GMO Issues in Halal Food
Muhammad Munir Chaudry, Ahmad Hussain Sakr, and Shaikh Jaafar M. Al-Quaderi
What is a GMO? GMO stands for genetically modified organisms. Many products available in the market place today contain ingredients from plants and animals that have been genetically altered in some way. Some of the staple food products like tomatoes and corn have also been modified to improve their functional value. Most of the time these altered products or ingredients are not labeled to set them apart from the conventional counterparts. The purpose of this article is to try to establish whether or not such manipulations of our food create any problems for the Muslim consumer. This modern technology was not available at the inception of Islam or even 50 years ago. Hence there have not been any clear guidelines about the acceptability of GMO products as Halal. Muslim scholars are striving to come to an acceptable decision on some of these issues facing us today.
Allah (S) requires us to eat Halal food:
“Eat of the good things, WE have provided for your sustenance but commit no excess therein”. (Al-Quran 20: 81)
The scientific discipline behind genetic manipulations is called biotechnology. Biotechnology is an extension of plant and animal breeding and genetics, which has been practiced for decades and in some cases, for centuries. One example of animal breeding dates back to prehistoric times when a donkey and a mare were crossbred to produce a mule. The meat of a donkey is not accepted as Halal food, and therefore neither is the meat of a mule. Plants have been bred with closely related plants and animals have been bred with closely related animals until very recently, when genes were identified and scientists learned the method of taking genes from one species of an animal or a plant and introducing it into another. Theoretically genes from any animal can be introduced into plant species without affecting the appearance or the taste, but making the plants better resistant to diseases or nutritionally better, compared to the conventional products available.
Theoretically a donor gene may be from any of the biological sources, such as plants, microorganisms, insects, fish or other animals. How does the source of donor gene affect the acceptability of the resultant GMO products?
In Islam, all things are considered good except the few items specifically mentioned in the Quran or Hadith as being haram. Let us examine the effects of biotechnology and genetic modification of foods in light of some of the basic Islamic principles as put forth by Shaikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi:
Determining the Halal or Haram status of a product is the domain of the Islamic scholars. This may have been easier in the past, when food science was limited to the historic norms known at the time of the revelations and the few centuries after that. However, as food science and technology have advanced, religious scholars have had to work with scientists to reach determinations on the status of foods, ingredients and processes. A scientist can explain the new development, and a religious scholar can exert to interpret whether or not that development violates any of the tenets of Islam.
Permitting Haram and prohibiting Halal is similar to shirk, meaning ascribing partners to God and that is an unpardonable sin. This makes deciding if something is Halal or Haram a very serious action. While intentions play a role in determining if a deed is acceptable, hence rewarded. The act itself must also be acceptable for one to receive the reward. The ends do not justify the means. Consequently, use of genes from Haram animals may not be acceptable, but it is open to interpretation based on the concept of Istihala (change in the state of a material) when the goal is the net benefit to the Ummah.
As already stated, everything is Halal unless specifically stated to be Haram. We have discussed the Haram items numerous times in previous articles: These include pork, intoxicants, carrion, etc. There is no specific mention of altered, modified or genetically engineered food and ingredients in the Quran or the Hadith. If it were determined beyond doubt that foods or ingredients developed through genetic modifications are harmful, they would be Haram.
Since God has developed the classification of Halal and Haram, it stands to logic that there is always a better replacement for Haram or doubtful items. Biotechnology has already given us an example of this in GMO Chymosin (synthetic rennet). Until the mid 1980’s, pepsin was very common in cheese manufacture to extend the short supply of calf rennet. Pepsin is an enzyme derived from pigs and other animals. Genetic engineering has produced this GMO Chymosin, a true copy of calf rennet that is not related to pepsin and is Halal.
Muslim consumers are guided by the clear Hadith that requires Muslims to avoid doubtful items. At present, use of genes from Haram animals gives Muslim consumers some doubts about the acceptability of the products. However majority of the genes used in the production of GMO foods are obtained from Halal sources.
In considering the Halal status of GMO’s, 5 points should be kept in mind. They are:
For a Muslim consumer it would be safe to avoid products with Haram genes. To help the consumers in making the right choices, the government should consider requiring the food companies to label the products with the source of genes. The scientists should avoid using controversial genes in designing GMO products, in consideration of the Halal and vegetarian consumers of the world.