The family dinner table is a picture of wholesome love, comfort and trust for good reason – food has always brought people together. Yet Mum’s cooking can soon give rise to challenges that test delicate relationships when it comes to religious rules around Muslim eating. It can affect work and social relationships just as much. The term “halal” is often at the centre of matters, usually referring to meat.
The sight of a halal butcher or a restaurant "halal" sign is quite common in many towns. We may associate it with meat but the Arabic word "halal" has a more general meaning which translates to: lawful or permissible. In Islam, halal refers to any action that God has allowed. Its opposite is “haram”, meaning the unlawful of forbidden. So halal meat would be meat that a Muslim is permitted to eat (according to God’s Law).
But, it is not so clear in practice. This is because Muslims in Britain have taken on the task of identifying what is permissible (halal) themselves, something which Muslims in, say, Pakistan or Egypt, would never have to think about. There are internal debates and differences about what is and isn’t halal meat, leading to confusion and distress – even meat certifying bodies do not agree! So in practice, Britain’s Muslims make individual choices.
Muslims are generally allowed to eat most livestock farmed animals, but certainly not a pig. The Qur’an’s teachings were originally concerned with animals and their blood being offered as sacrifices to false idols, which was practised widely in the day. The Qur’an taught followers to eat from the “good” or “pure” provided by God, and not to consume wine. Interestingly, the teachings also made lawful (halal) the food of Jews and Christians (or meat eaten by “People of the Book”) of that time.
Today, meat is mass-produced in a highly mechanised way and the internal debates centre on the method and ritual of killing a farm animal for food. The opinions of Islamic scholars differ here. Some would consider ordinary meat in a supermarket to be halal, others feel that is a grey area and better avoided, whereas others consider it forbidden. There are further internal debates about slaughtering processes, as well as more recent debates about emphasising organic, free-range and high welfare farming methods.
These discussions can be upsetting for many people who are sensitive to, or even angered by, the killing of farm animals, understandably so. Muslims see animal food as a provision from God and feel strongly about the welfare of animals during their lives and at the point of death (a small number have even stopped eating meat). God’s name is mentioned in silence before eating, and after eating, recognising the provision from God.
Alcoholic beverages at a dining table can also present a “halal” hurdle for Muslims, especially those who have become Muslims, although many scholars do offer advice for individuals to be more pragmatic and accepting of cultural traditions, and not to risk hurting more important family bonds.