Halal Food

A History

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Febe Armanios, Boğaç Ergene
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     400 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Halal Food, A History by Febe Armanios and Boğaç Ergene begins with the restlessness of Henna Khan and Talib Hussein, a Muslim-British couple from West Yorkshire, UK, who are frustrated that one of their three children was repeatedly served ham and jelly sweets at school. Ham is made of pork, which is not permissible or halal for Muslim consumption. From this problem, this book focuses on the relationship between food rules and Islam (halal versus haram (impermissible). Correct eating and drinking are key aspects of a correct Islamic lifestyle. The purpose of this book is to offer an understanding about halal food according to Islamic tradition through history.

In chapter 1, we can find the explanation that according to Muslims, the Quran was progressively revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in the early 7th century CE, beginning around the year 610. The Quran is considered the compilation of the actual words of Allah. In the Quran, the term halal refers to objects and practices regarded as lawful and permissible. The opposite of halal is haram, which is often translated as forbidden, illegitimate, unlawful, and sinful. The Quran states that God created food to sustain and nourish life and encouraged humans to enjoy it in moderation. Thus, food represents God’s divine power and benevolence (14). The Quran prohibits the consumption of blood, pork, carrion, and the flesh of meat.

In chapter 2, we find that according to Armanios and Ergene, meat consumption remained uncommon among lower-class Muslims before modern times. Meat consumption followed four hierarchical rules: the imperial center claimed meat at the expense of the provinces. Upper classes and the administrative elite claimed it at the expense of the common folk. Free Muslims claimed it at the expense of slave. And men claimed it at the expense of women (41).

The third chapter describes proper slaughter as a central component of halal prescriptions for land animals (61). As to technique, the animal head must face the direction of Mecca and the slaughter is expected to involve the name of Allah (tasmiyya) before the incision, and the most common way to do this is to say “Bismillah” (“In the name of God”) followed by “Allah Akbar” (“God is Great”) (61). Besides using conventional techniques, Armanius and Ergene also discuss the mechanical slaughter. But from the perspective of halal-conscious consumers, mechanical slaughter of poultry can raise multiple problems.

What is interesting in this book is that it not only discusses the slaughter of animals, but also in chapter 4 (Intoxicants) the authors discuss drinks that are considered as haram. According to World Health Organization’s (WHO) 2004 report, twenty-five third world countries that were reported to have the lowest alcohol consumption rates are Muslim-majority (94). Likewise with opium and cannabis. Since the Prophet had reportedly declared that “every intoxicants is khamr,” most jurists inferred that opiates and cannabis should also be considered haram (95). This is very different from the use of coffee and tobacco. Coffee and tobacco could still be condemned if it harmed Muslims in any way (105).

In chapter 5, the State of the Global Islamic Economy Report 2016/2017 estimates the size of the halal food and beverage market as of 2015 at about $1.2 trillion in fifty-seven Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) countries (110). This indicates that Islam is one of the fastest-growing religions (111). Consequently the rise of a global halal economy has inspired the development of new organizations to authenticate and certify the thousands of halal food products flooding today’s market (117). The number of halal certifiers has been increasing rapidly; in the early 1990s, there were only a handful, but by mid-2015 their number was estimated to be 150 (121).

In chapter 6, the authors explain that the standard defines halal food as food that does not contain “components or products of animals that are non-halal. There are two halal standards that define halal food as “food that is safe and not harmful” and that recommends the slaughter should take place while the slaughterer is facing the direction of Mecca.

Chapter 7 reveals the products manufactured by the things that are considered halal. What is very important is that Armanios and Ergene explain the definition of Istihala and Istihlak. Istihala derives from the Arabic root h-a-l or h-w-l, meaning “to change or be transformed.” It can be translated as the process by which one substance is fundamentally converted into a new one (166). Meanwhile in Arabic, Istihlak (root h-l-k) is often translated as “consumption” (168). To Muslims, all good foods (al-tayyibat) have been made [by Allah] lawful (whilla; from the same root as halal) (191). Through this concept, some Muslim organizations are using tayyib to promote ecological and environmental consciousness (196).

The last two chapters discuss the religious and cultural identity of halal foods. Media play a critical role. They reflect culinary discourse that outline not only a gastronomic repertoire but also a cuisine that embodies shared feelings of belonging, adaptation and integration, and one that subsumes ethno-national identities under the halal umbrella (228).

If we want to know about the history of halal food, this book is very complete. With 375 pages, this volume presents stories from pre-Islamic times to modern times. Armanios and Ergene also provide contemporary examples for their audience. This book is suitable for those who want to know the history of halal food.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Wisnu Adihartono is a Sociologist and Independent Researcher in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Date of Review: 
April 29, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Febe Armanios is Associate Professor of History at Middlebury College and the author of Coptic Christianity in Ottoman Egypt (OUP, 2011). 

Boğaç Ergene is Professor of History at the University of Vermont. He is the author of Local Court, Provincial Society and Justice in the Ottoman Empire and co-author of The Economics of Ottoman Justice.


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