This is a fascinating article by Sheikh Yasir Qadhi (brief profile below) where he argues on the permissibility of Muslims consuming cheese vis-a-vis the source of rennet used in its manufacture, and basing on certain fatwas.
There is an extensive discussion and various viewpoints in the comments section of the article at it's original site.
As for me, I have always looked for the حلال logo on the packaging when buying food products, and based on the good Sheikh's arguments, I don't really have to any more as regards cheese. But old habits die hard and I would feel a wee bit better anyway purchasing something with the familiar logo there.
Of Mice and Men – The Cheese Factor
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:
Read on here
Biography (from Wikipedia)
Yasir Qadhi was born in Houston, Texas, to Pakistani parents, in 1975, went to high school in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, graduating valedictorian of his class, and completed a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering from the University of Houston. After working for Dow Chemical for a short stint, he decided to pursue an education in Islamic studies, and left for the Islamic University of Madinah. There, he completed a second bachelor's degree, specializing in hadith studies, and then went on to complete an M.A. in Theology. Presently, he is completing his doctorate in Islamic studies at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.
He is an instructor in the AlMaghrib Institute. He appears on a number of Islamic satellite channels (Islam Channel in England; Al-Huda Channel in Egypt; Al-Fajr Channel in Egypt; and Peace TV in India , U.K and U.S), where he teaches theology, Seerah, Tajweed, and other topics. He gives regular sermons and lectures. He also blogs at MuslimMatters.org, where he is the group-blog's lead specialist.
* Du’a : The Weapon of the Believer
* An Explanation of the Four Principles of Shirk
* An Introduction to the Sciences of the Qur’an
* A Critical Study of Shirk
* Riyaa: Hidden Shirk
* 15 Ways to Increase Your Earnings from the Qur’an and Sunnah