Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Is Halal Meat Halal? (or, Why Should I Care About a Cow?)

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(Bismillah ar-rahman ar-rahim, in the name of God, the most compassionate, the most merciful ~)

Those of you who have the questionable honor of knowing me in person know that I tend to be pretty outspoken (for a Muslim, anyway) about organic and locally raised meats. I believe that halal - religiously, ritually acceptable - meat means far more than whether the animal had the name of God recited while it was slaughtered. How the animal lived is far more important to me than how it died.

Now, this is a fairly unusual, even radical, statement for a Muslim. According to all the traditional scholars, and nearly all modern scholars are in agreement, halal meat = correctly slaughtered. That's it - only the slaughter process counts. There is more to it than just reciting the name of God: there's a long list of requirements surrounding the slaughter process, most of them with the goal of minimizing the animal's suffering (must use a very sharp knife, may not kill one animal in the sight of another, and so on).

Within the traditions of Islam there is expressed an unceasing concern for animal welfare. This goes so far as to assert, in one authenticated hadith, that an otherwise 'good' person who willfully neglects an animal in their care risks hellfire, and in another hadith, that an otherwise 'sinful' person who shows compassion to a suffering animal can find admission to heaven because of that one act. Taken together, along with rules around the care of livestock and slaughter, this suggests the heavy responsibility humans have toward animals - each of us as individuals, not only those who work with animals for a living.

As an average person living in an urban environment, I don't have much direct contact with or influence on animals other than my pet cat. But this doesn't excuse me from my responsibility, because I eat meat. I don't kill the animals I eat, I don't raise them, I have nothing to do with the process except for the end - but that part, what I buy, I DO have control over. And this is where my responsibility is. It is my responsibility to not only make sure (as I am able to) that the animals I eat for food lived and died with minimal suffering, but also to encourage farmers to treat their livestock well by "voting with my dollars" for those companies and farms that do, and not purchasing from industrial farms/corporations that abuse their livestock in order to make more profit from their lives and deaths.

On a more 'practical' level, as far as 'halal-ness', it is also well known that corporate farms feed their animals parts of other animals (and not the nice bits either - think blood, used litter and bits left over from 'processing'). I mentioned earlier that most predators are categorically not halal; feeding otherwise-halal species animal-based material as if they were predators calls their halal-ness into serious question.

The Fiqh Council of North America, a group of Muslim scholars who are well respected and qualified to issue fiqh rulings issued this preliminary ruling in 2001 declaring non-vegetarian-fed meat to be highly "doubtful" (a legal category that is just below "forbidden") and recommending that Muslims restrict their meat intake until this question can be further examined. (The issue has not been updated since, unfortunately.) This decision is significant because the FCNA is one of the only bodies of scholars in North America qualified to make authoritative religious rulings; most who answer Q&A about religious issues are not qualified to issue anything other than their educated opinion. Their decision can be found here.

This article, which is referenced in the FCNA decision but with a broken link, is also from 2001. Because of this, some of the precise details about feed regulations are not perfectly accurate, but the article as a whole is not only accurate but frightening. It also points out that a kosher certification does not guarantee a vegetarian diet.

Many Muslims think that a "halal" certification includes these factors such as the animal's diet. However, to achieve a halal certification a company needs only feed the livestock it slaughters a vegetarian diet for a short time before slaughter, and the halal certification process does not even consider the conditions an animal was raised in. Thus, it's legal for a "halal" company to purchase animals from a regular industrial farm, feed them grain for a few weeks, slaughter them and call them "halal". I'm not accusing any company or producer of this; we don't know what the actual practices are, and with the widespread ignorance about commercial meat production in this country, it's certainly possible that halal meat is not quite so halal. To my knowledge, no halal meat producer in the U.S. has thoroughly addressed the question, and I've never heard of organic halal meat being offered anywhere. I hope that I someday do.

In the meantime, I'll continue to eat organic or local/regional meat from trusted sources and reduce my consumption of non-organic/trusted meat (including Hebrew National hot dogs, sadly!). There's far more to the issue: I haven't touched on dairy production and I've said almost nothing about the actual conditions in which most food animals, dairy cows and laying chickens are kept for their entire lives. Nor have I discussed the routine use of antibiotics and hormones on food animals, or the "meat processing" process itself. If you want to read more than you ever wanted to know about U.S. commercial (and organic) meat, egg and dairy production, try "The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter" or check out my friend's blog, Tigers and Strawberries. In addition to food production editorial, she has a wealth of recipes, cooking lessons, and adorable cat and Kat (baby) pictures.

9 comments:

  1. So interesting. I am currently learning so much about the importance of eating local and organic foods. This week I am part of a challange here in Chicago that has me eating ONLY local foods. Reading your post has made me have much more insight as to why this is an important practice.
    I am not Muslim, and have always wondered what Halal actually meant. Thank you for opening my eyes to it.

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  2. I'm so glad to see someone else bringing this up! I've spent a long time trying to talk my husband into paying extra for the organic/free-range/grass-fed etc etc eggs and milk (meat is going to take longer - but since I'm the one who cooks I can just not make it much) because of this same issue, and I recently convinced him. I found your blog because someone who knows my stance saw this post and told me - keep it up! I'll definitely be reading!

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  3. As a lapsed Catholic I've always found religious dietary restrictions bizarre; now with a deeper understanding of Halal I find it fascinating and rather beautiful. Thanks for enlightening me!

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  4. ChronicWorrier.wordpress.comSeptember 14, 2007 9:42 AM

    Hi Heather..well thought-out post. I was just wondering tho..apropos yr responsibility- wouldn't it all be simpler if you folld a vegetarian diet & didn't have to worry abt how the animals live before they are killed?
    Like I said..just curious. Am in no way trying to provoke heated discussions..

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  5. I wandered over from Tigers and Strawberries, and I just have to say that this is a fascinating (and eloquent!) essay. I keep kosher, and you've managed to codify a good deal of my doubts and thoughts on modern-day kosher/halal animal treatment.

    I'm honestly not sure if American Islam is heading in this direction, but many rulings in Judaism seem to embrace the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit, and -- especially when it comes to issues such as this -- that disturbs me.

    Anyway. That's just my two cents on the matter. On a practical level, I'm solving the problem by eating a mostly vegetarian diet, but on the idea level, I haven't gotten far yet.

    In any case, I hope to follow your blog, as long as you don't mind a stranger reading along :)
    -Meli

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  6. I have long exprience with Islamic theology therefore I familira with all debates about what is appropriate life-style for a muslim? But interesting point for me was how u have put forward your argument democraticly and accurate for a modern day mulism. It was thoughtful article. God bless you.

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  7. Hi, I am a South African living in London. So many people over here don't care about where their meat comes from. I am very aware and only buy organic meat. It is so difficult when eating out, so I go veggie.I would eat Kosher and Halal, but now I am not sure. I find this upsetting, because we should be able to trust them!!! Thank you so much for site and forum. It brings hope that there are some of us who care. Keep up the good work... Brenda

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  8. I really liked your post. I keep kosher, and similar questions have come up in classes and discussions I've been to in the Jewish community. Where I'm from, several grocery stores sold kosher, organic, free-range, pesticide-free, etc, chicken and other meats. Where it came from, I don't know, but I knew people who bought it. While I'm personally vegetarian so that takes care of the meat issue for myself, almost every time I go to the grocery store I am faced with dilemmas: I have a commitment to shop kosher, with hekshers (certification) but in Alaska this often means choosing between locally-produced products and foods shipped in from outside. I'm not sure how I feel about that.

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  9. Thank you for your thoughtful explanation of halal issues. I've only just come across it by following a link from Desert Candy. Down here in Australia, halal slaughter does cause some concern. Most abattoir workers believe animals suffer less with their usual practice, stunning animals or poultry before killing them. Halal requires animals to be fully conscious. No matter how sharp the knife, it's hard to believe a sheep doesn't mind its throat being cut, and that this is kinder.

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