“Halal” normally means “islamically permissible”; it’s an adjective which can apply to anything on which the Islamic Law (Shari`ah) has some prescription. Nowadays, and especially when used in English, it refers to Islamic dietary rules, particularly the requirement that animals be slaughtered – in the name of Allah – for their meat to be lawfully consumed. In recent years, and especially with the appearance of the mad-cow disease, some Muslim jurists added emphasis on the way the animals are fed, for their meat to be “halal”.
This has not created any difficulty in traditional Muslim lands, where industrial meat production and packing is still not mechanized enough for such rules to pose problems. In the west, however, slaughtering has largely disappeared from the mainstream market, and the meat production process disturbs many people (Muslims and non-Muslims – see the enlightening but depressing recent documentary “Food, Inc.”). This has opened up a huge area of discussion on various issues: (a) Why are Muslims required to slaughter animals to begin with? (b) What can Science and Technology tell us on this? (c) To what extent can the rules be relaxed a bit? (d) What roles do Religion (Jurisprudence), Sociology (immigration), and Politics (acceptance of religious vs. secular regulations) play on this? Etc.
And so, to the delight of some industrialists and conservative religious leaders, and to the horror of some right-wing politicians, the “halal” market exploded in the west in the past decade or so. And when the French fast-food chain Quick decided to open “halal branches” in some Muslim-dominated neighborhoods, a strongly polarized reaction occurred: applause from the Islamic corner, boos and panic from the right-wing corner, who saw this (purely commercial) decision as a sign that the Islamic tsunami was beginning…
Regarding the Islamic tradition’s requirement that the name of Allah be proclaimed at the moment of slaughtering, some more moderate scholars (e.g. Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi) have stated that making that pronouncement just before eating the meat is equally valid. Al-Qaradawi also argues (and offers Qur’anic justifications) that the meat provided by Christians and Jews is lawful for consumption by Muslims, though others have argued strongly that the original permission assumed that Christians and Jews slaughtered their animals.
Furthermore, Muslims – especially in the West – have started to ask about the lawfulness of using new techniques, such as anesthetizing animals (see IslamOnline) or stunning them by electric shocks (see here) before the slaughter, both of which have been deemed acceptable or even advisable (by Al-Qaradawi and the Islamic Fiqh Council of the Muslim World League, respectively) in order to minimize the animal’s suffering during the slaughter, as long as those techniques do not end up killing the animal.
Muslim literalists (e.g. the famous Pakistani scholar Al-Mawdudi), however, have made it an absolute must for animals to be slaughtered (in the Islamic way) for their meat to be “halal” for consumption.
Now, not only have some modernist Muslims started to challenge that general agreement on the religious necessity of animal slaughter, some are doing it on scientific grounds. For example, Haoues Seniguer has argued (here and here) that one of the main reasons for the Islamic rules (prohibition of the consumption of blood and of any animal still containing blood, i.e. killed by a blow, as well as the requirement of slaughtering, i.e. draining of blood) is the attempt to get rid of all bacteria and viruses in the animal. This higher goal, he goes on, could not be explained to people at the time of Prophet Muhammad, but that was the principle behind the divine rule, although the Prophet obviously could not understand the scientific reasons behind it. Now, says Seniguer, we can achieve the same goals with more sophisticated and efficient techniques, so that the meat one buys at the supermarket is at least as good, if not healthier, than the meat of an animal killed in the traditional way. (When writing that, Seniguer had not watched “Food, Inc.”!)
Similarly, Tareq Oubrou asks: why does Islam refuse the consumption of meat that has not been cleansed of its blood? His answer: Precisely because the blood contains unhealthy germs. Therefore, if one is assured that a butcher is honest and has followed hygienic rules producing the same result (as the Islamic objectives), then the meat should be acceptable.
It should be noted, however, that Muslim jurists insist that the main argument for slaughtering is not medical but rather theological, namely that the taking of an animal’s life must be done in the name of Allah, whether that is done by slaughtering (the method prescribed by the Prophet) or by shots (bullets or arrows). The counter-argument is that the taking of the lives of fish (big or small) is exempted from both the slaughter and the uttering of God’s name at the time of killing.
Meanwhile, the Muslim communities and the politicians in Europe are having a tug-of-war over this issue, and the market is making a killing (no pun intended), with “halal” products (including even lipstick) and services (“halal” restaurants) everywhere now.
I find this issue very interesting, both because it raises theological and scientific (biomedical) issues and arguments and because it illustrates the current cultural crossroads the Islamic culture is at: between literalism and higher-objectives reasoning.