What is the true meaning of halal?
Catherine Fildes has published a response to Nesrine Malik’s article from last week, on the Guardian’s website, which argued that the debate about halaal (and kosher) slaughter is a distraction from much bigger scandals regarding animal welfare and factory farming, and a denial of the fact that killing an animal is never pleasant. This author, who says she is a white Muslim woman who “doesn’t wear hijab or speak Arabic”, argues that the Halal Food Authority accepts that stunning is acceptable, and that “halal” should be extended to cover all aspects of how we eat animals.
Fildes’s modernist bias is obvious throughout her article (the only one the Guardian has published, and it is difficult to see what else she has written about anything):
The interpretations of the Qur’an and hadiths are a case in point, as Ziauddin Sardar beautifully demonstrates. For how can we explain a Qur’anic verse with certainty? And which practices are to be adapted for modernity? Certain rituals of seventh-century Islam have been codified and repeated, such as prayer, while others are often contextualised as activities for their time and place, which nonetheless are followed in spirit if not action.
Fortunately, Islam as a religion was founded on scepticism and antagonism – not blind acceptance. Unfortunately, if Muhammad’s life was revolutionary, its aftermath has seen a monological recital of hadiths and inflexible analyses of Qur’anic verses, where historical context is taken up or ignored to suit the interpreter. Memories of early Islam have hardened into dogma, and many scholars have taken the hadiths as seriously as tablets of stone.
This last statement clearly shows that she is out of her depth. The hadiths are “taken seriously” because they are guidance from the Prophet, sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam, and whoever obeys the Messenger obeys Allah. Furthermore, the hadiths expand on much of what is in the Qur’an, and much of that could not be followed without reference to hadith, and to the transmission of prophetic and early Muslim practice from generation to generation. Very often, the Qur’an tells us to do things, but the hadith tells us how. We would not know how to pray, for example, if the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) had not shown us how.
Ritual slaughter of animals is one practice which has been repeated in every Muslim society. It is an essential part of Islam, and it has never been acceptable to eat meat slaughtered without the blessing repeated over it, at any time in the history of Islam. The issue of halaal slaughter being cruel is a modern conceit, and when so many animals (particularly chickens) are raised in such miserable conditions, and where deliberate acts of cruelty have been recorded in many factory farms and slaughterhouses, the complaints that the animals suffer a bit when they die seems a bit petty. The whole idea is to make sure it dies, so you have a healthy animal (by necessity) becoming a dead animal in the space of a few minutes.
Of course, animal welfare is important in Islam. However, halaal simply means permissible, and is used not just to refer to meat, or even food, but to anything or any action which is permissible, much as haraam is used for the opposite. Halaal is a bottom line, which in this case relate to the meat being properly slaughtered and not subsequently contaminated, or exposed to contamination (by being cooked in wine, for example). In the Qur’an, the word tayyib is used to refer to wholesomeness and purity. Some things are more wholesome and pure than others; halaal and haraam are a binary, and one might not think a factory-farmed, but properly slaughtered, chicken is particularly wholesome, but it is technically permissible to eat it, while an organically-reared pig cannot by definition be rendered into halaal meat.
It is true that there is a difference of opinion over stunning; however, even those who approve of electric stunning would surely not approve of stunning with a bolt, because this amounts to shooting the animal in the head. The animal has to die from bleeding, not from some other injury. Many Muslims trust the Halal Monitoring Committee, which rejects stunning, because they assume that they actually make sure the slaughterman says the blessing and does the slaughtering, rather than having the blessing played over a loudspeaker system, for example. It is also rooted in the Deobandi community, which for all its faults, is known for rigorous scholarship, upholding the Sunnah and not making too much use of dispensations and conveniences. Now, a producer like Abraham Natural Produce, mentioned in Fildes’s article, cannot get both HMC and organic certification, because current organic standards necessitate stunning. However, some (but not all) Muslims would eat their meat if they trusted that the animal was actually slaughtered in the correct way, even if it had received a shock.
If Muslims want halaal meat which is cruelty-free, they need to be active in farm welfare campaigns. That and making sure meat is properly slaughtered are not mutually exclusive. However, while deliberate cruelty to an animal during its life or just before its death are not halaal for the person responsible, they do not make the animal’s meat haraam. Even the meat of animals fed on material which is haraam for Muslims themselves to eat is not haraam, according to this fatwa by Shaikh Afifi al-Akiti (the author of the well-known fatwa against suicide bombings and other terrorism), unless the taste, appearance or smell of the meat is noticeably affected. It does not mean, however, that you would necessarily want to eat it if you knew where it had come from.
In her last paragraph, she refers to “anxiety about female head coverings, a tired debate recently rejuvenated in France” as another example of the “ritualistic outward show of Islam” that receives “too much emphasis”. The reality is that proper dress and proper slaughtering of meat are both mandatory, and neither are matters of debate among those who actually know what Islam says about these things and are willing to defend Muslims who want to follow Islam properly. This nonsense about the “spirit” of Islam is almost always a ploy by those who do not like the fact that Muslims sometimes do things differently from others, and particularly from the dominant population.
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- We can’t blame ‘Wahhabis’ for everything