported to the Soviet Union. Gradually, the words mahi khaviari (caviar fish) came to be used for sturgeon, perhaps to distract from the fact that the Iranian state was now dealing in haram fish.
Very little of Iran’s sturgeon and caviar production was actually consumed in Iran. This was not only because of its being haram and a big earner of foreign currency but also because the inhabitants of Iran’s noncoastal regions have little taste for seafood in general, especially if it tastes like fish. Caviar was thus an acquired taste for the happy few who could afford it, its acquisition hugely facilitated by its being a status symbol much appreciated by sophisticated Western palates. None of the many Iranian cookbooks, for instance, include any recipes using caviar.
Even in the Caspian province of Gilan, whose inhabitants are generally more open-minded and whose culinary culture differs greatly from the rest of Iran’s, the various dishes incorporating roe (eshpil/ashbal) use mostly the roe of mahi sefid, a kind of surmullet. Some locals considered the sturgeon a rare delicacy and deemed it an exception to the rule that only fish with scales could be eaten, arguing that if the Prophet had known how delicious it was, he would have allowed it. But the vast majority of the population considered it haram. In the mid-1960s, for instance, an Irish traveler who had managed to find a black marketeer in Bandar Anzali to grill a sturgeon for him observed that “pieces of fish were portioned out among ourselves and the boys, but the women refused it on the ground that it was unclean.” In Tehran an Armenian-owned restaurant on Ferdowsi Square in the capital’s central business district, Leon’s, was famous for its ozun borun kebab among foreign residents, local Christians, and Muslims who were not “halal-fussy,” to use a South African term. On Iran’s southern shores Sunnis (and, one suspects, quite a number of Shiites) eat such delicacies as octopus and shark, and the postrevolutionary state has, to the best of my knowledge, made no effort to prevent that. But sturgeon and caviar were different: they constituted a state monopoly now exercised by an Islamic state, and besides, the Iranian constitution in its article 12 guarantees Iran’s Sunnis application of their own fiqh in areas where they predominate.
Khomeini’s 1983 Ruling
After the revolution, production of caviar continued, but much of it was stored at the state-owned warehouse, with some of it being sold illegally on the black market, much to the delight of the few foreign and domestic gourmets who remained in the country. After the ouster of President Abolhasan Banisadr in June 1981, the fundamentalists con- solidated their rule over the state, and from then on, all policies had to conform to the shari’a. Caviar had netted Iran millions in export earnings before the revolution, and the loss would be keenly felt. Shilat officials therefore decided to ask the clergy to give a ruling on whether sturgeon was halal or not. The Shiite clergy had traditionally shied away from giving such precise rulings, preferring to state the gen- eral rule (“only fish with scales can be eaten”) and leaving the actual application of the rule to a specific case (“the sturgeon has scales”) to the individual believer. But upon taking control of the state, they in fact assumed legislative powers since the very raison d’être of the Islamic Republic was to bring state policy in line with the religious injunctions the clergy knew best. Under these new condition, general rules were no longer sufficient, and the clerics had to make concrete statements that would inform policy: the exact status of sturgeon and caviar were now an affair of state.
On September 27, 1981, one specimen each of the three varieties of sturgeon were taken to Khomeini’s office in Qom (the center of the Shiite clergy of Iran), and Shilat officials asked that it be made clear whether the three fish could be consumed inside Iran. There, on September 28, four clerics, Ja’far Karimi, Azari Qomi, Rasti Kashani, and Abtahi, had a close look at the fish and found that near the tail as well as “under and near” the fins they had an extra covering in the form of appendages, which, they concluded, was sufficient proof that the sturgeon had scales,34 there being no a priori geometric form that extra coverings of fish must have in order to qualify as “scales.” Upon being informed that there was no impediment to fishing for these three types of sturgeon and trading in them, Khomeini was asked for a fatwa, and he wrote: “If it has scales, even if it is in the region of the tail, it is halal.” On May 12, Shilat officials wrote letters to experts and asked them to give their scientific views on the matter. The collected views were then sent to Sadeq Ehsanbakhsh, Khomeini’s representative for Gilan province and leader of Friday prayers in Gilan’s capital, Rasht, to whom the matter was referred by both Khomeini and Grand Ayatollah Golpayegani. Proceedings were slowed down somewhat when an assassination attempt injured Ehsanbakhsh, but after his convalescence he con- vened a seminar to finalize the new policy.
On February 5, 1983, clerics from Qom, Tehran, and the two Caspian provinces of Gilan and Mazandaran, as well as university professors, fishermen, and representatives of the local population, met in Bandar Anzali, the main port city of Gilan, and “most of the brothers present” gave written testimony that the fish had scales.37 The minutes of the seminar and the individual testimonies of the fisheries experts were shown to Khomeini, who was again asked for a fatwa. Below the request he wrote: “On the matter of the fishes in question, the views of trustworthy experts are valid, and should be acted upon.” A new document was now prepared, containing the fatwa and the individual testimonies, and this was made public by Ehsanbakhsh. On September 5, radio and television reported the news, as did newspapers on September 6.
Between the convening of the seminar in Bandar Anzali and the final declaration about the permissibility of eating sturgeon and caviar, the work of the experts and clerics came under repeated attack by traditionalists. It was to defuse this criticism, no doubt, that officials also bothered to ask Grand Ayatollah Golpayegani, the most conservative of those traditional clerical leaders who maintained friendly relations with the revolutionary regime, for a fatwa. He, too, opined that the issue of whether a fish has scales should be determined by two just experts. Outside Iran the ruling must have seemed doubtful to some, for a request for a fatwa was addressed to Khomeini in Arabic, asking explicitly whether caviar was permissible or not. Khomeini’s response had a hint of ambiguity, perhaps a forward defense to forestall future contestation: “If it comes from a fish with scales, or if there is uncertainty whether it is from a fish with scales or from a fish without scales, it is permitted. Otherwise, it is not.
”The fatwas notwithstanding, the new state policy was ascribed to economic necessity alone and spawned the following joke:
A man dies and enters Hell. There he sees that a group of Hell’s denizens are leaving, suitcases in hand. He asks about them and is told that these are people who had eaten caviar. After a while he comes across another group of people, and this time they have packed their suitcases but are not going anywhere. When he enquires about them, he is told that these are people who had drunk vodka with their caviar.
It was perhaps in response to reactions like these that the newspaper of the Revolutionary Guards, published in Qom, took the trouble of explaining the genesis of the new ruling. In an initial article the events that led to it were chronicled, and the prohibition of sturgeon and caviar was ascribed to a Russian conspiracy aimed at depriving Iranians of an important food source. In two subsequent articles Ja’far Karimi, a scholar who had returned to Iran from Najaf with Khomeini and who, in his capacity as a member of Khomeini’s fatwa office in Qom, had taken part in the consultations, explained the genesis of the ruling in jurisprudential terms. Quoting classical authors, he demonstrated in the first article that only fish with scales were permitted. In the second article he quoted from the Imams themselves to prove that, first, scales did not have to cover the entire body of the fish and that, second, they need not have a particular shape. He ended his demonstration with a
“warning to compatriots”: At this point I have to issue a warning to [my] dear compatriots: they might unwittingly be fooled by the enemies of the Islamic Republic of Iran and say: “How come this fish that was haram until now has now become halal?!” It is not that something was haram in the past and has now become halal, but [the fact is] that since until now no research had been done on these fishes, perhaps because there was no need to do so, we were fooled by the Russians, who wanted to keep this God-given delicacy for themselves without us benefiting from it. They told us: “It is haram! Do not go near it!” Now that we have thought of doing some research ourselves, we know that there is no reason to deem this halal fish haram. If you brethren have determined that these fishes have scales, you will naturally conclude that they are permitted. And if you cannot determine the matter yourselves, you have to defer to two just experts who know the criteria of Islam, and act according to their testimony. Did you know that if at your own discretion you render haram [what] God [has made] halal, you have sinned? Therefore, do not unwittingly echo the enemies of Islam by saying: “How come the Islamic Republic made halal what God declared haram!!” The Islamic Republic has come to revive the tradition of the Prophet of God, P.B.U.H., and to rescue people from ignorance. I thank those brethren who have gone to a lot of trouble on the matter of caviar fish, for they have rendered a great service to the economy of Iran and to our beloved nation....May God grant success to all those who serve Islam and the Islamic nation.
After Khomeini’s fatwa caviar consumption inside Iran took off dramatically. The breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 had a nefarious effect on sturgeon fisheries in the Caspian Sea. Poachers overtook legitimate fishermen, catching ever smaller fish, and the catch went down so much that by the late 1990s Iran had overtaken Russia as the world’s largest caviar producer, its hatcheries being more modern and efficient than those of the Soviet successor states. But fish stock have continued to dwindle, and in September 2005 the United States Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it would ban the import of caviar from the Caspian region, as the sturgeon is faced with extinction. A few months later the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species announced a ban as well.
While the decision to declare sturgeon to be a halal fish broke with tradition, this break was not as cynical as critics of the Iranian theocracy made it out to be at the time. Although admittedly motivated by practical considerations, the reasoning was precise and honest, and the final conclusion that ganoid scales meet the criteria laid out for fals represents a legitimate use of the power of ijtihad, i.e., interpreting (and, if necessary, updating) Islamic law, claimed by the Superior Twelver Shiite clergy. Unless, of course, somewhere in the collection of traditions from the Imams there lurks one to the effect that to qualify as fals, scales must be detachable from the fish’s flesh without tearing bits of it out, which is not for us to determine. Be that as it may, it would seem that, in a theocracy, necessity is the mother of, if not invention, then at least of ijtihad.
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