Halal for dummies

Since I will be moving to Egypt soon, I thought it might be a good idea to get familiar with some of the local food practices.

Perhaps one of the most obvious food-related differences between North America and the Middle East is the concept of “halal”, which is practiced by most Muslims.  With 90% of the Egyptian population being Muslim, the majority of the food available in Egypt will be considered halal.  But what exactly does this mean?


I’ll begin with a few basic definitions.  Halal literally means “lawful” or “permissible” and refers to food that can be eaten by followers of Islam.  Foods that are not halal are considered haram, or not permissible for Muslims.  There are also foods that lie somewhere in between.  These foods are called mashbooh and are questionable or suspect.

So what is it that makes a food “halal”?

The guidelines for halal are specified in the dietary laws in the Quran.  These guidelines refer to both the types of foods suitable for consumption and how that food is prepared.

According to ISNA Canada, “all foods are considered halal, except the following”:

  1. Swine/pork and its by-products or any derivatives
  2. Animals not slaughtered according to the Islamic requirements
  3. Alcohol and intoxicants
  4. Carnivorous animals, birds of prey
  5. Blood and blood by-products
  6. Foods contaminated with any of the above products
  7. Food products and ingredients such as enzymes, gelatin, emulsifier, are considered mashbooh and must be verified before its application

Most of the above is fairly straightforward – no pork, alcohol,…. blood sausage, tigers, eagles, etc…..OR any food prepared/contaminated with the by-products of any of these items.  For example, vanilla extract is not halal because alcohol is used in its processing.  We were actually told by my wife’s school to bring some of this with us if we enjoy baking, because its virtually impossible to find in Cairo.

As for the details regarding the slaughtering of animals, in order for Islamic requirements to be met 1) the name of God (Allah) must be pronounced at the time of killing and 2) a sharp blade is used such that “a quick cut to sever the veins and arteries of the neck of the animal, without cutting the nervous system or spinal cord can be made”.  This second item helps to ensure that the animal will fully bleed out, thus removing any “harmful” components of the blood.  Note that even foods that are typically considered halal (ie. beef) would be considered haram if they are not slaughtered according to these guidelines.

In Canada there is a formal process for certifying food producers to ensure they are following these practices.  I expect that there are similar procedures in Egypt.

What does this mean for me?

The concept of halal will likely have very little impact on my day-to-day life in Egypt.  I’ve read that alcohol is still readily available, albeit maybe a bit more challenging to obtain than in Canada.  If its anything like Turkey, another mostly Muslim country that my wife and I visited in December, it won’t be difficult at all.  

The biggest thing I’ll likely notice will be the “no pork” rule.  Unlike alcohol, it sounds like pork will be extremely difficult to get over there.  This could end up being a good thing (no hot dogs), or a bad thing (no hot dogs!).

I hope to follow up on this topic after we move to see if my expectations were correct!



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