The Malaysia-Japan halal link

05 Dec 2018 / 09:00 H.

MALAYSIANS are familiar with the word “halal”. To most, however, it is confined largely to gastronomical matters relating to how food is prepared for consumption by Muslims based on the tenets of Islam. Some liken it to kosher food of the Jewish faith.

While this is fair comment, it is not limited to just food. Given its broad meaning as “permissible”, this applies to almost anything that relates to how Muslims must act so long as they do not transgress the limits set by the tenets of Islam. This is where the word “halal” often falls short in its interpretation and practice.

Using the food example, “halal” also covers the source of food and its preparation that must be proved to be safe and hygienic. Food from a “halal” source can become toxic (eg due to adulteration) at the preparation stage and when this happens it is no longer permissible. Likewise “halal” food that is obtained illegally by corrupt means or unethical means is not permissible. The fine line of what “halal” is all about has faded in the eyes of the public.

To others, “halal” is simply about being “pork-free” and everything else is permissible. It is not that simple. Neither is it a “licence” to transact business the Muslim way. It is about ensuring and promoting overall quality of life. Unfortunately, such an enlightened interpretation has fallen on the wayside as “halal” quickly becomes synonymous to economic activities measured in the trillions of dollars globally. With the vulgarisation of “halal” into a very narrow definition, it loses its deeper inherent value.

For that reason one can appreciate why tobacco and alcohol cannot qualify as “halal” products. There is ample scientific evidence to show that these are “harmful”. By most accounts? they have been proven to threaten overall quality of life at least in the long run as it tends to be associated with addictive tendencies.

Another aspect of “halal” that is rarely broached is the behavioural dimension that prevents one from falling into extreme “relationships” as a way of living, against what is sanctioned by the tenets of Islam. For example, a relationship forged through marriage in the Islamic way is often described as “halal” but not otherwise. So too relationships built on activities to do good and prohibit the bad.

In lay terms, it is about “adab”. The reverse is “biadab” (uncouth). The ultimate aim is to erect a social order conducive to peaceful and harmonious living. The use of “halal” in this context is to encourage trustworthy and healthy relationships within the Islamic framework. The opposite such as bullying and other forms of aggression are not permissible.

The blending of this aspect into a “total halal” concept is what I observed during my recent visit to Japan – a nation that is well-known for its decorum in most aspects of daily living. Now with its interest in “halal” food, it brings back what has gone amiss as mentioned above. For example, in the cafeteria of the campus where the meeting was held, the “halal” menu appeared side by side with the regular Japanese food. Although the seafood used to be the default “halal” – and need not carry the “halal” insignia, this time it did together with the non-seafood items implying that even the seafood-based items have undergone a different treatment in rendering it “halal” unlike previously.

Add this to the very visible hygienic environment what with the behavioural decorum of systematically serving the preferred food items without upsetting the quiet ambience, the full meaning inherent in the term “halal” is fully restored, beyond just its economic status. In short, “halal” in the Japanese context is able to realise the real virtue of “halal”.

This is in stark contrast with what is reportedly happening in China which is said to be retrogressive.

Of late, the word “halal” is allegedly being discontinued where it once was proudly displayed by its Muslim citizen in “autonomous” regions. Several reliable accounts point to the “downgrading” of the use of the word from its original Arabic script to just the Chinese script; and more recently, none whatsoever is allowable.

That is to say, the customers, especially Muslim tourists are unable, or have great difficulty, to recognise which eateries offer genuine (certified) “halal” products. Without certification there is no guarantee the term “halal” is being complied with diligently. After all there is no requirement to be accountable to any authority responsible for promoting a genuine “halal” culture.

Once again, this is in sharp difference with several Japanese cities where “total halal” outlets are being introduced. They do not even serve alcoholic drinks. Some offer separate meal sets and forks and spoons for “halal” use only, without marginalising the excellent decorum that the Japanese culture is noted for – especially the hospitality and utmost concern to best serve the client. This is one big step forward in ensuring that the overall standard of “halal” is not compromised in any way when blended with Japanese cultural values. After all this is not new to Islam which allows the best of the local culture to be merged seamlessly.

Historically we witnessed this in the original Silk Route where Islamic values and norms of local cultures played a tremendous role in promoting inter-cultural bonding and holistic living. In this sense, it is difficult to understand what China is up to now especially in areas where the majority have been Muslims for centuries. It is therefore hoped that the Malaysia-Japan halal link can help refresh many selective amnesic memories as we forge ahead for the betterment of humanity.

With some four decades of experience in education, the writer believes that “another world is possible”. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com