Opinion: When haram can become halal


If a prohibited food product undergoes trans­formation that changes its properties or attributes to the point that it becomes a different product, it is no longer forbidden.

IN ISLAM, a highly authentic prophetic tradition (hadith) prescribes that generally things are divisible into three categories; the lawful (halal), the unlawful (haram) and the doubtful (mushtabihat).

While the first two are evident, i.e. clearly spelled out by the sources of syariah, the third is not.

Under normal circumstances, Muslims are obliged to lead a good life by doing their level best to always look for the lawful things or engage in transactions sanctioned by religion.

True Muslims will concern themselves with transactions they are dealing with or things they consume.

Muslims’ activities having to do with religio-legal status cover matters that fall in areas such as finance, food, medical, pharmaceutical, cosmetics, fashion and so on.

Today, all these areas have developed into major industries that massively affect their life.

While religious instructions are clear in many respects of each area, certain aspects are obscure to many, to the extent that the integrity of halal, for example, comes under question and turns so problematic, resulting in confusion, not only to the public but to industry players as well.

Some may hold that something is lawful while others believe otherwise. Muslims are not only divided and confused, but also suffer the most, in terms of reputation and economic loss.

It is notable to infer that Muslims’ perpetual preoccupation, even bickering, over halal and haram issues reflects their grave concern or unwillingness to compromise their belief with worldly gain or material convenience.

But many are not aware that a number of prohibitions are derived and imposed on Muslims by jurists, who seem to have difficulty harmonising between the strict interpretation of the words and letters of the divine commands and the current realities at the expense of the objectives of the law (maqasid al-syariah) itself.

A writer rightly observes that these “many prohibitions are the result of hasty judgment(s) combined with an unsophisticated knowledge of Islamic principles”.

Therefore, it’s not surprising to encounter Muslims who abstain from products or things that are perceived unlawful, though they are actually not. If this phenomenon is allowed to continue, Muslims will fall into the trap of “excessive prohibitions”, making religious teachings hardly exercisable, putting many in undue hardships and frustration.

It may lead some Muslims to discard certain major practical aspects of Islam, or worse, leave the religion altogether.

Thus, authorities responsible for the general interests of Muslims must make efforts to clear the air and halt the deterioration.

There have been calls from concerned individuals and industry players for this issue to be properly addressed.

In this regard, Ikim organised an expert discussion in October on “Elements of Pigs: Issues and Challenges”, attempting to reduce misgivings and misunderstanding about the permissibility of substances containing elements traceable to pigs in food-based products and other materials.

From this discussion, it’s personally enlightening to know that syariah provisionally provides means and mechanisms of “turning” something haram and/or filthy (najis) into something halal or pure/clean (tahir).

But this is not something absolute as its application is subject to certain considerations to be verified by qualified individuals or authorised bodies.

It is the knowledge gathered here that I want to share, hoping that it may enhance public understanding of the subject matter. If somehow I don’t manage to satisfactorily eliminate their confusion, then I urge the religious authorities, like the Majlis Muzakarah Fatwa Kebangsaan, to reasonably resolve this once and for all.

I must also state from the outset that I do not intend to take religious matters easily by underestimating the important issue of halal and haram and resulting implications, let alone to turn lawful something that the Lawgiver has declared unlawful.

It has never come across my mind to purposely do this for the sake of controversy or polemics.

Neither am I questioning the wisdom of the authority for unjustified reasons.

I just want to explain certain Islamic legal principle(s) that may relieve Muslims of a number of avoidable sufferings, like suffocation of excessive prohibitions.

The first Islamic principle that may change the status of something haram into halal, or filthy to pure, is known as istihalah. Literally, it means “switching over”, “substantial change”, or “transformation”.

Technically, it refers to a situation whereby “when a substance is converted into a new substance, the lawfulness of the new substance is not determined by the lawfulness of the original substance”.

This principle has its basis in a verse in the Quran, Surah al-Nahl (16): 66, when Allah the Almighty says: “Verily you will find in cattle an instructive sign from what is within their bodies, between excretion and blood, We produce, for your drink, milk, pure and agreeable to those who consume it.”

The verse points to the process of istihalah whereby three different entities have differing legal status: excretion and blood are unlawful while milk is lawful.

Yet, all of them originate from the very same source. The classical literature of fiqh records that this principle has been recognised and applied by Muslim jurists in the past.

To illustrate, two cases may be cited: that oil contaminated with filth can be made into soap usable for cleaning purposes; and that if a swine falls into a salt lake and decomposes and becomes salt itself, it is now lawful.

Analogously, if a pig is buried under a mango tree, the fruits from the tree are halal even though some of the nutrients in the mangos are ultimately traceable to the pig’s carcass. Meaning, if an unlawful thing, or a prohibited food product undergoes transformation which changes its properties or attributes to the point that it becomes a different product, then it is no longer forbidden.

In our modern time, there is an inexhaustive list of substances that may originate from unlawful sources sneaking their ways into our food, medicinal, pharmaceutical and cosmetics products.

They include gelatin, monosodium glutamate, diglycerides, glycerol, lecithin, pepsin, rennet, etc.

They are derivable or extractable from pigs as well as from other animals.

However, none of these new substances bear any resemblance to their original sources. Obviously, the end products are new substances with properties quite different from that of the original materials. And based on these new properties and attributes, we may argue that there is no reason to prohibit any.

In addition, with the development in science and technology, the same chemicals may be derived from an animal source, or from a plant, or formed synthetically in laboratories.

It is impossible for our naked senses to identify which chemicals are derived from which sources.

Therefore, it is arguable to impose a blanket prohibition, say, on gelatin.

It is perhaps clear now that istihalah takes place when a particular substance or entity switches over to another entity.

It has to be a substantial change, affecting its sensible properties like colour, taste and smell, and transforming its external outlook.

Judging from examples and illustrations given by traditional and modern jurists, the transformation is to be determined by general perception.

Chemical changes of chemical components are not quite relevant.

If the public can generally perceive gelatin as an entirely different substance than the animal bones or other bodily parts, then it is sufficient to conclude that istihalah has occurred.

Istihalah does not take place if the original substance is merely mixed with some other substances or if it is merely broken up into its constituents.

Basically, the original entity needs to be completely and entirely transformed to another entity and not simply mixed, broken up or changed in shape.