Grey Areas of Halal – Alcohol


By : Fakihah Azahari

A controversial issue on grey
areas of Halal is the presence of alcohol in food and beverage. Traditionally,
consumers and Islamic jurists have identified alcohol as a substance that is
Haram for consumption, whilst the process of fermentation is perceived as an
unethical process as it produces intoxicants.

Since alcohol exists in small
quantities in Halal food products, consumers are unsure of its legal values and
whether it can be consumed. In this article, a general discussion of
fermentation processes will provide a view that fermentation processes itself
are not unethical; in fact the processes are essential in major industrial
applications especially food processing and flavouring.

Alcohol is pervasive in the
food industry in its indispensable role as food soluble, flavouring and
preservatives. These distinctive features of alcohol as solvent agents are also
extensively applied in pharmaceutical, cosmetics, drugs and antibiotics, and
other industrial applications. The total value of the application of alcohol in
these industries is in the billions of dollars considering that just in the
soft drink sector alone, Coca Cola reported sales of USD22billion in its 2004
annual report (Alcohol is used as solvent in this industry). With such a
staggering amount involved in the application of alcohol in the food and other
industries, it shall certainly be an uphill task for any manufacturer to try
and change industrial practices from using alcohol to other substitute agents.

Alcohol occurs as a result of
the processes of fermentation and in industrial applications, fermentation has
proven to be an economically and commercially viable mode to produce alcohol.
The type of alcohol that is commonly extracted through this process for the
food industry is known as ethanol, which in its purest form would be harmful for
consumption. Thus, ethanol is always mixed with other substances to render it
safe for consumption. That brings us then to the main issue, is the prohibition
on alcohol directed at alcohol per se or at the effects of alcohol, which is
the intoxicating nature of alcohol.

Fatwas issued by
international jurists and Islamic organisations have ruled that it is
permissible to consume food and beverage that contain alcohol at levels that do
not intoxicate. These levels are established at between 0.01% to 0.05% on the
basis that at these levels, the amount is too insignificant to cause
intoxication. Thus, the prohibition is directed at the effects of alcohol
itself, which is its intoxicating nature. Applying the principles of analogy (Qias)
in this matter, Islamic jurists have included all other similar substances that
have the same effect as alcohol ie, intoxicants such as drugs, cocaine, heroin,
marijuana, whiskey, gin, beer to be prohibited.

The latest fatwa by Imam
Yusof Al-Qaradhawi issued in 2008 pursuant to queries on energy drinks that
contain a small percentage of alcohol, states that it is permissible to consume
food that contains alcohol on the condition that firstly it does not
intoxicate, and secondly the alcohol content was as a result of natural fermentation.


The interesting fact that
requires examinitationis the Imam’s rationale for the distinction of alcohol
produced ‘as a result of natural fermentation’. It seems to imply that there
may be a reverse effect in Islamic ruling if alcohol is produced in any other
method other than by way of natural fermentation.

In the production of alcohol
for the food industry, the process of natural fermentation is replicated on an
industrial scale for its manufacture to obtain its two most important products,
ethanol and lactic acid. Ethanol, as mentioned earlier, is used in many
industrial applications that extend beyond food processing while lactic acid is
mostly used for food preservatives.

The process is slightly
different in the fermentation processes of alcoholic beverages like wine or
beer. The fermentation process of alcoholic beverages is manipulated by way of
commercial distillation. Commercial distillation is a controlled process that
allows one to increase the alcoholic content of beverages following the
fermentation process. The quality of alcoholic content as a result of
commercial distillation is much higher than alcohol produced by natural
fermentation in the food industry.

As such, the distinction in
the ruling by Imam Yusuf Al-Qaradhawi points to the level of intoxication that
is produced by the two processes of fermentation. One is the process of natural
fermentation which is applied for the food industry in its use as solvent
agent, soluble, flavouring and preservatives whereby the alcohol content exists
at small percentages and is assimilated with other Halal substances. The other
process of fermentation by way of commercial distillation is purely for the
production of intoxicating drinks that without a doubt, intoxicates.


In the food industry, so long
as the industry adheres to the Shariah ruling of producing alcohol by natural
fermentation which as an end result, has less than 0.05% alcohol content in its
products, the products are not considered as intoxicating and thus,


In the fatwa issued by Imam
Yusuf Al-Qaradhawi and discussed herein, the Imam quoted a rule derived from
the sayings of the Prophet that says if drinking a lot of alcohol makes you
intoxicated then drinking a little is also forbidden. Imam Yusuf Al-Qaradhawi
argued that since there is no concrete evidence that any person who consumed a
large amount of the high energy drink became intoxicated, the drink is
permissible due to its alcohol content which is below the intoxicating


Our grievance then is not
towards alcohol per se as evidenced by the fatwa, or the process of
fermentation, as its application is not limited to production of alcohol but
extends to industries such as treatment of sewage plants and production of fuel
for the energy industry. For the Muslim community, the issue is clear. Alcohol
is present in most food and beverage for its specific uses and may be tolerated
if it exists below the established parameter. However, the consumption of
intoxicating beverages produced by commercial distillation like beer and wine are
totally prohibited and there is no room for argument for their prohibition.


What the Muslim consumer has
to be wary of is the disturbing trend towards the application of alcohol as
food flavouring. Although the food products may not intoxicate or contain
alcohol at all, the taste and smell of alcohol is in the food products.
Alcoholic flavouring is entering areas it has traditionally stayed away from,
such as cereals, sweets, jellies, ice cream, tooth paste and other household
products whose main consumers are children.


These flavourings may act as a
stimulant to a person’s senses to recognise and crave alcoholic tastes from a
young age. Indirectly, alcoholic flavourings contained in these products could
promote and market its actual alcoholic products. For example, chocolate with
gin flavour would promote the actual gin beverage. It would require a lot of
effort by consumer rights groups and government authorities to ensure these
products are never certified as Halal.

Fakihah Azahari graduated
in Law from the International Islamic University Malaysia in 1991. She
was called to the civil court and the Shariah Court in 1992. She has
been in practise for sixteen years and her areas of interest are in
Halal industry and Islamic finance.