Wednesday, 7 July 2010

The halal trinity: simplicity, hygiene and faith

I came across a restaurant advertising itself as a 'Muslim seafood' restaurant recently. I am aware that the halal certification is a big thing in Singapore and Malaysia, especially given that pork products are freely sold alongside other types of food.
In fact, it was fascinating to learn that in Singapore fast food restaurants like McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken are 'halal' certified, or that food courts which only serve halal food exist. In most Muslim societies one does not worry about food being halal – by definition most everything is halal. Truth be told, for those seeking non-halal food, it is not easily available in many Muslim countries!
I do not intend for this post to be a theological debate about personal dietary habits. For all I care, people can eat pork, fry their parathas in lard or cook their pet dog. It's not my place to decide what others eat.

However, the notion of 'Muslim seafood' can be entertaining. Does that mean the crabs, lobsters and prawns were netted in 'Muslim' seas, thus conferring 'Islamic' status upon them? Were the fishermen Muslim or non-Muslim? Or perhaps the male crustaceans were circumcised by having a tiny piece of their shell removed at an early age!
Most Muslims are aware that, in general, all seafood is halal. The Islamic Council of Singapore (MUIS) halal guidelines state, "Aquatic animals are those, which live in water and cannot survive outside it, such as fish. All aquatic animals are halal except those that are poisonous, intoxicating or hazardous to health." (I suppose theologians have spent endless hours debating whether 'land crabs,' are halal or not.)
The notion of halal, as defined by MUIS, is interesting. MUIS guidelines suggest only Muslim employees may slaughter and tag poultry. In fact, the guidelines even require that the 'slaughterers' (odd word choice) "shall rotate duties with other qualified slaughterers every half an hour" so as to "ensure optimal concentration and prevent fatigue."  
I could not find any information on the guidelines pertaining to slaughtering other types of animal, such as cows and sheep. I guess in the modern era of industrial food processing, it's probably not easy (and most likely illegal) to ensure that all Australian and Argentine 'beef processors' be exclusively Muslim?
The question then becomes how does one square the circle – Muslims must personally slaughter chicken in a prescribed manner but non-Muslims may slaughter cows, although also in a prescribed manner? If not, then that coveted 'halal' certificate is missing. (The halal certificate is kind of like a professional certification, a prerequisite for selling into Muslim markets.)
Additionally, the question of 'non-halal' certified premises selling halal food products arises. While this is not an issue for packaged foods sold in supermarkets, it is for restaurants and bakeries? Can a baker place bread prepared using non-halal animal fats next to 'regular' bread?
Next stop 'interracial' cutlery and dishes – shall I walk around with my own forks and knives to ensure 'clean' cutlery to use while dining out? Where does it stop, as with each step we place barriers between people of different faiths?

It all seems a bit complicated to me. So, I keep it simple and just stay away from obviously 'haram' food, e.g. pig meat. I believe that is sufficient to remain a Muslim. And I trust that cutlery is kept clean and 'pollutants' are washed away after each use. Of course there is one final step, have faith.
For 'true' believers, nothing short of the following flow chart will suffice: A Brief Guide to Halal Food Selection. Surely, all true believers carry the chart in their pocket when walking the aisles of their local supermarket?


  1. What a silly posting. Clearly you do not understand halaal issues in a country where there is so much non-halaal foods available.
    For you as a traveller it is ok to stay away from pork and have faith, but that is not enough for someone living in this environment.
    Signage is often translated from another language, so there is no need to query the halaal seafood. It may mean that there is no alcohol on the premises.
    What I am trying to say is, dont mock something you do not understand.

  2. Hi anonymous,

    Thank you for taking the time to write a comment on my post.

    It is unfortunate that you feel I am mocking something that I do not understand. Sometimes, the ability to see the humorous side of life is as important as the rules with which we abide.

    I agree with the 'no alcohol on premises' observation, but does that imply that halal food eaten in a food court where alcohol is served suddenly becomes 'non-halal' (if eaten in the premises of the food court)?

    Hence, my notion that common sense must trump dogma. And, each individual must make her own determination of 'Religious Red Lines,' none of which need be permanent.

    Best regards,