Q. Are we allowed to use perfumes containing alcohol and similar cosmetic products?

A. It hinges on the status of cosmetic alcohol, concerning which there is no agreement.

I had stated that the seller of mouthwash such as Listerine, and perfumes such as Chanel #5, or hairsprays containing alcohol, cannot be treated with the same severity as a seller of beer and alcoholic beverages.

Someone responded: "If I am not mistaken, I think the Shafi'i school has taken the position that alcoholic perfume is to be avoided. If this is indeed their position, I am not so sure that we can so easily dismiss the claim that the prohibition on khamr applies to perfume, etc."

What is evident is that khamr [alcoholic beverage] is considered najis [impure] in the Four schools:

  1. the Hanafi, as stated in Zuhayli's al-Fiqh al-Islami wa adillatuh (Islamic Law and Its Proofs 6:158) whereby if there is a coin's span of khamr on one's clothing, his salat is invalid because Allah named khamr "a filth of Satan's handiwork, therefore avoid it" (5:90).
  2. the Maliki, as stated by Ibn Rushd in Bidayat al-mujtahid (2:125); also the Risala states, in Chapter 44: "Nothing alcoholic, or ritually impure, or a dead body or something Allah Most High has prohibited can be used for medicinal purposes."
  3. the Shafi`i, whereby khamr is also considered najis as per Nawawi in al-Majmu` 2:569-570 (from Ghazali);
  4. and the same applies in the Hanbali school: Ibn Qudama, al-Mughni (9:152).

But the above sources do not address cosmetic types of alcohol.

The Shafi'i "Reliance of the Traveller" states:

e.14 p. 95

Filth means...

(7) any liquid intoxicant (n: including, for the Shafi'i school, anything containing alcohol such as cologne and other cosmetics, though some major Hanafi scholars of this century, including Muhammad Bakhit al-Muti'i of Egypt and Badr ad-Din al-Hasani of Damascus, have given formal legal opinions that they are pure (tahir) because they are not produced or intended as intoxicants. [End of quoted text from the Reliance.]

In addition to the Hanafi argument against ranking cosmetic types of alcohol with the intoxicating-beverage types, a dissent was heard from a few scholars against the classification of alcoholic beverages as being najas -- legally impure -- but such dissent is unconvincing. Sayyid Sabiq mentions this, typically without informing his readers of the established view by near-consensus as opposed to the odd view, contenting himself with qualifying the former as the majority view.

Sayyid Sabiq says in Fiqh al-Sunna:

TYPES OF IMPURITY (NAJASAH): ALCOHOL

According to most scholars, alcohol is impure. Allah says in the Qur'an:

"Alcohol, games of chance, idols and divining arrows are only a filth ('rijs') of Satan's handiwork." (5:90)

Some scholars say that it is pure, for they take the meaning of the Arabic word 'rijs' in its abstract sense as describing alcohol and whatever is related to it. This is not labelled as impure in a definite, sensory way. Allah says:

"Stay away from the filth ('rijs') of idols." (22:30)

Idols are impure in the abstract sense, and they are not considered impure if one touches them. The explanation of the preceding verse is that they are a tool of Satan, for they cause enmity and hatred and keep people away from the remembrance of Allah and prayer.

In 'Subul as-Salaam' it says, "Their origin is pure, and their being prohibited does not mean that the object itself is impure. For example, hashish is prohibited but it is pure. But, something impure is not necessarily prohibited. Every impure thing is prohibited, but not vice-versa. That is because of the ruling that something impure cannot be touched under any circumstances. If a ruling says that something is impure, it is also prohibited. This differs from a ruling that something is prohibited. For example, it is forbidden to wear silk and gold, but they are absolutely pure by consensus." If one understands that, then the prohibition of alcohol does not necessarily entail its also being considered impure: it needs some other evidence to prove that it is impure. If not, then we are left with the original position that it is pure. If one claims other than that, he must substantiate it." [End of text from Sayyid Sabiq.]

Subul al-Salam is by al-San`ani who, more than Sayyid Sabiq, is an author of "Salafi" tendencies who does not follow the fiqh of any particular school although the Subul is a commentary on Nukhbat al-fikar fi mustalah ahl al-athar by Ibn Hajar al- `Asqalani, who is Shafi`i.

San`ani says in Subul al-Salam, chapter on eliminating impurity (1:50): "The prohibition of consuming the flesh of the wild ass and alcoholic beverages (khamr) which is indicated by the texts does not necessitate their being impure. There must be another proof for such a ruling. Otherwise we remain on the basis that is agreed-upon concerning purity (i.e. all things are pure unless explicitly declared otherwise). Whoever claims otherwise, the burden of proof is on him."

The above opinion is very close to the position of the Zahiri [literalist] school of Dawud al-Zahiri on the issue and, in our century, was also promoted by Muhammad Rashid Rida and his friends of the early Egyptian "Salafi" movement in Tafsir al-Manar (7:58).

This opinion is shadhdh [deviating/contradicting consensus], as stated by Sa`di Abu Habib in the article "khamr" of his "Mawsu`at al-ijma` fi al-fiqh al-islami" (Encyclopedia of consensus in Islamic Law) 1:381 #5. In fact the literal evidence -- and Allah knows best -- is that khamr is rijs ("filth") where rijs means najas, "impurity." Moreover there is explicit confirmation of its status as impure in the hadith of Abu Tha`laba al-Khushani in Bukhari and Muslim:

"O Messenger of Allah, we live in the land of the People of the Book: should we eat in their vessels?..." The Prophet replied: "If you find other than their vessels then don't eat in them, but if you don't find, then wash them and eat from them."

and Abu Dawud's narration from Abu Tha`laba has:

"O Messenger of Allah, we live in the vicinity of the People of the Book, and they cook swine in their pots and drink alcoholic potion in their vessels." The Prophet replied: "If you found other pots and vessels use them to eat and drink in, and if not, then rinse out theirs with water, and eat and drink in them."

Nawawi said in Sharh Sahih Muslim (al-Mays ed. 13/14:86): "The meaning is that it is forbidden to eat in their ustensils in which they cooked swine-meat and drank alcoholic potion, as explicited in Abu Dawud's narration... because they are considered unclean and habitually in contact with impurity."

Shawkani in the "chapters on vessels" of his "Nayl al-awtar" (1:71) said: "Washing them is solely because of their being soiled with swine-meat and alcoholic potion." That is: the latter are impure.

Ibn Hajar in "Fath al-Bari" (1989 ed. 9:777) said: "The ustensils in which the Zoroastrians cook their meats have been tainted with contact with carrion, and similarly the People of the Book do not task themselves with the avoidance of impurity, and they cook swine-meat in their ustensils and place alcoholic beverage in them and other than that."

At the end of the chapter that deals with the definition of impurity in his book "al-Fiqh `ala al-madhahib al-arba`a" (Law according to the Four Schools), `Abd al-Rahman al-Jazayri said:

Among the impure matters are all intoxicating liquors (al-muskir al-ma'i`), whether made from pressed grapes or fermented raisins or dates and the like [i.e. all fermented cereals, fruits and vegetables], because Allah Almighty has named khamr: rijs, and rijs according to usage (`urf) means najas. As for the reason why every intoxicating liquor is khamr, it is in the hadith of the Prophet in Muslim: "Every intoxicating beverage is khamr, and every khamr is haram" (kullu muskirin khamrun wa kullu khamrun haram). And the Lawgiver's ruling that intoxicating liquors are impure, over and above the prohibition of drinking them, is only to emphasize and strongly warn against approaching them." End of Jazayri's words.

The same or something like it is stated in the Hanafi scholars al-Qalyubi's and Umayra supercommentary on al-Mahalli's "Sharh al- Minhaj" (1:68).

Again, the above sources do not address cosmetic types of alcohol.

Leaving aside the very weak argument that alcoholic beverage is pure unless declared otherwise, there is an aspect of cosmetic alcohol which would seem to differentiate it from beverages fundamentally enough to place it in a different class where the rulings of both the impurity and prohibitiveness of beverages do not apply. That aspect is the fact that cosmetic beverages are not made for intoxication, nor are conducive to it, nor are used towards it, nor are they made for consumption, nor conducive to consumption, nor used for consumption. In other words: cosmetic alcohol is essentially a different substance than khamr. That is why the position of permitting it seems strongest, some even permitting the consumption of cough syrup containing alcohol for the same reason. And Allah knows best.