I admit: I am cheesed off. Totally, that is.
Recently, I returned from one of the largest Muslim conferences in North America. While at the convention, I had placed my son Ammaar in the day-long seminars meant for the younger children. When Ammaar got back to the hotel room, the first thing he said as he barged into the room, his eyes wide open in amazement as is his wont, ‘Baba, Baba! Do you know that Doritos and Cheetos are harām?’ I groaned internally, knowing the basic source of this ‘fatwā’, and asked, ‘Why do you say that?’ to which he replied, ‘The auntie in our class said so!’
Sigh………. One more important lesson in fatherhood: make sure you teach your children that much of what they learn in ‘Islamic’ school is not necessarily ‘Islamic’.
As all of us are so (painfully) aware, of recent there has been a flurry of e-mails in Muslim circles regarding popular products, such as Doritos, that use cheese manufactured from porcine rennet. Since these products are sprinkled with such cheese, concerned Muslims have automatically concluded that the aforementioned products must be totally harām, and thus unceremoniously boycotted. Putting aside the nutritional value of such products, such a (cheesy) attitude, although commendable due to its sincere intentions, also betrays a fundamental lack of knowledge regarding halāl and harām foods. Before jumping the gun, it would behoove Muslims to do a little more research and consider the matter from all angles.
In this article, it is my intention to examine the issue in a more academic manner. However, for those who don’t have the time to read it, then to cut a long story short, the strongest opinion appears to be that cheese, in all of its commonly available varieties (except those that actually contain pork as an added flavoring) is absolutely and totally halāl.
In order to prove this point, first we’ll discuss how cheese is actually manufactured. Then, we’ll look at the Islamic perspective on animal rennet and, finally, the ruling on cheese derived from it. As a disclaimer, please note that this is, firstly, a very cursory look at the issue, both from a chemical and an Islamic point of view (although I do feel it is comprehensive despite its brevity), and, secondly, represents only the opinion of its author.
The Manufacture of Cheese
Cheese is a product formed by coagulating milk using a substance called rennet, and an acidification process. Milk from any animal may be used, although of course the most common ingredient is cow’s milk, followed by goat’s milk (some more exotic cheeses are found in cultures that use milk from reindeers, camels, and llamas, to name but a few). Hundreds of different flavors of cheese may be produced, depending on what type of milk is used, whether the milk was pasteurized or not, the butterfat content of the milk, the type of rennet, the addition of specific enzymes and flavoring agents for taste, the acidification process, and the length and environment in which the cheese is aged.
No one knows when man first ‘discovered’ how to make cheese. The origins of cheese pre-date recorded history, and all ancient civilizations, including the Romans, Greeks and Egyptians, are known to have been cheese producers and consumers. One of the folktales regarding the ‘discovery’ of cheese involves an Arab nomad who wished to carry milk across the desert. Finding no container other than an goat’s stomach, he transported the milk in it, only to discover at the end of his journey that the milk had been separated into curd and whey by the rennet from the stomach!
Rennet is, therefore, an essential component of manufacturing cheese. Traditionally, only animal rennet was used in the manufacture of cheese. However, due to the high demand of cheese and the cost and difficulty associated with the production of animal rennet, more and more companies are turning to other sources for rennet. The two primary types of rennet besides animal rennet are: vegetable rennet, and synthetic rennet manufactured in laboratories from various fungi. It is safe to state that in modern times most cheese is manufactured from non-animal rennet, but the percentage of animal rennet is still quite high. (In one of the cheese manufacturing plants that I visited in Holland, a mixture of synthetic and animal rennet was used; another one I visited in Vermont used only vegetable rennet).
It goes without saying that any cheese manufactured with rennet not taken from animal sources does not raise any fiqh controversy, hence the discussion at hand will focus on cheese manufactured with animal rennet.
Rennet is a complex natural enzyme that is produced in mammalian stomachs to digest milk. Animal rennet is typically extracted from the inner linings of the stomachs of young animals, usually cows or pigs. It is the younger animals who need this rennet to fully digest their mother’s milk; older animals do not yield as many necessary enzymes, hence if older animals are used, more stomach lining must be used to produce the same quantity of rennet.
In order to extract the rennet from the stomach linings, a chemical process is used in which the linings are dissolved in a mixture of acid and other solvent. This facilitates the transfer of the enzymes from the stomach linings to the solvent. The final stage involves neutralizing the acid. At the completion of this process, the rennet is available in a viscous liquid form. It is this form of rennet that is actually added to the milk for the coagulation process.
Of interest to note is that most of this final viscous liquid is actually solvent (water, salt and acid remnants); typically less than 1% of the liquid used is actual animal enzyme. The amount of rennet solvent needed for the manufacture of cheese is quite insignificant – as an example, in the factory that I visited in Holland, a small beaker of solvent rennet was added to a large vat of prepared milk.
The Islamic Ruling on Animal Rennet
From an Islamic perspective, animal rennet can be divided into three categories:
Firstly, the rennet derived from animals that have been slaughtered in accordance with the Sharīaah. There is no difference of opinion that such rennet is completely pure.
Secondly, the rennet derived from permissible animals (e.g., cows, sheep and goats) that have not been slaughtered according to the Sharīaah - for example, a cow that has been killed by a means other than ritual slaughtering (zabh). With regards to this second category, there is a difference of opinion amongst the classical scholars (manifested in the four madhabs) regarding the permissibility of such rennet – the opinion of Abū Hanīfa, one of the two opinions narrated from Ahmad (and the one chosen by Ibn Qudāmah), and the opinion of Ibn Taymiyyah, was that such rennet was pure, hence the cheese derived from it would also be considered pure. Other scholars, including the relied upon position in the Shafī’ī and Mālikī schools, is that such rennet is impure, and the cheese derived from it also impure. Many later Hanafīs, disagreeing with Abū Hanīfa’s view on this matter, also claimed that such rennet is impure (for some modern fatwas, the reader is referred here).
Thirdly, the rennet derived from impermissible animals, such as pigs. There is no significant difference of opinion that such rennet is impure, as the source of it is impure. Just like the meat, milk and bones of such animals are impure, similarly the rennet derived from their stomachs is also impure. Rennet of the second category would be permissible for Muslims to produce, buy, or sell if they followed the opinion that it is pure (and this is the correct opinion insha Allah). However, since porcine rennet is Harām, it is impermissible for Muslims to manufacture or sell such rennet, based on the Hadīth, “When Allah prohibits a matter, He prohibits its price” [Narrated by Ahmad]. The ‘price’ in this Hadīth means buying and selling the product.
Having said that, this ruling [viz., that porcine rennet is impermissible to sell or consume] should not be confused with another one: buying, selling and (most importantly) eating cheese manufactured with porcine rennet. Most Muslims simply do not understand that the two rulings are not necessarily identical, hence the confusion.Thus, to reiterate, cheese manufactured with animal rennet of the second and third categories is what is at dispute here. This article will not discuss the ruling of the second category of rennet in detail because, as shall be seen, if cheese from the third category is shown to be Halāl, then ipso facto cheese from the second category will also be considered permissible.
The Islamic Ruling on Cheese Derived from Porcine Rennet
There are two issues which need to be considered in order to derive the Islamic ruling on cheese: firstly, does the rennet undergo a chemical transformation when it is extracted from its source, and secondly, the quantity of rennet vis-à-vis the other ingredients. Both of these issues have a direct and immediate effect on the permissibility or impermissibility of such cheese. [Of interest is to note that although this article is specifically about cheese, these two foundational premises may be extrapolated to derive rulings on all substances and food items.] The first issue, that of a complete chemical transformation, is called in Arabic istihāla. Istihāla basically answers the question: If an impure substance undergoes a complete and total chemical transformation into a pure substance, is that sufficient to consider it to be pure? The classic example used by the early scholars is that of vinegar derived from wine: if left in the right circumstances or agitated in a specific manner, any bottle of wine will undergo a chemical transformation and become vinegar. This resultant vinegar is completely harmless and does not intoxicate.
Classical scholars differed over the issue of istihāla – the Hanafīs and Ibn Taymiyyah claimed that it made the final product pure, whereas the other three madhabs generally did not consider the resultant product pure if the process was intentionally done by human intervention. There is no verse or authentic hadīth that explicit supports either side – both groups base their opinion on sound reasoning and various reports from the Companions. (Also refer to this very beneficial article by a contemporary scholar on a closely related issue and a hadīth that plays an indirect role in this matter). Due to the fact that there is nothing explicit in the Divine Texts on this issue, and taking into account that a chemical transformation does indeed completely alter a compound (as anyone with a basic knowledge of chemistry will attest to), I follow the first opinion, which states that istihāla does indeed make the resultant product pure. Most of the modern fiqh academies also adhere to this first opinion.
The relevance of this issue to that of rennet is as follows: if animal rennet undergoes a chemical transformation during the extraction process, then even if its source was porcine, the extracted solvent would be considered permissible and pure by the first category of scholars. (Of course the second group of scholars would not be concerned with this issue, and would consider porcine rennet impure even if a chemical transformation occurred.)
Unfortunately, in my (limited) perusal of this subject, I could not verify whether the extraction process causes a chemical change in the rennet or not; however, from what I did read it would appear that no chemical change occurs and the extraction process is merely concerned with the transfer of the animal enzymes from the lining of the stomach into the liquid solvent. (Any information from specialists in this area would be greatly appreciated). Therefore, if the situation is that no chemical change occurs, then this issue is moot, and we move to the next one.
The next issue is really the crux of the matter. It concerns the quantity and residuum of an impure substance when mixed with a pure one. Now, there is pretty much unanimous agreement amongst the scholars that an extremely minute quantity of an impure substance, when added to a large quantity of a pure one, will not make the final substance impure. For example, if a glass of urine is thrown into an average-size lake, no scholar would consider the entire lake to be impure. Although the overall principle is a matter of agreement, there is no clear consensus on exactly how much impurity would affect a pure substance. So the real issue here is how to define what constitutes a miniscule quantity versus what would constitute a significant quantity. But the basic point is agreed upon: if an extremely minute quantity of an impurity is totally dissolved in a much larger quantity of a pure substance, such that the impurity does not leave any discernable presence (this is called istihlāk), the resultant substance will still be pure.
This fiqh principle is primarily derived from the famous hadīth, “When water reaches two qullas (a specific quantity of water), it will not become impure” [Narrated by Abū Dawūd]. Another evidence is the hadīth of the ‘Well of Budā’ah’.
Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah writes, commenting on the hadīth of the two qullas, “So when it is clear that the water being asked about was of a large quantity – two qullas – and a large quantity is not affected by impurities, but rather is dissolved in it, this shows that the ruling [of whether something is pure or not] is dependant on whether the impurity is carried [by the pure substance], meaning that its presence is obvious, and in this case it will be impure. But if it has been completely diffused in the pure substance, then it does not have any residual effects [and the substance is pure]. So, with regards to these oils, and milks, and sweet and sour drinks, and other substances that are pure, since any impurities [contained in it] have been completely consumed (istihlāk) and altered, then how can the pure that Allah has permitted be considered impermissible?! And who is there who has said that if a quantity of impurity mixes with a pure substance such that it is totally consumed by it (itsihlāk) and altered in it, that the substance will be impermissible? Rather, there is nothing to suggest this from the Quran, or the Sunnah, or unanimous consensus, or analogy. And that is why the Prophet (saw) said, in the hadīth of the Well of Budā’ah, when he was told that menstrual pads and dog carcasses and impurities fall into it, ‘Pure water is not made impure by anything’” [Mukhtasar al-Fatāwa al-Masriyyah, p. 20; also see Majmū’ al-Fatāwa vol. 21, p. 502].
Other scholars also give similar rulings. For example, Ibn Hazm claimed that if an impure substance is dissolved in a larger quantity of purity, to such an extent that the final product does not carry the name of the impure substance (i.e., such that the impure substance will not be a significant part of the final product), then the impermissibility that was initially applied to the impure substance will be removed from the final product, since the final product is not called that impure substance. As an example, he states that if a drop of wine were to fall into water, no effect is demonstrated, and the same applies for all other substances as well [al-Muhallā, vol 7, p. 422].
And this is the opinion of many modern fiqh bodies as well. The European Council for Fatwa issued a fatwa (Number 34, issued in Jumad al-Akhirah 1419 A.H.) stating that any impure substance added to pure food items does not make the food impure if either: (a) the substance underwent a complete chemical change (istihāla), or (b) was totally used up and dissolved in the food item, such that its traces became negligible (istihlāk). Based upon this principle, since the quantity of animal rennet in cheese is very insignificant, it would then follow that even if the rennet used to manufacture it was impure, the final cheese would be completely and totally pure. There would be no difference whether impermissible bovine rennet or porcine rennet was used. Since the quantity is so trivial, it is considered to be completely used up (istihlāk) by the pure elements, such as the milk, which makes up the bulk of the cheese. (See below for a more detailed look at the quantity of rennet involved in the manufacture of cheese).
Statements from the Classical Scholars Regarding this Issue
To the best of my knowledge, there is only one explicit hadīth about cheese. Abu Dawud, in his Sunan, has a chapter on eating cheese, in which he narrates a hadīth in which some cheese was presented to the Prophet after the Battle of Tabuk. He called for a knife [to cut it up], said bismillah, and ate of it (al-Sunan of Abū Dawūd, ‘The Chapter of Foods’, # 3819). This is quite an explicit hadīth on the permissibility of cheese manufactured from impure rennet, since no Muslim would have been present at Tabuk to manufacture the cheese. Hence, this hadīth appears to state that the Prophet ate cheese manufactured by idol-worshippers. The chain, however, is not the strongest of chains, and in fact appears to be weak (compare with the mursal narration found in both the Musannaf of ‘Abd al-Razzāq # 8795 and the Musannaf of Ibn Abī Shaybah # 24417). Also, if anything, this narration could only be used directly to support the permissibility of cheese manufactured from the second type of rennet mentioned above, and not porcine rennet, as the Arabs did not eat pig.
Of the famous Imams, we have the report where Imam Aḥmad was asked about eating cheese, to which he replied, ‘It may be eaten from anyone,” meaning regardless of who made it. And he was explicitly asked about the cheese made by the Zoroastrians, to which he responded, “I do not know; but the most authentic hadīth narrated in this regard is the hadīth of ‘Amr b. Sharahbīl, in which he said that ‘Umar was asked about cheese, and he was told that the rennet from dead animals is used, to which he said, ‘You say the bismillah yourself, and then eat.’ And Imam Ahmad also said, “Isn’t most of the cheese we eat manufactured by the Zoroastrians?” [See: al-Mughni, v. 13, p. 352; also al-Inṣāf, v. 27, p. 264].
Thus it is quite explicit that Imam Ahmad considered cheese to be permissible regardless of its source, as the Zoroastrians are not of those who mention Allah’s name at the time of sacrifice, yet the cheese manufactured by them was considered permissible. (It should be noted that, as is typical with the Hanbalī madhhab, there are other opinions narrated as well - but this is the one that is considered stronger within the madhhab).
Amongst the Companions themselves, we find some references to eating cheese, as Imam Ahmed referred to. Both the Musannafs of ‘Abd al-Razzāq and Ibn Abī Shaybah have entire chapters dedicated to cheese. In them, we find that although some of the classical scholars, such as Sa’īd b. al-Musayyab and Sa’id b. Jubayr, were hesitant to eat cheese if it was known that a dead animal (mayta) was used in its preparation, the majority of such scholars saw no sin in this regard. Ibn ‘Abbās is reported to have held the view that there is no problem with cheese that originates from Jews and Christians (Musannaf of ‘Abd al-Razzāq, # 8789). Both ‘Umar b. al-Khattāb and his son ‘Abdullāh b. ‘Umar allowed the eating of cheese, without regards to their origin. ‘Umar is reported to have said, when asked about it, “Eat, for it is only milk or whey,” (Musannaf of ‘Abd al-Razzāq, 8787), and his son said, “Nothing comes to us from Iraq that is more beloved to me than cheese!” (ibid., # 8790). A son of ‘Alī b. Abī Tālib, Muhammad b. al-Hanafiyyah, said, “Eat cheese regardless of its source” (ibid., # 8793). In my humble opinion, some of these narrations (such as the last one of ‘Umar) show that the Companions hinted at the small percentage of impurities in cheese and that it was not so consequential as to cause the entire product to be impure. Also, as Ibn Taymiyyah points out (see following quote), those who allowed the cheese were more aware of its manufacturing process than those who prohibited it.
And my favorite scholar, Shaykh al-Islām Ibn Taymiyyah, wrote, “As for the milk and rennet of dead animals, then there are two well-known opinions about this issue. The first of them is that it is pure, and this is the opinion of Abū Hanīfa and others, and one of the two opinion of Ahmad. The second opinion is that it is impure, and this is the opinion of Mālik, and Shāfi’ī, and the other opinion from Ahmad. Based on this difference of opinion, they then differed regarding cheese manufactured by the Zoroastrians, for the animals sacrificed by the Zoroastrians are considered impermissible [to eat] by the vast majority of scholars of the past and present, so much so that it is said that the Companions unanimously agreed on this ruling. Hence, if they made cheese – and cheese is made from rennet – then these two opinions will apply. But the stronger opinion is that their cheese is indeed permissible, and that the rennet and milk of dead animals is pure. And the proof for this is that when the Companions conquered Iraq, they ate the cheese of the Zoroastrians, and this was something common and well-known amongst them. As for what has been narrated of the disapproval of some of them in this matter, then there is a problem with it, since it is of the opinion of some of the people of Hijaz [i.e., Arabia]. And the people of Iraq were more knowledgeable of this, as the Zoroastrians were in there land and not in the land of the Hijaz. What makes this matter even clearer is that Salmān al-Farsi, who was the governor of ‘Umar b. al-Khattāb over al-Madā’in (in Iraq) and was active in calling the Zoroastrians to Islam, was asked about fat and cheese, to which he responded, ‘The halāl is what Allah has made permissible in His Book, and the ḥarām is what Allah has prohibited in His Book. And whatever He has remained silent about has been forgiven.’ And Abū Dawūd also reported this as a prophetic hadīth. Of course, it is understood that he was not being asked about the cheese of the Muslims or Ahl al-Kitāb, for that is a clear-cut issue; rather, the question was about the cheese manufactured by Zoroastrians. This shows that Salmān gave a fatwā for its permissibility…” (Majmū’ al-Fatāwā, vol. 21, p. 102-103). Note here that Ibn Taymiyyah is not talking about rennet derived from pigs but rather rennet derived from cows and sheep that have not been slaughtered according to the Sharī’āh (i.e., the second category of rennet in the tripartite division given above). However, his quote can be used here in the general context of the permissibility of cheese, regardless of its source. Also, in other fatāwā (some of which were quoted above), Ibn Taymiyyah clearly shows that he ascribes to the view that istihlāk of a impure substance in a pure material does not make the entire material impure.
Although it is healthy to note that many Muslims are very concerned about the laws of the Sharī’ah, before jumping to any hasty conclusions it is essential that these laws be understood and studied.
The primary issue that needs to be considered when it comes to the permissibility or impermissibility of cheese, in this author’s humble opinion, is the quantity of animal rennet that exists in it. Consider the following: In a crude experiment, 2 square centimeters of a prepared calf’s stomach lining was immersed in 30 grams of water to produce the initial rennet solvent. After the extraction process, the remaining linings were removed via a fine sieve, and then one teaspoon of the solvent rennet (i.e., around one-seventh of the initial solvent) was then mixed with approximately five gallons of prepared milk to produce around five pounds of cheese. Someone with a little more time than myself may easily work out the precise percentages and the final quantity of animal rennet in an average slice of cheese, but from these numbers it is pretty clear than a very insignificant quantity of actual animal enzyme ends up in the final cheese. To quote only one reference, Wikipedia states that 1 kg of manufactured cheese contains about 0.0003 grams of rennet enzymes. Again, that’s one kilogram – imagine how much rennet would be present in one slice, and now imagine how much would be in a corn chip that has only been coated with dried cheese.
Such a miniscule quantity of impurity (i.e., less than 0.00003 %) simply cannot make the entire product impure – a drop of najas blood that falls into a ten-gallon container of water is actually more concentrated than the amount of rennet enzymes in cheese.
Hence, to conclude, it is the humble opinion of this student of knowledge (and of many great ‘ulamā) that cheese, regardless of how it is manufactured or who it is manufactured by, is permissible. [The only exception would be if other impure additives of a sufficient quantity were incorporated in the manufacturing process - such as bacon flavored cheese.]
So go ahead Ammaar – eat away! Oh, and pass the dip…