Saudi Muslim cleric warns that biofuels could be sinful

A prominent Muslim scholar in Saudi Arabia has warned that those using alcohol-based biofuels in their cars could be committing a sin.

A Marietta, Ga., man pumps E-85 ethanol fuel into his pickup truck. Vehicles must be specially made to use the 15-percent gasoline, 85-percent ethanol mixture.

A prominent Muslim scholar in Saudi Arabia has warned that those using alcohol-based biofuels in their cars could be committing a sin.

The warning was issued by Sheikh Mohamed Al-Najimi, a member of the Islamic Fiqh Academy, an institute that studies Islamic jurisprudence for the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, an international group with a permanent delegation to the United Nations. According to the Al Arabiya News Channel, an international news outlet based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Mr. Najim directed his warning to Saudi youths studying abroad.

Al Arabiya notes that Najimi stressed that this warning was not an official fatwa, or religious edict, just his personal opinion. Najimi added that the issue "needs to be studied by the relevant religious bodies."

Ethanol, a common type of biofuel, is made of the same type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages, and its production is similar to that of hard liquor. Plant matter is fermented using yeast, and the result is distilled to increase the concentration of alcohol.

Fuels with high concentrations of ethanol – the most common being E85, a gasoline blend with 85 percent ethanol – can be used in flex-fuel vehicles, which make up more than seven million of the roughly 250 million passenger cars and trucks on America’s roads. Most gasoline sold in the United States contains about 10 percent ethanol. The fuel is more common in many Latin American countries, particularly Brazil.

In addition to beverages and biofuels, ethanol is a widely used in industry for its properties as a solvent and an antiseptic. It's a common component of perfumes and paints. The chemical is also necessary in the production of vinegar – one of the Prophet Muhammad's favorite seasonings.

The Koran prohibits consumption of alcohol in three separate verses that were written over a period of several years. The first mention occurs in 4:43, in which Muslims are told that they must not pray while intoxicated. A verse written later – 2:219 – says that in wine and gambling "is great sin, and some profit, for men; but the sin is greater than the profit." Finally, in 5:90-91, intoxicants and gambling are called "an abomination" and "Satan's handiwork":

Satan's plan is (but) to excite enmity and hatred between you, with intoxicants and gambling, and hinder you from the remembrance of Allah, and from prayer: will ye not then abstain?

This admonition is waived in the hereafter, apparently: Many passages in the Islamic holy book describe heaven as having rivers of wine.

Ironically, it was Muslim chemists who introduced distillation to the West. The process of distilling pure ethanol from wine was perfected by 8th- and 9th-century Persian chemists, who used it to create perfumes and eyeliner. Their writings were translated by European scholars in the 12th century, and the process was used to make potable spirits. The word "alcohol" is itself of Arabic origin.

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