Program summary by Christine Dzujna

According to the authors of Halal Food: A History (Oxford University Press, 2018), there is one constant in the history of the rules regarding what is halal (permitted) food and drink for the Islamic faithful, and that is that there are no constants. Halal criteria have been debated, adjusted and updated by Islamic jurists to respond to the evolving needs of the Islamic faithful in different parts of the world. 

Febe Armanios and Boğaç Ergene (both professors of history, she at Middlebury College and he at the University of Vermont) returned to this theme repeatedly in their presentation in which they demonstrated how halal rules have been understood, interpreted, and deliberated through history. Islam’s sacred book, the Quran, is the source of what is halal, meaning lawful or permissible and, conversely, what is haram, meaning forbidden. The debate about dietary permissibility arises because the Quran verses addressing halal and haram are often vague and limited in detail. Muslim leaders seeking clarification turned to the sayings (known as hadiths) from the prophet Muhammad to help clarify and develop the food rules.

Intoxicants are a prime example of how halal rules have been revisited by Islam’s leaders and reinterpreted to adapt to the needs of the time. While alcohol is seen as a destructive force on the mind, body, and spirit, alcohol is not expressly prohibited in the Quran; indeed, verses 16:65-67 of the Quran present alcohol as a gift from Allah. Yet the socially corrosive effects that intoxicants can have has caused many to conclude that any alcohol is haram. A problem nowadays involves products that contain low levels – often naturally occurring – of alcohol and has produced various interpretations on whether they are allowed. Some believe anything that intoxicates is impermissible. This would include pure vanilla extract and, presumably, nabidh, a drink of mashed dates left to ferment for three days that is said to have been enjoyed by the Prophet. Jurists on the other side of the debate object only to fermented grapes (i.e. wine) and products (like nabidh) that develop intoxicating qualities over time. Present-day deliberations center on products such as kombucha and soy sauce that contain trace amounts of alcohol.

The examination of halal dietary and slaughter rules inevitably calls Jewish practices to mind and there are both similarities and differences. Blood and swine are among the items prohibited by both, but cattle and other bovines are acceptable. Jewish laws, though, are more restrictive in the slaughter, preparation, and consumption of food. Whereas many orthodox Jews do not consider halal meat to be kosher, Muslims tend to accept all kosher meat products. In addition, while both sets of practices approach slaughter with the primary goal of demonstrating benevolence for the animal, kosher laws are very specific about who (i.e. a trained, observant male Jew) can conduct the killing, whereas Islam is much more liberal on this point and is the main reason halal meat is rejected by orthodox Jews.  

The event’s title was a recognition of the fact that halal food has unquestioningly become big business. In their travels around the world, both authors have seen an increase in the availability of halal products and halal eateries have proliferated, most notably in New York where the Halal Guys food trucks have become a popular fixture in the city, often generating long lines of hungry eaters down the block. 

While paying rapt attention to the engaging talk, the audience didn’t need to take sides in the intoxicant controversy and freely enjoyed the fine wine on offer at the event along with aylan, a drink made with Turkish yogurt blended with water, salt, and mint. Marinated lamb morsels from legs acquired at New Harlem Halal Meat were accompanied by creamy hummus, pita, and smoky baba ganoush, all foods that can be found at at some of the city’s halal food trucks. Sticky sweet baklava and crumbly pistachio cookies rounded out the offerings. The baklava came from Kalustyan’s, the Middle Eastern specialty storefounded in the 1940s that has been a staple on Lexington Avenue in what is now called “Curry Hill”. 

Armanios and Ergene demonstrated that many of the halal rules are a living, breathing code, not a static doctrine, and that they continue to evolve in response to modern challenges and technological and social developments. Perhaps even more revealing is their conclusion that the term halal has become evocative of a cuisine and has matured into a modern food success story.