One of my grandmother’s biggest complaints about immigrants, aside from their big noses and swarthy skin, was their smell.
She often told us about her first experience of their odour. It was the early 1960s and she was a sitting on a packed bus in Derby city centre when a big, brown, hairy man with a great, big beard got on and sat down in the empty seat next to her.
The way she described him made him seem to me like a bear from a children’s storybook; with a handful of famous exceptions, bears in children’s story books are the villains.
She described the smell as being like curry, and she certainly didn’t mean that in a good way.
Her story was probably true
When I was fourteen, I once I told my parents that I was staying behind at school to volunteer, when in reality I was going to my friends house to watch The Matrix. My friend’s parents worked late and left their credit cards lying around so he ordered us pizza, with garlic bread and sides.
When I got home later in the evening (still buzzing about The Matrix) I thought that I had got away with my deception, but when she hugged me welcome, my mum she knew that I had not been at school:
I reeked of garlic.
What my mum could detect was allicin – the compound that gives garlic it’s unique smell – being eliminated from my body in my sweat. Volotile compounds like allicin are found in most foods with intense flavours, especially curries.
Muslims are curry-munchers
What I am about to say may sound racist because I am a white man, but it is not meant in that way at all.
Muslims eat a lot of curry.
Or to put in a way which leaves me less open to misundertanding: most Muslims that I know regularly eat intensely flavoured, aromatic food, much of which includes chilli and garlic.
This is because most Muslims in Britain originate from countries whose cuisine relies heavily on these intense flavour compounds (meaning that their traditional foods are delicious).
If you are a white person reading this, you may wonder why your butter chicken, korma, or even tikka masala doesn’t make you smell like curry. Well, it’s probably because your natural body odour can overpower the small amounts of volatile flavour compounds in these dishes. Eat something spicier, or something with a lot more garlic, and you will almost certainly notice it a few hours later on your skin.
A good Muslim should smell sweet, or at least not of BO
Before Muslims pray we must wash, in a ritual known as wudu.
“When you intend to offer the prayer, wash your faces and your hands (forearms) up to the elbows, wipe your heads, and (wash) your feet up to the ankles.” (Quran 5:6)
The ritual also invloves rinsing the mouth, nose and hair as well as cleaning inside the ears. If a Muslim is good with his prayers he will wash five times a day, on top of his usual hygiene regimen.
And a as a lifestyle religion, Islam also includes guidance on how to wash effectively aside from the ritual wudu. The message is basically wash thoroughly and regularly, especially after doing something unclean, like going to the toilet.
In theory Muslims should smell pretty good, at least compared to someone who only washes once a day, say, or even less. (As an experienced doctor, I know that for some people washing once a week would be considered enough). Allicin and all those other pungent compounds are therefore smelled much more easily without any body odour to mask them.
So yes, Muslims smell of curry, but that is not a bad thing: it just means they are clean and eat tasty food.