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Shaykh Daoud’s Blog

Halal Food? My threepennyworth, or a foray into my Orientalist past.

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Apart from the health worries, everybody should agree that one ought to be able to have confidence that what you are buying is actually what you want to buy.

If you want halal chicken, then it really should be. And if you have a personal objection to eating ‘halal’ food you shouldn’t have it given to you ‘under the radar’ as it were.

It is a common complaint that so-called halal slaughtering is cruel and inhumane. This has often been backed up by photographic and video evidence of it being done.

And if one is to go by that, then one can say that no matter what may be claimed for its halal nature what one sees before our eyes belies it. If that’s what they think is halal, then they’re wrong.

Some years ago, there was a documentary shown on BBC TV about the treatment and presentation of frozen chickens.

The programme demonstrated that many chickens sold in the UK were sourced from countries such as Brazil, that they were treated with chemicals and soaked in water that was absorbed up to 100 percent of the body weight, and then frozen and boxed up.

The solution in which they were steeped contained all sorts of animal products, including pig, and industrial chemicals. Some of the boxes were designated as being for the halal food market, and simply labelled as “halal” although the content was no different from the non-halal boxes.

So, what constitutes “halal” food?

It would seem at first glance to be a simple matter, but it isn’t. There is a simplistic obsession with cutthroat meat as being the main or only determinant as to whether the food is halal or not. This is wrong.

Nevertheless, it was the normal way of slaughtering animals in the British Isles until the fashion for “pre-stunning” took hold; and the mere stating of the formula “in the Name of God” before cutting the throat hardly, in my book at any rate, constitutes “ritual slaughter”.

I usually tell them about my maternal grandfather and great-grandfather who were working sheep and dairy farmers initially on the Hebridean island of Islay and latterly near Peebles in the Scottish Borders. If they wanted a sheep for the table, they would slaughter it by cutting its throat. And being good and practising Scots Presbyterians they would do so “in the Name of God”.

I would imagine that this was fairly typical everywhere in the British Isles at the end of the 19th Century. My point in drawing their attention to this is that there is nothing inherently “alien” about slaughtering in this manner, just unfashionable.

Were it available, I would recommend people to read the booklet authored by my friend from the past Dr Ghulam Mustafa Khan entitled “Al Dhabh: Slaying Animals for Food the Islamic Way”. Unfortunately it is out of print, and the last reprint date was in 1982 – a dereliction, I would say, of the UK Muslim communities.

In it, referring to extensive studies on schechita (koshering) that appeared in the Israel Veterinary Journal, he demonstrated that done properly the “cutthroat” method is inherently humane and painless; that the animal is unaware of what is happening and loses consciousness before feeling the cut – much like cutting one’s self shaving.

The operative matter here is “done properly”.

For the animal slaughtered in this manner to be halal, it must be kept calm and be unaware of what is to happen to it. It must not be in the presence of other animals that are being slaughtered; there must not be any smell of fear or death in the air. According to a Tradition one animal must not be slaughtered in the presence of another.

It is thus arguable that those animals or birds we see trussed up and treated like inanimate commodities being slaughtered en masse are not halal.

There is also an opinion among scholars that the way the animal is reared will affect the halal or otherwise nature of its meat. Arguably, therefore, battery chickens, or cage reared calves for veal, cannot be halal.

Further, it is a fantasy that is easily dispelled by a visit to an industrial slaughter-house that the pre-stunning method as frequently applied is necessarily more humane than the popular view on koshering/halaling.

Also, the pre-stunning method of disposing of chickens involves an often slow and painful asphyxiation with CO2 gas.

My point here is that the industrial levels of slaughter, whether according to the supposed halal method or the pre-stunning method, are not necessarily humane. And may well by their very industrial scale militate against it.

Their practises need to be inspected by the Food Safety Authority and rigorously ameliorated before any high horses are ridden.

Further, cutting the throat of the animal is not necessarily the only means by which meat acquires its halal nature.

Most people are aware that the Muslims, by and large, belong to one or other of the two principal denominations: Shiah and Sunni. Less well-known is that within those two are certain “schools” or “rites” to do with the methodology of interpreting verses of the Quran, the Traditions of the Prophet, and their applicability to everyday life: each of these is called a “madh’hab” (plural, ‘madhahib’).

The rulings in certain circumstances will depend on the surrounding communal environment. For example, the (Sunni) Hanafi rite is the dominant one in the Indian sub-continent, Turkey, the Balkans, eastern Europe, Central Asia, and China.

In India and China the surrounding non-Muslim milieux are largely Hindu or Confucianist; whereas in Turkey, Europe, and Central Asia it is Christian with an admixture of Jews.

Thus, rulings in the Christian environment differ to some extent from those of the Hindu or Confucianist ones as their food is not considered permissible for Muslims and the clearest way of establishing this was by laying a great emphasis on cutting the throat for slaughter.

However, migrants from there in coming here have entered a Christian milieu and ideas and practises from there are not suitable for here.

The normative rulings within the Hanafi rite for those of its followers living in the UK and Europe are therefore those from the Ottoman Empire, not least because it was the seat of the Caliphate, and not from the Mughal Empire.

And “halal” actually doesn’t simply mean ‘lawful’, but ‘not forbidden’. And, as I understand it, in Islam everything that is not expressly forbidden is permitted.

Many Muslims, with the strong authority of scholars of their rites (madhahib), hold that the verses of the Quran that state unequivocally “al yawma uhilla lakumu-t tayyibat; wa ta’amu-lladheena utou-l kitaba hillun lakum...” (Q5 Maidah: 6)(today the good things are permitted you, and the food of those who were given the Book is permitted to you… [Arberry’s translation]) and “ya ayyuha-lladheena amanou la tuharrimou tayyibati ma ahilla-Llahu lakum wa la ta’tadou” (Q5 Maidah: 90)(O believers, forbid not such good things as God has permitted you; and transgress not… [Arberry’s translation]) are to be taken literally.

Namely, that the good foodstuffs of the Christians and the Jews are halal by their very nature, and are not to be deemed forbidden.

Because of this, and because the casual, and even capricious, labelling of foodstuffs as “halal” has become a matter of annoyance to many in the host communities I feel that the practise should be stopped.

And Muslims should be encouraged to assume that all foodstuffs are“halal” unless otherwise told (for example, because the butcher has a label on it that says “pork”) because as the Almighty has designated this is a land of the People of the Book and their food is therefore lawful for Muslims.

So, in my opinion, a decent cut of Soil Association approved Scotch beef from a craft butcher is more likely to be ‘halal’ by definition than a joint of lamb – Welsh or otherwise – from a “halal” industrial slaughterhouse on the Welsh borders.

© D Rosser-Owen London May 2014 All Rights Reserved

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Written by Daoud Rosser-Owen

October 22, 2014 at 6:34 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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