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Halal as a religious norm for food

The notion of halal, meaning ‘lawful’, ‘permitted’, is opposed to that of haram, ‘unlawful’, ‘forbidden’. The two terms are connected as they encompass the various stipulations and standards set out in Islamic religious texts and dictate the dietary practices to observe. Eating is a moral and religious act, whereby Muslims manifest their faith. However, the diversity of Islamic schools opens the way for a multitude of interpretations of the religious sources.
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© Getty Images - The Washington Post - A halal butcher’s, Belgium, 2014

According to religious sources

Several Islamic sources mention dietary restrictions. The two most important sources are the Quran, the ‘recitation’ of the word of Allah in the form of verses, and the Hadith, a record of the tradition and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. Alcohol is considered a source of intoxication and spiritual amorality, hence it is forbidden to consume it. The consumption of meat is subject to certain conditions: “Prohibited to you are dead animals, blood, the meat of pigs, and that which has been dedicated to other than Allah, and [those animals] killed by strangling or by a violent blow or by a head-long fall or by the goring of horns, and those from which a wild animal has eaten, except what you [are able to] slaughter [before its death], and those which are sacrificed on stone altars” (Quran, 5:3). Pork is the only meat expressly considered as unfit for human consumption. Its proscription is reiterated in several passages of the Quran. For other animals to be lawful, several conditions must be fulfilled at the moment of their sacrifice. They must be killed by a deep incision to the throat and they must be bled, actions which are part of the ritual slaughter. If these conditions are not fulfilled, the carcass is considered haram and must not be eaten. These conditions are very similar to the alimentary precepts of Judaism.

Different schools

Currently, the vast majority of Muslims in the world belong to the Sunni branch, which brings together four schools: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi and Hanbali. Shias and Kharijites represent a minority. Over the course of history, these Islamic branches and schools have each interpreted the notion of halal in their own way. All agree on the ban on pork, but consumption of pork is not punishable by Islamic law. Alcohol is tolerated by Hanafis, in reference to certain Hadith accounts. The migration of Muslim populations to secular states in the West during the 20th century, also resulted in a multitude of individual renegotiations of halal as a food standard, so that their act of faith would be compatible with the morals and customs of the host country. The growing number of dietary practices and their diversification have influenced both the agri-food industry and Islamic institutions, notably in France, and have led to the emergence of halal as a commercial label for an increasingly varied range of food products.

Fish and seafood

For non-Hanafi Sunni Muslims, who constitute almost half of the Muslims in the world, fish and seafood are naturally halal and have no specific restrictions imposed on them: “Lawful to you is game from the sea and its food, a provision for you and for travellers” (Quran, 5:96). As they belong to another class of animal and live in another environment to that of land mammals, they are not subject to ritual slaughter and all parts can be consumed freely. However, Shias and Hanafi Sunni Muslims reject this interpretation. They only permit the consumption of sea fish and relegate shellfish and other seafood to the category of prohibited food.

Other alimentary precepts

Practising Muslims observe several dietary rules. The most well-known are the fast of Ramadan, named after the ninth month of the Muslim lunar calendar, which constitutes one of the five pillars of Islam, and the Greater Eid (Eid al-Adha), the ‘festival of sacrifice’, during which sheep are ritually slaughtered.