Tayob Shaheed engages halal practices in Muslim South Africans as being part of the Islamic discursive tradition (1). He maintains that the halal practices of believers cannot be ignored if researchers intend to come to terms with the lived experience of Muslims. Indeed this practice is basic to most Muslims, which becomes evident in Shaheed’s analysis of South Africa’s halal industry and the industry’s global proliferation across various Western, non-Muslim countries.
A Growing Industry Produces New Challenges
The growth of the halal industry has been aided by the ever-increasing sophistication of production technologies and ever-expanding global supply chains. Increased sophistication has allowed The World Halal Council to employ teams of food technologists and biochemists to regulate new forms of halal. Also benefiting this industry are Muslim citizens in majority non-Muslim countries providing a demand for halal foods. It is not uncommon, explains Shaheed, for “consumers to have the option of purchasing halal-certified lamb chops produced in Australia, and Muslim pilgrims in Mecca regularly consume halal-certified Brazilian chicken at the famous Al Baik fast food outlet” (2).
With rapid growth there emerges unprecedented challenges for Halal consumption and practice. In particular, these challenges involve global supply chains and molecular concerns over halal certification. Halal certification is an essential service to the halal industry as it standardizes halal consumption across the globe through regulating the production, storing, and transportation of halal food items. As part of the discursive tradition, halal certification has become an area of contestation and negotiation requiring the use of logical reasoning within the boundaries of the Islamic tradition. It has come to concern the sensibilities of Muslims, their daily practices, and, ultimately, their obedience and submission to God. The growth of this industry has produced various views and practices on halal consumption that vary by region, sectarian affiliation, and local market demand. Different halal organizations responsible for overseeing this process do not necessarily accept each other’s views, while their disagreements are often based upon technicalities.
Halal Certification in South Africa
South Africa’s halal industry emerged in 1958 with the goal of ensuring all meat supplied by butchers was appropriate for Muslim consumption (3). The industry expanded locally post the fall of apartheid when Muslims from previously disadvantaged backgrounds became more confident in displaying their religious identity publicly. Several organizations have come to compete in this marketplace: the South African National Health Authority (SANHA), The Muslim Judicial Council (MJC), the Islamic Council of South Africa (ICSA), and the National Independent Halal Trust (NIHT); of these, SANHA is the largest and finds most of its support within Muslims of Indian-origin in the north of the country. These halal certification organizations all go to great lengths to ensure the quality of halal food. Some will send representatives to production facilities overseas in order to verify the slaughter methods, that halal certification is in place, and that no unsuitable products are present on the premises. These organizations also struggle as they cannot compete with the pricing of non-Muslim importers because they lack the capacity to establish large importing operations. Although there are similarities between these organizations, such as in each wanting to produce revenue from halal certification and to live faithfully according to the Islamic tradition, there are also differences in their approaches which produce an arena of contestation, competition, and constant negotiation.
Contestation and Competition
Contestation occurs between these organizations in two major areas:  the use of gelatin and  cross-contamination (4). The first hinges on the use of gelatin from non-halal animals; the second constitutes worries over cross-contamination from non-halal food items to halal foods, rendering the latter impermissible.
Gelatin is a colourless, jelly-like substance and protein produced by boiling skin, bones, and connective tissue of animals. It has a wide range of uses and can be used in medicine, capsules, for flavour enhancement, salt replacement, and so on. Here the concern for halal certification organizations is over the enzymes, colourants, and flavourings from non-halal sources that could potentially contaminate halal products. Contamination causes otherwise seemingly harmless foods impermissible or haram. This first became an issue for local Muslims in the 1980s when they realized the gelatin used in household margarine was in fact manufactured from non-halal slaughtered animals. It is still evident today that no gelatin manufacturers in the country use solely halal slaughtered animals, which has led SANHA to approach facilities in Pakistan. The groups encourage South African producers to use imported gelatin rather than its locally produced product. Nonetheless, a major issue for these groups concerns metamorphosis in the production of gelatin, namely the transformation of skin, bones, and tissue into the jelly-like substance. MJC, ICSA, and NIHT all take issue with metamorphosis, although SANHA does not. According to SANHA, rather than metamorphosis taking place, the molecular composition of gelatin is collagen and it is this same collagen that is present in the skins and hides of the animals before they are processed into gelatin. Thus, rather than a process of metamorphosis taking place, there is rather a process of molecular continuity. No metamorphosis takes place in the conversion and although SANHA’s position has been heavily criticized, it is a very popular one. The group eventually overtook MJC as the country’s largest halal certification organization.
The second major area of contestation, which is now also a central question to the global halal certificate industry, is over the concerns of cross-contamination (5). Generally speaking, cross-contamination refers to the transference of harmful bacteria to foods from other foods, or from cutting boards, utensils, hands, etc. Of course, preventing cross-contamination has health benefits, such as the avoidance of foodborne illnesses. However, the halal certification industry is not concerned primarily with matters of health but rather with purity. It is a matter of the purity of foods that Muslims consume and the food coming into contact with non-halal items in the process of transportation, storage, preparation, and retailing. These organizations wish to ensure that fat and blood from non-halal items do not mix with halal products. According to MJC, no haram items are to be stored or transported alongside halal items. SANHA is also concerned with transportation methods as South African delivery services often courier halal and non-halal meat items together. There is distress over objects such as meat hooks used to store the meat, yet are probably not without non-halal meat, blood, and fat residue on them from non-halal sources. On some matters, SANHA and NIHT disagree with the MJC position. Unlike the MJC, the former two organizations don’t certify meat imports even if they are stored at subzero temperatures. The SANHA and the NIHT are concerned that power shortages in South Africa will threaten the products’ purity in cold storage, as this could lead to cross-contamination and rendering the food items haram. Supposedly the contamination would result from haram substances in the storage melting and spilling over on to halal foods.
Halal Certification as Part of the Discursive Tradition
Shaheed’s study of these organizations is an analysis typical of the discursive tradition theorized by anthropologist Talal Asad. The discursive tradition was conceptualized as a broad and inclusive anthropological tool of analysis for studying religious communities. It ultimately derives from Asad’s discontent with supposedly narrow Western models and theories accounting for Muslim societies in the Middle East. As I have summarized elsewhere, the discursive tradition attempts to treat several areas with primacy: texts (foundational and/or other), actors (who speak, think, use language, and texts), dramas, processes of reasoning used to produce knowledge and solve practical issues, and power relations that influence knowledge production.
In the case of the halal certification organizations, contestation occurs between different notions and views of ideal halal standardization. This encourages logical thinking to discover solutions to practical issues Muslims face, which, in this specific case, is the problem of consuming impermissible food items that have been contaminated by other non-halal sources. This thinking as the origin of disagreement facilitates an arena of contestation and debate, such, as we have seen, between the various organizations: MJC and NIHT debate on the viability of cold storage; there is also contestation between whether or not metamorphosis in gelatin production renders halal products impermissible. Furthermore, actors are involved throughout this drama. These range from the owners of the halal certification organizations, their employees, the representatives of the company, religious individuals who theorize concerning Islamic jurisprudence, and the ordinary Muslim consumers who purchase food products to feed their families. Although Shaheed makes no mention of foundational texts, it is safe to assume that Muslims don’t suck their halal practices out of their thumbs, but that it is a religious observance with some textual justification.
There are also power relations involved, notably with the authority resting in God’s eternal revelation revealed in the Qur’an. Revelation has been interpreted by the legal schools who then go on to legislate laws that construct boundaries within which other Muslims, such as the halal certification organizations and the consumers, are required to reason and contest within. Reasoning and contesting within these established boundaries will keep Muslims inside the tradition of Islam whereas going beyond them will place one outside of it.
1. Shaheed, Tayob. 2019. “Molecular Halal: Producing and Evading Halal certification in South Africa.” In Insatiable Appetite: Food as Cultural Signifier in the Middle East and Beyond, edited by Kirill Mmitriev, Julia Hauser, and Bilal Orfali, 100-121. Leiden: Brill.
2. Shaheed, Tayob. 2019. Ibid. p. 100.
3. Shaheed, Tayob. 2019. Ibid. p. 103.
4. Shaheed, Tayob. 2019. Ibid. p. 105.
5. Shaheed, Tayob. 2019. Ibid. p. 109.