By: Harun Cicek
Bismillahirrahmanirrahim, All Praise is due to Allah!
As Muslims, we take pride in the “purity” of our religion in both physical and spiritual sense. For instance, there is great emphasis in Quran and in the example of our Prophet (saw) on personal hygiene and eating wholesome, halal food. Many great scholars have equated the purification of heart with the purification of our body, soul and food. Therefore, aside from the ‘halal or haram’ discussion, it is important to reflect on what is ‘pure and good food’. The following beautiful and comprehensive Hadith illustrates the significance of this issue:
Abu Hurairah, may Allah be pleased with him, reported that the Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him, said: “Verily Allah the Exalted is pure. He does not accept but that which is pure. Allah commands the believers with what He commanded the Messengers. Allah the Almighty has said: “O you Messengers! Eat of the good things and act righteously” [23:51-53]. And Allah the Almighty also said: “O you who believe! Eat of the good things that We have provided you with” [2:167-172].Then he (the Prophet) mentioned (the case of) the man who, having journeyed far, is dishevelled and dusty and who stretches out his hands to the sky (saying): “O Lord! O Lord!” (while) his food was unlawful, his drink was unlawful, his clothing was unlawful, and he is nourished with unlawful things, so how can he be answered?” [Muslim]
There are many other Quranic verses and Hadiths, specifically dealing with pure, good and wholesome foods and their importance. These references are not necessarily talking about halal or haram foods, rather, they are explicitly referring to the purity and goodness of food. All good and pure food -within the Islamic boundaries- can be halal but not all apparently what is often called halal food is good and pure. Alhamdullilah, when it comes to technical details of slaughtering, we can differentiate between halal and haram meats but how about what happens to that animal before it is slaughtered? Here, our intention is not to define, discuss or declare what is halal or haram, but rather, the intention is that through what is presented in this commentary, Muslims resume to the vigilance of our righteous ancestors regarding what is filling their stomach. “That flesh which has grown out of Haraam food will not enter Jannah. Hell has more right to it” (Ahmad: Tirmidhi).
Before the industrial revolution food was produced in simple manner; in harmony with Allah’s creation, good and pure. Especially after the Second World War, however, agriculture has undergone a rapid transformation in the direction of mechanisation, extensive chemical dependency and biotechnology. Environmental degradation caused by such modern agriculture practices have been well documented over the years. Less researched, however, is the health implications of mass production agriculture and its offshoot, the processed food industry.
This subject may cause some confusion because most people, not involved in agriculture, are unaware of the methods employed in modern agriculture to produce food. Some may even ask; what could be impure about agriculture and food? In our minds, we still have the image of those idyllic farms with green pastures and happy animals, but the reality draws a different picture. The picture of abused animals, eroded soil, lost biodiversity, chemical residues and genetic modification. This reality, in my opinion, is far from being good and pure.
Lets briefly investigate how crops are grown in conventional agriculture. From seed to harvest, crops are constantly under the “protection” of chemicals. Some seeds are coated with fungicides, and then crops are sprayed during the season with herbicides, pesticides and fungicides, and on top of all these, some are sprayed again before the harvest in order to desiccate and easily harvest the crop. One should consider how much chemical residue would be left on these crops and whether they are “good and pure”.
Beside the excessive application of chemicals, many crops are also genetically modified in order to increase yields or create resistance to pests and herbicide applications. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are created by taking a gene from one organism (animals or plants) and inserting it to the other species. If we don’t “create” them, they will not appear in Allah’s nature randomly. In Europe, food containing GMOs must be labelled accordingly, but in North America such food is not labelled. The chances are that if you eat any kind of processed food, you consume the GMOs in the form of by-products or directly, especially, from corn, soy beans and canola. SubhanAllah, Satan is keeping his word and working hard to make us disobey our Rabb; “I will mislead them and I will order them to slit the ears of cattle, and to deface the (fair) natural creation of Allah.” (4: 119).
In the above discussion we briefly investigated how Satan ordered us to “deface the (fair) natural creation of Allah”. Now, let’s look at the meat we eat and how we are, again, following the Satan’s orders. Let’s question where the meat that we eat comes from and how were the animals for slaughter are raised. Surely, we all remember the “mad cow” disease but how many of us actually thought about it? Just because Muslims eat halal meat, it doesn’t mean that we are immune to such diseases. Unfortunately, most of the time, the source of halal and non-halal supermarket meat are the same. Today most animals are raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), under unhealthy, and unnatural conditions. They have barcodes on labels inserted in their ears (slitting the ear? Allah hu Alim), containing all the information regarding the animal. Thousands of animals confined in these buildings are fed with feed that contains mostly soy or corn, animal by-products (fat, crushed bones, feather, intestines etc…) from all kinds of animals, antibiotics, synthetic minerals and vitamins. Allah has created these animals vegetarian and made their metabolism to handle only grasses and forages. But the modern agriculture forces them to eat things that are against their nature. That is one of the reasons that they have to be given antibiotics, because their metabolism cannot handle this diet. Remember the “mad cow” disease; a result of feeding animals with animal by-products.
Agriculture is the largest consumer of antibiotics worldwide. Recently, Silbergeld et al. (2008) reviewed the antimicrobial resistance, which they defined as the “major health crisis” because this resistance is “eroding the discovery of antimicrobials and their application to clinical medicine”. In the same article they commented that “CAFOs are comparable to poorly run hospitals, where everyone gets antibiotics, patients lie in unchanged beds, hygiene is nonexistent, infections and re-infections are rife, waste is thrown out the window, and visitors enter and leave at will. Finally, because these large numbers of animals produce large amounts of waste, which are largely untreated prior to land disposal, there are substantial environmental pathways of release and exposure.”
Chickens are also raised in such, maybe even worse, circumstances. Chickens in these surroundings get stressed and attack other chickens, hence, for this reason, beaks of these chickens, often times, have to be cut. With the diet containing animal by-products, chickens grow so fast that in 45 days they cannot carry themselves and their weight can break their legs until they are ready for slaughter. Sheep are, so far, in better condition especially because, it is not, as yet, profitable to put them in CAFOs.
Then, there is the issue of animal welfare. We all know that our Prophet (PBUH) treated animals with care and compassion and ordered us to follow his example. Animals in CAFOs are treated against their nature. They are essentially tortured. They will ask for their rights on the day of judgement!
What should we be eating then? Before answering this question consider that it is a duty of a Muslim to investigate carefully what is going into his/her stomach. What we eat is what makes us who we are. Impure food and behaviour will make our ummah impure. We are not only responsible for our own health but also responsible for the health of this planet and all creatures therein.
Now if we choose to put effort into obtaining food that is pure then there are options for the seekers. Organic products are widely available in most grocery stores. Organic production is in line with Allah’s nature and produces wholesome pure food without the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides or insecticides and genetic modification. There are also local farms around Winnipeg, which are respectful of Allah’s creatures and grow pure food. You can visit these farms and buy meat and produce directly from them (see references for one of the local organizations).
Lastly, it should be recognized that, Muslims should always lead the way to righteousness. Allah says in Quran; “You are the best community raised up FOR mankind, you enjoin what is good and forbid what is evil…”(3:110) As Muslims let’s strive to choose what is pure and be exemplary in our lifestyle for the rest of mankind.
In conclusion, the simple logic of “halal =good and pure” may not hold true in today’s food systems in especially industrialized countries. If we want to be pure and clean, we must be vigilant and selective about our actions.
“Truly, what is halal is evident, and what is haram is evident, and in between the two are matters which are doubtful which many people do not know. He who guards against doubtful things keeps his religion and honor blameless, and he who indulges in doubtful things indulges in fact in haram things. Sahih Bukhari (Hadith # 50) & Muslim (Hadith # 2996)
** Br. Harun Cicek is a masters’ student at the Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Manitoba researching on organic farming. He is also the education coordinator for the Muslim Student Association at the University of Manitoba.
Sapkota A. R., Lefferts L. Y., McKenzie S., and Walker P. 2007. What Do We Feed to Food-Production Animals? A Review of Animal Feed Ingredients and Their Potential Impacts on Human Health Environmental Health Perspectives Volume 115, Number 5.
Silbergeld E. K., Graham J., and Price L. B., 2008. Industrial Food Animal Production, Antimicrobial Resistance, and Human Health. Annual Review of Public Health Vol. 29: 151-169
Eco Green Tips Website available at http://ecogreentips.com/the-truth-behind-your-meat-part-i/ (Accessed on December 05, 2009)
The Greenpeace Canada Shoppers GMO Guide. Available at http://gmoguide.greenpeace.ca/ (Accessed on December 05, 2009)
Harvest Moon Local Food Initiative, available at http://www.harvestmoonfood.ca/ (Accessed on December 06, 2009)