Are processed animal-based products lawful?
Extract from the book Le Marché du Halal, entre références religieuses & contraintes industrielles, Mostafa Brahimi & Fethallah Otmani.
Today, more and more foodstuffs (cheeses, sweets, medicines, etc.) are being made with animal-based products. Muslims scholars, both past and present, have issued a number of opinions on products such as cheese (because of animal rennet), on some drugs (containing alcohol), but also on gelatin of animal origin (porcine gelatin in particular), as well as on certain additives. We will try here to outline these opinions and understand the differences that exist.
Firstly, clarification is needed: one cannot enter the world of fiqh without a sense of respect and moderation. Fiqh is a field that combines the knowledge of the Texts with an appreciation of the context (taking into account socio-economic considerations in particular). The fiqh is always the outcome of the work undertaken by a Muslim expert of the Texts, who has made the necessary intellectual and religious effort (ijtihad) to formulate an opinion. In this, he deserves to be respected and listened to. Besides, if his opinion is not chosen, it does not follow that he is in the wrong because « one ijtihad cannot be refuted by another ijtihad » as long as the two ijtihad are thoroughly explained.
Ibn al-Qayyim writes: « Disagreements will inevitably arise between people because of the differences in their goals, their vision and their degree of knowledge. What is reprehensible, however, is that it leads to hostility and confrontation. If the disagreement doesn’t lead to disunity and rivalry, and if each party’s objective is the obedience to God and His Prophet, this disagreement cannot be detrimental: on the contrary, it is an unavoidable outcome of human evolution. Indeed, if the basis is the same, if the goal is the same and if the path followed is the same, then disagreement will seldom occur, and when it does, as with the disagreement between the Companions, it will not be harmful. »
According to some scholars, to accept the transformation of a product initially illicit, the aforementioned transformation must be complete, leading to a processed product that is different from the initial product. One must acknowledge that the debate on the issue of transformation is critical to halal production. Indeed, Muslims are increasingly consuming processed products. Referring here to the opinion of the legal schools is necessary to understand the divergence of opinion among contemporary scholars. Can a product considered originally unlawful (haram) become lawful (halal) after processing?
For both the Shafi’i school and the most well-known Hanbali opinion, the answer is negative. If the product is initially unlawful, it will remain so, regardless of the process of transformation. For the Hanafi, Maliki, certain Hanbali and the Zahiri, the complete transformation is sufficient to declare the lawfulness of the new product, provided of course that the latter is not harmful.
I. How does one assess or define a complete transformation (istihala)?
In general, Muslim scholars define complete transformation as a change in taste, smell and colour. It is a simplistic definition but its relevance can be found in the Sources. Indeed, did the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) carry out any scientific analyses when judging vinegar to be halal? Of course not, but the transformation of the taste, the smell and colour of the wine were enough evidence to determine the licitness of the vinegar.
In his opinion on foods containing gelatin, Shaykh Al-Uthaymeen considers that the ritually slaughtered animal logically poses no problem and continues his analysis on animals illicit for consumption by stating: « If we take a part (of the cow not ritually slaughtered) and mix it with other products, and traces of its taste, its colour or its odour persist, then the consumption of this mixture is illicit. However, if the illicit part is dissolved and leaves no trace in the new product, there is no harm in consuming it, because the Companions consumed cheese from Mazdeans (majus) – yet the sacrifice of majus is illicit. Only a tiny amount of this fat is contained in the cheese and its taste is not apparent in the food. This proves that the thing, which leaves no trace and has no effect on the final food product, can be consumed. »
Shaykh Qaradawi considers that the transformation must be chemical and complete, without giving any further details. According to Anas Ahmed Lala, the Mufti Taqi Uthmani considers « that it is not enough for the transformation to be only chemical, a true molecular transformation must occur as well. »
But how do we define a chemical transformation? It is a transformation of matter during which the chemical constituents (atoms, ions, molecules) are modified to the point where a new product is formed. Rupture and / or formation of new bonds between atoms and molecules occurs, which changes the nature of the original product. By contrast, physical transformation, such as erosion, rupture or change of state (from liquid to solid or gas, or from solid to gas…), does not change the nature of the product. It is therefore not a considered factor.
- Origin of gelatin
Gelatin is an ingredient that acts as a stabiliser, thickener or gelling agent for products such as ice cream, confectionery, some jams and spreads. It is also used to lighten juice (such as apple juice) and vinegar. Finally, it is a crucial component of diet products because it triggers the sensation of fat in the mouth and creates volume without adding calories.
There are several types of gelatin:
- Vegetable/Plant-based which is not an issue for Muslims. It originates from different sources:
– Earth: corn starches, potato, cassava, etc. (E1411 to E1442);
– Marine: algae, including agar-agar, alginates, and carrageenan (E400 to E407);
– Fruits (apples, pears, quinces etc.) that produce pectin and its derivatives (E440).
- Gelatin of animal origin (E430) the use of which is not consensual among Muslims. Animal-based gelatin is obtained from a raw material called collagen, a natural protein, derived from animals’ skins and bones (bones of cattle or skins of cattle and pigs). The production of gelatin begins with a thorough degreasing of bones and / or skin, which eliminates soft tissue and fat. Then, a treatment process transforms the collagen structure, rendering it soluble in hot water in order to extract it from the rest of the raw material. There is thus a chemical transformation that leads to a new product called gelatin, which is different from the original product.
- Halal or haram?
There is no consensus on the issue. Some scholars focus on the origin of the product and claim that it remains illegal. Others highlight the chemical transformation of the product and consider it lawful.
- Opinions finding gelatin illicit
Those who consider gelatin as illicit argue that gelatin deriving from an illicit animal will remain illicit even if the final product has nothing to do with the original product.
– This opinion is shared by the Shafi’i school and it’s also the most well- established opinion among the Hanbali.
– While the Islamic Fiqh Council of the Muslim World League (Jeddah) does not focus on the origin of the product it considers however that in the production of gelatin the process of transformation is not complete and therefore asserts that: « it is permissible to use gelatin from animals slaughtered Islamically or from lawful products. But it is illegal to use gelatin deriving from illicit products, from pigs skins or bones or from any other illicit animals. »
- Opinions finding gelatin licit
– The Islamic Organisation for Medical Studies in its research on “Forbidden and unclean ingredients or substances in foodstuffs and medicine” states: « the process that causes an object to change into another, totally different in properties and character, turns the unclean, or what is deemed to be unclean, into a clean object (tashir), and therefore turns prohibited things into things permissible by the Shariah. On this account the following is concluded: Gelatin made of unclean animal’s bones, skin and tendons is clean and permissible for consumption.”
– This opinion is also shared by Shaykh Al-Uthaymeen and Shaykh Qaradawi. The latter declaring that gelatin (of animal origin, and in particular porcine) is lawful as long as there has been a chemical transformation. He bases his opinion on the writings of Dr. Muhammad al-Hawwari in which ones can read that the transformation of collagen into gelatin is a complete physico-chemical transformation. And this echoes the opinions of scholars who argue that the transformation (istihala) entails a change in the quality of the product, which originally soiled or impure becomes pure, as happens with the wine, which through transformation becomes vinegar.
To reach an opinion on the issue, several points need to be highlighted:
– Above all, one should point out that there is a compelling economic argument in favour of gelatin of porcine origin, the prevailing form among animal gelatin: it has a price-quality ratio which is much more attractive than its plant-based substitutes. Thus, industrialists lean more towards the use of animal gelatin.
– Studies conducted by chemists, scientists and engineers in the food-processing industry have shown that the parent structure of collagen (an animal-based product) and the structure of gelatin (end product) are very close. Despite some chemical modifications, one finds the same amino acids in both products. The collagen protein is therefore intact and does not undergo any change.
III. Other additives and ingredients
Many food products use additives. They have become almost inevitable in contemporary food preparation. They are different from the ingredients because:
– An additive is a compound added in very small quantities,
– An ingredient is a fully integrated product that has not undergone any transformation.
This distinction is not commonly accepted. It nevertheless allows us to differentiate between the two notions, and it is essentially the relationship between the quantity introduced and the final product that will distinguish them.
There are two main categories of additives:
– Natural additives deriving from the mineral, plant or animal world;
– Synthetic or artificial additives obtained either from natural products or synthetically manufactured. The latter are preferred by the commercial sector because of their cost-effectiveness.
Depending on their use, additives can be classified into different categories. Some additives may have several properties: dyes, preservatives (most often antioxydants, anti-yeasts, antibacterials), acidifiers, emulsifiers and stabilizers, flavour enhancers, surfactants, sweeteners, etc. The food additive families are coded ‘E’ (a capital letter denoting Europe), followed by a number ranging from 100 to 1518.
All these products can be plant or animal-based, or synthetic (chemical). While products of plant or chemical origin are generally not an issue for Muslims, those of animal origin require further research. According to Dr. Muhammad Hawwari, animal-based additives are all obtained by transformation (istihala), and are, in many cases, derived from animal fats transformed into mono-, di- and tri-glycerides (E471, E472…). The physical and chemical characteristics are all different from the original products. As a result, the legal (Islamic) ruling must be applied to the new and not the original product. Besides, the amounts of these additives are so small that they are diluted (istihlak). These amounts range from less than 1 mg to a few milligrams per kilogram (i.e., 0.1 to 1 mg per 100 g). In any case, these processed products are pure and licit in principle unless they are proven dangerous for human health.
- Illicit ingredients
Any illicit ingredient that is added to a product without having gone through any transformation or without having been diluted, renders the entire product illegal. Here is a non-exhaustive list of illicit ingredients: animal fat of unknown origin, tallow, lard, bacon, alcohol, ethyl alcohol, wine, spirits, rum, liquor, ethanol.
Some Muslims who follow the Hanafi legal school, also forbid the consumption of insects like cochineal (used as red dye E120). Imam Nawawi reports a similar ban by the Shafi’i school, on the basis that people are repelled by this kind of thing. Uses and customs (urf) are a source of law in the fiqh, but they are in the lowest ranked and are subject to change. On the basis of habits and customs some scholars have considered the consumption of snails unlawful, while it remains lawful for others, as in the case within the predominantly Maliki Maghreb (Imam Malik and the entire Maliki school allow it without any problem).
To make cheese, the milk must be curdled (broken down into solid and liquid elements). In this regard, various products (additives) can be used to accelerate this process of transformation. These additives can have various origins:
– Plant-based (fig tree, wild thistle, alfalfa …) which is seldom used in the production of cheese. For Plant-based ‘rennet”, it is illegal to use the label rennet, according to French law;
– Microbial-based derived from molds selected and industrially manufactured; they are also rarely used in the production of cheese, and in this case too they are not referred as “rennet” but as a “coagulant »;
– Animal-based, extracted in particular from the fourth compartment of the stomach (abomasum) of young ruminants, mainly calves. This rennet is composed of two enzymes: chymosin (80%) and pepsin. Thus, if one finds the mention « rennet » on a package, it means that it is animal-based. Animal-based rennet is the most common form of coagulant. It can also be extracted from the pig’s stomach. The abomasum are cleaned, dried and preserved (salting or freezing). The extraction of the rennet is carried out by macerating the chopped abomasum in a salted solution for a few days. Most commercialised cheeses are made with (animal-based) rennet, except for fresh cheeses such as yoghurt.
So for Muslims, there are two pending questions:
– Is rennet pure, and therefore lawful for consumption, or not?
– If rennet is unlawful, does its use in food products such as cheese render the products unlawful, or does it have no impact, because of its dilution and processing?
3.1. Is rennet pure or impure?
There is of course no issue when the animals from which one takes the stomach pocket are slaughtered according to the Islamic rite. The question arises when they are not. Are rennet cheeses licit? Muslims posed this very question a long time ago. Indeed, rennet was already known in the time of the Companions. In the presence of Companion Salman al-Farisi, the Companions ate cheeses made by the Zoroastrians who used animal-based rennet (from animals that were not yet being slaughtered according to the Islamic rite).
Many scholars had decreed the haram character of the rennet extracted from an animal not slaughtered Islamically, because they considered it an impurity. This is one of the reported opinions of Malik, Shafi’i and Ahmad Ibn Hanbal.
By contrast, Imam Abu Hanifa and others scholars (as well as another interpretation of Ahmad and Malik) confirm the pure character of the rennet extracted from such animals. This opinion is better argued as it is based on the fact that some Companions consumed Persian cheese in Iraq, fully aware that this cheese was not made by Muslims and that the Persians used rennet to curdle the milk.
3.2. Rennet after the processes of transformation and dilution
As we saw above, rennet is obtained by chemical transformation: extraction after maceration of the abomasum for several days in a saline solution. Mixed with milk, the latter curdles and becomes cheese. The product obtained is neither curd, nor rennet, but cheese.
Besides rennet (like all other coagulation agents) represents less than 0.02% of the total volume (less than 2 litres per 10,000 litres). Thus the amount of diluted rennet is extremely small compared to the amount of milk (1 to 2 / 10,000). There is therefore no trace of rennet, nor in the taste, smell or flavour. Thus, as the rennet is both processed and diluted, the cheese that contains it is therefore considered licit.
In contrast to the opinion of its founder, the Maliki school expressly states that the dilution of a small amount of impure matter has no effect on the final product, as long as there is no trace of odour, flavour or colour. This school even states that the consumption of cheese, made with rennet of a dead animal (mayta), is lawful. This opinion is also shared by many contemporary scholars such as Shaykh Qaradawi, Dr. Nazih Hammad, Shaykh Salman al-Awda, Ahaykh al-Uthaymeen, etc., and supported by the Islamic Organisation for Medical Studies.
 Page 79-91, Edition Tawhid, 2010
 See http://www.islamset.net/bioethics/8thfiqh.html#2