Monday, November 21, 2011

The ethics of 'halal' food.

Let's talk about food. If you know me personally, or have eaten a meal with me, you'll know that I'm a little obsessed with food -- the combinations of colour(!), taste, textures, cooking style and origins. Luckily I have the Dutchman as a partner-in-crime, who was practically vegetarian until I introduced him to the controversy of halal meat.

Like many others, I was taught that halal food encompassed these four basic criteria: anything not from the four forbidden categories mentioned in the Qur'an (2:173, 5:3, 6:145, 16:115). So no 1) dead animals, 2) blood, 3) flesh of swine, and 4) anything dedicated to other than God. Game from the sea is fine (5:96) -- that means all kinds of tasty seafood! This is a simple list of what you can or cannot eat.

In verses 5:1 and 5:3-4, there are more details as to what makes specifically meat halal or not. All herbivorous livestock is lawful. Animals that have been strangled, beaten, or gored to death are prohibited. Animals that fell to their death are prohibited. Animals that were eaten by a wild animal (unless you can slaughter it while it's still alive) are prohibited. Animals slaughtered on idolatrous altars are prohibited. Animals caught by hunting animals trained by humans are also lawful to eat.

Golden retriever hunts ducks.
From 'Tips on Selecting a Hunting Dog'

Eagle catches a rabbit in Kazakhstan

Falcon catches a hare in Kyrgyzstan

This elaboration emphasises the manner of death for the animal, and is related to the above list. The animal whose meat you'll eat has to have died in a respectful, painless, and purposeful way. It also has to die specifically because you want to eat it, not senselessly or because some animal higher up in the food chain was going to have it for dinner. Using hunting animals such as dogs or falcons would also be acceptable because these animals catch the prey for you, and not for themselves. Besides, I believe animals do a better job of it because they submit unconditionally to God, unlike us. Haha.

There is actually no fixed 'Islamic way' of slaughtering, since if there was God would have told us specifically. So in my opinion, what we consider the Islamic way is a series of general guidelines which was developed in the Prophet's time, since details such as sharpening knives are found in various ahadith. These videos from Mercy Slaughter, a ranch in Texas, gives the entire details, and also shows an actual slaughter. You can watch Part 1, Part 2A, Part 2B (Warning: actual slaughter) at Youtube.

But in jurisprudence there are all kinds of other prohibitions, exceptions, and permissions -- I'd be way in over my head to try and enumerate them all. This site lists a selection of other prohibitions and permissions from the different schools of thought.

Some of these prohibitions are related to the importance of the animal. Eating horse and camel meat is discouraged, because in the Arab world they are important for transportation. It reminds me of why cows might have been considered sacred in India -- they are so greatly needed for milk that the bit of meat from killing them outweighs the long-term benefit of having a live animal, according to Marvin Harris in his book 'The Sacred Cow and the Abominable Pig'.

In Sunday school I was taught that insects and other 'disgusting' creatures were also forbidden. Cultural-based value judgments, anyone?

Ant-egg salad in Luang Prabang, Laos
Because of this awesomely complex reasoning for what is divinely, conventionally, and unconventionally considered halal or haraam, I usually say I'm vegetarian if a host asks me what I can or cannot eat. If my host doesn't ask, I eat whatever I consider necessary for respect and feign allergies or a full stomach.

My friend who was raised a Muslim, gave a really fresh take on this. Her mum told her that if a host serves you food, just eat it! Showing respect to a host who has taken the trouble to prepare food for you is worth more than grousing about what you, as a Muslim, can or cannot eat.

Another friend also recounted her time in a rural village in her country, where she was served meat that tasted a little off (I experience this once too -- there are no refrigerators when there is no electricity, people!). The people in the village hardly ever cooked meat and here they had prepared something for their urban guests. What would you do in such a situation? (My solution which is by no means the only one: I ate around the meat.)

Recently, in the spirit of Eid al-Adha, there have been several calls for a more compassionate Eid and a vegetarian Eid. The concerns that these writers have about the intensification and focus on ritualistic halal slaughter and how this quite possibly does not make the meat halal anymore, can also be applied to halal slaughter in general. When animals are mass slaughtered by machines and a loudspeaker saying 'Allahu Akbar', is that meat still halal just because it has a green round sticker in Arabic on it?

In the same vein, huge fast food chains like McDonalds and Burger King also have those green stickers and certification from their country. But when they pay their workers, legal and illegal, such low wages, cook dubious kinds of meat patties that come from meat raised, slaughtered and processed in conditions that are unsafe and unhygienic for both animal and human, is their food still halal by default? Why bemoan the lack of halal McDonald's in the West?


orange streaks said...

I remember learning that certain insects can be eaten. Like grasshopper. And maybe crickets. And that worm that can be found in wood and tastes like peanut butter. (Not that I've tasted it; some travel show host described the taste that way.) Others like cockroaches and scorpions are no-no perhaps because they're dirty and poisonous respectively?

Sya said...

I think those opinions are culturally-dependent. Like in Indonesia, grasshoppers are totally normal! I have more of a problem with the category of 'jijik' which was taught to us, which culturally-dependent.

Those ant eggs were lemony-tasting, if you're curious. Haha. As for poisonous or harmful, I guess that's pretty obvious too :D

orange streaks said...

You really ate them? I thought the photo's just for illustration. Did you eat the ants too? They look like they're still alive. I may know / have learnt that it is permissible to eat such insects, but I don't think I have the stomach for them. Looking at the ant egg salad makes me squeamish. You're brave! ;p


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