SHOULD CHRISTIANS EAT HALAL MEAT

The following article by Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, International Director of Barnabas Fund, was first published in Evangelicals Now in December 2010. Whilst written in relation to the situation in Britain it has increasing relevance to Australia where the availability of Halal food is increasing. It is not put forward as the final authority on the subject but is published to encourage prayerful consideration of this important issues by all our readers.

All over the UK today, supermarket chains, shops and restaurants are selling halal meat. We may find it on the menu at our children's school or the local hospital, or be offered it when we go to a sporting event. If we go for a meal with Muslim friends, any meat we are served will probably be halal. It can be hard to avoid eating this meat, especially as if is often not labelled as halal and little information is available to the consumer.

Halal meat is prepared according to rules laid down in Islamic sharia law. The word "halal" means "permitted", so halal food is anything that sharia allows people to eat. The animals have to be slaughtered in a particular way, whereby the blood is drained out of the living (and normally conscious) animal, while an Islamic prayer is spoken over them. This teaching is derived from the Quran. "O you who believe! Eat of the good and pure things We have provided you with, and render thanks to Allah if it is He alone Whom you really worship.  He has forbidden you only to eat carrion, (that is) that which dies of itself, the blood, the flesh of swine and that, over which the name of someone other than Allah has been invoked." (Q 2:172-3) "And do not eat that on which Allah's name has not been pronounced." (Q 6:121)

Halal meat raises serious questions for Christians. Is it acceptable for us to eat meat that has been killed in the name of Allah or sacrificed in an Islamic festival? Might it be all right to do so in some contexts but not in others? What are the Biblical principles that should guide our decisions?

Mark 7:1-23 / Matthew 15:1-20

In the Gospels the Lord Jesus teaches that nothing that goes into people from outside can defile them in the sight of God.  It is what comes from inside that makes people impure, because what comes out of the mouth is from the heart, and it is evil things from this source that make one unfit for contact with God. Christ's teaching is given in the context of a dispute about the Jewish food laws. These regulations forbade the Jews from eating various kinds of food and sharing in meals prepared by non-Jews, on the grounds that they were "unclean". But in saying that food does not affect someone's standing before God, the Lord (according to Mark 7:19) "declared all foods 'clean'". His disciples can eat food of any kind and from any source without its making them impure.

1 Corinthians 8-10

In this major section the apostle Paul addresses a disagreement among the Corinthian Christians over the eating of food that has been offered to idols. Some of them believe that such eating in itself amounts to the worship of other gods. Others say that such gods do not exist, and so they think they are free even to attend feasts held in idol-temples. Paul affirms that idols are nothing, and that food that has been offered to them has no special significance as a result. The earth and its fullness are the Lord's which means that all food originates with Him; nothing is unclean in itself.

But Paul also says that there are certain contexts where food that has been offered to idols should not be eaten. Joining in a feast in an idol's temple is unacceptable, because the offerings made to the idols at such meals are in effect made to demons, which lie behind the idols; to eat the food in that setting is to become partners with the demons. In addition, some believers with weak consciences feel it is wrong to eat idol-food.  We should not assert our freedom to eat idol-food if this causes a weaker Christian to act against his conscience.

Romans 14:1 - 15:6

Here Paul is seeking to resolve tensions between Jewish Christians who think they are obliged to observe Jewish customs and Gentile Christians who see themselves as free from these. He warns those who keep the food laws that they must not judge those who do not keep them, because all believers answer only to the Lord. But Paul also insists that those who do not comply with the laws must not despise those who do, but bear with them and not cause them to stumble. True, nothing is unclean in itself - but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it is.  If by eating meat we prompt other Christians to do what they believe is wrong, we bring them to sin.

Acts 15 and Revelation 2

In Acts 15 the letter from the church in Jerusalem instructs Gentile believers in Antioch and elsewhere to abstain from food that has been sacrificed to idols. And in Revelation 2 the Lord rebukes two churches for tolerating people who teach others to eat such food.

1 Timothy 4:1-5

This passage affirms that everything created by God is good, and that He made food to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. It also says that nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is sanctified by the word of God and by prayer.

The Principle

The background to the Lord Jesus' statements is that of Jewish law.   He establishes a principle that it is not food that contaminates a person, but rather what is in the person already.  In establishing this principle, He goes against Jewish law, which sought to classify food in religious terms.   His point is that food in itself is good.   Paul makes the same point in the context of paganism.   Normally meat would be killed and dedicated to temple use.  But invariably such meat would find its way into the market place, and could then be bought by anybody.   Again, Paul affirms the principle that food in itself is good and therefore can be eaten.

The Practice

However, there are certain situations that affect how we put this principle into practice.  One such is eating in the context of idol-worship.  Whilst idols themselves have no meaning, behind them lies a demonic reality.  So Christians cannot participate in a demonic reality and therefore cannot eat that food in that context.  Another example is the presence of a fellow-Christian who has problems with conscience over eating meat that had been dedicated to idols.  One should then respect that weaker brother or sister and not eat.

In the context of being a guest in a home, Paul seems to say that it is acceptable to eat the meat, if nothing is said or asked about its origins.  However, if someone informs us that the meat has been previously offered to idols, we should take account of that person's conscience and not eat. (1 Cor 10:27-29)  The person is alerting us to the fact of the meat's having been offered, and so encouraging us not to eat it.  A non-Christian may also want to draw us into his orbit by getting us to eat meat which has been offered to idols so that we participate with him in that function.  In both Acts 15 and Revelation 2 restrictions are placed on eating meat that has been offered to idols and churches are rebuked for allowing such practices to be encouraged.

With regard to halal, there are two areas of primary concern.   Firstly, the method of killing, which some view as objectionable because the animal is said to suffer unnecessarily, and, secondly, the prayer that is used over the animal as it is being killed, which may be either the bismillah (in the name of Allah) or the shahada, the Muslim creedal statement (there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger).  This religious dimension is what makes halal meat halal. Furthermore, halal is an essential part of sharia, Islamic law.

Whether wittingly or unwittingly, major supermarket chains have applied sharia to the meat industry with the result that much of the meat that is currently being eaten in the UK and many other Western countries has been killed cruelly and prayed over according to Islamic law.  Should it therefore be eaten?  Again, the principle is that all food is good. If it is blessed and sanctified by Christian prayer, then there is no reason why Christians should not eat it.  This is the case in many Muslim countries, where no other is available in the shops.

However, food cannot be separated from its context. Having rejected Jewish law, should we as Christians now embrace Islamic law?  The halal meat industry is part of a process of Islamisation in which some Muslims are seeking to impose the legal requirements of Islam, not just on their own people, but also on the rest of society.  Should we, as Christians, or for that matter other non-Muslims, submit to the diktat of Islamic law now being perpetuated by the British meat industry and through supermarket chains?  In eating halal meat, it can be argued that Christians and other non-Muslims are now furthering the process of dawa (Islamic mission), the Islamisation of society, and the imposition of Islamic law.

There is a further element that needs to be addressed, and that is participation in the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. This is a festival that is based on the Qur'anic story of the willingness of Abraham to obey Allah's command, received in a vision, to sacrifice Ishmael.  The Qur'an says that Allah "ransomed him with a momentous sacrifice" (Q 37: 100-107). It is a blood sacrifice, although some modern Muslims would deny this.   Is it permissible for Christians to participate in meat that is derived from a blood sacrifice?   Some of course would see this festival as primarily a social event, but this is to miss the point of the purpose of the festival and why the animal being eaten was killed in the first place.

In some Muslim countries, some Christians abstain from eating this meat, derived from this festival.  While most Christians believe it is not wrong in principle to eat halal meat, the context in which it is offered to us today should make us very cautious about doing so.

For those interested in pursuing the subject further, particularly as it relates to food in Australia, a new website has been established which readers may find of interest.  It is www.halalchoices.com.au   Please note that this website is not related in any way to the Australian Prayer Network and we take no responsibility for the accuracy of any information on the website, nor for any views or statements given by the authors of website articles and information. 

Source: Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, International Director of Barnabas Fund


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