I have never once pondered over this question until I was in Taiwan, a foreign country where Muslim presence is almost non-existent. The fact that pork is also the main staple for the Taiwanese people also did not alleviate my spiritual food problem a single bit.
It is important to note that while it may seem that the manner in which I phrase the question may lead some to believe that halal is an arbitrary term, in actual fact it is not. The fact that I am asking this question is to draw the line between what is halal and what is not, because there is a clear dichotomy between what can be eaten and what cannot.
The word ‘halal’ literally means permissible – and in translation it is usually used as lawful. Opposite to halal is haram, which means unlawful or forbidden. According to the Quran:
[5:3] “Prohibited for you are animals that die of themselves, blood, the meat of pigs,* and animals dedicated to other than GOD. (Animals that die of themselves include those) strangled, struck with an object, fallen from a height, gored, attacked by a wild animal – unless you save your animal before it dies – and animals sacrificed on altars. Also prohibited is dividing the meat through a game of chance; this is an abomination. “
Before I go on any further I must again dispel certain laughable myths about what it means to be halal. Pork is a definite no to all Muslims. However, meats such as chicken, mutton and beef not slaughtered according to Muslim law would also be non-halal (or haram). All seafood can be consumed since they cannot be slaughtered. (Imagine a fish or a squid being slaughtered?) However, amphibions fall under the category of pork and cannot be consumed as well.
This question occured to me when I realised I was the only one eating a few pieces of vegetables at a uncertified non-halal Chinese restaurant at the Muslim table. Most of my fellow Muslims refused to touch the vegetables simply because it was deemed to be non-halal, being served in a Chinese restaurant.
Strictly speaking, it would be best (and safe!) if I did not touch the vegetables simply because the same restaurant served numerous pork dishes and a plethora of non-halal dishes. But this restaurant also served Chinese Buddhist vegetarian food. What this would mean is that they would know how to serve vegetarian food, meaning no contact with meat whatsoever. (not using a pan soaked with pork lard or animal fat, remnants of a previous dish) Such innocuous looking vegetables would not be tainted or be haram in any way.
Why am I so concerned about whether or not something is Halal? Its not as if every single Muslim really cares the spiritual nature of the food they are eating. Going to Taiwan also exposed my naviete, that not all Muslims follow the basic Islamic codes of conduct, especially something so fundamental as food. And this is partly the reason why many others are so confused because such individuals are giving off the wrong signals. (Btw, there were nine muslim tables at the restaurant with ten people each. Only two opted to eat Singapore certified packet rations while the rest ate food made purely from the restaurant.)
How halal is Halal? The arbitrary nature of this question only comes to light because emotions are involved. Its a constant battle between temptation(and immediate gratification) and the fear of retribution. I sometimes try rationalise how halal the food is purely by the person cooking the meal, not by the food itself. When I encountered the first and only halal outlet selling kebabs at Ximen Ting (similar to Orchard road), I told myself that it was not halal simply because I did not trust the guy selling the food. It was only later when andee talked the guy who had begun interrogating him about the level of his faith that I believed that the food is halal.
Its so irrational sometimes. When our beliefs get intertwined with our emotions, all natural laws of logic and rationalism becomes askewed and subject to everything illogical and irrational.