I want to introduce you to Kathryn Irrgang, a friend of mine. She has many facets to her life, as we all do; she’s a writer, a journalist, a mother, a Muslim, a wife, and much more beside. Kathryn has combined her passions of writing and her faith into an article about halal meat. I offer Kathryn’s well-argued, well-written, and well-discussed article here for you to read and consider.
If you’ve ever invited a Muslim friend round for your average meaty barbecue in the summer, you may have had the panic of scooting round Asda at the last minute looking for the halal meat section as, out of the kindness of your heart, you would feel guilty if your Muslim guests had to nibble on their tenth charcoaled corn-on-the-cob. Especially as there’s only so many kernels one can get stuck between one’s teeth before they loosen and take revenge during conversation on your lack of available food choice.
Since big supermarket chains have a similar pattern as to where their strategically placed food items hang out, you may have noticed the quietly formal black and white halal signage which is now stuck on the end of an isle opposite the ‘Seasonal’ section. It could, depending on when you get round to having your barbie, be displayed as a halal beach party (burkinis anyone?), halal Halloween (everyone’s afraid of Islam anyway), or be my halal valentine (you’ll need my Father’s permission).
The halal meat section didn’t always have this isolated privilege; it used to be covertly placed amongst the other meats with only a few Arab looking squiggles on the packaging to differentiate it from non-halal – which was quite often missed, both by Muslim and non-Muslim shoppers. It used to be a common occurrence seeing a cross-over in the meat sections. One would often see a packet of bacon rashers stuffed somewhere between the chicken and the chops, but I was never quite sure if this was accidental or on purpose. Did some sad little mischief makers, out for a cheap laugh, get bored of taking the fresh kippers from the chiller to hide behind a packet of Kelloggs for weeks?
Maybe this was why Asda changed the halal location; were there just too many complaints? But from which side? It may have been from the Muslims who thought one sausage looked like another and felt guilty when they enjoyed their fry-up a little too much, or perhaps from non-Muslims who thought the pre-seasoned kofta kebabs made a great addition to their Saturday night in until Dave recognised those ‘squiggles’ meant they were eating food funded by terrorists. Who knows?
Either way, Halal food has made its mark in our increasingly diverse society along-side the growing Polish section and Gluten-free foods. However, the recent prominence of halal meat in multi-cultural areas has also exposed controversy.
There are cries claiming halal meat is barbaric, that it is animal abuse, or that it is ‘uncivilised’ and doesn’t belong in animal friendly Britain. Often these claims are from far-right groups out to demonise Islam, or from some animal rights campaigners who, instead of researching the facts, have allowed their anger to over-take their rationality. Sometimes the outburst is from a portion of society who don’t understand the system but jump on the Islamophobic band wagon anyway. Some parts of society are wary of the halal label as they don’t really know what it means; so it is important that all parts of the debate are understood.
The word ‘halal’ means ‘permitted’ (in Arabic) in accordance with the Islamic faith. It is a useful term for Muslims who want to keep on the right path, as it were. Where meat is concerned, strict rules and regulations must be followed in the process of not only how the animal is killed, but under what conditions it was kept prior to slaughter in order for it to be labelled halal. For example, the animal must have been properly fed and watered while it was alive and not injured or stressed due to travel.
Only certain types of animal can be eaten; they must be herbivorous. It is forbidden to eat cat, dog or monkey as might be the norm in some cultures. The animal must be organically fed; for example, it must eat pure plant based food, and cannot have been fed on animal protein, blood, or meat from another animal. This can lead to disease such as Mad Cow Disease, or BSE, which was seen in Britain during the 1980’s and 90’s. The animal cannot live near dunghills or filthy places, as this renders the meat unlawful, and neither can it be fed dangerous hormones or certain types of preservatives.
Most people would agree that that keeping an animal in good living conditions is important, but where the idea of halal meat often creates a reaction concerns the method of slaughter. When killed, the animal must have the carotid arteries, jugular vein and windpipe all cut in a single swipe with an extremely sharp knife. If the knife isn’t sharp enough, it is not halal, full stop. The reason for this is firstly to ensure the death is as quick as possible to minimise pain. No method of slaughter is absolutely instantaneous, but by cutting the major veins, the animal quickly loses consciousness due to the sudden drop in blood pressure in the head. Secondly, it is important to drain the blood from the meat, as most diseases are contained in the blood and can lead to volatile meat quality affecting the health of the consumer.
This may sound a horrific way to kill an animal, but when the alternatives are researched, the Islamic method is found to be the most humane way of slaughtering. In regular slaughterhouses, animals have been known to be painfully bludgeoned to death, electrocuted – which may be unreliable, leaving the animal actually half-fried before being butchered – or even slowly drowned if the stunning has failed. Sometimes the animal is suffocated or gassed to death, where the animals may take time to die – or cruelly watch each other die. At least cutting the animal’s throat ensures the job is finished as swiftly as possible. It is also essential for halal that the animal is not killed in front of another animal, as they are known to sense the fear of death.
In any case, in some non-halal slaughter houses, many chickens will have their throat slit anyway – which makes the argument for banning halal even more Islamophobic, as the only difference left between the two slaughter methods would be having it killed by a Muslim and the respect that it is given in the other ways I’ve already mentioned, ie banning halal would be begging for the animals to watch each other die or with an unsharpened knife etc.
“Forbidden to you (for food) are: dead meat, blood, the flesh of swine, and that which has been invoked the name of other than Allah, that which has been killed by strangling, or by a violent blow, or by a headlong fall, or by being gored to death, that which has been (partly) eaten by a wild animal, unless you are able to slaughter it (before the animal dying due to the above causes).” (Qur’an, Surah al-Ma’idah, 5.3)
It is also important to remember that Islam is for everyone in all countries, rich or poor which means that not everywhere has reliable machinery which is in good enough condition. There are many people in some countries who are still slaughtering animals themselves on their own farms and don’t have access to quality equipment, but it is important they still kill their meat in the most humane way.
This isn’t to say that stunning an animal before cutting the veins isn’t allowed. The problem occurs as to which stunning method is used, as many have been banned as being bad for animal welfare. Here in Britain, most halal meat is actually stunned before cutting the throat anyway, which is halal as long as the stunning is done in a compassionate way that is acceptable. There is nothing wrong with development and advances in society.
Another important factor in the labelling of halal is to make sure the slaughter is done by a Muslim or ‘person of the book’, which means Muslims can eat Jewish Kosher meat too. The name of God (Allah) must be mentioned before killing, to remind the person that a life is taken only by Allah’s permission, and to remind us that taking an animal’s life should never be seen as an ordinary mundane habit. It is a sacred entity that deserves respect.
This does not mean that a person has to eat meat. Indeed, most of us eat too much meat and should cut down. It is an intrinsic part of Islam to stay fit and healthy, so we should be consuming more plant foods and grains – especially as we need to take care of the whole environment. The halal meat ruling is only if we need to eat it.
Prophet Muhammed is reported to have said: “If you must slaughter, slaughter in the best possible manner, sharpen your knife every time before you slaughter but not in front of the animal to be slaughtered. Do not slaughter an animal in the presence of other animal, and feed and rest the animal before slaughter.”
Islam has many rules against cruelty to animals, no-one has the right to mistreat animals or abuse them in any way. For example, the likes of fox-hunting is strictly forbidden (Haram) as it often leaves the animal maimed or killed in a horrific way – and is not even for food, but sport. Branding an animal is also forbidden, as are any acts of torture such as those common in pagan rituals and superstitions – before Islam condemned it and put a stop to it.
Prophet Muhammed taught his followers to treat animals with dignity and care, as they are part of God’s creation and humankind are custodians over them. He is known to say:
“If someone kills a sparrow for sport, the sparrow will cry out on the Day of Judgement, “O Lord! That person killed me in vain! He did not kill me for any useful purpose.”
It is notable that Islam cares for animals and does not allow the mistreatment of animals, not even emotional abuse, so the way an animal is killed for food is also part of this compassion. It would go against the very essence of Islam if it was done in any other way. Many of the problems we see in slaughter houses today are to do with the abuse from intensive slaughter methods in the same way as intensive farming. Where profit is the only interest, we will always have a problem, and this needs to be addressed. If a Muslim becomes aware of an abattoir that is abusing animals for profit, we are not allowed to eat that meat either. We need to be very careful.
At the end of the day, there is no easy way of killing an animal for food. If the horrors of ending a life for consumption is the problem, a person should think about becoming totally vegetarian, although this may not be possible for those who don’t have access to a balanced vegetarian diet. Non-animal protein and iron isn’t always available, especially in places where extreme weather conditions persist. Or if a Muslim decides to become vegetarian because he or she lacks trust in our large-scale abattoirs, fearing the industry cannot be truly halal due to its over-production, there is obviously wisdom in that.
There is, however, no basis to condemn Islam for the actual permission of halal meat, as mentioned before, Islam is for all people, in all places, from all cultures, but never for those who seek to abuse animals for their own gratification.