The word halal means “permissible” in Arabic. It refers to food, objects, or actions that are allowed in Islam. Among other things, halal meat must be killed with a sharp knife and drained of blood. No carnivorous animals, birds of prey, or meat contaminated with non-permissible substances can be used. This, in and of itself, is a healthy way of preparing meat. The problem comes when Allah’s name is pronounced over the meat during the butchering process. Many interpret this to mean the animal was sacrificed to a false god—an idol.
Nearly two thousand years ago, Paul wrote to the church in Corinth regarding the permissibility of eating meat sacrificed to idols, because the Corinthians also struggled with this issue. In Corinth, as in many Roman cities, the only meat available at markets was that which had been sacrificed to a pagan idol. Paul told the Corinthian Christians that a false idol is nothing. It has no authority. It did not create the animal or provide the owner with it (1 Corinthians 8:4). The point, then, becomes not the food or the idol it was sacrificed to, but concern for other people. Mature Christians realize that food, sacrificed to an idol or not, is a neutral entity. Believers have freedom in Christ to eat or not, as they choose. But freedom is useless without love. And if eating meat sacrificed to idols is harmful to another believer, it should be avoided. Many of the poorest in Corinth could only afford to eat meat in the context of a pagan ritual—to them, meat was equated with their previous life. These “weaker” brothers were not yet free of the religious connotation that meat carried. Therefore, a “stronger” brother indulging in meat-eating could entice the weaker into an action that he believed was wrong, and was therefore sin (Romans 14:23). To Paul, another believer’s walk was far more important than what he ate.
Paul continues the discussion, giving specifics: If you’re buying meat at the market, don’t ask where it came from. If you’re invited to a friend’s for a meal, don’t ask where it came from. If the information is volunteered that the meat was sacrificed to an idol, refrain (1 Corinthians 10:23-33). But, Paul says, do not refrain from eating because of your conscience—your conscience should understand that you are free to enjoy God’s provision (1 Corinthians 10:30)—but for the conscience of the one who provided it. If a weak brother is offering, you may lead him into sin. If an unbeliever is offering, you may be seen as tacitly endorsing the god to which it was sacrificed. Either way, it doesn’t become an issue until the other person brings it up.
Acts 15:23-29 puts a different spin on things. Here, the Christian elders in Jerusalem sent a letter to the new believers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia, giving them certain guidelines: “…that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication.” Why the discrepancy? One possibility is geography. Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia are much closer to Israel than Corinth. The new Gentile believers would have had much more contact with Jewish Christians who still identified with Jewish law. Like the circumcision issue in Acts 15:1-12, the food regulations would have promoted unity in the church. Corinth, conversely, is in Greece. Meat not sacrificed to idols would have been very hard to find.
Halal food is no different. There is one God who provides for us. Claiming the name of a false god does nothing to the food physically or spiritually. But, like the Corinthians, we should always act out of love. If we are with others who believe halal food is wrong to eat, we should refrain out of concern for their conviction. If we are served food by someone who makes a point that it is halal, we should refrain as a quiet sign that we do not accept the authority of the false god to which it was dedicated. If we are in a restaurant or market or school or home that, we suspect, is serving halal food, we should eat and give thanks to the true God who provides.