Lobsters and “Sea” Crabs in Shafi’i School

Shafi'i Fiqh

Answered by Shaykh Muhammad Afifi al-Akiti

Question : Lobsters and “Sea” Crabs

Answer: There are some Shafi`is going around saying that it is not permissible to eat lobsters and crabs. Their reasoning seems to be that (a) Arabic sartan [vocalized: saratan] is crab or lobster, or that (b) these types of crustaceans are considered barmawi [! Surely barmA’i is what was intended here, since al-Barmawi is a name of one of our jurists!]. An example of them saying that crab cannot be eaten is:

[The questioner provided the following from an internet reference–address omitted–reproducing also an Arabic fatwa translated into English:]

Is it permissible to eat crab in our [Shafi’i] school? And what is the ruling regarding seafood?

It is not permissible to eat crab in our school. […]

[In the Arabic answer from that internet reference, there is a part of it which was left untranslated: a description of saratan [crab] that was quoted from the Tuhfa of Imam al-Bujayrimi [Tuhfat al-Habib, 5:231-232]. This quote is originally a passage from the Hayat al-Hayawan al-Kubra [2:19-20] by the Shafi’i jurist and zoologist, Imam al-Damiri. In spite of only the description (and not the hukm) of saratan being reproduced there, the one quoting it must have had the authority of the Iqna’ in mind, the text on which the Tuhfa is commenting, which does say (along with other Shafi’iyya texts) that to eat “saratan” is Haram. Note, however, that the same text of the Tuhfa which was relied upon in this quote goes on to relate the text of Imam al-Shabramallisi that allows eating another type of saratan (the marine one, as our answer will make clear below), which is also the same text reproduced in the I’anat Talibin, 2:352.]

As [an objection] for (a), in I`yanat [I’anat] al-Talibin (2:352) there is something indicating that the sartan [saratan] referred to here is some sort of Chinese animal, not the type described in al-Dimiri’s Hayat al-Hayawan al-Kubra.

[This is the text reproduced from al-Shabramallisi’s commentary upon Imam al-Ramli’s Nihaya. Also, Imam al-Shabramallisi’s information about the “Chinese animal” is actually from Imam al-Damiri; and it is technically not a ‘Chinese animal’ but a crab found in Bahr al-Sin [the China Sea], in other words, today’s South China Sea.].

As for [an objection for] (b), these animals cannot live independently of water. Take them out long enough and they die.

So, any chance for a very quick confirmation? [of the questioner’s confusion arising from the Mufti’s answer.] Something along the lines of “you’re wrong; they’re right” will suffice. Don’t want to take up your time.

Allahumma hidayatan li-s-sawab!

I am surprised to hear that some Shafi’is say that lobsters and marine crabs are Haram. I think this is a simple case of misunderstanding the name of this marine animal. A simple one-line answer would be: it is Haram to eat “land crabs” and it is Halal to eat “sea crabs.”

It is well known that there are two types of crabs: land and sea ones. In the lands of South East Asia, for example, we find both types of crabs, and at our madrasahs, we have been taught to differentiate between the two of them during the thanawiyya years. (All of our living teachers can’t be wrong about this, can they, vis-a-vis a dead reference in a book?) The latter crabs are of the type that cannot survive on land (which are called “saratan bahri” and they are not even considered by zoologists to be barma’i (not barmawi!) animals), and unlike the former type (which are colloquially known in our lands as “stone crabs”–they are usually hairy, having a strong smell, and people do not eat them), they are not found on the beaches. Sea crabs are not Haram and this is what Imam al-Shabramallisi (as the I’anat relates from the Hashiya of Imam al-Ramli [Nihaya, 8:151]) was referring to (and that it is not the saratan talked about in our books, thus, the legal ruling is quite the opposite). This is also the well known type of crab that is eaten by Shafi’is in South East Asia, such as lobsters or other types of marine crabs. To say that eating crabs is Haram without distinguishing between the two different types of crabs would be irresponsible, especially when this is not checked against what is happening in some of today’s Shafi’i community. There is no khilaf in the school about the Halal nature of sea crabs (the only khilaf is only with regards to whether it is Makruh to eat them or not). I looked at your internet reference (wow, there are Shafi’i Muftis now on the internet, al-hamduliLlah!) and although the quote from Imam al-Bujayrimi is correct (referring to saraTAn), but what is meant by our jurists and zoologists alike there by saratan (and anywhere else in our literature that prohibits saratan, such as Imam al-Bajuri’s Hashiya of Fath al-Qarib) are land or beach crabs (as the quote from Imam al-Damiri’s Animals is very clear that this crab lives on land (and the jurists define something as living on land if it looks for its food on land and can therefore survive on land); and by the way, Imam al-Damiri also did describe the “Chinese” crab in his Hayawan, 2:20)). With all due respect to the mufti, this is a case of quoting and relying solely on our “yellow books” without taking into account of living day realities, and this, I’m afraid is insufficient for our case. Maybe it is the fault of the questioner for he or she should have specified whether it was a beach crab (anyway, we have never heard a case of people eating beach crabs in our lands and moreover, the crabs sold at restaurants and shops are certainly not land ones!). For students of fiqh will surely know that once the ‘illa [legal reasoning] making something Haram in the first place is no longer there (and that unlike in the Levant, there are crabs found elsewhere in the world that cannot survive on land and they are not beach ones), then whether it is called saratan or not, the prohibition no longer stands. As with its ‘controversial’ name, we only have to remember the qa’ida coined by Imam al-Ghazali: “wa-lA mushAHHAta fi’l-asAmi ba’da fahmi al-ma’Ani” [There is no need to quibble about names, once the meaning is understood]. I remind all of us here, including myself, that unlike the Hanafis, the rest of the law-schools including the Shafi’is consider ALL aquatic animals even if they are NOT fish to be Halal (for we have been told, whether accurately or not, that the Hanafi school declares Haram ALL aquatic creatures EXCEPT fish). (Anyway, our jurists define ‘fish’ as: “any marine animals that do not live on land, even if it is not called ‘fish'” [al-Nawawi al-Jawi, Kashifat al-Saja’, 43].) The original ruling or the al-asl in our school is as Imam al-Nawawi famously said in the Majmu’ [al-Nawawi, Majmu’, 9:30]: “qultu aS-SaHIHu l-mu’tamadu anna jamI’a mA fI l-baHri taHillu maytatuhu illA D-Difda’a [I [i.e., al-Nawawi] say: The Qawl Sahih [Sound Position] as well as the Qawl Mu’tamad [Relied Upon Position] [of our school] is that the corpse [i.e., an animal died without it being slaughtered in accordance with the Shari’a] of all that is [living] in the ocean [i.e., water], is permissible [to eat], except frogs [because there is an explicit prohibition against killing frogs in the Hadiths; whereas, some other aquatic animals may also be excluded from this rule if there is an ‘illa that prohibits them such as if it is poisonous, for example]. As long as these crabs cannot survive and feed on land (which the zoologists have confirmed that they could not), they cannot be declared Haram. Anyway, there have been many fatwas or rather, clarification, issued by Shafi’i jurists (especially from the Hijaz and Hadramawt) since the last two centuries that allow the eating of marine crabs, and the most recent one to do so was the fatwa, two years ago, by Habib ‘Abdillah al-Jufri, one of our classically trained Shafi’i Mufti from Singapore.

#Nukat for students of Fiqh# The path that leads to the legal ruling that saratan bahri is Halal, follows one of either 3 legal considerations [turuq]: (1) because the creature is found to be lA ya’Ishu fi l-barri min HayawAni l-baHri (and not ya’Ishu fi l-barri min HayawAni l-baHri), so it is treated like a fish; or (2) the established hukm in our school that saratan is Haram is the Ijmal ruling and the Tafsil ruling is that an exception [istithna’] is made for this type of saratan because it is bahri (and this is the Shabramallisi case); or (3) an analogy is made with oysters, for example, for which there is a famous khilaf in this issue between Imams al-Rafi’i and al-Nawawi and that the Qawl Asahh is that it is Halal.

++Fa’ida++ The Maliki school considers even shore or land crabs to be Halal, the same saratan that our jurists have mentioned all along to be Haram. So masha Allah and al-hamduliLlah, when placed on the mizan of Imam al-Sha’rani, our school holds the balance between the more lenient Malikis (i.e., the takhfif end) and the very strict Hanafis (i.e., the tashdid end) in this mas’alah.

So the short answer is: no, you’re right, and they’re wrong, for precisely the legal reasons of (a) and (b)! It behoves you therefore to interpret and understand instead, that the Mufti’s answer is only with respect to the beach/land/shore crabs: “[Mufti:] It is not permissible to eat [beach/land/shore] crab in our school.” ~~Arjuzah fi al-Saratan ‘indana~~ iHfaZhA!

al-Hukmu fi s-saraTAni bi-‘urfihi # wa-l-Hukmu fi s-samA’i ka-s-saraTAni wa-in tajid saraTAnan fI l-buHuri # fa-hwa HalAlun jA’izun fI aklihi wa-in ya’ish saraTAnun fI l-bururi # fa-hwa HarAmun bArizun fI kutubi

(A poor and unworthy soul have composed this poem for the one lost when reading our books, so memorize these verses!)

[The legal ruling concerning the crab is according to its habit, and this ruling in the sky is (clear) like the Cancer: If you find a crab (living) under water, then it is Halal, and you may eat it; but if a crab (is found) to live on land, then it is Haram as is made clear in our books.]

Tawfiq is only with Allah and only He knows best!

May this be beneficial,

Muhammad Afifi al-Akiti ©
in Oxford,
3 Dhu l-Qa’dah 1424 or 27 XII 2003.

Select Bibliography:

al-Bakri. Hashiyat I’anat al-Talibin. 4 vols. Bulaq, 1300 H.

al-Bujayrimi. al-Bujayrimi ‘ala al-Khatib wa-huwa Hashiyat al-Bujayrmi al-Musammat Tuhfat al-Habib ‘ala Sharh al-Khatib al-Ma’ruf bi l-Iqna’ fi Hall Alfaz Abi Shuja’. 5 vols. Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyah, 1996.

al-Damiri. Hayat al-Hayawan al-Kubra. 2 vols. Bulaq, 1305 H.

al-Nawawi. al-Majmu’ Sharh al-Muhadhdhab. Edited by Mahmud Matraji. 22 vols. Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1996.

al-Nawawi al-Jawi. Kashifat al-Saja Sharh Safinat al-Naja fi Usul al-Din wa-l-Fiqh. Bulaq, 1317 H.

al-Ramli. Nihayat al-Muhtaj ila Sharh al-Minhaj al-Nawawi. 8 vols. Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya, 1998.