What’s Halal On the Believer’s Plate ?



Our Food In An Age of GMO Seeds, Chemical Farming

“They ask thee what food is lawful to them.  Say: lawful unto you are all things good and pure… and fear Allah.  For Allah is swift in taking account.”  - Qur’an: 5:4                                                    

Oh Allah, we ask that You bless this food You have provided for us.  In Your name, I eat.

Eating is a necessity for everyone; for Muslims, it is a religious act (“O you who believe! Eat of the good things that We have provided you with, and give thanks to Allah if it is Him that you serve,” Holy Quran, 2:172).  But, I fear that with every morsel that enters my mouth, I may unknowingly swallow a sin.  I have studied the synonyms for pork and alcohol, and learned to routinely avoid foods containing lard, gelatin, bacon, ham, capicola, vodka, brandy, rum, cognac, liquor, and all of swine and intoxicants, in their many shapes and forms.  But how do I check the purity of basic foods, like carrots, corn, and meat, even lamb-chops labeled “Halal?” (Halal means “permissible, lawful, pure,” and is an Islamic concept most widely recognized in the preparation of meat, but also important in every part of a Muslim’s lifestyle.)   It should be easy to conclude that these foods are suitable for the Believer’s palette.  Certainly they do not contain any hidden ingredients—carrots are carrots.

That’s what I thought.  But behind the bright orange crunchy guise of “carrot” lives a dark and obscure world.  The typical carrot no longer comes from a garden; it comes from a land laced with pesticides and fertilizers of phosphorous and nitrogen.  This cocktail of chemicals seeps into our food, water, and entire ecosystem, extinguishing wildlife, killing fish, and threatening the health of everyone.  Our destructive system of growing carrots violates the sanctity of life.  Nevertheless, carrots alone do not represent the root of disaster. 

Consider a more menacing tragedy: the plight of corn.  A glimpse of the US Midwest exposes the epitome of mono-cropping—cornfields as far as the eye can see.  By inserting a gene from fungus into the corn seed, modern technologies have developed a seed that tolerates toxic weed-killers.  Thus, when applied to cornfields, these powerful herbicides kill everything but the corn, ensuring that the corn will grow, while unwanted weeds will not.  This development has spurred a 30% increase in pesticide use, causing major ecological effects that have yet to be measured.  The GMO seeds have also changed the nature of corn—the “corn” we eat today looks like corn, feels like corn, and tastes like corn; but it is not corn.

The new “corn” also has taken its toll on farmers.  Because it costs more to produce GMO seeds, farmers must pay more for each seed. Company patents also make it illegal for farmers to save seeds from one season to the next, undoing an age-old agricultural practice and creating a constant cycle of costs that farmers often cannot afford to pay.  In India, farmers using GMO seeds find it so impossible to pay their debts and put food on the table that they succumb to suicide once every thirty minutes.     

At untold social, economic, and environmental costs, even though the agricultural revolution has increased production (of meat, corn, and soybeans), close to one billion people still suffer from under-nourishment each year because they don’t have enough to eat.  Then what in the world happens to all that corn?  Eighty-five percent of the corn grown in the U.S. is fed to animals in “Confined Animal Feeding Operations” (CAFOs) to sustain our meat-centric diet.  The industrial production of animals does not meet basic animal welfare standards as animals in CAFOs are confined with thousands of other animals for months at a time, subject to filthy over-crowded conditions, and deprived of their natural vegetarian diets.  Contrary to Islamic guidelines, the animals are made to consume the waste of one another, including blood, bones, and fat.   Antibiotics are mixed with this vulgar feed to prevent the inevitable onset of illness, and hormones, to fatten them quickly for slaughter—all in the name of profit.

I eat in the name of Allah.  Therefore, I cannot continue to support a sinful system of food production.  For far too long the Muslim community has battled over a single question: is meat from the supermarket halal?  We wonder if the name of Allah was invoked during the sacrifice. While this final step is important, to focus on it alone obscures the fact that everything about the production of the animals, from the food grown to feed them to the way they are forced to live their lives, breaks the rules of Allah.  We cannot rectify the situation by renting time at a slaughterhouse for a tape-recorder to pronounce “Bismillah AllahuAkbar” (Translation from Arabic: “In the Name of Allah, the Great.”  This phrase must be said, together with a number of other guidelines, in order for meat to be considered halal.) at 104 times a minute to the beat of an automatic knife.  Nor can we rectify the situation by buying a flock of chicken from a confined animal feeding operation, and slaughtering them one by one, be it by hand.  To eat halal, food production must be halal, too. 

I challenge you to consider the idea of an Islamic farm.  Such a farm would grant rights to those who can ask and those who cannot: farmers who work the fields; animals upon which Allah has granted us dominion; soil that supplies us with nourishment; water without which life would cease to exist; air that we cannot continue to take for granted; wildlife that quietly plays a vital role; and, the health of every man, woman, and child in the community.  Free of pesticides, GMOs, antibiotics, and hormones, the rolling green hills of this farm would serve as home to healthy sheep, cows, goats, and chickens, happily living off the land. Add a little red barn to the picture and you’re left with what you had always envisioned to be a farm.  So what are you waiting for?  Grab a pitchfork, and get ready to kick up some dirt!

Sarah Khasawinah is a PhD student in Mental Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.