Could you give an easy to understand guideline for assessing suitability of cheese?
In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.
As-salāmu ‘alaykum wa-rahmatullāhi wa-barakātuh.
The practice of making cheese is very ancient and was done well before the time of Rasulullah salallahu ῾alayhi wasallam. Cheese was made for the reason that it was a means of preserving food which could last for a long period of time. Rasulullah salallahu ῾alayhi wasallam himself was presented cheese made by the Persians (the Magians) which he ate.
In today’s world of commercial cheese making, the Shar’ee ruling of cheese will generally depend on two factors. The primary factor or concern is the main enzyme used to turn milk into curd and whey. This enzyme is derived from “Rennet”.
Without complicating the issue with different opinion within the Hanafi opinion, you should call the company and confirm the source of the rennet.
- If the source of the rennet used in making cheese is non-animal source (microbial enzymes etc) then it will be halal for consumption [This is normally mentioned on the packaging]
- If the source of the rennet used in cheese is made animal source then:
—if the animal is pork/swine/pig, then the cheese will be haram [Normal packaging may mention porcine rennet]
—if the animal is such that muslims consume (i.e. bovine, cattle etc.), then the cheese will be halal (slaughter of the animal will not be a requirement for such rennet’s permissibility). [See Adendum below]*
The secondary factor or concern is the “gelatin” used in many processed cheese products (e.g. cheese slices, cheese strings, cheese dips etc). While there are many cheese manufacturers who may not use gelatin at all, it is still cautious to ascertain this fact for the surety of permissibility of cheese consumption.
- If the gelatin is from a non-animal source, then it will be permissible.
- If the gelatin is from bones of those animals which are consumable by Muslims, then such gelatin is also halal. Zabiha is not a condition for the gelatin from bones of these animals.
- If the gelatin is from the hide/skin of those animals which are consumable by Muslims, then the animal needs to be slaughtered for the gelatin to be considered halal.
- If the gelatin is from bones or skin of animals which we cannot eat (lions, tigers), then that gelatin is not permissible.
- If the gelatin is from any part of pork/pig/swine, it will never be halal (i.e. haram).
Hence, if besides the above to factors, there are no other haram ingredients in cheese, the cheese will be halal. The best way is to call the company and confirm what type of rennet or gelatin (if any) has been used in the product and then make the decision.
If one is unable to obtain such information and is doubtful about the product, then one should abstain from consuming such cheese.
And Allah Ta’āla Knows Best
Mufti Faisal bin Abdul Hameed al-Mahmudi
* Adendum : My coleague Mufti Khalil (may Allah increase his knowledge) has informed me that the modern procedure of rennet extraction is as follows : “Deep-frozen stomachs are milled and put into an enzyme-extracting solution. The crude rennet extract is then activated by adding acid; the enzymes in the stomach are produced in an inactive form and are activated by the stomach acid. The acid is then neutralized and the rennet extract is filtered in several stages and concentrated until reaching a typical potency of about 1:15,000; meaning 1 gram of extract can coagulate 15 kg (15 litres) of milk. “Rennet – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia”, accessed 08 January 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rennet.
In light of this new information, only the rennet from a ritually slaughtered zabiha animal will be halal. While this is the case, and should be clarified, the modern trend in industry is moving towards microbial enzymes.
 Rennet is a natural complex of enzymes produced in the lining membrane of the fourth stomach of mammals. The active enzyme in rennet is rennin (chymosin). There are other important enzymes as well, e.g. pepsin or lipase.
Rennet can also be derived from non-animal sources. In the past people also used rennet from fig leaves, melon, wild thistle and safflower for cheese making. The most widely used non-animal rennet is by fermenting a fungus called Mucor miehei. In today’s time, genetically engineered rennet has also become common in cheese making.
This answer was collected from Fatwa.ca, which is a fatwa portal operated by Mufti Faisal al Mahmudi from Canada.