Pork-handling objections are small scale and seldom public

Would not  handle pork
Hussein Abdullahi chose to leave a cashier job because of his religious objection to handling pork. He represents one end of the spectrum of Muslims' opinions on Islam's rules governing pork.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

Muslim cashiers' refusal to handle pork in the check-out line only recently burst into the headlines. But Hussein Abdullahi dealt with the issue privately a decade a ago. When he first arrived in Minnesota from Ethiopia in 1997, he took a job in a grocery store and ran into a conflict with his faith.

According to Islamic belief, pork is dirty, and at the very least, should not be eaten.

Abdullahi believes the ban extends much further than not eating pork. He says Islam's holy book, the Quran makes it clear that one cannot sell or even touch pork.

"Absolutely not," he says. "Pork is forbidden. We cannot eat it and cannot touch it. Pork, if it touches my body, I cannot pray. I have to clean."

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A halal store
Hussein Abdullahi now co-owns a halal store, where pork and alcohol products are not offered.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

Abdullahi assumed the store's owner was a practicing Muslim like himself, because he was Lebanese. So Abdullahi was surprised to learn that the store owner sold pork and alcohol.

"And I told him that I was sorry I took the job in the first place. But now I see these things going on, so I have to give up my job and quit. I am Muslim, I cannot sell pork or alcohol," he says.

The store owner tried to give Abdullahi other job duties like mopping the floor, so he wouldn't have to handle pork or alcohol. But Abdullahi thought it best to seek work elsewhere to avoid any conflicts with his beliefs.

That being said, he's appalled by reports of some local Muslim cashiers refusing to scan pork products, thereby offending some customers. He believes if you take a job that involves handling pork, you have to live with it or leave.

Leaders of many area Muslim organizations say that most Muslims would do what Abdullahi did under such circumstances -- simply move on -- if they found a job's pork-handling duties objectionable.

Muslim leaders say those private decisions have kept the issue largely invisible to the public.

But another reason for the issue's lack of visibility is this: many Muslims, including some prominent leaders, don't think that handling pork is a problem.

Ali Khan, the national director of the Chicago-based American Muslim Council, says when it comes to workplace issues, Islam allows an individual's economic needs to trump religious obligations like avoiding pork.

"If your job requires you to move products like pork from one side of the store to another side of the store to keep your family fed, then that takes precedence over staying at the mosque all day and praying five times a day," Khan asserts. "So obviously that is part of your job requirement to do something like that, and you should use your common sense and take care of your family. Now that's the perspective of many mainstream Muslims."

Khan sees the recent events with Muslim cashiers in Minnesota as isolated incidents that are unlikely to spread elsewhere. So far, there are no reports of other similar incidents in the U.S. The American Civil Liberties Union has not documented any such cases. And Wal-Mart, the country's largest private employer, says it has not encountered any problems with Muslim employees refusing to handle pork. Several Twin Cities lawyers specializing in employment issues say the issue has never crossed their radar before.

Someone who grew up in a city where there's lots of Christians and Jews and foreigners would react differently from someone who grew up in a small village where they only see people doing things one way.

"A lot of this is media hype," says Hesham Hussein of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota.

Hussein says the news media have overblown the issue. And he objects to Ali Khan characterizing cashiers who won't handle pork as outside the mainstream. He says these people are not "extremists," and they're not getting their views from especially dogmatic imams.

Hussein says some Muslims' caution about dealing with pork may well stem from a strict interpretation of the Muslim ban on eating, selling, or promoting items that are not "halal" or permissible -- like pork. But he says it would actually be okay for a cashier to scan -- and therefore sell -- pork products, as long as the cashiers are not working at a store that only sells pork.

"For example you're working in a store that sells items that you have no problem with, and then there's a small minority -- 1 percent or 2 percent -- of the items there are not halal, a lot of the Muslim scholars would be of the opinion that it's okay to work in that line of business," he says.

Clarity can be hard to come by.

hesham:  "A lot of this is media hype"
Hesham Hussein says recent reports of Muslim cashiers' refusal to handle pork have overstated the problem. He says many Muslims who object to such job duties simply do not seek cashier positions.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

Jocelyne Cesari, a Harvard University expert on Islam, says the religion lacks hard and fast rules on this issue. She says the obligation to avoid selling pork would typically apply to a store's owners, not the employees. But she says on these questions, what's permitted and what's not are not rigidly proscribed.

"In the Islamic tradition, you have 'in the middle,' lots of nuances that go from tolerated to not recommended," she explains.

Cesari says ethnicity does not account for differing interpretations. In her view, the cashiers' refusal to scan pork products probably has little to do with what country they come from. She says such decisions tend to have more to do with personal traditions.

"It's not an ethnic specificity more than a religious tendency or religious behavior grounded in a particular interpretation," Cesari says.

Hesham Hussein, of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, says it is possible, though, that some Muslims' aversion to handling pork stems from their experience in their native countries. He says in Minnesota, many Muslims are refugees from areas where pork wasn't a problem because it wasn't commonly sold.

"Someone who grew up in a city where there's lots of Christians and Jews and foreigners would react differently from someone who grew up in a small village where they only see people doing things one way," Hussein explains.

That's how it was for Hussein Abdullahi back in Ethiopia. He said one might find pork in some areas of the capital, Addis Ababa. But he says even in other cities with lots non Muslim residents, he never saw pork.

"In Ethiopia, none of us are handling pork," he says.

"Even the Christians?" I ask.

"No," he asserts.

But Abdullahi also provides an example of the variation to be found in Islamic practise. While he strictly avoids pork and refused to sell alcohol, he sees no problem for a Muslim cabby carrying liquor in a taxi.

He says Twin Cities taxi drivers who won't transport passengers carrying alcohol have a false interpretation of the issue.

As Abdullahi makes his point, his two-year-old son hoots in the background, and his wife scowls in disagreement. She objects to any contact with alcohol.

"She says no touching {alcohol}. If she doesn't like it, that's up to her!" he exclaims.

His wife calls their imam on the phone for clarification.

Both of them talk it over with the imam, who confirms Hussein Abdullahi's interpretation.

"It's exactly what I say," Abdullahi declares.

Nonetheless, his wife looks anxious and unconvinced.