Don’t Just Say Bismillah and Eat!
By Shaykh Mustafa Umar
California Islamic University
When it comes to the issue of what meat is lawful for consumption it is quite common to hear some Muslims utter: “just say bismillah and eat.” While that statement is a direct quote of Prophet Muhammad who said these exact words to his Companions, the context in which people use this quote is often misleading.
I have personally heard at least half-a-dozen people quote this statement out of context. When a Muslim inquired about whether the meat in a particular restaurant or market was lawful [ḥalāl] or not, the response he received was: “just say bismillah and eat.” This implied that there was no need to question whether the meat was lawful or not. By saying the phrase ‘bismillāh’, the meat would automatically become lawful, even if it was not so. This is what is understood by many people when the statement is used in a context like this.
The problem lies in the fact that this prophetic statement is stripped of its historical context, which gives it a completely different meaning than the Prophet intended. There are three things which can cause meat to be unlawful [ḥarām] in Islam:
the animal which it comes from
the way the animal dies
the religion of the slaughterer
In the case of the phrase: “just say bismillāh and eat”, neither of these three things has been mentioned. Someone could potentially infer that if a person is served pork, carrion, or beef slaughtered by a fire-worshipper, they could simply say ‘bismillah’, and it would be fine to eat what was in front of them. This could not be what the Prophet intended.
In order to understand what the Prophet really meant to say, it is necessary to go back to the original narration and analyze the text in detail:
أنَّقومًاقالواللنبيِّصلَّىاللهُعليهِوسلَّمَ :إنَّقومًايأْتُونَنَاباللَّحْمِ ، لانَدْرِي : أَذُكِرَاسمُاللهِعليهِأملا ؟ فقالسَمُّواعليهِأَنْتُموكُلُوهُ .قالتْوكَانُواحَديثِيعهدٍبالكُفْرِ
“ʿĀishah said that a group of people told the Messenger of Allah: ‘Some people come to us with meat and we don’t know whether they mentioned the name of Allah over it or not.’ He said: ‘You mention the name of Allah over it [i.e. say ‘bismillah] and eat.’ She [ʿĀishah] said: They had recently become Muslim.”
This narration makes the context clear. The Companions were asking the Messenger of Allah whether or not they should eat meat that was slaughtered by people who had recently accepted Islam. It could be that they had not yet learned to mention the name of Allah when slaughtering or it could be that they might have forgotten since they were not used to doing so. The Prophet instructs them to go ahead and eat the meat anyways, reminding them to say ‘bismillāh’ before they begin, which should be the usual practice of a Muslim, even when there is no doubt about the status of the meat. The purpose of the prophetic statement can only be one or more of the following points:
When it is uncertain whether a Muslim mentioned the name of Allah when slaughtering an animal or not, it is best to give them the benefit of the doubt by assuming that they did.
Mentioning the name of Allah when slaughtering an animal is not a requirement to render the meat lawful for consumption.
People who are new to Islam and do not know the rule about what to say when slaughtering an animal are excused for their ignorance, and the meat they slaughter will still be considered lawful.
However, several Muslims overlook, or perhaps ignore, the context and give an erroneous meaning to this prophetic statement. It is claimed that saying the name of Allah over meat, after it had already been slaughtered, somehow has the power to transform it from being unlawful [ḥarām] to lawful [ḥalāl]. If that was the case, this prophetic instruction could be interpreted to mean that if someone found a dead animal that fell off of a cliff [which is clearly prohibited for consumption in the Qur’an] could say ‘bismillah’ before eating it, and it would be fine.
It could also mean that a person who travels to China for business and decides to eat some chicken at a restaurant can simply say ‘bismillah’ and the meat, which is unlawful [because it was not slaughtered by either a Muslim, Jew, or Christian] becomes lawful for consumption. There is no basis to believe that is what the Prophet meant, yet it is a common misunderstanding.
As conscientious Muslims, we must be extremely careful to not quote our religious sources out of context. Remember, the next time someone tells you to ‘say bismillah and eat’ when you are in doubt about whether a certain food product is lawful or not, remind them what the Prophet really meant when he said that.
 ‘Bismillāh’ is an Arabic phrase which means: “[I begin] in the name of God.”
 Bukhārī #5507.