For hours on a chilly November day last year, Dawood Yasin, 45, was perched high up in the canopy of an Indiana forest while he muttered prayers to God in Arabic. Finally near sunset, he spotted his prey: a whitetail buck grazing in the thick bush.
Yasin silently drew the string of his bow and let loose an arrow. The shot was true — right behind the shoulder blade. Bucking and running into the forest, the deer collapsed dead in a litter of leaves.
Besides being a badass way of getting food, Yasin, a practicing Muslim, had accomplished his goal: acquiring truly natural halal meat.
“I want to go to the woods. I want to be in a harmonious relationship with creation,” said Yasin, the dean of student life at Zaytuna College, a Muslim college in Berkeley, Calif., on why he hunts for his own food.
Years before picking up a bow, Yasin was a globe-trotting fashion model in his 20s. He left that job when he converted from Catholicism to Islam and then got into hunting in 2003.
He is also part of a growing vanguard of ecologically-conscious Muslims in America and beyond who are examining what is typical halal food, found at many grocery stores, and going beyond the basics in an effort to square their religious beliefs with the thorny ethics around factory farming.
Halal means “permissible” in Arabic and refers to food that does not contain alcohol and pork. Livestock must be slaughtered according to Islamic law, which involves making a horizontal cut across the throat with a sharp knife while evoking Allah.
These Muslims are asking controversial questions about practices that go on in some parts of the mainstream halal industry: Is it halal if chickens are killed in a mechanical assembly line? Is it halal if the animal lives a miserable life while never seeing sunlight? Is it halal if livestock feed is mixed with animal parts? These Muslims are even looking at how farm workers are treated.
“Halal is a starting point,” said Nuri Friedlander, a Muslim chaplain at Harvard University, who helped start the website Beyond Halal, which examines these issues. “In the context of meat, halal refers to how it was killed. The starting point is, it died well. But it’s really important if we have an ethical conversation about how animals were treated during their lives.”
The reason why some Muslims are asking these questions is because large swaths of the halal meat industry is a mess, said Mufti Abdullah Nana, an Islamic scholar and president of Halal Advocates, which educates on halal and food ethics. Animals are being fed possible animal byproducts that may contain blood and even pork, farmers confine animals in abusive conditions, and some businesses barely pay lip service to Islamic law by cutting corners and not performing correct slaughtering methods, Nana said.
For example, 90 percent of halal chickens in America are killed mechanically with a rate as high as 180 chickens a minute by some machines, said Nana, who has visited dozens of slaughterhouses in America. Unfortunately, some of these machines with rotating blades are not totally precise and may improperly cut the chickens’ throat, which can cause needless suffering and an unsightly, lingering demise — the opposite of halal which call for a swift death with little discomfort.
Other shady practices include non-halal meat being marketed as halal. Some factories do not employ Muslims on the premises who can oversee the process, Nana said.
“We insist on a higher standard. We believe it must be slaughtered by a human. It’s more humane. Machines can miscut,” he said.
Muslims must meet basic halal requirements but the Prophet Muhammad also commanded that people treat animals well and not abuse them, said Nana, who stakes his point of view on animal welfare from the prophet’s many sayings.
“Our prophet, he emphasized the kind treatment of animals,” he said.
Hussein Rashid, a professor at Hofstra University and an Islamic scholar, said these debates have been raging within the Muslim community, who are fragmented on what should be eaten. Other issues include whether stunning an animal before death is halal and the age-old debate on whether it’s okay to eat meat slaughtered by Jews and Christians.
Joe M. Regenstein, a professor of food science at Cornell University and a consultant for many halal and kosher organizations and companies, acknowledged there are problems within the halal meat industry because Muslims have not been willing to pay extra for meat that has been certified halal by an overseeing body, such as the the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America, the country’s largest halal certification organization, which he consults for. A label simply saying meat is halal is not enough to be truly acceptable— but it is for some people who want cheap meat, he said.
“Sometimes people cut corners. You get what you pay for,” said Regenstein.
There are some examples of halal businesses trying to buck the mainstream. Honest Chops, a butcher shop in Manhattan, opened earlier this year and offers humanely raised, all natural, hand-slaughtered meat, said Anas Hassan, a manager.
Saffron Road is a big player in the growing all natural halal business with its frozen food entrees, which can be found at Whole Foods. Norwich Meadows Farms in Upstate New York, which started in 1998, also offers organic meat.
For Muslims who don’t have access to these organic halal businesses, they can look up purveyors on the Halal Advocates website, which certifies ethically-sound slaughterhouses and businesses, or through personal contacts such as Friedlander, who found a Muslim farmer who sells hand-slaughtered, organic meat.
“I don’t want to eat animals that were systematically abused their whole lives. From a spiritual practice, I didn’t want to get that into my body,” said Friedlander, who is also pursuing his doctorate on Islamic law and animal slaughter at Harvard.
As for Yasin, he strives to make sure some of his halal meat comes from his own hands. After all, hunting for food is in his blood. Male relatives have hunted for rabbits, pheasants, duck and deer for decades. His great grandfather sailed from Cape Verde and was involved in the whaling industry of Nantucket Island, Mass.
For his latest hunt in August, Yasin went into the Sierra Mountains with a few friends to hunt for deer, although he came back with nothing to show for his efforts. The time in the woods, though, was well spent, he said.
“It’s a medicine that no doctor can prescribe,” he said. “It’s medicine for the soul to have this proximity to creation.”