Halal Food: A History, An Interview with the Authors

The Historical Cooking Project had the opportunity to speak with Febe Armanios and Boğaç Ergene about their new book, Halal Food: A History (2018). Armanios is an Associate Professor of History at Middlebury College and the author of Coptic Christianity in Ottoman Egypt (OUP, 2011). Ergene is a Professor of History at the University of Vermont and the author of Local Court, Provincial Society and Justice in the Ottoman Empire and co-author of The Economics of Ottoman Justice.


1. Your book covers the history of the different understandings of halal: socially, politically, culturally, and religiously. As you discuss in the book, both what is considered halal (legally permissible, lawful) and what is considered haram (forbidden) continues to be debated. How did this pose a challenge methodologically? Also for readers new to these concepts, can you briefly explain what halal and haram are and why they are debated?

As you note, halal points to what is lawful and permissible and haram to what is forbidden. These terms extend not just to food but also to clothing, finance, pharmaceuticals, and other sectors. Muslim food rules are first and foremost derived from the Quran. But the verses strictly dealing with these matters are relatively limited, and early Muslim jurists often turned to hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions) to more fully understand and develop varied food rules. As Islam expanded beyond the Arabian Peninsula, the encounter with new traditions and customs became reflected in the increased complexity of food rules. For instance, questions and debates about what sea creatures (e.g., crustaceans, mollusks) were edible, an issue that we discuss in the book, can be seen as part of the broader encounters with coastal and seafaring cultures. Interpretations of halal rules became quite responsive, in that sense, to the new reality of a multiethnic and multicultural Islamic empire.

Methodologically, one challenge was to present these legal complexities and variations to our readers in a more straightforward way. You’ll notice that we often relied on tables and maps to illustrate certain points. Some of these were inspired by or built upon the works of previous scholars, including Michael Cook, Mohammed Hocine Benkheira, and others. Another challenge was to explore the historical interpretations of certain rules but also to trace their elaboration at later periods. As we show, some of the most profound questions about ancient halal rules have emerged in the face of modern challenges, say in response to the industrialization of animal slaughter, manufactured food production, migration, and globalization. For this reason, we found that the best way to organize the book was—primarily—in a thematic fashion (e.g., “meat” or “intoxicants”), where in each chapter a discussion of historical questions is followed by an exploration of more recent challenges.

2. In your earlier work, both of you aren't particularly food historians/ food studies scholars. Why were you driven to write this book? How did you decide to collaborate on the text?

You’re right that our past work was not overtly tied to food studies. Febe’s previous research, however, focused on varied manifestations of religious practices in comparative contexts, especially within Christianity and Islam in the Middle East. For example, food came up in her first book on Coptic Christians in Ottoman Egypt, where she discussed how Coptic bishops and patriarchs led a temperance movement in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as a way to fend off criticisms against Christian public drunkenness, attacks that came from Muslim jurists and a growing number of European Catholic missionaries. So she’d been long fascinated with the idea of how food rules can demarcate and solidify one’s identity in a multireligious setting.

But more directly, back in 2013, Febe began teaching a new course at Middlebury College titled “Food in the Middle East: History, Culture, and Identity.” She had noticed a dearth of clear and accessible writings on the origins and historical manifestations of halal food and began to explore this topic. Bogac is an expert in Islamic law and legal practice, as well as economic and quantitative history, and the project demanded his expertise. He also has teaching interests on relevant themes and has taught a class at the University of Vermont titled “Animals and Islam,” and he provided new ideas from that experience. So we came to the project from different but complementary perspectives: food and animal studies, as well as comparative religious practices, on the one hand, and Islamic legal practice, political economy, and economic history, on the other. With a nudge from Susan Ferber, Executive Editor of American and World History at Oxford University Press, the collaboration materialized into its current form.

3. I'm interested in your choice of title. As you lay out in your introduction and in chapter 4, halal is not just about food. Why did you decide to make the title Halal Food: A History? Was aligning yourselves within food history and food studies an intentional choice. If so, why or why not?

It is more about where our scholarly interests lie. For a few years now, we’ve both been interested in food and animal studies as a pedagogical tool for teaching about the Middle East and Islam. At the same time, because we are both historians, we try to understand topics and issues in a particular fashion: that is, in their contexts and with an eye for how they change. So the book’s title makes sense considering the roots of the project, our own expertise, and the book’s predominant methodological approach.

4. Sprinkled throughout the text are a few recipes of halal dishes. Why did you decide to include recipes? How did you decide what sections would include recipes?

Recipes offer historians a trove of information and details that often cannot be captured from other sources. In the context of Islam and the Middle East, several scholars have shown us the usefulness and richness of these sources: Paulina Lewicka, Nawal Nasrallah, Charles Perry, Maxime Rodinson, Ozge Samanci, and Lilia Zaouali, among others. We consulted several cookbooks in our work but decided to use just a few recipes whenever they illuminated our analysis particularly well. For instance, in our discussion of meat consumption in early Islam, we point to well-cited hadiths, which report that the Prophet’s favorite meal was tharid. This is a humble meal made of dried bread soaked in meat broth with a bit of meat on top (similar to fatta in some modern Middle Eastern cuisines). We wanted to offer our readers a glimpse of how that dish might have been prepared in the past, so we included a recipe from Nawal Nasrallah’s translation of a tenth-century cookbook by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq. Other recipes are used in similarly illustrative ways: to give readers a more tangible sense of certain food rules or to highlight a particular culinary interpretation.

5. For many non-Muslims, there is a misconception that halal refers specifically to the practice of slaughter. Why do you think this misconception exists and is it a harmful misconception?

Ancient debates about halal food frequently centered on slaughter, so it’s understandable that some people conflate halal food rules and slaughter. Islamic slaughter rules offer details about the slaughterer’s identity, the sharpness of the blade to be used for killing the animal, the respect for the animal’s welfare before and during the process of slaughter, and the utterance of certain prayers during the slaughter ritual, among several other requirements. For Muslims, following specific procedures for animal slaughter is critical if the meat is to be considered halal and fit for consumption. Our book discusses these details and also explores how technologies in the industrial meat production sector, like pre-slaughter stunning or electrocution, have been debated among modern religious jurists, government officials, and industry leaders. But one could also argue that halal food rules have been focused as much on intoxicants as on animal slaughter. When one thinks of halal food rules, for instance, coffee and tobacco—which were initially considered “intoxicants”—may not immediately come to mind. And yet even though coffee was not introduced to the Islamic Middle East until the late fifteenth/early sixteenth century and tobacco did not arrive until the late sixteenth/early seventeenth century, the process by which these items were debated and the rules surrounding their consumption are as old as those that produced slaughter rules. One contribution of our book, then, is to show readers the parallels and divergences in the development of different food rules and practices.

6. Much of the last third of the text is dedicated to halal certification agencies, the rise of halal in corporate food production, and new understandings of halal cuisine. In chapter 8, you write that "for some Muslims today, even the most jurisprudentially correct or complete halal label is an inadequate indicator of food quality and best dietary practices" (190). Besides the nutritional quality of the food, you also discuss the debates around how food production affects the environment and how the Quranic concept of tayyib relates "in matters of environmental stewardship, animal welfare, food ethics, and healthy living" (190). In the book you seem to present many of the varying opinions around halal, but do you think the Muslim world is moving more towards the “tayyib is halal and halal is tayyib” idea or other Quranic interpretations?

The Quran is clear in instructing believers to eat what is both halal and tayyib (which can translate into “good” or “wholesome”). Today some Muslims, especially in diasporic settings, have taken this Quranic mandate and translated it into healthy or ethical eating practices. The latter is something that preoccupies more and more people throughout the world as meat consumption has risen and meat derived from industrialized slaughter practices has become more prevalent. Animal rights advocates, in general, are demanding better treatment of farm animals, more humane slaughter practices, and, in some cases, the end of meat consumption. People from all cultural and religious backgrounds have found common grounds with these ethical ideals. There have been animal rights movements embedded in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and other religious traditions. For Muslims trying to inspire reform on these questions, the concept of tayyib as derived from the Quran, along with various hadiths instructing believers to show kindness and mercy to animals, offer support for more ethical treatment of animals and possibly (although this stance is contentious) for a vegan lifestyle. Other Muslims have promoted the consumption of organic food as tayyib, primarily for health reasons but also on ethical grounds. This idea that tayyib-halal food signifies healthy eating and that believers therefore ought to seek out organic halal food, free of toxic chemicals or artificial ingredients, looks to be steadily gaining strength. Market indicators show that the organic-halal sector will become more popular and profitable in the coming years.

7. I am interested in the role of science and how it is used "in the service of religion" (256). You discuss how the development of certain technologies that prove a beverage has 0.0% APV reassures consumers that the drink is truly non-alcoholic and thus could be halal. How have other technologies called into question whether or not a substance is halal. Science also seems to play a complicated role concerning highly processed foods as consumers might not be able to know all of the ingredients in the food they are buying. How does science lead to more regulation and how does it affect the power relationship between consumers, religious leaders, and governmental officials? Does the power of authority shift from religious leaders or government officials to scientists?

There are varied technologies to ensure that traces of haram ingredients are either absent or quite minimally present, especially in manufactured food products. Aside from measuring APV in a particular beverage, the detection of DNA fragments has also been used to make sure that food products are free of pig residues. The examination of food additives and preservatives in commercially manufactured foods, using various methods of detection and regulation, reflects another way in which science might be used to assuage concern over halal status. Some food additives are less obvious culprits: for instance, L-cysteine is an amino acid derived from human hair but also from bird feathers. It is often added to commercially produced breads and baked goods to prolong their shelf life, and if it is made from human hair, it is generally considered haram. The origins of L-cysteine can be difficult to determine, however, so for now jurists and halal regulators usually recommend abstinence. With a growing global reliance on prepackaged convenience foods, this need to verify each ingredient, to detect/assess haram substances, and to proclaim a food’s edible status has led to a greater reliance on food experts, halal certification agencies, and government officials. Scientists in certain countries, too, have developed innovative methods and technologies to support increased regulations and enforcement. In most cases, they work in tandem with religious leaders and government officials. Conversely, one could argue that calls for eating more organic and less adulterated foods represent, in part, a growing consumer response to commercialization, scientification, and bureaucratization of the halal food industry. For example, organic-conscious consumers might advise buying bread from a neighborhood baker who uses more familiar ingredients rather than choosing commercially packaged bread in a local supermarket.

The scientification of halal is a consequence of advances in modern food production, packaging, and transportation industries. The phrase refers to the use of advanced scientific techniques to produce halal food items and the development of sensitive technologies to detect non-halal ingredients that might have been inadvertently used in food production. It can be an expensive endeavor, and it pushes halal-mindedness beyond anything that an individual Muslim could manage on her own or even with the help of a local imam. She now needs the help of other actors who possess the means to establish laboratories, the bureaucratic apparatus to prepare necessary regulations, and the legal system to enforce the latter. Hence it is not a coincidence that Muslim governments’ role in halal matters has become increasingly visible, which is in line with their increased role in the religious lives of their citizens since the mid-twentieth century.

8. In some ways, the narrative of your book seems to be that while understandings of halal have changed over time, globalization, scientification, capitalism, and the changing political situations of Islamic nations have rendered the meaning of "halal" even more complicated. Something I didn't see discussed in the book that much, but perhaps you can speak about now, is the role of gender. As is the case in many cultures, women do the majority of food preparation in domestic spaces. How have changing meanings of halal food impacted women differently?

As with Judaism and Christianity, Islam’s core food rules were derived through a male-led interpretative process of sacred and religious texts. So in discussing these rules, one turns to that juristic tradition that shaped legal life in early Islamic history and up till the present. Having said that, a discussion of women and gender does arise in various parts of the book. For instance, we reflect on how jurists viewed the role of women in religious slaughter practices. We also argue that in many ways women have been at the forefront of popularizing “halal cuisine” over the last two decades. Muslim women have written popular blogs about halal food preparation, published cookbooks, appeared in halal cooking videos, reviewed halal products and restaurants, and garnered millions of followers on Facebook, Instagram, and other social media outlets. These patterns are emerging more clearly in diaspora contexts, where demand for this guidance can be quite high and women are finding creative ways to show their expertise in food preparation and pious living. Incidentally, this phenomenon isn’t just linked to halal food: you can find similar trends among women entrepreneurs in the halal fashion and cosmetics industry, although our book focuses solely on food trends.

9. What do you want the take away for readers to be? Is it to understand that halal interpretation is something that changes over time and that food rules in Islam are not static (75, 105, and 125)? If so, why is that important to explain?

As historians, we are quite drawn to the concept of dynamism in religious practice. Questions of context, sociopolitical and cultural transformations, geographic differences, and interpretive variations lead us to consider how people approached and reinterpreted religious rules—in this case, food rules—throughout different periods and as a result of varied economic and/or cultural changes. When we started this project, we noticed that several scholarly works that dealt with halal food presented core rules as constant and unchanging. Our book shows that while there have been several interpretive continuities from early Islamic times until the present, Muslims today are striving to reexamine ancient texts and classical juristic interpretations in order to deal with modern challenges. To have a better understanding of halal’s complex historical meanings, we believe it is important to keep these finer details in mind.

10. Any future food history projects upcoming?

FA: I’m working on an article that examines the history of food practices among Egypt’s Coptic Christians during the Ottoman period (ca. 1517-1798). In that project, I look at how Christian minorities negotiated certain taboos against the pig or alcohol in a dominant Islamic culture: this picks up on some of my earlier work on Coptic temperance movements, in a sense, but also delves into the topic with more depth. My hope is to parlay this type of research into a book about the history of Christian food practices in the Middle East. This would be a hybrid food history-cookbook project where I can bring together historical traditions and perhaps more contemporary recipes drawn from different Christian communities—such as the Copts, Maronites, Syriac Christians, Chaldeans, Greek Orthodox, Armenians—particularly as practiced during times of religiously sanctioned fasting (e.g., Advent or Lent).