Makan Time in Singapore

Understanding Halal

EXTENDING HOSPITALITY

There are some foods that are acceptable to other people that Muslims cannot eat and this can cause misunderstandings at a social level. Many people know that there are dietary and other sensitivities with the different cultural and religious groups, but there is sometimes confusion over the details of their practices.

Muslims extending hospitality to Hindu friends may not know that they do not eat beef. Hindus entertaining Muslims at home may not know that they find drink an abomination, or that they follow a strict diet and will not eat in front of figures of dieties.

We hope the explanation below will clarify things. We want to help Muslims identify more easily what is permitted, and help non-Muslims to understand the reasons behind our dietary restrictions.

`LAWFUL' OR `UNLAWFUL'

Muslims commonly use two terms to describe food - halal and haram. Halal means acceptable or permitted, but it is sometimes translated as lawful or not forbidden. Haram means the opposite - unacceptable, or unlawful or forbidden.

Haram foods were ruled unacceptable in revelations to the Prophet Moses, one of the line of prophets revered in Islam, which includes Abraham and Jesus. The laws as they were revealed to Moses, along with other hints on health, are set out in the Book of Leviticus in the Old Testament, but they were further clarified in the final Revelation to the Prophet Muhammad which is documented in the Quran, the foremost of Islam's holy books.

In view of these later clarifications, there are some differences between Muslim dietary practices and those still followed by the Jews. The story of the Revelation of the dietary laws to Moses and Muhammad, and the practical benefits they have conferred on millions of people ever since, is fascinating.

After Moses led the exodus from Egypt, he was given dietary laws that would preserve the health and integrity of the tribe. The meat of pigs and some other animals was ruled unacceptable, removing a substantial risk of disease. Carrion, and birds that feed on carrion (like vultures), were not to be eaten. The same is true of birds that hunt prey, and certain insects and other creatures that are associated with filth. Donkeys (coincidentally work animals) were not to be killed for meat.

RULE FOR SLAUGHTER

Those animals that could be eaten were to be slaughtered in such a way as to get rid of the blood, a major carrier of microbes. The Islamic method of killing an animal is to cut its throat, so that the blood runs out and does not congeal in the veins. That is why animals that have been strangled, or beaten to death, or died in a fight or accident cannot be used for meat.

So, although Muslim slaughtering may seem coldly precise, there are strongly stated procedures to ensure that the animal does not suffer unnecessarily. In summary, the method must be immediately effective.

DIVINE LAW

Muslim dietary rules are an excellent way of avoiding certain diseases but because these diseases are often not present in a modern setting, non-Muslims have argued that the laws are obsolete. This is to overlook the fact that the rules also have the weight of Divine Law, and so they cannot be changed merely by altering the physical conditions in which the foods are prepared. In other words, it is much more than a question of hygiene.

DIET AND PRAYER

According to Islam, the deeds of those who consume unlawful foods and drinks will not be accepted by God. Muslims' eating habits are related to their prayers, which they are required to perform five times a day. The performance of those prayers, and hopes that God will accept them, require a clean mind and body, a clean place and obedience to the laws of God, including His dietary laws.

It is not commonly known to non-Muslims that there are degrees of unacceptability in haram foods. A chicken, if it is not slaughtered and prepared in the proper way, will be considered haram. If it is killed and prepared properly it will be considered halal. But a pig, even if it were slaughtered in the Muslim way, could never be anything but haram.

INTOXICATING DRUGS

Another thing that Muslims cannot consume legitimately is alcohol. Islam is not alone in teaching that alcohol is harmful. Apart from the physical damage it inflicts, it impairs the thinking and keeps the drinker from the most important function of the mind - an awareness of and reverence for God.

Intoxicating drugs such as hashish, opium and modern narcotics are not acceptable for the same reasons, although drugs used in reasonable amounts in prescribed medicines may be taken as part of treatment for an illness.

The application of the dietary laws has tended to differ in some minor respects, even among Muslims in different regions, usually because of local conditions, but it is generally agreed what foods are right off the Muslim list. Even so, there are circumstances - for example if a person is on the point of death through starvation, haram foods can be eaten but the starving person should eat only enough to preserve life. It is stated in the Quran that ... if one is compelled by necessity, neither craving it not transgressing, there is no sin on him; indeed, God is Forgiving, Merciful.

RELIGIOUS HARMONY

Muslims have a special relationship, almost a kinship, with the Jews and Christians and call them the People of the Book because their traditions are also based upon a divinely-revealed Scripture and also much of this teaching has been subsumed within Islam.

However, in the context of a multi-racial and multi-religious country, Muslims try to understand and tolerate the practices of other religions as well. This tradition of tolerance, and stress on religious harmony, is central to Islam and while Muslims must try to live up to their own standards, they do not judge others.

Muslims may not trade in or prepare products that are considered haram, but they recognise that these may be legitimate items of commerce in other communities. This is why modern Muslims will use the term unacceptable when speaking about haram foods but will avoid the term unclean as an acknowledgement that even haram foods, like pork, are now generally raised in hygienic conditions. It also avoids giving offence.

CLEAR GUIDELINES

Finally, it should be stated that Islam is a simple way of life and the clarity of the halal-haram guidelines ensures that there is no confusion or doubt about what constitutes a healthy diet. What is permissible in the Islamic diet far outweighs what has been prohibited and for this reason it should be seen as a liberating principle, rather than a restrictive set of rules.

Acknowledgement: We would like to thank Zahid Ahmad, Head, Halal Certification Section, MUIS for the kind permission to reproduce this article. The orginal article and more information could be obtained from Halal Certification - MUIS Services