#BeyondHalal – It May Be Organic But Is It Blessed? Eating Prophetically

In the same way that many Muslims obsess over meat that is halal, in terms of its slaughtering, versus other important metrics (such as was the money earned to purchase the meat earned permissibly), many non-Muslims (as well as some millennial Muslims) obsess over the organic-ness of food. Don’t get me wrong, I think organic is important, especially with how conventional food is grown (pesticides, etc.). However, if one looks at food from a holistic (Qur’anic as well as Prophetic) perspective, you’ll come to see that permissibility of meat (definitely important) as well as the organic status of food constitutes only part of a comprehensive whole. One aspect often overlooked by Muslim and non-Muslim alike is whether or not food is “blessed”. While many non-religious people may scoff at the non-empirical quality of “blessed”, we can come to appreciate that in the way the Prophet discusses this in the hadith below.

So what do I mean by food being “blessed”? Here I mean how food is reduced to the common parlance of “fuel” or “grub”. And increasingly this fueling and grubbing seems to take place alone. Not only does this solitary mode of eating lack the blessings the Prophet ﷺ describes, it also has many other secondary and tertiary negative impacts such as environmental degradation (production of waste and trash that do not biodegrade and threaten water supplies) as well as increasing people’s tendency to make poor eating decisions, leading to public health epidemics such as diabetes and heart disease. According to the Environmental Working Group’s website,

“Americans eat out a lot. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that people reported eating out four times a week on average1 – twice in a fast food restaurant and twice in a casual restaurant2. The National Restaurant Association estimates that adults eat out 5.8 times a week3.”

So why are we so unhealthy as a nation despite having such abundance? One metric is because our food is degraded in the method in which it’s produced but another important metric I believe we as Muslims should advocate (in addition to halal/permissible meat) is the holistic aspect of eating food together. In a time when science increasingly creeps into our lives to tell us what is good or bad, I believe we can still find value in the simple wisdom of previous times that might not be so outdated as we think. Eating together, bonding, and sharing, should be a part of the da’wah that Muslims give so that we teach and preach Islam as a lived way of life that combines and embodies theology, belief, and practices all together.

أَنَّ أَصْحَابَ النَّبِيِّ، صلى الله عليه وسلم قَالُوا يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ إِنَّا نَأْكُلُ وَلاَ نَشْبَعُ قَالَ فَلَعَلَّكُمْ

تَفْتَرِقُونَ*

قَالُوا نَعَمْ قَالَ فَاجْتَمِعُوا عَلَى طَعَامِكُمْ وَاذْكُرُوا اسْمَ اللَّهِ عَلَيْهِ يُبَارَكْ لَكُمْ فِيهِ

The Companions of the Prophet ﷺ said, “Messenger of Allah ﷺ we eat but we don’t feel satiated”. He said, “perhaps that’s because you eat separately*?” They replied, “Yes”. He advised, “Well, then gather together for your food and mention Allah’s name over it, you will be blessed in it.”Sunan Abu Dawud, #3764

Notes

1. A.K. Kant et al., Away From Home Meals: Associations with Biomarkers of Chronic Disease and Dietary Intake in American Adults, NHANES 2005-2010. International Journal of Obesity, 2015, 39(5):820-827.

2.Ibid.

3.National Restaurant Association, Industry Forecast Predicts Trends in Healthier Options and “Greener” Restaurants in 2009. 2008. Available at www.restaurant.org/Pressroom/Press-Releases/Industry-Forecast-Predicts-Trends-in-Healthier-Opt.

*The root of iftaraqa is farq, which means to split up individually. 

Beyond Halal-Meanings and Significance of Food in Islam

Sadly, the Muslim discourse on food has mostly revolved around the practice of Islamically slaughtered meat. This has led to a conflation of terms: halal/حلال with dhabihah/ذبيحة. Despite the claims to the contrary, there is a difference of opinion on the necessity to eat only dhabihah meat. But what is more tragic is that while Muslims obsess axiomatic about halal meat (hereafter referred to as dhabihah), they miss the forest for the trees in terms of whether nor such meats are good/طيب.

There are numerous Qur’anic verses that deal with the topic of food and eating and a great many of them emphasize “the good”, in Arabic known as tayyib/طيب. Oddly enough, this component, “the good,” is seldom discussed in terms of Muslim dietary needs. Being that “the good” is often expressed as a command from God (see examples below), how is it that Muslims are so unhealthy? Indeed, health seems to pass under the radar of Muslims despite the large number of Muslims who work in the health and medical fields.

Like so many things in is Islam, it is not simply concerned with the lawful, but also with the good. Oddly enough, it seems to be non-Muslims who are picking up on this notion, as halal is increasingly seen as a potentially health food choice:

Chickens: [are] raised in huge flocks indoors under crowded conditions, treated with antibiotics to prevent illness and promote rapid growth, and are ready to slaughter six weeks after hatching. Look for birds that were raised free-range without antibiotics and are Certified Organic, kosher, or halal.

I have noticed that a number of food products, from meat to even vitamins (the current brand of fish oil I use from Minami Nutrition uses halal gelatin for its capsules) which are looking to halal as a representative of organic or “the good.” The question I posed in the topic was: Is it possible, like kosher, to expand the notion or halal (which simply means “lawful” in fiqh terms)—increasingly seen as organic, etc.—to include non-meat items, whereby halal comes to be understand as “the good,”, a.k.a., tayyib. In other words, eating as a Muslim means to eat well. In order to do so, Muslims will need to stop conflating rules for principles (something Muslims do in many circles, not just related to food).

A friend of mine left me with some food for thought: Perhaps Muslims obsess about dhabihah, not solely out of a desire to gain God’s favor, but as a means of cultural, societal and even civilizational protest. Indeed, I know of many Muslims who hail from so-called cultural Muslim backgrounds that do not maintain regular prayers but are adamant on insisting they eat only dhabihah meat. I am left wondering about his insight on this issue.

كلو من طيبت ما رزقنكم

“Eat from that which is good from what We have provided for you.” [Qur’an, 2: 57]

يأيه الناس كلوا مما فى الأرض حللا طيبا ولا تتبعوا خطوت الشيطن إنه لكم عدو مبين

“O people!, eat from the good lawful things of the earth and do not follow in the footsteps of Shaytan as he is a clear enemy to you.” [Qur’an, 2: 168]

يأيها الذين ءامنوا كلوا من طيبت ما رزقنكم واشكرا لله إن كنتم إياه تعبدون

“O you who profess faith!, eat from that which is good that We have provided for you and show gratitude if indeed it is God alone you worship.” [Qur’an, 2: 172]

فكلوا مما ذكر اسم الله عليه إن كنتم بئايته مؤمنين

“Therefore eat from that which God’s name has been mentioned over if indeed you are believers in God’s Sign.” [Qur’an, 6: 118]

The first supermarket supposedly appeared on the American landscape in 1946. That is not very long ago. Until then, where was all the food?” – Joel Salatin.

You, as a food buyer, have the distinct privilege of proactively participating in shaping the world your children will inherit,” Joel Salatin.

لا طريق إلى الوصول للقاء الله إلا بالعلم والعمل ولا تمكن المواظبة عليهما إلا بسلامة البدل

“There is no path to arriving at one’s meeting with God except by acquiring knowledge and deeds and yet there can be no establishing devotion to them except with a sound body,” al-Ghazzali

 

Further Readings

The Labels Halal & Zabihah and Why I Choose Local and Organic Instead: why some Muslims are looking to other alternatives to old-school halal.

Eat halaal! Organic is no substitute: an article on fellow blogger, Indigo Jo’s website. A response to the Hijabman’s article.

Polyface Farms: one of the most influential organic farms in America run by Joel Salatin.

Beyond Halal: a website/blog dedicated to looking at food beyond the realm of the permissible. They have a post feature the above articles, yours truly and more!

"Eat from that which is Good" – Chocolate Cupcakes Cross Examined

chocolate cupcakes

On May 21st, I gave a khutbah at the University of Pennsylvania in which I talked about food as it relates to Muslims but examining the Qur’ānic imperative:

كلوا من الطيبات واعملوا صالحا

“Eat from that which is good and perform righteous acts.” Qur’an, 7: 100.

This statement crossed my mind again that day as I stopped in at a 7-Eleven to get a sports drink. Across the cooler, laying inconspicuously, was an attractive looking package [for a junk food addict that is], which read on the front: “Chocolate Cupcakes: rich, chocolaty goodness — mouthwatering chocolate cake covered with chocolate frosting”.

At the same time, a recent converstaion I had with a close friend of mine, in which we discussed the modern woes of food production as well as the absence of any critical Muslim dialog and involvement in it, entered my head.  In the conversation, the brother asked me to watch a video entitled, “Food Inc.“.  The video, which can be seen on Youtube, lays out and illustrates a reality about food production that should of interest to Muslims, especially given the above imperative. During our conversation, I became aware of my own lack of congnisance regarding the subject and have thus endeavored to make myself more aware of its importance.  But in doing so, my desire was to take the conversation about “healthy food” away from the fringe, where it is perceived to be the property and proclivity of vegans, vegetarians and other minority groups who are conscious, and steer it towards the mainstream of the typical Muslim.  In essence, it is my hope that we can have a communal conversation and perhaps even change of action, regarding food, that goes beyond the halāl/non-halāl dichotomy. I also saw it as a missed opportunity that Muslims could have in terms of da’wah and dialog with the broader American public.

But back to our story … So there I was, in a spot we’ve all been at, at some time or another.  Tempted by some sweet delicacy.  And as my hand reached for its cellophane wrapper, brother Muhammad’s voice and conversation entered my head, and I recalled the verse I had recited from the minbar again: “Eat from that which is good and perform righteous deeds“.  And as I did, I glanced down at the ingredients and I must say, it was startling.  Not only for its sheer incomprehensibility and daunting chemical vocabulary, but also at some of the ingredients themselves—my concsiousness made aware from Food Inc.—a few of them stood out, for which I have highlighted.  This is a far cry from the chocolate cupcakes my mother made me as a child!

Sugar,water, corn syrup, enriched unbleached flour and bleached flour (wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), high fructose corn syrup, soybean oil, palm oil, eggs, cocoa (natural and processed with alkali), contains 2% or less of the following: modified food starch, dextrose, leavening (baking soda, sodium acid pyrophosphate, monocalcium phosphate), cornstarch, calcium carbonate, wheat gluten, mono- and diglycerides, chocolate liquor [say what?!], salt, calcium sulfate, methylcellulose, agar, soy lecithin, datem, sodium stearoyl lactylate, cellulose gum, polysorbate 60 [what happened to the other 59?], guar gum, titanium dioxide (color – titanium for color? C’m on!), artificial flavors, lactic acid, sorbitan monostearate, sodium hexametaphosphate, annatto (color), citric acid, xanthan gum, caramel color, preserved with potassium sorbate, sodium propionate, and sodium benzoate.

In light of the above verse and this laundry list of chemical agents, it is high time for Muslims to have a voice in the public discourse on health.  We have our own long tradition of health-related eating practices [both Qur’anic, Prophetic and from the Tradition].  One can walk into any hospital and find a large number of Muslim doctors but how many Muslim public health officials do we have?  I am reminded of Dr. Jackson’s talk on the “quietism” on behalf of Muslims when it comes to race.  I would indeed agree, though I would push it further and contest that Muslims are “quite” on the vast majority of topics that are of interest to the society that they live in as a whole.  How can we remain quiet in the face of not only racial injustice, but of practices on the part of the food industry that have the potential to affect us all?

Food for thought.

Extra Links

  • Halal Scanner: www.halalscanner.com/
  • Halal and kosher food safer?: Scientist Live [is it really? And does halal necesarrily equate “tayyib”/”good”?]
  • American Halal Association: americanhalalassociation.com/