Halal food from common Islamic principles to a global Muslim community

The Islamic vision of reality unifies all aspects of existence, from the inward and spiritual dimension to the more external dimension of deeds and action. It is said that Islam is dîn wa dunyâ, which means that every spiritual and temporal aspects of human life are integrated in a sacred perspective that links this world to the Hereafter.

From such a view-point, each deed and behavior for a Muslim, including his daily responsibilities, working, taking care of his body with food and drink, etc., can become a way to worship God and to reach His agreement, provided that he acts with a right intention, namely for God’s sake only, and in conformity with the spirit and rules of the Revelation expressed in the Holy Koran and the Sunna, the perfect model of our noble Prophet, sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam.

The implementation of the Islamic principles requires respecting the wisdom of Religion by paying attention to the universal goals of the Divine law, the pure Sharî‘a, with a center way approach that avoids both exaggeration (al-ifrât) and underestimation (at-tafrît).

In this respect, one of the priority guidelines to keep in mind is that Islam is based on facility and flexibility. God says in the Koran: “God intends every facility for you; He does not want to put you to difficulties” (2: 185); “He has imposed no difficulties on you” (22: 78); “Fear God as much as you can” (64: 16); “On no soul does God place a burden greater than it can bear” (2: 286).

And the Prophet has worn: “Religion is very easy and whoever overburdens himself in his religion will not be able to continue in that way” (Muslim); “Make things easy for people and do not make them difficult. Give good news to people and do not frighten them away” (Bukhari, Muslim).

The different forms and methodology of Sharî‘a’s implementation and adaptation have been elaborated by the distinguished scholars of the Islamic community, mostly from the traditional schools of thought and law (al-madhâhib). Beyond the diversity of interpretations, there is a unity of principles and references: Koran and Sunna together, and the consensus of the scholars who are able to guaranty a right comprehension of Islam in terms of belief and practice for the benefit of the whole Muslim community, wherever and whenever be it.

The fundamental and immutable principles of the Sharî‘a, are both in the Koran and the Sunna, whereas the intellectual interpretation of these principles and their practical translation into more particular and detailed rules, which are also able to deal with new situations that can occur in the space and time, is the object of the fiqh, the Islamic jurisprudence. The fiqh refers to the Koran and the Sunna, first, but also to secondary and subsidiary sources such as the consensus of the scholars (al-ijmâ‘) who have the abilities for practicing the effort of interpretation (al-ijtihâd), and the analogical reasoning (al-qiyâs) as well.

Islamic fiqh must not be confused with the secular concept of “law of State”, nor should it be schematized in a “unique code” of mechanically-implemented rules and standards. The jurists and scholars of the Islamic tradition are religious people, that is why the interpretation of the Divine and sacred Law must be guided by a spiritual method and a doctrine without which it could fall into a mere literalism.

On the contrary, the Islamic juridical tradition, even if it is based on the recognition of an immutable Divine law in its principles, has never looked, in their implementation, for a forced “homologation” of the whole community on univocal positions and dispositions. In Islam, indeed, there is a clear awareness that immutable are only the principles (al-usûl), whereas the contingent applications (al-furû‘) must be adapted to the diversity and richness of the Divine creation. Thus, the Islamic juridical tradition has a pluralistic approach as well as a living way of renewal.

Each orthodox interpretation in sunni Islam can derive different options and results from the common principles of the Koran and the Sunna, because of the differences between the intellectual methods they used, according to the wide spiritual possibilities of the Sharî‘a. It is important to remind that they are complementary approaches and not opposed positions. Every Muslim can liberally decide which juridical school he wants to follow in particular; doing so, he should take into great consideration the spiritual methods that the other schools decisions refer to. It is part of the Islamic faith to believe that each of the great imams of the Muslim community and their followers are on true guidance from their Lord.

Such pluralism may create some difficulties in the minds of those who approach the Islamic tradition for the first time, or even of those who pretend to submit it to a forced systematization. Nevertheless, some eminent scholars such as imam al-Shâfi‘î, or shaykh ‘Abd al-Wahhâb al-Sha‘rânî, taught that the Sharî‘a includes different degrees of exigency in the ways the Muslim can practice the religious behaviors both for the acts of worship and the social relations. From the easiest to the more exigent dispositions, the various solutions respond to the different capacities and situations of the believers from the weakest to the strongest ones, in terms of faith, soul and body, and according to the spiritual opportunity and possibilities of implementation.

Prophet Muhammad said: “The differences in my community are a mercy”, especially the different solutions that have been set up and explained by the scholars for the benefit of the whole community. As Sufyân al-Thawrî used to remind his students: “Do not say that the scholars disagreed, but let’s say that they enlarged for the community”, with many solutions of interpretation and implementation of Sharî‘a’s principles and rules.

The Islamic doctrine about halâl tayyib and harâm
Therefore, when dealing with food prescriptions of Islamic religion, one needs to understand that these rules have a “religious” character, and cannot be reduced to a pure pragmatic or only “formal and legal” dimension. If we want to carry out these religious rules as religious, we have to maintain and practice them through a global perspective, which embraces all the Muslim believer’s inward and outward life, so that food cannot be separated from fundamental elements such as faith, prayer, and spiritual piety (taqwâ), the fear of God.

God Almighty says in the Holy Koran: “On those who believe and do deeds of righteousness there is no blame for what they ate (in the past) when they fear God and guard themselves from evil, and believe, and do deeds of righteousness, – or again, fear God and guard themselves from evil and believe, – or again, fear God and guard themselves from evil and do good. For God loves those who do good.” (Koran 5: 93)   

As far as the alimentary field is concerned, even the references about the rules, and the spiritual vision that guides their implementation, cannot be derived from isolated Koranic verses, but the whole Revelation must be the paradigm of reference, that is to say the Holy Koran and the Sunna.
When coming now to some specific references with respect to alimentation, we have to remind that the basic principle established by the Koran is the general lawfulness and goodness of the whole creation for man. The Koran does not indicate the specific lawful things, but only the unlawful ones, which are exceptions to the universal rule of permission (al-ibâha).

So eat of the sustenance which God has provided for you, lawful and good (halâlan tayyiban); and be grateful for the favors of God, if it is He whom you serve. He has only forbidden you dead meat, and blood, and the flesh of swine, and any food over which other than God has been invoked. But if one is forced by necessity, without willful disobedience, nor transgressing due limits, – then God is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” (Koran 16: 114-115)
Regarding food and drink, the Koran mentions five things to be explicitly unlawful (harâm), as exceptions of the rule of permission. In other words, in order to be considered halâl, a foodstuff, an ingredient of one of these, or a drink, must not contain: pork or the meat of animals similar to pigs (e.g. wild boar) or their by-products (e.g. offal, gelatin, etc.); the meat of animals found dead; blood; the meat of terrestrial animals not slaughtered ritually; alcohol, fermented drinks or their derivatives.

According to the Koran it-self, it is not allowed to men to add other prohibitions than what God and His messenger have already clearly mentioned. What is not declared explicitly harâm in the Koran and the Sunna, even if it is reprehensible (makrûh), cannot be considered as strictly harâm. One cannot restrict the mercy God has given to us through His holy book and the example of His beloved messenger that have detailed what are the specific forbidden matters, while willingly remaining silent about the other things, “as a mercy and not as an omission”, said the Prophet. The scholars explain that one of the meanings of this merciful silence is the natural permission of things.

Nevertheless, a prophetic saying puts us on our guard against a zone of uncertainty between lawful and unlawful where the doubt can confuse individual discrimination.

Verily, halâl is clear, and harâm is clear. And between them there are certain doubtful matters (umûr mushtabihât) many people are unaware of, therefore, who stays away from doubtful matters he has protected his religion and honor. And who gets involved in doubtful matters, he would fall into harâm.” (Bukhari, Muslim)

It is in the framework of these references, and in the clear limits God has fixed regarding the lawful and the unlawful, that the scholars place their great efforts of spiritual and doctrinal interpretation for the benefit of the whole community. They have expressed and explained, on the basis of the principles of the Koran and the Sunna, indications and positions on what has to be considered “not advised” for those who wish to maintain themselves with more security in the field of lawfulness. But these indications, according to the spirit of the orientations expressed by the Koran and the Sunna, has never pretend to have a absolute compulsory character, nor to establish new categories of harâm food. They are only “not advised” aliments, from a juridical point of view, which does not statute on their real nature.

While taking into consideration this aspect, Muslims can get rid of the doubt thanks to the certainty of established and recognized interpretations by the community’s scholars. It is an act of spiritual piety and religious consciousness, which can benefit from the interpretations of the schools as they are fundamental points of reference in the search for the best and more secure rules of behavior regarding what is lawful, what is unlawful, and what is doubtful.

The above mentioned risk of schematization lies in reducing the religious character of the concepts of lawful (halâl) and unlawful (harâm) to a mechanical and materialistic approach. In reality, the word halâl in the alimentary field must not be bound to a few categories of aliments, but indicates in a widest comprehension the correct relation that the Muslim believer must maintain towards food and drink.

Islam recommends mentioning the name of Allah over what we eat: mentioning and remembering God, inwardly and outwardly, with the heart and with the tongue, here is Muslim believer’s primary and correct relation to food, to God’s sustenance and to life as a whole. It expresses the right intention that gives its value to each deed. Thus, the degree of conformity to Islam depends both on the compliance with the Law and the quality of a sincere intention. The level of lawfulness is nothing without the conscience of the finality, which is conforming ourselves to God’s will and getting closer to Him, because:
It is not their meat, nor their blood that reaches God: it is your piety that reaches Him.” (Koran 22: 37)

Some guidelines for Halal certification and control
After clarifying what are the common Islamic religious principles that rule the prescriptions of the Islamic doctrine regarding alimentation, it is important to see how they can be implemented for the global Muslim community in the historical, cultural and economical context of today’s world. As we mentioned, even if there are common principles, one can see a variety of applications of Sharî‘a’s rules, according to the different interpretations of the schools of law, whose followers are disseminated in numerous geographical areas in the world, including Europe.

In France in particular, where I am serving as imam and theologian, the Islamic community is now well-rooted in the territory and in the historical and social context, thanks to an increasing involvement and enlarging presence that has grown up for more than a century, through four generations of Muslim families.

This situation needs to rule and to facilitate the availability of and access to the services of religious practices and basic Islamic rules, such as the possibility of consuming halâl products. The conditions and modalities of implementations not only have to be compliant and consistent with the Islamic tradition, but also to be suitable and adapted to a secularized context such as the French one.

Among the EU member countries, France has the largest number of Muslim population, which is estimated to reach 6.5 million in 2010, that is to say 10% of the whole French population. With much higher income per capita and purchasing power, France has a total Halal food market size of USD17.4 billion in terms of consumption. France’s Muslim community is a mosaic of national origins, customs, tastes and habits to begin with, but unless rivalries can be overcome and a unified system regulating halâl food can be created, the French halâl market will remain splintered.

Instead, food companies work along differing standards overseen by different actors of France’s Islamic community. Questions of halâl in France are overseen by the country’s three most influential Mosques — in Paris, Evry, and Lyon — and they each have their own criteria, inspectors, companies and products they approve and endorse. These mosques have been appointed as responsible for the control of halâl slaughtering, and are recognized as official bodies of certification and control by the French legislator. There are also independent bodies acting in the field of certification and control.

Reaching a consensus on halâl standards will be difficult among France’s diverse, disparate Muslim population. French Muslims remained largely unorganized until 2003, when government authorities helped found the French Council of the Muslim Faith as the representative of France’s “official Islam”. However, the organization has continually been undercut by rival factions and clashing loyalties that have made uniting French Muslims under a single structure — or unified halâl Code — impossible.

That may change, however, as shoppers and companies start demanding clear halâl criteria verified by inspectors that France’s entire Muslim community can trust. The development of Halal as an industry is in turn forcing the evolution of the certification process towards the emerging picture of a new hybrid figure, as well-versed in the appropriate Sharî‘a law as in the complexities of food science and market logistics. “Big industry” needs from the halâl certification process: Independence and transparency of a) Standards, b) Audit, and c) Certification and the emergence of competent Accreditation Bodies to oversee the whole process from the slaughtering houses to the consumers.

We can already mention that any technical document of requirements and guidelines for the halâl certification and control of the production processes and the food products in the West not only has to define the standards and criteria of conformity to be adopted according to Islam, but also to integrate and respect the sanitarian rules established by international and European laws.

As Muslim scholars and experts living and teaching in the West, we have the duty to respond first to the needs of our brethren who want to consume halâl food products in this particular area of the world. We have to focus on a few points. On the one hand, the religious rules have a value that is symbolic above all. Therefore, they cannot be changed on the basis of contingent speculation. On the other hand, the Muslim communities, especially the scholars, have to find and propose by themselves the solutions for realizing an Islamic valid synthesis between the religious sensibility and the normative exigencies of the modern food industry forms. Indeed, an increasing number of European enterprises has begun to product and commercialize halâl food items for Muslims consumers in Europe, and try to export their products in Muslim countries all over the world.

The exigency is to set up the most exhaustive requirements, for products to be exported in the largest part of countries all over the world, from the Muslim world to the non Islamic countries where Muslims live.

That is why we think that halâl certification and control should adopt criteria and requirements that fulfill the established conditions for the production and consumption of halâl food according to all the traditional law schools, while taking into account the international standards of relevant Islamic organizations or institutions in this respect. Besides the Sharî‘a compliance of the food products and the productive process, this kind of requirements and standards must respect the sanitarian rules according to international laws in terms of hygiene and food safety in Europe, in the Gulf Region, in the United States and so on. The main added-value of these Requirements is to help recognizing and giving access to food products for the Muslim national and international community, according to the widest consensus of Islamic legal dispositions.

We have to recognize that, in the current world situation, the general scenario, and not only in the West, is now far from the conscious of a sacred dimension of existence, in the ways of life and in the social activities, because of the preponderance of material and ideological structures that are more influenced by quantity than by quality. That is why, in the food industry, when we want to conform the production to religious exigencies such as the halâl requirements, it is necessary to understand that it will not be only about pragmatic and concrete adaptations of the production process, but about getting new sensibility and openness towards exigencies that are not merely interested in health, hygiene, and so on.

From yesterday to nowadays, the halâl product has to be considered as a product of excellence, so that the halâl mark and label in the modern industry must also be a sign of Islamic quality together with a guaranty of religious conformity. Furthermore, some of the European and international rules regarding food and animal welfare are very similar to a lot of Islamic prescriptions on halâl. We can say that the Islamic perspective of food is not far away from the European culture, and does not have to become a cause of marginalization or auto-marginalization of the Muslim communities in Europe.

The universality of Islam means both a pure monotheism by a right-oriented doctrine of faith in the Unique One, and a sense of unity in the diversity of the religious community from all over the world. Without falling in any attempt of uniformity or homologation, from common principles to a global community, halâl food and products can be an occasion for our global Umma to realize a new sense of unity and universality, on the basis of faith and practice first, then through intellectual expertise and professional activities.

God says in the Holy Koran: “To every community did We appoint rites of sacrifice that they might celebrate the name of God over the sustenance He gave them from animals fit for good. But your God is One God: submit then your wills to Him.” (22: 34)
The spirit of halâl as a complete way of living, and not only a way of eating or drinking, consists in trying to make our intentions, deeds and daily activities an opportunity of sacred commitment for God’s sake, for the spiritual and material development of our community, and for goodness to all mankind and creation.

The Prophet says: “God prescribes ihsân for everything”. More than a legal and formal performance by standardization of rules and processes, the halâl conformity and control must turn into the search for the achievement of spiritual perfection and religious excellence, in every aspect of our responsibilities in this world. Sincere taqwâ, Sharî‘a compliance and attention for quality still remain the essential keys to make it real, in-sha’Allah.  


Abd al-Wadoud Jean Gouraud

Islamic Institute of Advanced Studies (France)
Honorary member of the Executive Council
of the World Association of Al-Azhar Graduates