Is It Permissible to Eat With the Left Hand If the Right Hand Is Unclean? (Shafi’i)
Answered by Shaykh Jamir Meah
Question: Is it permissible to hold a fork with the left hand, or to drink water holding the cup with the left hand, if the right hand is greasy or unclean?
Answer: In the Name of God, the Merciful and Compassionate
The preference of using the right hand over the left
In a rigorously authenticated hadith in Muslim, it is narrated from Ibn ‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with them both) that the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “When one of you eats, let him eat with his right hand, and when he drinks, let him drink with his right hand, for Satan eats with his left hand and drinks with his left hand.” [Muslim]
Therefore, it is an established sunnah to eat and drink with the right hand. As for the left hand, it is greatly disliked (makrouh), unless one has a genuine reason for not using the right hand such as a broken wrist etc., in which case there is no dislike.
This is because the general rule is that the use of the right hand is intended for noble matters and the use of the left hand is intended for lowly matters. While it is not prohibited (haram) to use the left hand, to do so without a valid need is offensive. Sayyida `Aisha (Allah be pleased with her) related that, ‘The Messenger of Allah loved using the right in wearing his shoes, combing his hair, purification, and in all his matters’. [Bukhari and Muslim]
Using cutlery with the left hand
Using cutlery instead of one’s hand is permissible. The same rule applies to using cutlery as they do to the hands. One should eat with the right hand and it is disliked to use the left hand. If one is eating a dish that only requires one hand, such as soup, certain pasta dishes etc., then there is no excuse to use the left hand instead of the right. For dishes that require two pieces of cutlery, such as a knife and fork, then one should hold the fork with the right hand, and the knife in the left hand. This is because the fork is the main utensil for eating and the knife is merely for cutting and pushing the food onto the fork.
If one is accustomed to eating with one’s fork in the left hand, then one should train themselves to eat with the fork in the right hand. Please see below for training oneself.
Using both hands equally during drinking
In al Majmu’, Imam al Nawawi states the permissibility of using both hands (together) to drink, citing incidents when the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) drank from a water skin and a bucket with both hands as evidence.
Picking up a cup for drinking, with unclean hands
Should one need to pick up a cup with the left hand due to the right hand being unclean, one can do so. However, when putting the cup to one’s mouth, they should place the back of the right hand firmly and flatly under the cup and use it to tilt the cup towards the mouth. This way the right hand is the main hand moving the cup and controlling the drinking. The left hand remains holding the cup but only very loosely, acting as a support so the cup doesn’t fall, rather than as the main hand.
In such a scenario, the consideration is not only which hand is being used, but also the effect that holding a cup with an unclean or greasy right hand will have on on-lookers or those eating in a group.
When to drink water during meals:
A final note to keep in mind is that generally, one should limit how much one drinks during the actual meal. Imam al Ghazali states that, ‘A person should not drink much while eating unless he choked on a mouthful or is truly thirsty, for it has been said that this is medically desirable, it being [not drinking during eating] helpful to digestion. [The Manners Relating to Eating, Ihya ‘ulum al Din).
Medically, many doctors say one should not drink much during a meal, preferably drinking 30 minutes before eating and 30 minutes after. Drinking 30 minutes before eating helps keep the body hydrated which results in optimal digestion and optimum liver performance. Drinking water about 30 minutes after eating can also assist in hydrating the body through the latter parts of digestion and replenish the lost liquids from digestion. However, it is important to note that drinking water during a meal would be more beneficial than not drinking while eating if you are not properly hydrated beforehand.
Should one go by the above recommendations, i.e. drinking 30 minutes before and after and only drinking when necessary during meals to quench thirst, the need to drink, and consequently the issue of picking up one’s glass to drink during meal times, becomes greatly reduced.
Training oneself: What if I’m left handed or accustomed to eating with my left hand?
If someone is left handed, or has become accustomed to eating with their left hand, they should train themselves to eat and drink with their right hand. It is not deemed as an excuse to not train oneself in this. However, this should be gradual and as much as one can do each step at a time. Firstly, one should try stop eating and drinking with the right hand as much as possible, even if only a few mouthfuls, after which they can continue with their left. Each meal, or each day, they should try to increase the mouthfuls. Most importantly, one should ask God to grant them the ability to eat and drink in the way that is beloved to Him.
We should note here that these rulings do not apply to writing or working with one’s left hand. In such cases one does not have to use the right hand or train themselves to do so.
And Allah is Most Knowing.
Shaykh Jamir Meahgrew up in Hampstead, London. In 2007, he traveled to Tarim, Yemen, where he spent nine years studying the Islamic sciences on a one-to-one basis under the foremost scholars of the Ribaat, Tarim, with a main specialization and focus on Shafi’i fiqh. In early 2016, he moved to Amman, Jordan, where he continues advanced studies in a range of Islamic sciences, as well as teaching. Away from the Islamic sciences, Jamir is a qualified homeopath and runs a private clinic in Amman.