A Book Review of Halal Food: A History by Boğaç Ergene and Febe Armanios
As we fast through the month of Ramadan, we should pause to reflect on our relationship with what we consume. There are many conditions and restrictions during this month: what, when, with whom, how much, and where we eat comprise the dietary contours of fasting Muslims.
As the “State of the Global Islamic Economy Report” states, “In an age of increasing commercialization, the food we consume can be devoid of God’s presence and the reverence for God’s creation that Islam requires. It is this gap that much of the Halal Food sector seeks to fill.” Indeed, this decade promises to be a further unwrapping of the halal revolution, with estimated market size of the halal food and beverage market reaching $1.9 trillion by next year – approximately one-sixth of the global food industry. Some of the names of big players in the industry may surprise us: Nestle, McDonald’s, Starbucks, Burger King, and even KFC stand to gain from launching Shari’ah-compliant food lines—and some of them have already done so.
Halal Food: A History by Febe Armanios and Boğaç Ergene is an excellent read that covers a constellation of food-related topics: medieval recipes for tharid (the sunnah dish consisting of bread pieces in a meat broth), the legal history of halal slaughter, the rise of the faux libation (‘nonalcoholic beer’) movement in the Muslim world, and even the origin of Halal Guys. Overlooking a technical analysis of halal slaughter for a conversation engaging wider audiences, the authors’ gastronomic expertise compels reflection on the ethics of being a halal foodie and the spiritual valence of the halal food industry.
Armanios and Ergene start off by casting doubt on the hygienic hypothesis, which attributed the ancient stigma of pork consumption to pigs’ unsanitary practices, the decay of pork in warm climates, and the parasitic infection known as trichinosis. They point out that proper cooking can prevent pork decay and that there is not a one-to-one correlation between various animals’ cleanliness and permissibility in ancient Jewish law. In fact, the connection between pork consumption and Trichinella was only uncovered in the nineteenth century because the infection has a ten-day incubation period and leads to a stunningly diverse number of symptoms in different patients. As Abdal Hakim Murad notes, the reading of the prohibition on pork in Islam through scientific premises has secular underpinnings. Murad goes on to say that even when we are not fasting in Ramadan, we are undergoing a permanent partial fast from certain foods because Allah commanded us to.
But Halal Food goes beyond the grotesque complexion of swine consumption. One of the most interesting sections in the book is a discussion comparing the rulings on disputed land animals (such as hyenas, lizards, horses, and jerboas) and aquatic animals (including dolphins, lobsters, and crocodiles) across different schools of Islamic thought. Whereas Jahangir, the fourth Mughal emperor, only consumed scaled fish, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 motivated Shi’a clergy to reconsider the prohibition on the Caspian Sea Sturgeon used to make luxurious caviar. They decided that the “few hard, bony scale-like appendages” known as ganoids counted as fish scales, and “in 1983 Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa declaring sturgeon and its caviar halal.”
Today, a food’s halal status depends not just on how an animal was slaughtered but also involves investigating the standards of the certifying agency. While Australia (2.5 percent Muslim population) allows exemptions from stunning for religious slaughter, New Zealand, where Muslims comprise 1 percent of the population, does not. Pre-slaughter stunning is a debated issue among Muslim scholars, and finding out if the halal meat in local supermarkets was optimally slaughtered may not be so easy. Certifying agencies may have different thresholds for what counts as halal slaughter, and a conservative estimate is that there were 150 halal certifiers globally in mid-2015, with 4 different certifiers in New Zealand alone. Notably, the Zabihah website states that as of 2007, “the lamb served in all domestic Outback Steakhouse locations in the United States is imported from New Zealand,” and that the “lamb has received certification of Halal Accreditation from The Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand.”
In a manner consistent with academics concerned about the ties between consumption and the modern economy, Armanios and Ergene draw attention to the rise of halal food as a status symbol. The history of faux libations (nonalcoholic beer) dates back to the Prohibition in the United States, where “near beers” consisting of up to 0.5 percent alcohol by volume were still allowed. Related beverages such as Barbican, Al Andalus, and Boza are popular in the Middle East, which is where 1 out of every 3 dealcoholized beverages are sold and consumed. The branding around these products claim to afford the urban elite a chance “to set themselves apart from rural people” and to aspire for “affluence, a (partly) Westernized lifestyle, modernity, and a general cultural superiority.”
While the fiqhi technicalities of nonalcoholic beer require a separate discussion, the question for Muslims is whether there really is a need or benefit from a ‘halal’ alternative to alcohol. There is certainly no quick substitute in Islam for backbiting or adultery or interest-bearing transactions, but there is general advice in the Quran to remain steadfast in light of temptations. As Allah says, “Oh you who have believed, seek help through patience and prayer. Indeed, Allah is with the patient.”
In light of the controversies surrounding the legal status of animal slaughter, manufacturing standards, and new business forms, the future holds many opportunities for “Muslimpreneurs.” The tayyib (pure) ethos seeks to promote food that is “good” in all senses of the word, a notion that may even attract a large non-Muslim audience. Saffron Road Food produces frozen meals in line with “ethical consumerism,” and 80 percent of its $40 million revenue in 2016 was from customers not solely looking for a halal meal. The Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America (IFANCA) touts a “Five Star Halal Identification System” ranging from 1 star (if the animal was slaughtered by a Muslim) to 5 stars (no electrical stunning of the animal). A “haloodie” (a food connoisseur abiding by halal prescriptions) can now enjoy halal food fairs, the Zabihah.com app (founded by Shahed Amanullah, a Silicon Valley engineer), and social integration with a “halal twist.” Emerging areas of halal growth include halal gelatin, imported chocolates, pharmaceuticals, and cosmetic lines.
Armanios and Ergene do a wonderful job in covering many issues related to halal production, and the book is a must-read for those invested in remaining faithful to one’s Islam in modernity. It raises important ethical questions: should the tayyib (pure) lifestyle or luxury beverage movement be integral to the halal food industry? Or do these discussions gloss over broader economic issues, such as the plight of the Muslims who comprise half of the global poor and struggle to merely afford food? Perhaps we should not give too much attention to the halal food industry given the number of texts cautioning against meat consumption and gluttony. As Allah says in the Quran, “Eat and drink, but be not excessive.”
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- Armanios, Febe, and Boğaç A. Ergene. Halal Food: A History. 2018. Print: 3.
- Ibid., 4.
- Ibid., 110.
- Ibid., 23.
- Armanios, Febe, and Boğaç A. Ergene. Halal Food: A History. 2018. Print: 57-58.
- Ibid., 74.
- Ibid., 122.
- Armanios, Febe, and Boğaç A. Ergene. Halal Food: A History. 2018. Print: 184.
- Ibid., 187.
- Quran, 2:151
- Armanios, Febe, and Boğaç A. Ergene. Halal Food: A History. 2018. Print: 115.
- Ibid., 251.
- Quran, 7:31
Photo Credit: Waldemarus
About the author: Waqas Haque is an editor for Traversing Tradition. He is on leave from medical school to study public health and also obtained an M.Phil. from Cambridge University. He is broadly interested in tafsir, Hanafi fiqh, drug development, and entrepreneurship. He enjoys frequenting the gym, masjid, and halal food establishments.
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