Abû Tha`labah al-Khushanî said to Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him): “We come from a land populated by the People of the Scripture. Can we eat from their dishes?”

The Prophet (peace be upon him) replied: “Do not eat from them unless you do not find anything else to eat from. In that case, wash them and eat from them.”
This is an authentic hadîth related in Sahîh al-Bukhârî and Sahîh Muslim.

The meaning of this hadîth:

The People of the Scripture being referred to in the hadîth are the Jews and the Christians. The scripture of the Jews is the Torah and the scripture of the Christians is the Gospel. Divine scriptures were revealed to Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad as well as to other Messengers (peace be upon them all). However, the term “People of the Scripture” is commonly used to refer specifically to the Jews and Christians.

This understanding is illustrated by the verses: “And this is the blessed Book which We have sent down, so follow it and fear Allah that perhaps you may receive mercy. Lest you (pagan Arabs) should say: ‘The Book was sent down only to two groups who came before us, and for our part, we were unaware of what they studied’.” [Sûrah al-An`âm: 155-156] The two groups that this verse refers to are the Jews and Christians.

The lands being referred to in the hadîth are those of Greater Syria. Some of the Arab tribes of this region, like Banû Khushayn and Tanûkh, had embraced Christianity.

Its legal implications:

This hadîth raises the question of the permissibility of using the dishes of a non-Muslim. This is what Tha`labah was asking about. The Prophet (peace be upon him) replied: “Do not eat from them unless you do not find anything else to eat from. In that case, wash them and eat from them.”

Scholars have differed in how they understood the legal implications of the Prophet’s answer and have voiced various opinions about it.

The first opinion is that it is unlawful in Islam for a Muslim to use the dishes of an unbeliever if other dishes are available to him. This is the opinion of the Zâhirî scholar Ibn Hazm as stated in his book al-Muhallâ (1/140). It has also been related to us as one of the opinions expressed by Ahmad b. Hanbal.

This opinion is based on the literal wording of the hadîth under discussion, since the Prophet (peace be upon him) forbade the use of their dishes except when two conditions were met. These conditions are that unavailability of other dishes and that such dishes are washed before being used.

The second opinion on the matter is that using the dishes of the unbelievers before washing them is merely disliked but not categorically prohibited by Islamic Law. This is the opinion of the Hanafî school of thought.

Those who hold this opinion also cite the hadîth under discussion. Their argument is as follows:

Admittedly, the wording of the hadîth gives a general prohibition of using such dishes if other dishes are availible, meaning that this prohibition applies even if we know that those dishes are clean and free from impurities. The basic assumption in Islamic jurisprudence would indeed be that the prohibition of the Prophet (peace be upon him) indicates the unlawfulness of doing the prohibited act.

However, in this case, we have Allah’s statement in the Qur’ân: “The food of those who have been given the Scripture is lawful to you.” [Sûrah al-Mâ’idah: 5] It is obvious that their food has been prepared by their own hands using their own dishes and utensils. Moreover, there are many cases where the Prophet (peace be upon him) ate the food of the People of the Book. All of this shows us that the prohibition given in the hadîth under discussion cannot mean that eating from such dishes is unlawful.

The third opinion that scholars have expressed on this matter is that it is obligatory to wash only the dishes that unbelievers have actually used for themselves. As for dishes that they have manufactured without using, it is not obligatory to wash them. This is the opinion of Mâlik.

Those who hold this opinion use the hadîth under discussion as evidence that such dishes must be washed. However, they go further to argue that the only reason for washing these dishes is the possibility that non-Muslims may have used them for pork or for meat that was improperly slaughtered or for drinking alcohol.

The fourth opinion on the matter is that if it is assured that the dishes are clean and free from impurities, then using such dishes is not discouraged at all. If purity cannot be assured, then it is disliked to use such dishes, even after washing them. It makes no difference if the dishes belong to a Jew or Christian or some other type of unbeliever. It does not matter if their religion permits or prohibits the use of impurities. This is the opinion of the Shâfi`î school of thought.

The final opinion on the matter is that such dishes are lawful to use, even if it is known that they had formerly been tainted by impurities. This is the position of the Hanbalî school of thought. It is supported by a large body of evidence which is as follows:

1. Allah says: “He is the one who created for you everything that is on the Earth.” [Sûrah al-Baqarah: 29] This verse indicates that the default ruling for everything is an underlying assumption of permissibility. These dishes fall under the general ruling indicated by this verse.

2. Allah also says: “The food of those who have been given the Scripture is lawful to you.” [Sûrah al-Mâ’idah: 5] Since their food is prepared and served with their dishes and utensils, it follows that their dishes are lawful as well.

3. The Companions performed their ablutions in front of the Prophet (peace be upon him) from the water left over by a pagan woman. Both he and they drank from that water. [Sahîh al-Bukhârî and Sahîh Muslim] If it was unlawful to use their dishes, the Prophet (peace be upon him) would not have allowed them to use that water or drink from it.

4. The Prophet (peace be upon him) ate with a Jew who invited him to join him in eating a meal. Likewise, he and his Companions ate from the food of a Jewish woman in Khaybar. It is obvious that their food was prepared and served on their own dishes. This is clear proof that eating from their dishes is permissible without it even being disliked.

5. One of the strongest pieces of evidence supporting this view is the hadîth related by Jâbir who said: “We used to go on military expeditions with Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) and acquire the dishes and drinking vessels of the pagans. We would use these things and did not consider doing so to be objectionable.” [Musnad Ahmad (3/379, 327, 343, 389), Sunan Abî Dâwûd (2/391), Musnad al-Bazzâr (1/32), and Sunan al-Bayhaqî (1/218)] In Irwâ’ al-Ghalîl, al-Albani determines the chain of transmission for this hadîth to be authentic.

It is a well-known historical fact that during their military campaigns, the Muslims used to acquire the dishes and cookware of the pagans and freely use such things. They were never ordered to avoid these items. This shows that such dishes were permissible to use and were assumed to be free from impurities.

If there had been something wrong with using those dishes, it would have been a matter public concern that all the Muslims would have needed to be informed of. It would have been widely discussed and related to others. The fact that no such discussion has reached us is proof that no problem ever existed.

6. The Prophet (peace be upon him) and his Companions used to live alongside the pagans in Mecca. In many cases, a Muslim would have been living with his pagan parents in a pagan household. Later on, the Muslims emigrated to Madinah, which was inhabited by both Jews and pagans. It was not uncommon that that they would invite one another to their homes for food and offer each other something to drink. It has never been mentioned even once that the Muslim avoided using the dishes of the non-Muslims or so much as expressed an aversion to doing so.

If we think about it, this last point is the strongest evidence there can be, since it shows a widespread practice of the Companions that has the strength of a mutawâtir (widespread) narration. Such sweeping evidence cannot be dismissed on the basis of texts that make no decisive statement on the matter and that are open to multiple interpretations, especially when those texts can be easily reconciled without any contradiction.

From the strength of all this evidence, we maintain that the final opinion is the strongest opinion on the matter. And Allah knows best.

As far as the hadîth under discussion is concerned, it needs to be understood in its proper context. In his commentary on Sahîh Muslim, al-Nawawî observes that the dishes being discussed on that particular occassion were those that the questioner knew had been specifically used for cooking pork and for drinking alcoholic beverages. This is clearly mentioned in the narration of the hadîth that is found in Sunan Abî Dâwûd. The reason why using such dishes is disliked, even after washing these dishes, is out of dislike for using items that are frequently used for impure things. Therefore, eating from such dishes is disliked, even after washing them.

The hadîth of Abû Tha`labah refers to the specific situation he was coping with in his locality, where the non-Muslims were eating pork and drinking alcohol from the dishes in question. The answer that he received was appropriate for his situation. It is not a ruling that applies to all the dishes of all non-Muslims.

The question remains as to whether the same ruling applies to the Magians that applies to the Jews and Christians. Ibn Hajar, in Fath al-Bârî, writes:
The ruling for the dishes of the Magians is no different from the ruling for the dishes of the Jews and Christians. The reason is that if we were to recognize the animals slaughtered by the Magians to be lawful for us, like those slaughtered by the Jews and Christians, then there is no problem (in viewing them in the same way). If, on the other hand, we regard their slaughtered animals as unlawful for us and view their dishes as tainted by contact with the impure flesh of those animals, then we can say the same thing about the People of the Scripture, since they do not avoid impure substances, they cook pork, and they use wine.
This opinion about the Magians is reinforced by the fact that they are mentioned by name in some of the narrations of the hadîth under discussion, namely Musnad Ahmad (4/195) and Sunan al-Tirmidhî (4/53).

This is why al-Bukhârî mentions this hadîth under the heading “The Dishes of the Magians and Unslaughtered Animals” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî (6/223)], even though he does not include under this heading the version of the text that mentions the Magians by name. Al-Bukhârî has a particular and quite meticulous approach to his choice of chapter headings.

Some benefits of this hadîth:

1. This hadîth gives us an example of how a person should seek religious knowledge about matters of practical importance to his daily life.
A doctor will need to learn about Islamic legal rulings that an engineer will not be particularly concerned with. Likewise, an engineer will need to know certain rulings that will not concern a businessman. The same can be said for people in all other professions as well as for people living under markedly different circumstances.

Some of the Prophet’s Companions were scholars of Islam who devoted their lives to the pursuit of Islamic knowledge and its dissemination to others. Many Companions were engaged in various other pursuits. Nevertheless, we find that these Companions have transmitted to us important and valuable details of Islamic law that were relevant to their particular needs and their areas of expertise. Some of them related hadîth about tribulations and about fighting. Others related Islamic rulings about commerce and Zakâh. Still others related to us legal rulings regarding matters of agriculture. Then there were those Companions, like Abû Tha`labah and Adî b. Hâtim, who related Islamic rulings regarding the slaughtering of animals and about hunting.

2. The dishes of non-Muslims – whether they be those of Jews, Christians, Magians, or pagans – should preferably be washed before use if such dishes are often used for impure things like pork, even if those dishes are clean. Of course, if those dishes are actually contaminated with impurities, there is no argument that we must wash them before we can use them.

3. It is disliked for Muslims to use dishes that are often used for unlawful and impure things if other dishes are available. The dishes of Muslims are preferable as well as the dishes of non-Muslims that are not used for impure and unlawful things.

4. The hadîth illustrates to us a good way to phrase our questions. Abû Tha`labah started off by mentioning that he lived among the People of the Scripture. He also mentioned their habit of drinking alcohol and cooking pork. After providing all of this relevant information, he asked the question that he wanted to ask.

In this way, he preceded his question with the reason why he was asking it and provided information that he thought might affect the answer. We have many other examples of the Companions phrasing their questions in this manner. This teaches us the best way to ask questions. It is also indicative of the good manners of the Companions and their understanding of Islamic Law.