For many practicing Muslims, keeping a halal diet is an important part of daily life, and for many of the rest of us, halal food – meat in particular – has come to represent high quality or cleanliness, even though we don’t fully understand the term.
These days, more and more food manufacturers are beginning to advertise halal options. But why are so many people outside of the Muslim religion starting to seek out halal food? To understand that, first you need to know a bit about what halal really really means.
OK, for starters, what does halal mean?
Halal is Arabic for “permissible.” You might also see it spelled hallal or halaal, as the Arabic alphabet doesn’t quite translate letter for letter to English. Spiritually, halal exists in opposition to haram, meaning “forbidden.”
Halal is also commonly used as an umbrella term for Islamic dietary laws, which is the context in which most people who are not of the Muslim faith encounter the word in their day-to-day lives.
So what foods are halal then?
It may be easier to start with the foods that Islam clearly denotes as haram, or forbidden. The Quran explicitly says that pork, or any food derived from pigs, is completely forbidden. Also considered forbidden is the blood of any animal, and any meat taken from an animal that has died on its own without human cause.
Finally, but most importantly in the context of halal-certified foods, any meats from animals that were killed without being dedicated to God are not considered halal.
For starters, animals must be in good health at the time of the slaughter. The Quran lays out specific methodology for killing an animal for the purpose of human consumption. In nearly all cases, stunning the animal beforehand is prohibited. The killing blow under halal definitions is a slit across the animal’s throat. The animal must then be hung upside down and permitted sufficient time to bleed dry, as blood is considered forbidden.
Furthermore, the person doing the killing must either be Muslim or a member of “the people of the book” – an eloquent way of saying Jewish or Christian – and a prayer or dedication to God must be spoken during the killing. The details of the dedication may vary slightly from language to language, and under the various governing bodies responsible for regional halal certifications. A typical dedication will likely sound something like the one spoken by butchers operating under the purview of the Islamic Council of Victoria, “In the name of God – God is the Greatest/Bismillahi Allahu Akbar.” Life, in all of its forms, is considered sacred, and great respect must be shown when an animal’s life is taken to help sustain the lives of mankind.
Is stunning animals fairly common outside of Islam?
The laws governing the slaughter of animals can vary fairly dramatically from country to country, state to state, or even county to county before you ever add the complicated additional layer of religion into the mix. Stunning happens regularly enough to put Islam at odds with many European governments. Animal welfare concerns have led to laws requiring animal stunning before slaughter in countries like The Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, and Luxembourg.
In the United States, the Department of Agriculture is responsible for outlining the rules governing the electrical stunning of livestock prior to slaughter for the purpose of providing anesthetic relief.
Why have halal foods become so popular in recent years?
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Halal foods have risen dramatically in popularity among non-Muslims in recent years due to the strict edicts surrounding the upbringing of the animals involved. For one thing, animals must be raised on natural diets free of animal byproducts in order for their meat to one day qualify as halal. In this way, many non-Muslims seek out halal certifications as a sort of approximation label for organic, non-GMO and grass-fed designations when foods bearing those labels are unavailable.
Is there anything else I need to know?
Although halal at its core governs foods and products that are consumed or applied to the body, enterprising companies the world over have attempted to capitalize on interest in the category by branding everything from travel to financial services as halal. As with anything you’re about to plunk down your cash for, it’s best to do some homework and read up beforehand.