In an amusingly self-serving ruling, Muhammad an-Najimi, a Saudi member of the prestigious Islamic Fiqh Academy of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, issued a tentative personal opinion (less binding than a fatwa) to Muslims that filling the gas tank with biofuels is sinful: "I warn Saudis who live abroad and who use alcohol instead of petrol that this case is related and falls within the parameters of what the prophet said." He refers here to a hadith in which Muhammad prohibited the buying, selling, transporting, drinking, or manufacturing of alcohol.
Najimi acknowledges that the issue "needs to be studied by the relevant religious bodies."
A Christian Science Monitor article points out the implications of this opinion:
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 Monitor also notes some of the background to this ruling:
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.
Comment: It defies common sense that Najimi's opinion would become official Saudi policy, but stranger things have happened. Were it to become policy, it would be another element in the separation of civilizations. (February 20, 2009)