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Slaughtering in the Spirit of Halal

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While exploring the essence of halal, Jo Arrem asks whether modern-day slaughterhouses uphold Islam’s values of compassion for animals.

AFP PHOTO / Mayela LOPEZ

The term ‘halal’ is an Arabic word that means ‘lawful’ or ‘permissible’. Traditionally associated mostly with meat products and alcohol, the concept spawned the halal industry, which today spans far and wide. From finance, cosmetics and footwear to paintbrushes and even chinaware that’s made without bone, the sheer range of halal products is astonishing. The global halal industry is estimated to be worth over 2 trillion dollars.

The broadest focus within the halal landscape, however, remains the meat industry – both with regards to the kinds of meat that are halal as well as the way in which animals are slaughtered. Halal meat is now widely available in almost all parts of the world, even where Muslims are a small minority. Most countries have halal regulators, which certify butchers and restaurants that serve meat from animals slaughtered according to prescribed rites. Interestingly, the exact method differs by country, largely owing to varying interpretations of what constitutes halal slaughter. In general, though, halal methods of slaughter consist of aligning the animal’s head in the direction of the qiblah, reciting the invocation ‘in the name of God’, and severing the animal’s jugular vein and carotid artery.

We must ask whether more can and should be done to ensure that animals being slaughtered are exposed to the least amount of pain and suffering

No doubt, part of the intent behind halal slaughter lies in a consideration for the humane treatment of animals. Thinking about the living conditions during the era when Islam emerged as a religion reinforces this idea, given that modern methods, such as electronically stunning an animal into unconsciousness before killing it, were not available. A verse from the Qur’an explaining the dietary restrictions offers a glimpse into the sentiment behind the prescription of the halal method of slaughter:

Prohibited to you are dead animals, blood, the flesh of swine, and that which has been dedicated to other than Allah, and [those animals] killed by strangling or by a violent blow or by a head-long fall or by the goring of horns, and those from which a wild animal has eaten, except what you [are able to] slaughter [before its death]…
– Al-Maida (5:3)

Clearly present behind these lines is a desire to avoid a violent or painful death in animals killed for food. Thus, in the spirit of the intention rather than the rituals of halal practices, we must ask whether more can and should be done to ensure that animals being slaughtered are exposed to the least amount of pain and suffering.

Modern technology has brought both benefit and bane to the lives of these animals. On one hand, the growth of factory farming and increasingly mechanised methods of animal rearing, milking and slaughtering have made an already bloody industry much more brutal. On the flipside, some uses of technology, such as stunning animals prior to slaughter, are widely thought to minimise pain and suffering. While conventional slaughterhouses have come under scrutiny through increased public awareness and legal requirements that require them to adopt more humane methods, halal-certified ones have largely been excluded out of deference to religious considerations.

In Europe, countries including Belgium, France, Italy and Switzerland have banned animal slaughter without the prior stunning of the animal. These laws, however, have mostly not been extended to apply to ritual slaughter practices. The growing polarisation between the two methods is a source of increasing friction. In France, for example, the topic of halal meat became an issue during the presidential elections early this year when it was discovered that surplus halal meat was being sold to non-halal distributors. Some segments of the population felt duped that they had unwittingly consumed halal meat, and were concerned that they’d played a role in what they considered to be animal cruelty.

Some scientific evidence today suggests that stunning an animal prior to slaughter is the less painful and traumatic option. But not everyone agrees. The Muslim Council of Great Britain maintains that it is electric stunning, not halal slaughter, that inflicts pain on animals. Proponents of halal slaughter say that the sudden blood loss it brings quickly cuts blood flow to the brain, and that there’s no time for the animal to feel any pain at all.

An inquiry into the halal meat industry should also be seen in the same light – one of increasing our knowledge and empowering our communities to make choices that are in line with their values

The debate between stunning and halal slaughter has been going on for several decades. Yet however Muslim communities choose to proceed, it is important that it be done in a spirit of awareness and deliberate choice.

Questions surrounding the food that we all eat are not confined to the halal industry. The past decade or so has seen increased levels of consumer awareness and reflection on the sources of our food and the way it is processed. The organic food industry, for example, has grown immensely due to mounting public pressure for healthier and safer food. An inquiry into the halal meat industry should also be seen in the same light – one of increasing our knowledge and empowering our communities to make choices that are in line with their values. It may be tempting to interpret such inquiry as provocation and to view it through the lens of polarisation between Muslim and non-Muslim communities. But to do so would be to lose a good opportunity to be the leaders and catalysts for change in an area so important to us all.

Food, identity and culture are highly intertwined. Meat consumed by Muslim communities forms a key part of the Muslim identity and features prominently in sacred rituals and our everyday lives. From the rich heritage of food in Muslim countries to the ritual of Qurban, the consumption of meat is a vital part of life in Muslim communities. The numbers agree – for example, Muslims make up about 3 percent of the population in the UK, while they consume 20 percent of all lamb produced there. Meat, once considered an indulgence that only the wealthy could partake in, is now available at unprecedented levels.

As much as the belly often does rule the mind, this is a moment where we might collectively pause to think about how halal meat is produced and whether it is in line with the spirit of humanity and ethics that are at the essence of the idea of halal food.

A story of the Prophet (peace be upon him) carrying out a sacrifice is told in Sahih Bukhari and Muslim:

The Prophet (pbuh) made Qurban by slaughtering two white goats with horns. The Prophet (pbuh) slaughtered the goats himself and did this while reciting the Name of Allah, made takbir and placed his foot on the necks of the animals.

Now, compare this scene to one in a modern-day slaughterhouse. A conveyor belt moves animals along to have their necks slashed in-turn, while a pre-recorded prayer blares continuously from speakers. It is not surprising that elements of humanity and spirituality seem lost in the process.

The Holy Qur’an and hadiths are full of beautiful stories and accounts of the love that the Prophet (pbuh) had for animals. The direction is clear. Animals should be treated with the utmost respect, tenderness and care. When we benefit from them – through eating them for sustenance, wearing their skins to protect us from cold, and in every other way – we must honour their lives and their sacrifice to the best of our ability. That, in my opinion, is the true meaning of halal.

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