The Meaning Of Halal In Muslim ScriptureIn Arabic, the language of the Qur’an, Islam’s central holy text, halal means “permissible.” While colloquially, halal is most often used to refer to types of food and drink that are not prohibited by the Qur’an, it can actually refer to any object or activity. Anything that is not explicitly forbidden by Islamic scripture is considered halal. Ḥarām, which means “sinful,” is the word for foods that the Qur’an prohibits.
Halal As A Dietary System
As a dietary system, halal indicates both foods and drink that observant Muslims are allowed to eat, and how these foods must be prepared. Restaurants serving halal food must thus follow these food preparation guidelines strictly. This mainly entails purchasing ingredients that have been certified halal by an authorized organization, like the Muslim Consumer Group.
Many non-Muslims believe, or assume, that the proscriptions associated with halal apply only to meat products, but observant Muslims wishing to remain halal usually have to check all the products they consume, if only because they may contain animal by-products. The most commonly cited example of non-halal food is pork. In fact, many nations within the Islamic world, including Iran, Oman, and Saudi Arabia, stringently restrict the importation of pork products.
In Sura (“chapter”) 2, Ayat (“verse”) 173, called Al-Baqara (“The Cow”), the Qur’an reads: “[Allah] has forbidden you only the Maitah (“dead animals”), and blood, and the flesh of swine, and that which is slaughtered as a sacrifice for others than Allah.” These then are the meats, or meat by-products, prohibited by Islamic holy scripture. “Dead animals” refers to those animals that are not intentionally slaughtered for consumption, i.e. if an animal dies of natural causes, an observant Muslim is prohibited from eating it. Animals that die naturally, and those that are “slaughtered as a sacrifice for others than Allah” cannot be eaten, because Allah was not honored in their deaths. Further, only animals that are killed with the intention of eating are allowed to be consumed.
Halal Food Preparation
Within Islamic dietary law, there are strict regulations constraining the slaughter of animals for human consumption. This ritual animal slaughter is known as Dhabīḥah in Arabic. The process of Dhabīḥah is required for all animals except locust and most seafood. On this topic, the Qur’an first lists methods of slaughter that are prohibited. Observant Muslims cannot eat “[animals] killed by strangling, and [those] killed with blunt weapons, and [those] which died by falling, and [those] which [were] gored by the horns of some animal, and [those] eaten by a wild beast, except those whom you slaughter; and [those] which [are] slaughtered at the altar.”
The ritual slaughter must be performed by a mentally-competent adult Muslim, Jew, or Christian. Although obviously not Muslim themselves, Jews and Christians are accepted by the Qur’an because they are “People Of The Book.” Islam considers both Judaism and Christianity to be its predecessors, each having their own revealed scripture (related by God), in varying stages of fidelity, or perfection. It is also widely believed that the Qur’an‘s prohibition of pork is derived directly from Judaism’s kosher dietary system. In the Old Testament, Leviticus 11:7-8, we read: “And the pig [is prohibited], because it has a cloven hoof that is completely split, but will not regurgitate its cud.”
Mentioning God’s name at the time of slaughter is absolutely essential. The most common invocation used is Bismillah, which means “in the name of God,” and acknowledge’s God’s right over all things as their creator. Another common phrase, Bismillah al Raḥmān Al Raḥīm, meaning “In the name of God the Beneficent the Merciful,” which brings together the first three of God’s 99 names, is not acceptable because the act of slaughter is not one of mercy, but of subdual.
In order to be considered halal, animals must be slaughtered using an unserrated blade. The blade is kept hidden from the animal’s view until the last possible moment, at which time its throat is slit cleanly in one stroke. This allows for considerable blood drainage, desirable because the consumption of blood is also prohibited by the Qur’an.
In addition to meat products, the Qur’an strictly prohibits the consumption of any intoxicants, including alcohol.
In the event that there is no halal food to be found, observant Muslims are allowed to eat those which would generally be considered harām. The Qur’an reads: “But if one is forced [to eat that which is harām] by necessity, without wilful disobedience, nor transgressing due limits, then there is no sin on him. Truly, Allah is Oft-forgiving Most Merciful.”
In slaughterhouses certified by the FDA, animals are disabled before slaughtering by a bolt-gun, which delivers a high-powered blow to the forehead, inducing unconsciousness. And while this is considered the most “humane” method in much of the Western world, animals killed in this way are considered harām by most Muslim authorities. The prohibition of conventionally-slaughtered animals is due in part to the fact that exsanguination (blood loss) is the only accepted form of slaughter in halal, and in part because bolt-guns can instantaneously kill animals, as well. At this point, traditional Islam considers them “carrion,” and unfit to eat.
Most contemporary historians of religion now propose that many of these religious dietary proscriptions were originally instituted as hygienic measures, although this is not an orthodox view. The Qur’an’s stated rationale is that the prohibited foods are “unclean,” but this leaves room for divergences in interpretation. While “unclean” could mean the same as “unhygienic,” scripture may intend to suggest that harām food is metaphorically “unclean,” spiritually sullied, and impure because it is further from God. The “uncleanliness” cited in the Qur’an may have nothing to do with the presence of bacteria or infectious disease.
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