The term halal is not without controversy. To some animal rights activists, it represents an outlook that results in animal cruelty. To some on the Right, the growing halal presence is indicative of an “Islamic takeover”. To some Muslims, halal slaughter without true animal welfare is symptomatic of our focus on only the superficial. To other Muslims, it is an example of an area that “we’re getting right”. As Muslims celebrate Eid Al Adha, “Festival of the Sacrifice”, many will engage in the ritual of slaughtering an animal and offering it’s meat to those in need. Naturally, this will bring the area of halal meat and slaughter into focus. This industry, which according to some estimates is worth US$547 billion a year, is worth a closer examination.
What Is Halal?
Halal is a legal term that is central to Islamic law. It essentially means “permissible” or “lawful”. Halal meat is therefore meat that is permissible for Muslims to eat. In order to be deemed halal, Islamic law dictates that the meat must be drained of blood, the eating of which is forbidden for Muslims. Tying in with this, to be Halal, the animal must be killed by a swift and profound incision into the neck of the animal, cutting its jugular vein. This process is claimed by many Muslims to be both efficient in removing blood and being merciful to the animal. As well as this, to be halal, the slaughterer must say, “In the Name of God” (according to some, also saying “God is Great”) before each kill.
The Problem? Stunning
The main controversy surrounding this method of slaughter is in relation to whether or not the animal is stunned before the kill. Many Muslims argue that the animal should be fully conscious before being killed and so it should not be stunned. Stunning the animal with electricity is a common practice which some believe reduces the pain felt by the animal. The Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) reports that animals can stay conscious for as long as 20 seconds after their throat is cut; this opens the door for the possibility of the animal feeling for a painfully long time.
The reality now is that in the U.K. between 84% and 90% of animals slaughtered for halal meat are in fact stunned before killing. Other countries such as Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway and Iceland have all completely banned the practice of killing an animal without stunning it beforehand. In this sense, halal slaughter is typically as ethical as non-halal slaughter, in terms of causing the animal pain. But at this point the question must be asked; should that be enough for Muslims?
Centrality of Animal Welfare
It’s worth considering for a moment how much emphasis is given to the animal’s moments prior to its death while seemingly overlooking the other 99% of the animal’s life. When we talk about halal, it should go much further than merely the method of slaughter. The unfortunate reality is that a significant portion of “halal” meat comes from animals that are raised in the same dismal conditions as all other livestock; reared in a way so as to maximize profits in an attempt to satiate the insatiable appetite of predatory capitalists for money, and the general public’s insatiable appetite for cheap meat.
Needless to say that the welfare of the animals are almost completely disregarded on the typical factory farm. These farms are characterised by cramped conditions, restricted space to move and deprivation of sunlight. Many animals are pumped full of antibiotics, to fend off profit decreasing illnesses and death, a necessity given the filthy conditions in which they often live, or loaded with growth hormones to maximise meat to cost ratios. Could this meat be deemed halal? That is a debate for specialists.
Conclusion: Ethical Responsibility on Each of Us
An argument could be made that eating natural, organic, free-range livestock is just as essential, if not more essential, than simply focusing on the way in which the animal was slaughtered. Shouldn’t we be searching for the most ethical food, derived from moral sources? This surely goes beyond slaughtering rituals and extends to concern about the animal’s whole lifespan. Even if we set aside the animal’s welfare, eating meat that comes from a healthy and natural animal is going to be much healthier for us than an animal that has been raised without any consideration for it’s health. We are repeatedly instructed to treat animals with kindness and humanity; the Prophet Muhammad implored us to do so on many occasions.
Finding appropriate food to enjoy goes beyond seeking out that “Certified Halal” sticker on the packet.
If each of us took the little time it took to investigate where our meat is coming from, we would be taking a huge step in the right direction. Investing time in this will allow us to find sources of meat that are not only wholesome but ethical too. Supporting farmers who spend that extra bit to ensure that their animals are reared naturally will not only be beneficial to our bodies, but will help an industry that is worth our support. The importance of sourcing ethical, local produce is all the more increased given the reality of the carbon footprints of some of the livestock that is found in our supermarkets today. Going beyond food, becoming self-aware individuals who care about something as fundamental as the food that we eat, and so taking responsibility for sourcing out the best that is available to us, is a positive step towards self-empowerment.