What Is Halal? Demystifying Islamic Dietary Laws

what is halalIf you’ve ever been interested in learning about the Islamic religion, you may have come across terms like halal  or haram, and found yourself wondering, “what is halal?” Or, perhaps you’ve seen a package of meat, usually chicken, with the words “certified halal” on the packaging and wondered something similar. Well, you don’t need to read the entire Q’uran to understand this particular religious concept–though, if you’d like to, we certainly have a great place for you to start! Halal encompasses a number of things in Islam, but essentially refers to a number of practices that are permissible for a practicing Muslim to engage in. Of course, that explanation is a little simplistic, which is why we’ll answer the question “What is halal?” a little more in depth in the sections below, as well as discussing related practices in other religions. In the name of keeping it simple, we’ll mainly stick to how halal affects the dietary practices of Muslims. No need to be mystified!

A Basic Overview

As we mentioned, there isn’t one, simple answer to the question of “what is halal?” but if we had to give a quick and dirty answer, it would be this: halal essentially refers to a number of practices, activities, and behaviors that have not been explicitly forbidden in the Q’uran. Things that have been explicitly forbidden, by contrast, are referred to as haraam. For the most part, unless the Q’uran expressly forbids a behavior, it is considered permissible, but there are items that need further clarification, which is where knowing what halal is can come in handy. Take dietary restrictions, for instance. In Islam, pork is strictly forbidden, or haraam. However, that does not mean that there aren’t further restrictions on permissible foods. Halal guidelines are useful in clarifying those restrictions.

So there’s the short answer to the question, “what is halal?”.  As we mentioned, when we talk about halal in this instance, that discussion will revolve around dietary restrictions and guidelines set forth in the Q’uran–you’ll no longer wonder what food qualifies as halal food.

Foods That Are Strictly Forbidden:

  • Pork 

The aversion to pork and pork byproducts is not new in Abrahamic religions. Jewish people are not permitted to eat pork, and some Christians abstain as well, referring to the verse in the Biblical book of Leviticus which says:

 “…and the swine, as he divideth the hoof, and be cloven footed, yet he cheweth not the cud; he is unclean to you. Of their flesh shall ye not eat, and their carcass shall ye not touch, they are unclean to you.” 

Muslims point to the second book of the Q’uran, which says:

“He has forbidden you only dead animals, and blood, and the swine, and that which is slaughtered as a sacrifice for other than God.” 

  • Carrion 

Carrion is prohibited largely out of pragmatism; rotting meat isn’t just unappetizing, it can be dangerous! Even today most people would not eat road kill, not just because of the yuck factor but because you run a real risk of getting sick off of decaying meat.

Carrion can also refer to animals that are dead or unconscious before slaughter, animals that have been killed by a predator, or animals that die due to an accident of nature, i.e., falling from a height or drowning. Any animal that is not killed by a human is considered to be carrion and haraam.

  • Sacrificial Flesh 

Animals that are sacrificed in the name of another God or idol are also haraam, because in order for a food to be considered halal, it must have been slaughtered while the name of Allah is spoken. It is for this very reason that many kosher foods are in fact permitted, as well as food that has been provided by Christians. Each of these religions are considered to be Abrahamic religions, and worship the same God. The Quranic reference for this is found in the fourth book and surah of the Q’uran, which reads:

“The food of the People of the Book [Jews and Christians] is lawful for you as your food is lawful for them.” 

Of course, in order to still be considered halal, the food must still adhere to the other guidelines set forth. For instance, a Muslim could not accept pork or alcohol from a Christian.

  • Inhumane Slaughter 

There is a particular method of slaughter that must be employed for meat to be considered halal. As we mentioned before, it involves a swift movement with a sharp knife to ensure that the animal does not die slowly or suffer. This method is called Dhabihah and allows for proper exsanguination. Because many commercial slaughterhouses use a stun gun or anesthetics before killing livestock, most Muslims consider those animals as carrion.

  • Blood 

Another tenant of Dhabhiha is that the animal must be hung upside down to drain the blood. Eating or consuming blood in any form is considered to be unclean, paganistic, or otherwise haraam.

  • Alcohol and Intoxicants 

As with many other religions, Islam does not permit the consumption of alcohol or for its adherents to imbibe or consume any other intoxicants, which has been expanded in recent years to include illegal drugs. The precedent for this is also set forth in the fifth book of the Q’uran:

“O ye who believe! Intoxicants and games of chance, and idols and divining arrows are an abomination of Satan’s handiwork. Leave it aside in order that ye may succeed.”  

Exceptions

Despite the fact that it seems like there are an awful lot of limitations placed on dietary permissions, the Q’uran also allows for exceptions, in the same surah that prohibits the consumption of pork.

“But whoever is forced [by necessity], neither desiring [it] nor transgressing [its limit], there is no sin upon him. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.” 

Which is basically interpreted to mean that a person should not allow themselves to starve if there is no halal option available.

Comparable Concepts In Other Religions

The idea of imposing dietary restrictions as a part of a religious doctrine is not new and in fact, many other religions have similar restrictions regarding which type or parts of an animal may be eaten, which liquids may be imbibed, and what qualifies a slaughtering method as humane. Here are just a few:

  • Jewish 

You’ve probably heard the term “keeping kosher”, which refers, as halal does, to a number of behaviors or foods that are permissible in the Jewish faith. Like Muslims, Jews are not permitted to eat pork or any animal that was slaughtered inhumanely. Unlike Muslims, however, many Jewish people can and do drink alcohol and still be considered to be keeping kosher.

  • Christian 

Christian dietary laws are much more lax, but there are some instances in which Christians refrain from eating fatty foods or any kind of meat, particularly during the Lenten months, where austerity is practiced in many Christian households.

  • Hinduism

Many Hindus do not eat any kind of meat whatsoever in accordance with the Vedas, which are the holy texts of the Hindu religion. The cow, particularly, is considered to be sacred and as a result it is a sin to eat beef.

  • Rastafarianism 

Rastafaris typically do not eat meat or canned goods, and there are additional prohibitions placed on seafood.

  • Jainism 

Jains adhere to the practice of ahimsa, which essentially means “non-violence”. Rules pertaining to the preservation of all forms of life are strictly adhered, and it is not permissible for a Jain to kill or injure any being. For this reason, Jains will not eat meat, and in some instances, will not eat any animal products, including milk, eggs, and honey. Some Jains refrain even from eating root vegetables, because in order to harvest them the entire plant is destroyed.

As with any religion, an understanding of the theological basis of halal and all that it encompasses requires a little extra study if you really want to grasp it, but we hope that we’ve managed to answer the question of “what is halal?” thoroughly in this post. With so many people of the Islamic faith in all corners of the world, there is a lot to learn about each and every culture associated with it. There are many, many ways to learn, but deciding to travel will allow you to learn about new cultures firsthand. A trip to India, for example, will expose you to a number of different cultures and religions, and provides an excellent opportunity to learn even more about the Islamic religion in particular. If you are interested in reading and learning more about the Q’uran, a basic course in Arabic will help you read the text as it was originally intended.