SHAYKH SALEH AL-FAWZAN’S FATWA ON ‘ALL-YOU-CAN EAT’ BUFFETS FROM AN ETHICAL PERSPECTIVE*

by: MOHAMMED FARID ALI

Food is one of the basic needs of people, but the question arises: is it the food which people love, or their eating habits they developed through time? The mixed-reaction of people on social media, when Shaykh Saleh al-Fawzan's fatwa concerning buffet dining came on Al Arabiyah (13 March, 2014)[1] shows that eating habits have become a matter of great sensitivity. Any type of restriction or limitation to one's eating habit is tantamount to someone infringing on one's personal choices.

The ridiculing of the Shaykh and his fatwa was also due to misrepresentations by news writers.

This reached the extent that on 16th March, 2014 the respected Shaykh clarified on his own website that "the allegation that I declared a buffet to be unlawful (haram), is a lie. In fact I was asked about "All-You-Can-Eat" offered by some restaurants for a payment of a specified lump sum price. I stated: the sold-matter is unknown (majhul). Selling an unknown item is not permitted, unless it is specified and made known."[2] Therefore the Shaykh was not referring to the buffet itself, but to the method of transaction involved. Shaykh Dr. Saleh al-Fawzan is a Saudi scholar and member of the Permanent Committee for Islamic Research and Issuing Fatwas, a committee under the Council of Senior Scholars.

The follow up to the Shaykh's fatwa such as on the Sunnahway.net and saaid.net discussed this matter in detail.[3] Their discussions came under the rubric of 'uncertainty in sale' (bay al-gharar). Based on the commentary of the hadith reported in Sahih Muslim (hadith no. 1513): "Allah's Messenger  forbade a transaction determined by throwing stones, and the type which involves uncertainty", scholars affirmed that the hadith is referring to major and extreme uncertainties in sales.[4] As far as a buffet is concerned, it involves minor uncertainty (gharar yasir), thus it is permitted; while some other scholars concluded that buffet dining is a custom-related issue. The nominal amount people eat can therefore be known by prevailing custom, and this solves the uncertainty in a buffet-sale. However those who know that they will eat more than the customary amount, should inform the restaurant owner beforehand. All these discussions are in reference to Shaykh Saleh al-Fawzan's basis of his fatwa — unknown sold-matter (mabi majhul). The Shaykh by his fatwa and later by his clarification was referring specifically to a sale involving unknown sold-matter. In case of "All-You-Can-Eat" (AYCE) buffet, the amount and sometimes variety of food is not specified at payment time. This leaves the sold-matter (the food) unknown. Such sales are prohibited in Islam irrespective of whether it is part of buffet or not.

Another important perspective from which to view the Shaykh's fatwa is to determine whether the element of 'unknown sold-matter' leads to health and environmental problems—the ethical perspective. AYCE buffet restaurants were first introduced in the 1970s, and since then the number of these restaurants grew tremendously. AYCE restaurants charge a fixed price for access to food allowing customers to consume as much food as they desire at no additional charge.[5]

Sometimes normal restaurants offer AYCE on special occasions such as an 'Iftar (Breaking fast) Buffet' which is offered in the month of Ramadan in countries like Malaysia and other Muslim concentrated places. Studies show that AYCE alters the eating behaviors of consumers which could lead to obesity. The reason behind this is that consumers are not restricted on how much and what food they bought for the price they paid (bay al-majhul). This drives them to "get their money's worth"[6] which often means consuming as much as possible. Regular customers at AYCE restaurants incited by this drive could develop obesity and other health related problems. This drive is awakened in consumers because of appetite desire. The trigger of this harmful trait is 'unknown sold-matter'. Similarly in the case of customers who break their fast, hunger enhances their appetite. If the amount and the type of food were to be specified in the first place, then customers may better regulate their consumption.

Appetite desire in humans is weightier than mere necessity (darurah)—it will lead one to grasp for things far beyond one's sufficient needs. In case of AYCE customers their appetite leads them to fill their plates with food far beyond the limits of hunger. The excess food which they are not able to consume after they are full is wasted. Food-wasting has its own negative effects on our environment and on the health of people.

From this perspective, the Shaykh's fatwa shows that the negative effect projected by bay al-majhul (a sale involving 'unknown sold-matter') is not limited to transactions alone. Its effect also penetrates into the spiritual, social, and environmental realms.


* Published with kind permission of the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia. Also published in New Straits Times on 20 May-June 2014. (www.iais.org.my).

Endnotes:

[1] http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/2014/03/13/Saudi-cleric-declaresopen-buffets-as-un-Islamic-.html.

[2] http://www.alfawzan.af.org.sa.

[3] http://sunnahway.net/node/2375#. U0_GzPuTIpo. And http://www. saaid.net/Doat/Zugail/430.

[4] Muhy al-Din Abi Zakariya al-Nawawi, Sahih Muslim bi Sharh al-Nawawi, Qahirah: Dar al-Fajr li alTurath, 2004), vol. 5, p. 373.

[5] David R. Just & Brian Wansink, The Flat Rate Pricing Paradox: Conflicting Effects of "All-You-Can-Eat" Buffet Pricing, http://foodpsychology.cornell. edu/sites/default/files/Flat-RatePricing-Paradox-2010.pdf, p. 3 & 4.

[6] Ibid.