King's Evangelical Divinity School

27 June 2012

Is Halal Meat the Same as Food Offered to Idols?

Back in 2010 the Daily Mail reported on how the UK's main supermarket chains were selling unlabelled Halal (Islamic ritually slaughtered) meat to their customers. I only cursorily read the article and gave it little thought at the time, though noted it seemed part of a creeping trend. For example, there have been various reports of local councils only serving Halal meat for school and hospital meals.

But this week I began to realise this issue is much more than a few isolated cases, so that billions of pounds of Halal meat is sold each year to unknowing customers across the land. Apparently, the vast bulk of lamb imported from New Zealand is Halal certified, while it seems Tesco, Waitrose and Sainsbury's admitted to the Daily Mail that they sold unlabelled Halal meat. Asda declined to comment. One Muslim commentator writing in the New Statesman bemoans the furore against Halal meat as another example of "Islamophobia". Importantly, though, his article highlights how Halal meat accounts for £3 billion of the UK's meat industry, with demand far exceeding supply.

Yesterday a Barnabas Fund tweet provided details of how MPs recently voted on whether or not to make it a legal requirement for all Halal meat to be labelled. (The proposed legislation was narrowly rejected.) My butcher confirmed that vast quantities of meat sold in this country, whether through supermarkets or local butchers, is Halal but not packaged as such. The chances are you have eaten Halal meat without knowing it.

For readers in America, if you think this doesn't apply to you, you're mistaken. Most Easter lamb sold in the US this year was Halal, while all lamb served at Outback steakhouses is also apparently Halal. So this is not some scare story in a tabloid newspaper, but rather one which has attracted considerable concern, even reaching Parliament.

Why Does It Matter?

It's essential to look at this issue carefully and recognise the necessity for nuance. For some the issue is all about animal welfare and whether Halal slaughter causes more distress than necessary for the animal. For others, without a doubt, the Halal issue, which is based on Sharia, represents a useful means of furthering a strongly anti-Islamic political agenda. But on the other hand, to seek to silence debate on the ethics of selling unlabelled Halal meat on the basis that raising such questions is driven by narrow xenophobia won't do either. Many everyday British people genuinely fear encroaching Islamisation, while others are indignant that the rights and wellbeing of under 4% of the population take precedence over the views and conscience of the majority, many of whom have no desire to eat Islamic ritually slaughtered meat.

For my part, I believe there is an element of encroaching Islamisation in the UK and Western society as a whole. That is not to say all Muslims want it (or even care), but some clearly do. Yet secular elites and business must also shoulder considerable blame for the perception of creeping Islamisation. Some secular elites, particularly at the local authority level, exploit pluralism and multiculturalism in a bid to emasculate Christianity, for which they have no respect whatsoever. In short, I am not convinced some of the zealots in local councils who "ban Christmas" or coerce all schoolchildren to eat Halal meat are really motivated by ensuring one section of the population is not offended. At least, doing so by offending a far larger part of the population seems a funny way to go about it, and I would suggest such directives represent cynical actions by an anti-Christian secular elite.

Meanwhile big business is as much to blame as encroaching Islamisation. As my butcher explained, why have two slaughter processes that each cost money? Why not simply make all slaughter Halal then package each differently. The way to deal with business, of course, is as old as the hills, namely, to ask them outright if their meat is Halal and then respond with your wallet. Nothing will make supermarket chains sit up and listen more than reports from across the land of people refusing to buy meat until it is properly labelled. Sadly, Christianity attracts little respect from society, as one Christian woman found out when she complained to Tesco that she had been sold unlabelled Halal meat. The Tesco store was dismissive of her complaint, until, that is, she said they wouldn't treat a Muslim that way and threatened action.

A New Testament Issue Revisited

Nationalism, encroaching Islamisation and animal welfare issues aside, there is one important reason why unlabelled Halal meat is important to Christians, namely, there are several New Testament passages which deal directly with food offered to idols.

For meat to be Halal it must be slaughtered according to rules of Sharia by a Muslim. The animal faces Qibla (towards the Kaaba in Mecca), and during the ritual slaughter the Shahada, or Muslim creed ("There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his messenger") is recited over the animal. Further details can be found on the Halal Food Authority website. Halal slaughtered meat, then, represents a key aspect of Islam, in a ritual which invokes the name of Allah and Mohammed as his prophet. Halal is central to the Islamic faith, as evidenced by the recitation of the Shahada, one of the five pillars of Islam (a creed denies the divinity of Christ).

Following the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, that which was offered to idols was prohibited by James in his quadrilateral. Yet in 1 Corinthians 8 the apostle Paul makes the point that idols (or rather the gods behind them) don't really exist. There is only the One, True God, so he advises his readers that this is really an issue of conscience, though for those who formally served idols and false gods the eating of meat offered to idols can be a stumbling block, which in such cases must be avoided.

On the surface Paul seems to be contradicting James' decree. But Paul isn't finished. In 1 Corinthians 10:14-30 he makes it clear that believers should have nothing to do with idolatry, and that food offered to idols is actually food offered to demons, going on to state, "I do not want you to be participants with demons" (v 20). Paul then goes on to instruct his readers that, for conscience sake, not to ask if food has been offered to idols. In verse 25 he says, "Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any questions on the ground of conscience". And here, it seems, is what Paul is getting at in 1 Corinthians 8. In a society where food production and butchery were closely associated with temple worship and pagan rituals Paul seems to be saying, "Food offered to idols is unavoidable, and it's just food after all, and not harmful to eat, but avoid eating it if it causes your brother to stumble. Otherwise for the sake of conscience don't ask where it came from". Thus speaks Paul the pragmatist. But he goes on, "But if someone says to you, 'This has been offered in sacrifice', then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of [his] conscience" (v 29). I guess, by telling you how Halal meat is slaughtered, I've wrecked it for all readers... sorry! ;)

Finally, the book of Revelation also has something to say about food offered to idols, where the church at Thyatira is rebuked for tolerating those who seduce God's servant to eat food sacrificed to idols.

So Where Does This Leave Believers Today on the Issue of Halal?

I think it is ironic that something regarded by Western society as largely anachronistic has actually become an issue that has even made it to our Parliament in the 21st century. Even more ironic is how, despite many being so dismissive of Christianity and particularly the Bible as out-of-date and irrelevant in today's society, we see how the apostle Paul, writing some two thousand years ago, provides specific advice on how to deal with an issue which many Christians are precisely grappling with today.

It is clear that, as far as the Bible is concerned, how we get our food is relevant to believers. The key issue is to read and understand Paul and the other biblical passages on this matter, with Paul making clear it represents an issue of conscience, that is, an issue upon which all believers should dwell upon and reach their own conclusions as individuals.

Some will argue that food offered to idols is not the same as food slaughtered to Allah, after all, "We're all monotheists serving the same god". I reject this argument just as much as the committed Muslim will do. I doubt Muslims believes their god is quite the same as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Israel. Besides, the recitation of the Shahada directly challenges and denies the person and work of Jesus Christ. So leaving aside what some might regard as the pejorative language invoking idolatry, Muslims and Christians do not serve the same God or share the same belief systems. Quite the opposite (whatever some would try and have us believe), and thus Paul's instruction concerning food offered to a rival deity is directly relevant here.

Other believers will not be bothered in the slightest about eating Halal meat. The slaughterman might be a Satanist for all they know, or care (though I would suggest the recitation of the Shahada over the meat you eat is not to be taken lightly), thus Paul says, "Don't ask". Yet others will, on principle, refuse to eat Halal meat not so much because their conscience is bothered by eating Islamic slaughtered meat, but rather because they don't see why Christians (or any other non-Muslim faith, for that matter) should be coerced into doing something society would never dream of expecting from Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus or others.

Or perhaps they simply don't believe large supermarket chains should get away with not labelling meat properly to expand their profit margins, even if this means not respecting the views of Christians. It works both ways.

Meat should be properly labelled. The supermarkets have sought to avoid the problem and claim it is a government issue. But there is nothing to stop supermarkets labelling their meat Halal now, regardless of if there is no legislation that says they must. 

6 comments:

Andrew Sibley said...

OK Calvin - I am going to be a little bit provocative, and it relates to Christian legalism vs antinomianism. Sharia law might be seen as an attempt by Muslims to live according to the Mosaic Law, which has some things to say about how meat is killed. How should Christians respond in being concerned to eat meat killed according to the Mosaic Law? Not that we are under the law, but that we are not a lawless people either. Personally, I don't see how killing animals by stunning them first violates the Mosaic Law - neither should it violate Sharia law. It has more to do with Islamic tradition that ought to be challenged. What surprises me is why the RSPCA doesn't do more to challenge it (they have huge funds to persecute ordinary people who over feeding their dogs for instance).

An area which is perhaps more important is usary - why do Christians allow banks to charge interest, and why do Christians rely so much on bank interest instead of investing in the stock market where dividends are earned from human labour? There is also the question of the jubilee and debt forgivness. Acceptance of bank interest places us in bondage to the Babylonian system - the ultimate Ponsi scheme where we can never repay the debt in full because our obligation always exceeds the money in supply.

So perhaps an encroaching Sharia Law might encourage Christians to reevaluate how we ought to live in light of the Mosaic Law. Not as legalists, but neither as a lawless people who do as we please.

Philip said...

I agree with you about labeling.

However, I'm very surprised you don't mention Romans 14 which, to my mind, says that you can eat whatever you want. It's an issue of the weak / strong believer dynamic. While Paul is sensitive to the weak believer's views, he is nevertheless very clear about the rights and wrongs of the matter.

Calvin L. Smith said...

Hi Philip, I simply focused on where Paul specifically details food offered to idols. There are other passages about eating I could also have referred to.

BTW the issue of liberty of conscience (Ro 14) is outlined also in 1 Cor 8, 10.

David Williams said...

Hi Calvin,

I trust that you are well. I would just like to pick up on Andrew’s comment about finance, particularly that regarding Christians relying upon bank interest v stock market investment. It seems to me that for most savers [Christian of otherwise] any investment strategy should not be pursued via an either/or approach but via a combination of both. I worked as a financial advisor for one of the major UK banks for several years and one of the major principles we were required to adhere to, prior to consideration of Unit Trusts, OEICs, bonds etc was to ensure that customers had sufficient emergency funds whereby they retain a figure of a minimum of £5,000 on deposit to mitigate any unforeseen requirement for cash. A roof blows off a house, an engine drops out of a car; this type of event requires an instant response. Money tied in stock market investments, should for most people generally be viewed as a medium to long term [5 years +] investment and whilst funds from sale of shares may be accessed relatively quickly the potential for capital loss is significant. Should a particular stock have a low price at the wrong moment then generally speaking it is advisable not to sell [unless it is perhaps perceived that the downward trend in price will continue]. Direct stock market investment or even collective investments are not for everybody. The potential rewards are great of course but likewise are the potential for losses, if one does not know how to trade effectively. There are of course many other significant advantages of retaining cash on deposit [eg. taxation treatment of interest and dividend payments] which don’t require elaboration here. One further point however is that any customer with cash deposits within the UK banking system can request that no interest be payable upon their savings, a point which I am sure Andrew will approve of in his efforts to avoid bondage to Babylonian systems of finance. I recall a number of such situations in my banking career, one example of which brings me to a further point, more consistent with the topic of your post.

David Williams said...

In early 2002 I had a Muslim customer who ran a reasonably successful restaurant business in Cardiff. This man refused to accept interest upon the capital held within any of his accounts, a principle which he stated was consistent with sharia law on finance. Of course the bank complied with his request and the internal procedure was relatively simple to implement. Eventually however he wished to raise some borrowings to expand his business, and as he was a valued customer both myself and the business lending manager met with him to discuss. The chief stumbling block in our negotiations was that this man refused to pay any interest on his proposed borrowings. The case was referred to senior managers and a compromise was found. He would repay the capital on a monthly basis and the bank would charge him a fee equivalent to the interest. It was quite an involved process internally, involving a situation where the proportion of capital he repaid increased on a monthly basis whilst the fee charged decreased accordingly in a manner which mimicked a traditional loan plus interest type arrangement. It struck me how willing the bank was to accommodate his requirements, yet it appeared that this was out of a business motive rather than any sensitivity to his religious requirements. Several months later [and not directly related to this case] the bank launched a series of ‘sharia compliant’ financial products [which are perhaps the financial equivalent of the halal meat principle]. In the Cardiff area this was promoted by two specially appointed and trained managers, both of whom were excellent at their jobs but were amongst the campest of homosexuals you are likely to meet. These individuals were tasked with contacting and visiting any businesses or high-net worth customers to discuss the bank’s sharia products. The general ignorance of Islam, Muslims and sharia was very apparent at that time and of course the potential for conflict was obvious [to me at least!!]. I recall drawing my manager’s attention to Muslim views on homosexuality; however my comments were largely ignored. I mention this example as it seems to me that the encroaching Islamisation that you referred to and which does indeed seem to be quite apparent, would render such corporate cultural insensitivity very unlikely today, only 10 years later.

Anyway I am off to buy a kebab now and promise not to ask how the meat was prepared!!!!!

Andrew Sibley said...

David - the risk of owning shares directly is overrated if you manage a portfolio carefully - i.e. look for good management, good business model, positive cash flow, buy at good value, long term growth etc. Holding 20 stocks in a portfolio will minimise risk. If 1 out of your 20 stock halves suddenly, you only lose 2.5% overall - remember shares can also surprise on the upside too. It is worth holding a sum in cash for emergencies, but not for the interest. Share holdings can also mitigate the inflation risk that you will face with a long term cash savings account because companies put up prices with inflation, and pay dividends accordingly. Personally, I would avoid any managed bank fund which has high annual charges because that will eat into your long term return - the banks have been stinging people's endowment and pension pots for years.

There is a lot of hidden sense in the Law of Moses - all advice is free.