The slaughtering of animals is an emotive subject, and while death is quick and painless for most animals, abuses can occur, particularly where the large number of animals slaughtered can have a dehumanising effect on workers and the animals are no longer seen as sentient individuals. This is bad enough, but for many people the concept of halal slaughter is unacceptable. In the hope of stimulating discussion we asked organic smallholder and butcher Muhsen Hassanin to tell us how and why he trained as a halal slaughterman.
The two-hour drive from my smallholding in south Wales to the abattoir in Devon where I work is always slightly nerve racking. I play over scenarios in my head of what can and does go wrong during slaughter, wishing that all goes smoothly. Once I get there, I head straight for the bathroom and wash my face, arms and head so I am as clean and pure as possible. I get suited up in my white boiler suit, apron and my very sharp knife. Walking into the slaughterhouse always jolts me. The smell is so overwhelming that it forces me to breathe through my mouth and tight fitting snood for the duration. A slaughterhouse by definition is a place of death. It is a potent reminder of the reality of meat production and what has to happen for that tender roast to end up on the plate. I take my work very seriously.
The slaughterman who is in front of me waves to the guys taking birds out of crates. He lets them know that ‘Halal’ is here. He makes a praying hand gesture as he says it, just to add a bit of politically incorrect flair to the morning. This tells them to leave a gap, so the processing team can identify and keep all of our halal slaughtered chickens separate from the rest. As I step into what I call the killing corner, I take a deep breath and I mentally prepare myself for the next hour or two.
The chickens come through one by one after being dipped through a water bath stunner in which an electric current is passed through the water. This renders the birds unconscious and insensible to pain, immobile but most importantly still alive. If they were to die from the stun, it would not be halal. I then pull the throat taught and make quick incision cutting the throat whilst saying thank you to each chicken for giving their lives for us to eat. Oh and before I forget, whilst in full flow, I also consciously focus on glorifying and praising the lord in my thoughts and saying quietly “In the name of god, the most high.” (That’s the halal bit).
So why all the detail? It’s important to understand what practising ‘halal’ means and what happens during a halal slaughter. I became a Licensed slaughterman because I felt that I should be able to kill what I eat, but also because it’s an important skill to have when living on a smallholding. It has deepened my respect for farming and food production and increased my zeal to open up a conversation about halal slaughter. So many people I speak to think that halal slaughter is a barbaric way to kill animals; the practice is completely alien to them. I empathise totally, so much distorted and biased information is out there about halal meat, that it is generally totally misunderstood.
As a practicing Muslim and as a slaughterman, even I find it difficult to understand all of the ins and outs of halal slaughter. It entails an overwhelming amount of information, and very detailed scholarship on it exists in the classical Islamic tradition. I am not a scholar, but as I understand it, for ‘halal’ slaughter to be carried out, animals should be alive when slaughtered, so they can be classified as slaughtered meat and not carrion (dead meat). This can become very technical as some interpretations of the Islamic Law conclude that the animal must be fully conscious when killed and while others say that they can be unconscious and then killed. This must be done in the most humane way possible, while declaring that the animal’s life is sacrificed to God.
Stunning is widely accepted as a new innovation that reduces the stress of the animal during slaughter, and is consequently more humane. This is why many Islamic scholars have condoned stunning, and the majority of halal meat is stunned before slaughter. However, some Islamic scholars align themselves with Traditional Judaic Kosher law and disagree that stunning is acceptable in halal practice.
Once, while slaughtering turkeys when I was being assessed on a slaughter course, one of the other participants said he disagreed with halal slaughter. Always ready to have a good banter, I responded that what we just did was halal! With wide eyes, he realised that he had misunderstood the idea of what halal slaughter was and admitted that his opinion was formed by the media and social media platforms, and he had never before spoken to a Muslim slaughterman! Noticing a crucifix on his chain, I asked if he was a Christian, and he said he was. I told him that in Islamic law, there is a clear and strong opinion based on the quranic injunction, “The food of the people of the Book is lawful for you, and your food is lawful to them” (Quran 5:5), that says it is permissible for Muslims to eat meat slaughtered by people of the book, meaning Christians and Jews. He was genuinely surprised to hear that, as are many people.
I spend a lot of my time talking to small holders and organic farmers about this, all to try and win them over and dispel the myths around halal, so that they feel confident to sell us high quality pasture-raised and organic meat so we at Abraham Organics, can supply our customers with the best. We have made some great connections with farmers and small holders through the years, and I hope that as the demand grows we will be able to encourage more halal customers to purchase high quality meat. Unfortunately, just like the rest of the population, Muslims often see the higher price as a big barrier; further access to high welfare meat is harder for Muslims – organic or pasture-fed meat that might be available direct at a farmers’ market is unlikely to have been slaughtered in accordance with their faith.
It seems very strange today in our world of science and technological enlightenment that this should even be something to discuss, but I would argue that it is important to understand that belief in the sacrifice of an animal’s life for the sake of a god, a deity, the universe, mother nature or the big man (or woman) upstairs has been an influential and intrinsic part of human history. Respect for this history and the fact that most of the world adhere to a faith, shows tolerance and understanding in society. Many traditional tribal cultures, like the Massai in Kenya, ask the animal’s permission before a kill. Small ruminants will lie down almost hypnotised, a state referred to as tonic immobility in the scientific literature. This can be achieved by laying the sheep or goat on their side until they lie perfectly still. Many animals display this behaviour – chickens, lizards, even sharks. Traditional shepherds in the Muslim world saw this as a sign of submission. Some Muslims would argue that this is truly the only time you can slaughter from an Islamic perspective, as the animal has effectively submitted its life to you. However, the industrialised scale of slaughter takes this sacred act and puts it onto a conveyor belt, with as many beasts as possible, killed in the shortest amount of time.
Could we return to a more decentralised system where farmers and slaughtermen/women are allowed to kill animals on their farm in small numbers for their surrounding community? Could it be open to people to come and see their animals being slaughtered, engaging them in the process of adding value and learning along the way? From an Islamic perspective that’s the best scenario for the animal, owner, customer and society at large.
Slaughtering animals is necessary for meat consumption and having slaughtered many animals, I have been galvanised by a strong sense of gratitude for the meat that ends up on our plates. My morality and guidance when approaching slaughter has been influenced not only by my faith, but also by best practice as defined by Temple Grandin, the world-famous animal behaviour expert, as well as robust scientific research into slaughter methods.
Slaughter as a subject engenders a lot of emotion, and in my experience, people can become blinded by that. In the media, halal slaughter comes up time and time again, portrayed as a cruel and barbaric way to kill animals, when, in fact, it is little different from the slaughter faced by farmed animals across the globe. Open discussion is needed, along with a better understanding of halal practice and the beliefs it is grounded in, to dispel the misconceptions that are so often associated with it. Its premise and practice is based on a deep and enduring respect for the animals whose lives are sacrificed for our nourishment.