HARAM LEGISLATION ON HALAL FOOD
By Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute
A previous Islamonline article (Kassaimha 2001) has explained the drive behind the rash of “halal meat” legislation in the United States. Still to be discussed, however, is the danger that poor wording may cause strife within the Muslim community by taking sides in differences over whether or not ritual zabîha slaughter (as for Hajj sacrifice) is required for meat to be permissible for Muslims. Wording in the legislation recently passed in Illinois is a case in point.
Now that non-Muslims are advertising that they offer “halal food” there is an increasing concern that vendors may resort to fraud in order to take advantage of this increasingly lucrative niche market. Rather than rely on certification by well-known Muslim organizations, some Muslims have resorted to lobbying for protective legislation. While the first such bill, passed in New Jersey, has been hailed as a model of consumer protection, the most recently passed legislation, in Illinois, reveals the hidden danger in letting non-Muslim legislators intervene in religious matters at the behest of Muslim activists with no training in Muslim jurisprudence.
The New Jersey law was modeled on exiting kosher food legislation that had passed the test of court challenges as to whether such laws ran afoul of church-state separation concerns. The method Jews had used to deal with the issue was to first set up their own voluntary certifications boards and then to use the apparatus of government to pursue anyone who misleadingly used the kosher symbols on products that didn’t meet the standards implied by the symbols. The beauty of this system, and the reason it did not violate the non-establishment clause of the First Amendment, was that the internal disagreements among Jewish scholars as to how strictly the kosher rules need be interpreted was accommodated by the variety of certification board symbols. Thus, even though the kosher food industry is a $30 billion industry, only about 7% of the kosher food is “strictly kosher.” Yet the government does not get involved in disagreements between orthodox and other Jews over what is and what isn’t kosher. The government only assures that something considered kosher on one interpretation isn’t passed off as having bee approved under another interpretation. Thus, the New Jersey law specifies “Any dealer who prepares, distributes, sells or exposes for sale any food represented to be halal shall disclose the basis upon which that representation is made….”
Some might not think this is of no significance to Muslims since our dietary laws are much simpler than the Jewish laws, but they would be mistaken. Consider, for example, the Qur’anic commandment that the food of the “People of the Book” (followers of pre-Qur’anic revelation) has been made halâl to the Muslims. Kassaimha (2001) explained the differences among the Muslim schools of thought as to whether the People of the Book must follow the strictly Islamic zabîha methods. In order for legislation to avoid crossing the line into an illegal establishment of religion, it must not take sides in this dispute. The Illinois law clearly does take sides: “Halal means prepared under and maintained in strict compliance with the laws and customs of the Islamic religion including but not limited to those laws and customs of zabiha/zabeeha (slaughtered according to appropriate Islamic code), and as expressed by reliable recognized entities and scholars” (Emphasis added.) The use of the word “and” in the places emphasized makes it clear that mere compliance with Islamic law (Shari`a) or with recognized certification boards or scholars is not enough. One must also be in compliance with the customary zabîhah.
However unintentionally, the drafters of the Illinois legislation will make Muslims who wish to follow Shaikh Yusuf Qaradawi’s guidelines of what constitutes halal meat (see Kassaimha 2001) into law-breakers. If I were to open a restaurant in Chicago and get my meat from a kosher supplier I would be defined as a criminal for telling my Muslim customers that as Muslims the meat I serve is permissible for them. By the same token, as a Muslim consumer, my own choices have become more limited as various sources of halal meat now available may no longer advertise themselves as halal.
Ironically this could cause a reversal in the current trend of Muslims to be more cautious about the sources of our food. As it becomes common knowledge that law prohibits labeling permissible meats as “halal,” Muslims increasingly may buy food not marked “halal” on the presumption that it is not so marked because of the excessive restrictiveness of the Illinois law rather than due to a flaw in the meat (like containing pork!).
It would be best to rectify this mistake in the Illinois law by bringing it in closer to conformity to the New Jersey model. Such an amendment would allow certification boards that require zabîha ritual requirements for halal meat to adopt a nomenclature like “strict zabiha” to distinguish their standard from the “halal” or permissible standard, categorically defined in the Qur’an (16:115-116): “He has only forbidden you dead meat and blood and the flesh of swine and any (food) over which the name of other than God has been invoked. But if one is forced by necessity without willful disobedience nor transgressing due limits then God is Oft-Forgiving Most Merciful. But say not for any false thing that your tongues may put forth ‘This is lawful and this is forbidden’ so as to ascribe false things to God. For those who ascribe false things to God will never prosper.”
While amending the law so soon after its passage may seem embarrassing, to have the law overturned on constitutional grounds would be worse. It could engender in lawmakers a general fear of such legislation that might make it harder to pass constitutionally valid bills in the future.
Kassaimah, Sahar 2001. “The Non-Muslim Halal Business” Islamonline.net (June 8) http://www.islam-online.net/English/Society/2001/06/article4.shtml