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What is Halal Food? Islamic Dietary Guidelines
What is Halal?
The term “halal” is an Arabic word that refers to what is permissible, or allowed, in the religion of Islam. Its opposite, “haram” refers to what is forbidden. Many people hear the word “halal” and assume that this term refers only to food, or dietary guidelines. While dietary considerations are the subject of this writing, it is important to remember that the terms are much broader than this! In fact, these terms can apply to many different things in Islam; for example, gossiping is haram (forbidden), while acts of kindness and charity are halal (permissible). In terms of food, “halal” refers to foods that are allowed to be consumed, whereas “haram” refers to foods that may not be consumed.
What are Halal Dietary Guidelines?
Because there are infinitely more halal foods than haram, halal dietary guidelines are generally defined by what is not allowed (haram); beyond this relatively short list, all other foods are allowed (halal). In theory, this makes keeping halal quite simple! However due to food processing practices and globalization of the food market, there are a few more considerations to keep in mind when trying to follow a halal diet.
Haram Foods Include:
- Food over which Allah’s* name has not been pronounced; animals slaughtered in the name of anyone but Allah, or that have been offered in sacrifice to any other deities.
- Dead meat (i.e. the carcasses of animals that are already dead—so no roadkill!)
- Any animal that has been strangled, beaten to death, gored, killed by a fall or partially eaten by a wild animal.
*Note: “Allah” is the Arabic word for "God;" although Muslims generally bless their food in Arabic, one could just as easily do so in English. The phrase generally said is “Bismillah” which means “In the name of God.”
These requirements are based on several verses in the Quran. The verses that discuss ways in which an animal may not be killed may seem a little odd at first glance, but actually serve to ensure a couple different things: first of all it helps to ensure that those raising livestock will treat their animals well and not abuse them; secondly it helps to ensure that one does not consume meats that may be unsafe or harmful to people. These requirements help to inform the process of halal butchery.
The Source of Muslim Dietary Restrictions
Some important verses of the Quran regarding diet include:
"He has only forbidden you dead meat, and blood, and the flesh of swine, and that on which any other name has been invoked besides that of Allah. But if one is forced by necessity, without willful disobedience, nor transgressing due limits, - then he is guiltless, for Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful." Quran 2:173
"Forbidden to you (for food) are: dead meat, blood, the flesh of swine, and that on which the name of other than Allah has been invoked; that which has been killed by strangling, or by a violent blow, or by a headlong fall, or by being gored to death; that which has been (partly) eaten by a wild animal; unless you are able to slaughter it (in due form); that which is sacrificed on stone (altars); (forbidden) also is the division (of meat) by raffling with arrows; that is impiety." Quran 5:3
"O you who believe! Intoxicants and gambling, (dedication of) stones, and (divination by) arrows, are an abomination, - of Satan’s handiwork: eschew such (abomination), that you may prosper. 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 you not then abstain?" Quran 5:90-91
What is Halal Meat?
The method prescribed for slaughtering meat is called Zabiha (it is also sometimes spelled Dhabihah). This applies to all livestock-type animals, but excludes fish or other sea creatures. The method of Zabiha requires that the animal to be butchered is aligned with the qiblah (the direction of the Ka’abah in Mecca, which is also the direction Muslims face to pray). A sharpened knife is then used to make a quick, deep incision across the throat, severing the carotid artery, windpipe and jugular veins. At the same time, the butcher must say the Islamic prayer “Bismillah,” or “in the name of God.” After this, the body should be completely drained of blood. This method is widely considered to be a more humane method of butchery, because when it is done correctly the animal should feel no pain upon death.
In the case of hunting, there are several different methods: if hunting with a bow and arrow, the hunter should pronounce the name of God over the weapon before releasing the arrow. If hunting with dogs, the dogs must first be trained for hunting. The hunter would then pronounce the name of God over the dogs before releasing them to catch the game. The game retrieved by the hunting dogs is considered halal so long as the dogs do not eat any part of the animal themselves.
In the case of seafood, there are no specified requirements for slaughtering, so they may be dealt with in all the usual ways (fishing, catching with nets or traps, etc).
Ideally, Muslims should eat only meats butchered in accordance with halal standards. There are, however a few exceptions to note if there is no halal meat to be found:
- If one is forced by hunger or necessity to eat foods that are not halal (or the halal status is unknown), then they may do so. It is better to eat something outside of the dietary guidelines than to starve or make oneself sick.
- If there are no halal meats to be found, foods of other “People of the Book” are acceptable. “People of the Book” include those who worship the same God, i.e. Christians and Jews. This means, for example, that kosher meats would be acceptable in lieu of halal (it does not mean that it’s ok to eat a pork chop at a Christian friend’s house!).
- If you receive meat, but are unsure whether it was butchered in accordance with halal requirements or not, you may say the name of God over it, and then eat it. Note: this exception is based on Hadith (sayings of the Prophet), not the Quran.
Ahadith Regarding Diet
"Some people said, 'O Allah’s Apostle! Meat is brought to us by some people and we are not sure whether the name of Allah has been mentioned on it or not (at the time of slaughtering the animals).' Allah’s Apostle said (to them), 'Mention the name of Allah and eat it.'”
Hadith narrated by Aisha, wife of Muhammad.
But it’s Not Just the Meat… (Other ingredients to look out for)
While halal butchery methods are quite important, there is much more to consider than just meats. There are two major categories to watch out for when trying to adhere to a halal diet. The first is animal-derived ingredients, and the second is alcohol.
Unless you are a vegetarian, or already follow halal or kosher diet, you may not realize just how many foods contain animal-derived ingredients. Gelatin, for example, is made from the bones of animals. Many people do not realize that when they are eating Jello, they are eating part an animal! Gelatin could potentially come from the bones of any animal, so it is important to find out whether pork has been used or not. For this reason, it is always important to read the ingredients on any food product before purchasing. Other ingredients to watch out for include:
- Lard or Manteca (pig fat)
- Mono- and Di-glycerides, which could potentially come from animal or plant sources
- Rennet or Pepsin (used to make cheese), which may or may not be from pork
- It is also suggested to stay away from chemical preservatives, additives like MSG and artificial sweeteners, animal products treated with hormones and overly processed or refined products, as they are harmful to one’s health.
Finally, alcohol is also considered haram. You may think it is easy enough to simply stay away from alcoholic beverages and not drink, but by dietary standards, the prohibition goes a bit further than this. While it is most important that no one consume any type of intoxicants (alcohol or drugs) in any quantity (not even one sip of wine is allowed), one should not use any products even containing alcohol. This means no beer battered shrimp, no chicken marsala, no splashes of cabernet in the marinara, and no vanilla extract in your cookies! The prohibition against flavored extracts is perhaps the hardest one to get around, but it is possible to do by using flavorings that are not alcohol-based. Again, it is important to read the ingredients on everything to ensure there are no alcohol or alcohol-based products listed.
There are a couple of things to look for when shopping for food that can be very helpful: first, obviously, is to look for halal certification on food packaging. Foods that are certified as kosher, vegetarian or vegan are also generally ok to consume, although you should still scan the ingredients to ensure that no alcohol has been included.
Although the considerations for prohibited foods can be a bit confusing at first, there is still far more left that is halal than what is haram. When purchasing pre-packaged foods it is always a good idea to scan the list of ingredients no matter what your dietary standards may be. If you see a lot of unrecognizable substances listed, it’s probably not a good idea to eat it anyway! It’s also healthier to eat more whole foods like fruits, vegetables and grains than processed foods as well. The main idea behind a halal diet is to eat foods that are good for your health and good for the environment. When shopping for and preparing food in this frame of mind, your options are endless, and eating halal doesn’t seem as daunting as it might to one who eats mostly pre-packaged foods. There are also a few helpful resources out there to help you determine whether foods are halal or not if not clearly stated on the packaging.
It is also important to note that if a Muslim unintentionally eats a food that is not halal, it is not considered to be a breach of the dietary requirements, or sinful in any way, as the person did not know. The person would simply refrain from eating that food anymore. The point to this is that halal dietary guidelines are not intended to be overly restrictive, and one should not have to feel as though he or she is unable to eat anything that didn’t come from a halal shop, or be afraid to eat out, etc. The guidelines are intended for benefit of the one following them and not for harm or hardship.
Finally, no matter what food is being eaten (i.e. whether of animal origin or not) it is always important to say the name of God over one’s food. This can be done by saying a prayer before eating, or by simply saying “Bismillah” over the food. Then dig in!