In the 1994 film ‘Eat Drink Man Woman’ directed by Ang Lee, the main character, a chef, explains life as he sees it : you eat, you drink, and you find yourselves a woman or a man to spend your life with. That’s basically what we do in life. The movie title might be an exaggerated generalization of what life is about, but it contains a fundamental truth. In order to stay alive, we eat. We eat because we have to. We also eat because it’s sociable, it has a social function. What we eat has a profound impact on our overall health. Since eating is so central to our everyday lives, shouldn’t we be more critical of what we eat, and how we eat it?
Food that is halal must also be tayyib
As Muslims we know that that are some very clear rules about what we can and cannot eat. Allah has decreed most foods lawful (halal), but some are forbidden (haram). We are very well informed about the principle of halal and haram. We all know alcohol and pork are forbidden, and we all know where to find halal certified products. We are less well informed however, about the islamic principle of tayyib, mentioned often in the Quran. Tayyib can be translated as ‘pure, good, nutritious, safe, wholesome, ethical’.
Oh people! Eat from the good lawful things of the earth and do not follow in the footsteps of the Devil, as he is a clear enemy to you.” [Qur’an, 2: 168]
Many quranic verses mention the importance of food that is tayyib. This particular verse clearly stipulates the interconnection between both. What we eat must be halal and it must be tayyib . That which is not tayyib, is forbidden for muslims to consume. Hence, that which is halal, must also be tayyib. Islam is, as we all know, not only concerned with the lawful, but also with the good. Unfortunately, many muslims are unaware of this important principle. Most of us just seem to be concerned with whether or not an animal was slaughtered the islamic way. We care less about how the animal was treated before it was slaughtered, what it was given to eat, if a worker was given a decent wage, etc. We care less about the ethical, the tayyib. Yet living a tayyib lifestyle is an obligation.
Much of what we eat today, does not comply with islamic standards
Without proclaiming myself a true scholar, I do not believe that much of what we eat is truly halal, given the disastrous impact of large-scale agriculture on animal, human and environment. Halal is organic. Halal is fairtrade. If we were truly to take tayyib into consideration, and if we were truly to enforce the islamic requirements in order to label a certain product lawful, much of what we now believe to be halal would actually not be halal at all.
Commercial factors in the industry have led to horrible conditions for animals and a range of environmental problems, like water depletion and deforestation. In the poultry industry, chickens are kept in little cages. Due to rapid increase in weight, their legs are unable to keep them up, causing fractured bones, making them unhealthy. Cows are given antibiotics and hormones. They see, smell and hear how other cows are slaughtered. Pesticides are commonly used on vegetables, to prevent weeds. These practices are incompatible with Islam, as are the effects of the large-scale industry. If a cow was treated horribly, slaughtering it the islamic way will not make it tayyib.
We are obsessed with cheap meat. It often amazes how much so many of my fellow muslims are willing to pay for smartphones, shoes, or a new car, yet they cut down on something as important as food. There is something very much wrong with a whole chicken that costs a little more than two dollars. A culture of cheap food with very low regard for the animal or the environment is alien to Islam. Can we knowingly and willingly participate in this system without feeling guilty towards Allah?
What can we do?
If one wants to be sure that food does not contain harmful additives, antibiotics, pesticides, and so on, organic is the way to go. It’s true that organic, halal products are not widely available. But more and more Muslims are becoming conscious of the negative consequences of the industry, for human, animal and environment. There are some local initiatives which have proven to be successful. In Brussels ‘Palais de Balkis’ and ‘Green Halal’ offer organic, halal meat. In Oxford, in the UK, Lutfi Radwan and his wife Ruby Radwan run Willowbrook farm, an organic, halal farm. Apart from halal & organic initiatives, the organic industry in itself has been growing annually. In 2014, the industry was worth 39 billion dollars in the US, and an estimated 25 billion dollars in Europe.
Vegetables, cheese, bread, eggs, and actually most foods, don’t necessarily need a halal label for muslims to eat. Organic brands of these products are now widely available. Fairtrade and organic products are often expensive, but for many vegetables the difference in price is often negligible. Eating less meat is of course of importance, beneficial for the environment and your wallet, and for your health. And last but not least, anyone with a garden, even a little garden, can keep a chicken or two. It doesn’t cost much money, effort or time, and provides you with fresh eggs, and an occasional organic dish of tavuklu bulgur pilavı.