“What is ‘halal’?” asked a colleague

Q: Rianne:  can you give a layperson’s guide to what halal actually means?  This is interest, not criticism.

A: I’m no scholar and things are a bit more complex than I could express here, but in essence Muslims believe that things (such as food) and behaviour (incl. dress and choice of job) are all along a sliding scale between halal (approved of – by God) and haram (prohibited), with at least three categories in the middle, including (simplistically) ‘disliked’. The default setting is that matters are allowed, unless stated otherwise. I despair when Muslims (can’t blame non-Muslims as not their religion!) who reduce their faith to simplistic lists of halal or haram (do’s and don’ts without using their own thinking – thinking/ reflecting is exactly what we’re supposed to do!). In the Quran the word halal is always followed by the words ‘and tayyeb’ (simplistically: and wholesome, e.g. 2:168 for food, ), so our choices need not just be approved of but also wholesome (e.g. too much of a good thing is to be avoided). E.g. (to use an example that in the media is oft used around religious slaughter) there is clear guidance on how to kill an animal for food (killing for fun is grossly disliked!) and if adhered to, then it was killed in a halal manner, though if the animal has had a miserable life (e.g. a cow hasn’t been fed it’s natural diet of grass and had a chance to live like cows are supposed to – e.g. not locked inside 24/7) it should not be considered halal to eat. Even the ‘extremes’ need to be interpreted logically: it’s haram to eat pork, but if it’s the only food available when walking around in the desert, then we should eat it as suicide is ‘more haram’. With financial investments/ choice of job (if one has no agency to choose a job, any job is better than none, then keep striving to improve so one can change job etc), it’s too often watered down to simplistically ‘no gambling, no alcohol, no pork’, but investment in e.g. so-called vulture funds (taking advantage of distressed lenders) or – for ease of argument – Fox ‘News’, which undermine a just society are not to be recommended by any means… Re clothes, e.g. wearing hijab is halal… but hijab is not just a women’s cloth on her head, but general modest dress, for men (addressed first on this) and women. Hope it’s a little bit clearer? Please do ask me re any specific example… thanks for asking!

NB: don’t confuse Muslims with Islam… as adherents we can be, and often are, incredibly fallible! It’s why we should strive (jihad) to overcome our weaknesses and try to be a better human….

The idea is that humans have free will so it’s only fair to have access to guidance (in the form of the Quran and God’s Prophets, from Abraham, through Jesus to Mohammed) as to what will make you most successful in reaching the truly desired place (Heaven: no *not* full of virgins) and thus enable us to make informed decision. I do agree slaughter has a nasty result (Islamic version is quite complex [though in practice not always adhered to ]: animal needs to be given last meal, not see/ hear its peers be killed, use sharp knife, go straight for the jugular vein) … though we shouldn’t think that other means are not cruel… and alternative is for all to become vegetarians?!

Q: “Slaughter is cruel no matter how it is dressed up! Also, all men and all women should wear modest dress?”

A: The idea is that humans have free will so it’s only fair to have access to guidance (in the form of the Quran and God’s Prophets, from Abraham, through Jesus to Mohammed) as to what will make you most successful in reaching the truly desired place (Heaven: no *not* full of virgins , as explained by a Jewish professor) and thus enable us to make informed decision. I do agree slaughter has a nasty result (Islamic version is quite complex [though in practice not always adhered to ]: animal needs to be given last meal, not see/ hear its peers be killed, use sharp knife, go straight for the jugular vein) … though we shouldn’t think that other means are not cruel… and alternative is for all to become vegetarians?! Whether “all men and all women should wear modest dress?”: “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:256)