“American Halal” is an online project funded by the College of Arts and Letters at Michigan State University in collaboration with the Muslim Studies Program, the Department of English (Salah D. Hassan) and the Department of Religious Studies (Mohammad Khalil). The goal of the project is to document the cultural history of halal food production and consumption in the US. The research and resources posted online focus on the meaning, religious and social significance of halal as a concept that guides Muslims’ dietary practices, especially in the United States. The website also documents the history of halal food production and distribution in the US Midwest and the emergence over the last 30 years of a full-fledged halal food industry with a regulatory body, inspection regimes and certification process. To illustrate the growth of halal food markets, the project will provide resources on producers and retailers of halal meats and also the growth of ethnically identified restaurants and mainstream restaurants chains that have developed a halal brand. Through original essays and the production of a video, the project also addresses various public debates on the presence of halal foods on the landscape of US food production and consumption.
Islam, like most other religions, has established dietary guidelines for its followers. For Muslims, these guidelines are laid out in a set of laws that decree what food is halal (permissible) and the conditions under which Muslims may deviate from a halal diet. It is well known that the Qur’an prohibits the consumption of wine and, as in Leviticus, the consumption of pork is prohibited to Muslims. Less well known is the fact that the Qur’an also prohibits the consumption of other meats that are considered unclean, unhealthy or unacceptable. Many Muslim scholars also interpret the Qur’an to be saying that the meat of animals not slaughtered in the name of God is similarly prohibited. Invoking both the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (in the hadith corpus), some religious scholars and authorities consider haram (forbidden) any meat taken from animals that were not slaughtered according to the Islamic legal principle of dhabihah (with a sharp knife, with complete blood drainage, etc.). Despite all this, the Qur’an explicitly permits Muslims to eat the food of the People of the Book (Jews and Christians).
Consider then the case of American Muslims seeking food and beverages that are halal, which is analogous to the Jewish principle of kosher. Not only are they instructed to avoid products that contain alcohol and pork, they must also grapple with the question of whether meat sold at most American markets and in most restaurants can qualify as halal. This situation has generated debate among Muslims in the US and others outside of the majority Muslim regions of the world who seek to adhere to their faith and at the same time often find it difficult to obtain halal food products, in the strictest sense of the term.
To meet the demands of the growing Muslim population worldwide, a national and international market for halal meat products has developed for which the United States is one of the central participants. In the current context of widespread hostility toward Islam and Muslims, the marketing of halal meat products has become another site of political contention, which pits not only bigoted Islamophobes against Muslims, but also has lead to criticism of Islam by animal rights activists. Whereas Islamophobes see the spread of halal markets in the US as yet another sign of the imposition of Sharia (Islamic law), animal rights groups claim that the ritual slaughter according to Islamic law is a form of animal cruelty.
The issues mentioned above underscore the way that dietary concerns and the marketing of halal meat to Muslims are linked to broader political and social issues in the US. But there are also some very specific questions connected to halal meat marketing that have been the cause of significant media stories associated for example with fraudulent halal meat labelling. These controversies can be tied more broadly to the way that food markets are ethnically identified, indicating the ever-increasing diversity of dietary practices in the US. Furthermore, Muslim American demand for halal meats can be linked to wider concern among US publics with diet and health and the quality and sources for meat. These are only some of the questions that are at stake in our proposed study of the cultural politics of halal food in the US.