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Halal in Everyday Life: Learn from Muslims

Yukari Sai
Assistant Professor, Waseda Institute for Advanced Study

What is Halal?

Recently, we have begun to hear and see the word halal all around us. Halal means things and actions permitted or lawful in Islam law (Shariah). The opposite term of halal is haram (forbidden). Well-known forbidden acts are eating pork, and drinking intoxicant materials. Halal is a set of guidelines not only for food but also for conduct, speech and overall behavior. Some people explain it as a way of life or world view. Halal for some people means daily life, something so ordinary that they are not conscious of it, while some people may consider it a way to better living, which guides you to the afterlife with a sense of hope.

Halal and Halal Certification

In Japan, however, the word halal has spread with the proliferation of halal certification. This seems to have caused several misunderstandings. Examples of misunderstandings are that “halal items are exclusive to Muslim” and that “Muslims cannot eat foods that are not halal certified.”

The connotation of “For Muslims” is “selectable for Muslims” and “exclusive to Muslim.” One restaurant began serving a course menu for Muslims using halal beef. When we visited the restaurant we were informed that halal beef is secured for Muslims and it is not served to non-Muslim guests. Although I am not a business person, I was concerned about the cost of purchasing and the maintaining the ingredients’ freshness.

Halal certification is issued to items, manufacturer, or establishments after confirming that the specific items or services fulfil the requirements within certain standards through document screening and a site audit. When certified, a halal logo of the halal certification body can be attached to the products or sign board. It is characterized as third-party certification rather than self-declaration by manufacturers or service providers.

MANUKA Honey on sale at supermarkets in Tokyo. It is halal certified by an halal certification body in New Zealand (Tokyo, June 2016)

New products with halal as added value are displayed and sold at a trade and consumer expo which focus on halal and domestic SMEs (Malaysia, August 2016)

Wide range of personal choices

There is a rich and local of non-pork foods throughout the world. Halal certification is attached to only a part of halal food. There are broader choices and food. How do they avoid eating prohibited foods? There is a wide range of personal choices. For example, some may remove prohibited food and eating other foods, the other may not care about using alcohol when cooking because alcohol evaporates. Some may avoid pork and alcohol, the other may avoid anything containing pork or alcohol and its derivatives, also avoid items in contact with pork or alcohol.

You may think what I’m saying is obvious, but the fact is that most Japanese lack the awareness that there is a range of individual judgment.

Home dinner with grilled fish, chicken curry, sauteed vegetables, dried sardines and onion sambal, rendang boiled down with beef, spice and coconut milk (Malaysia, September 2016)

Five Categories for Conducts in Everyday Life

I find that a general idea about Islam in the Japanese context affects this kind of understanding. When I teach at universities and give public lectures, there are many people who think that there are only the obligatory and forbidden in Islam. On the contrary, there are the recommended, the permitted and the disliked/abominable between the obligatory and forbidden acts. Totaling five categories for activities positioned in a seamless gradation. However, translating and putting them into Kanji seem to emphasize the absolute and mandatory, so I translate these in my classes as “better to do than not,” “neutral,” and “better not to do and it is not subject to punishment but who abstains from it will be rewarded.” Most of the activities in daily life fall into the category of “neutral” and people live freely and happily, enjoying delicious food. They find it sometimes a little difficult to do, however, it is the same with our daily lives.

Providing Information for Personal Choice

When traveling overseas or when you have difficulty reading and speaking the local language, the halal certification may be one of guide for decision-making. On the other hand, there is also the opinion that the halal certification system is incompatible with Islam. Some people are skeptical about halal certification system because it is the right of God alone to determine what is halal and haram, and besides, the appropriateness of making money from certification.

Whichever may be the case, each person decides what they can eat. This is akin to the basic principle of Islam that each person faces God, and that no one mediates between a person and God.

Information is required to make decisions. It is important to provide information on food and ingredients, respond sincerely when asked and to have users make their own decision through communication. In order to do so, we need to know what ingredients are used. Concern about what we eat is not something special. It is common among individuals who with food allergies and vegetarians, and who care about health or wellbeing as well.

Menu that includes food and ingredient information in the design (Taiwan, June 2016)

Halal in Everyday Life

I had an opportunity to talk with female Muslim researchers from Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia about halal.

“Halal indicates something more than purity. It is real life. It’s not halal if you use money saved illegally to purchase halal food then give to the poor. It’s the same with cosmetics. If you use halal cosmetics to attract men other than your husband, can you say that it’s halal?”

Here she brings up the importance of procurement and intention. You can see from her words that being halal and being halal certified have different meanings.

Yukari Sai
Assistant Professor, Waseda Institute for Advanced Study

Yukari Sai is an Assistant Professor at the Waseda Institute for Advanced Study and a doctor of literature. She completed her doctoral degree at the Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University. She was appointed to her current post after having served as a research associate and later as an adjunct researcher at the Organization for Islam Area Studies of Waseda University. Her fields of expertise are cultural anthropology and food culture. Her research focuses upon social interactions through the food and eating practices in Asia. Her recent works include Shokutaku kara Nozoku Chukasekai to Isuram (Chinese and Islam culture on the table: Fieldnotes of food and eating in Fujian, China) and “Muslim food consumption in China.” In Halal Matters: Islam, Politics and Markets in Global Perspective (Chapter10).