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Please note – this is a student  paper for Cornell University Food Science Course 250.  The information reported has not been independently verified.

Interpretation of Halal and Haram Foods

by Muhammed A. Lawai, Food 250 

The differences in the interpretations of Halal (lawful) and Haram (prohibited) in Islam have caused the Islamic Ummah (community) to choose different paths. Although the differences are minor, they stem from the four major schools of thought in Islam and at other times from an individual’s understanding of the religion and its requirements. Islam, unlike many other religions, clearly states in the Quran that everything is Halal for humanity: “This day are (all) good things made lawful for you” (Al-Qu’ran 5:5). However, a few ingredients/substances have been classified as Haram, which the followers of the Deen (religion) are instructed to avoid: “He has explained to you what he has made Haram for you…” (Al-Qu’ran 6-119).

Islam requires human beings to unconditionally abide by Allah's commands. The Quran reveals that he has ordered his followers not to add divine qualities to anyone (Shirk) other than Him, not to kill humans except under particular conditions, to stay away from eating certain animals or animals killed in an unacceptable way, not to consume wine, and not to indulge in blatantly wrong (Fawaahish) practices.

Concerned Muslims have gone to great lengths to avoid the doubtful. This includes products that would be closely related to the Haram list. For example, a significant number of Muslim consumers tend to avoid perfumes that use alcohol as its ingredient. Although some scholars have argued the use of Alcohol is prohibited for intoxication purposes only, but a majority of Muslims tend to avoid such products. Therefore, it would be economically problematic if the demand does not exist and such products were targeted to Muslim consumers. Other examples include gelatin and toothpaste. Gelatin causes controversy because of the fear that it might come from the pigs. Thus, Muslims consumers will never accept gelatin product unless they have been certified Halal as is being done in the Kosher industry. Finally, toothpaste is also interesting because there is a growing awareness amongst Muslims today that leads them to avoid certain foreign brands because of the doubtful nature of the product’s ingredients that might fall into the Haram category. Clearly, as we see a resurgence of Islam and its followers, we will see a shift towards a stricter policy.

In order to highlight the controversies involved and to bring out the significance of how the Muslim consumer market is segregated in groups, this paper will focus on the example of Zabiha meat. Zabiha is a term used that incorporates the rules and regulations for lawful Islamic slaughter. Zabiha has two important aspects that are different from other kinds of slaughter. These include, first, the pronunciation of Takbir (saying Allah’s name) on each individual animal while it is being hand slaughtered and, second, the animal should be cut in a certain fashion so that the blood drains out of the body. 

Muslims in America are split into three groups which interpret the concept of Zabiha differently and hence consume or buy in different markets. The first group consists of Muslims who strictly eat hand-slaughtered meat (slaughtered by a Muslim) that has been exclusively sacrificed according to the Islamic rituals of pronouncing Takbir and cutting the jugular veins. The second group accepts the Kosher meat that has been slaughtered in a similar manner. The third group consumes meat available in supermarkets and stores in Judeo-Christian societies.

These differences in interpretations have risen due to the special status that has been given to the Jews and Christians (both monotheistic religions according to the Quran). The special recognition given can be evidenced in the Quran where it refers to the two groups as “Ahlal-Kitab” (the people of the book). The Quran further reveals that the food of the Jews and Christians should be acceptable to Muslims and vice versa.  It mentions “The food (ta’am) of those who have received the Scriptures is lawful for you and your food is lawful to them…” (Al-Qur’an 5:5).

The first group, which strictly abides to Zabiha slaughter, recognizes the Quranic revelation, but dismisses the food of Ahlal Kitab based on three principles. First, the absence of pronouncing Takbir on each animal while it is being slaughtered. Second, the use of Alcohol (as long as its Kosher) as a cooking ingredient by the Jews. Third, the acceptability of swine-flesh as part of the Christian diet today. This group also argues that it is the method of slaughter that makes an animal Zabiha. The animal should be slaughtered in such a way that it causes the least amount of pain and suffering, and the blood should be drained out of its body. The issue of Takbir is very strongly believed by this group and they have defended their claims by quoting the Quran at seven places where it mentions:

Even in the Ahadith (the Prophet Muhammed’s narrations) it is clearly stated that Allah’s name should be pronounced on each animal and only this fulfills the Zabiha requirement. Additionally, the Ahadith also reveal the recommendation of hand slaughter at the neck. This can be confirmed by the following two Ahadiths.

Other problems arise because the Jews and Christian use alcohol (Kosher alcohol for Jews) in the preparation of food, and the use of alcohol is clearly prohibited by Islam. This is stated in the Quran which mentions, “O you who believe! Intoxicants and gambling and divination by arrows are an abomination of Satan’s doing: Avoid it in order that you may be successful” (Al-Qur’an 5:90).

The second group is comprised of Muslims who accept Kosher meat as an equivalent to Zabiha or Halal slaughter in the absence of Zabiha slaughter. This group of Muslims does not accept the regular slaughtered meat in the super markets and stores based on the assumption that although the majority of the people living in the country are Christians, there is no way to verify that the people involved in the slaughtering process are Ahlal Kitab. They could be Hindus, Buddhist, atheist etc. This is not a problem in the Kosher slaughter because one of the requirements of Kosher slaughter is that the person slaughtering the animal must be a practicing Jew. This group of Muslims also claims that the slaughtered meat available in the supermarket is problematic. This is because often times the animals throat is slit in the regular production process which does not allow the blood to drain out properly. Second there is no prayer offered at the time of the slaughtering process. The use of kosher meat solves this problem because it requires a hand slaughter that is done in a similar fashion to Halal slaughter. However, a problem arises because the Jews do not pronounce Takbir on each animal; instead they pronounce a prayer before the beginning of the slaughtering process. This group of Muslims accepts the Jewish payer as an equivalent to the Takbir and interprets it differently from the first group of Muslims. Although the evidence from the Quran and the Ahadith mentioned before makes a strong case for the pronunciation of prayer on each animal, the second group interprets the prayer by the Rabbi to the same one God as being sufficient.

The third group of Muslims are those who accept slaughtered meat that is available in the supermarkets. This group justify their acceptance of the regular meat in a Judeo-Christian country on the basis of the following Quranic verse as mentioned above which explains, “The food (ta’am) of those who have received the Scriptures is lawful for you and your food is lawful to them…” (Al-Qur’an 5:5). Others Muslims have argued that the special status of Ahlal Kitab was given to the religions who were the followers of one God, but Christianity today believes in Trinity which is they claim contradicts monotheism. However, this group feels that historically it can be proven that Trinity is not a recent phenomenon and it is evidenced from the Ahadith that Prophet Muhammed’s (PBUH) had also accepted gifts of meat from non-muslims (Christians) who at that time also believed in the Trinity. Another interesting example is that Islam allows Muslim men to marry chaste women of the Ahlal Kitab: “Lawful unto you in marriage are…chaste women among the people of the book…” (Al-Qu’ran 5:6). Scholars have rightly pointed out that Islam has provided a practical solution to such a marriage by allowing Muslims to eat the food of the Ahlal Kitab.

Others Muslims have argued that the issue of Takbir and the method of slaughter is also an issue with the supermarket meat. Mentioning of “Bismillah” at the time of eating is considered acceptable. This was something that Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) directed a group of people to do, when they asked him if they were unsure if the Takbir has been pronounced. Historically, it has also been recorded and narrated from the Ahadith of the prophet that “at the time of the Battle of Khyber, the Prophet ate the meat sent by a Jewish (women), without inquiring as to whether God’s name has been taken over it.” (Maudoodi, p36). This historic event shows that the Prophet accepted the meat of Ahlal Kitab without questioning the source of its meat.

Furthermore, this group of Muslims justify their validity by accepting the following Quranic verse, which condemns and forbids believers who eat the meat that has invoked a name other the name of Allah which allows the room for concession. “Forbidden unto you (for food) are carrion, blood, the flesh of the swine, on which has been invoked the name of others than Allah….”  (Al-Quran 5:3). Since the regular slaughterhouses in the West do not mention any name or prayer when slaughtering the animal, their slaughter should be acceptable without any hindrance.

Finally, amongst this third group there are others who feel that being a minority in a Christian community allows them to interpret the following Ayah from the Quran which permits Haram on the basis of necessity. Some people feel that meat is a necessity for their health: “Allah desires ease for you, and He does not desire hardship for you…” (Al-Quran 2:18).

Since most of these interpretations have risen as a result of the special status given to the People of the Book, an important question arises when dealing with countries like China or Japan with mostly Buddhist or non-monotheistic populations. It is unanimously agreed amongst the Muslim Scholars that such consideration cannot be given in those communities. The person following the interpretation of Ahlal Kitab cannot buy meat from a super market in Japan because it is commonly known that the Japanese do not practice any of the major monotheistic religions. Based on the same assumption, mainstream Muslims would not buy meat from groups that have radical beliefs and deviate from conventional Muslim beliefs. For example, Druze, in Lebanon are considered an offshoot of mainstream Islam and thus are not recognized as being Muslims. Mainstream Muslims living in the Druze region do not buy meat from the Druze’s slaughterhouses because they are not recognized as Muslims. Many of these Muslims would not buy meat from those slaughterhouses, but they would still eat a sandwich from McDonalds in America.

Muslims today, follows fours different schools of though in Islam – Hanafi, Hanbali, Shafi, Malaki – which hold different opinions on the acceptability of Ahlal Kitab meat. All four schools of though clearly prefer Zabiha meat over any other kind, but there is a controversy in regards to Ahlal Kitab meat. The Hanafites and the Hanbalites believe that, for a Muslim, the “food of the People of the Book is subject to the same restrictions which have been placed by the Quran and the Sunnah on the food of Muslims. [Therefore] neither in our own homes nor in the homes of the Jews and Christians may we eat of the animal which is killed in some manner other than slaughtering and over which Allah’s name has not been taken” (Maudoodi, 1976, p.35).   

The Shafi school of thought believes that “since taking God’s name is not obligatory, neither upon Muslims nor upon People of the Book, a Muslim may eat of the animal which the Jews or Christians slaughter without taking Allah’s name over it, though he may not eat of the animal which they slaughter in the name of other-than-Allah” (Maudoodi, 1976, p.35). The Malakites, believe that “while granting that taking God’s name is one of the conditions for the cleanness of the slaughtered animal, hold that condition is not meant for the People of the Book, the animal slaughtered by them being lawful even if God’s name has not been taken over it” (Maudoodi, 1976, p.36).

Communities following the different practices diverge based on their knowledge and interpretation of the Quran and the Hadith as shown by the above examples. These interpretations, as well as a shift of opinions and perceptions, pose a great concern to the food industry, since billions of dollars worth of food products and meat is exported from the western countries to the Islamic Countries in the Far and Middle East.

In recent years a larger segment of the Muslim population is showing awareness about the ingredients in processed food available in the supermarkets or imported from western producers. Some producers and food processing plants also have taken steps to satisfy the Halal requirements. Specifically, American Muslims exhibit a greater awareness and understanding of the Zabiha problem/issues and thus are starting to demand properly slaughtered Zabiha meat. An interesting example is the “Al Safa Halal” production, which was started two years ago by a Jewish family with the intent of catering to the whole of North America at large by using retail distribution. They had been largely successful until it was found out that although the meat package marked a Halal logo, it had not been certified by an Islamic certifying agency. This caused a backlash amongst the American and Canadian Muslim consumers who found the operation suspicious. The controversy ended almost four months ago when IFANCA, one of the leading American Halal certifying agencies, certified their products and made some changes in the production process. At present, Al Safa hires a number of Muslim workers who are directly involved in the production process. In response to the recent controversy Al Safa has established contacts with local communities and has tried to portray an image of a responsible producer by sponsoring many Islamic Conferences and activities. This is a clear example that demonstrates a larger responsibility on the part of the producers as consumers gain awareness.

The growing awareness amongst the Muslim consumers will force the food exporters in the West, as well as worldwide, to adapt to the changes demanded by their consumers. As this issue gains more awareness, Muslims’ opinions tend towards a stricter policy, fixing the loopholes that have existed in the system for a long time. The challenge for the food industry will be to adapt to Muslim consumer demand. 

References:

Memon, M.I. (1990). The Lawful and the Unlawful. Buffalo: Darul-Uloom-al-Madania 

Al-Hilali, M.T, & Khan, M.M (1993). Interpretation of the Meaning of the Noble Quran. Riyadh: Maktaba Darusalam. 

Maudoodi, A.A. (1976). The Animals Slaughtered by the People of the Book. Lahore: Ripon Printing Press 

Syed Abul A’la Maududi, Shaikh Al Phahim Jobe. 2000. Zabiha or Non Zabiha.Chicago, IL. Sound Vision Foundation. Available from: http://www.soundvision.com/halalhealthy/maududi.shtml . Accessed 9th April 2000.