by Imām Dawood Yāsīn
When I became Muslim in the mid-nineties there were not many halal food options beyond large cities. The options that did exist were very limited, mostly unregulated and the concepts of humane, antibiotic and hormone free were not even considered. However, in a relatively short period of time much has changed. I was recently in Western Massachusetts, not quite a bustling hub of Muslim activity. Nonetheless, in “small town America” one can find halal food options. Halal is only part of the equation, and beyond it are ethical questions, which lead to discussions that many Muslims choose not to explore at a deeper level. My good friends Nuri Friedlander and his wife Krystina always remind me that Muslims need to go Beyond Halal!
As consumers, regardless of our economic abilities we have an obligation to make certain that our food choices, to the best of our abilities, are maximizing our well-being. We need food to sustain our lives; therefore, informed food choices combined with purchasing healthier food is one way to ensure better personal health. Joe Salatin points out that, “in the last 35 years, our culture has exchanged an 18% per capita expenditure on food and 9% on health care to 18% on health care and 9% on food.”1 This correlation suggests there is a relationship between eating better food and our sustained personal health. A fundamental principle of eating ethically is to avoid imposing harm on others. One approach for consumers to prevent this harm is to avoid companies that are actively engaged in destructive environmental practices, exploit farm-workers, or blatantly disregard animal welfare.
Islamic spirituality is not based solely on metaphysics and esoteric idealism. It is also grounded in tangible practice. Without struggling against the aspects of our being which are blameworthy, we risk being full of empty talk. Before all the lofty spiritual aspirations is the simple, yet profound advice of the Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ, who advised one of his companions named Sā’d. Sā’d once requested from the Prophet ﷺ that he supplicate on his behalf asking God to always accept Sā’d’s supplications. The Prophet ﷺ responded:
Eat from [that which is] pure (ṭayyib), and your supplications will be accepted.
Pertaining to spirituality in the Islamic tradition, a Muslim should be concerned with what comes out of their mouth and what goes in, because both actions have consequences. Being scrupulous in what we eat leads to greater spiritual clarity and proximity to God ﷻ.
In the oft-mentioned Prophetic tradition (ḥadīth) pertaining to this subject, recorded in Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, we find the following:
The Messenger of God ﷺ said, “God Almighty is Pure and accepts only that which is pure. And God has commanded the believers to do that which He has commanded the Messengers. God Almighty has said: ‘O Messengers! Eat from the pure (ṭayyibāt), and perform righteous deeds.’ [Q. 23:51] and the Almighty has said: ‘O you who believe! Eat from the licit things that We have provided you.’ [Q2:172] Then he ﷺ mentioned [the case] of a man who, having journeyed far, is disheveled and dusty, and raises his hands to the sky saying, ‘My Lord! My Lord!’ while his food is illicit (ḥarām), his drink is ḥarām, his clothing is ḥarām, and he has been nourished with ḥarām; so how can [his supplication] be answered?
Are questions related to ethical eating simply questions of positive law—licit (ḥalāl) or illicit (ḥarām), or do they relate to issues of moral virtue, ethics and public interest? In other words: if a certain food is ḥalāl, does it necessarily mean that it upholds the highest ethical standards?
I attended a lecture at Yale University and a Muslim scholar spoke about food and the relation to our spiritual foundation. His words resonated with me as they embodied Islam’s perspective of the localvore movement. He said:
There was a time, when, where I grew up, we knew the person who owned the land that the food was grown. We knew the person who put the seeds in the ground. We knew the well where the water came from to irrigate the seeds. We knew the hands that harvested the wheat. We knew the hands that milled the wheat. We knew the hands that kneaded the dough. We knew where the wood came from that light the fire to bake the bread. We knew the hands that served the bread, and we could vouch for every person in that chain as a person of God-consciousness (taqwa).
Industrial modes of production offer short-term benefits: among them, employment, the ability to produce large amounts of food, and low-cost food production. However, there are many externalities associated with these benefits that we, as consumers, can no longer avoid. These costs include, unsustainable land usage leading to soil degradation, loose topsoil, widespread chemical pesticide use, water pollution destroying fragile aquatic ecosystems, and air pollution from combustion engines. These practices devastate not only ecosystem health, but also the health of the humans who work to make our food available.
The principle of sustainability recognizes the interdependence of our food system. And worker dignity, respect and health and safety are fundamental to a sustainable system. Purchasing organic strawberries doesn’t mean much if the workers are still dying in fields.2
Once distant communities are now intimately connected and our purchases may directly contribute to the deplorable conditions in which farm-workers labor. Take for example the seemingly innocent decision to purchase a pint of strawberries. To understand how purchasing a strawberry harms others that you didn’t know were being harmed, one only needs to look at the environment in which farm-workers, those picking these strawberries, labor. The humans picking these strawberries are knowingly exposed to poisonous chemicals.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that U.S. agriculture workers experience 10,000 — 20,000 acute pesticide-related illness each year, though they also admit that this is likely a significant underestimate.3 So it is good for more than just personal health reasons that I stay away from food grown using synthetic pesticides. They harm not just the consumer but the laborer as well.
Knowledge of how our food is grown, processed, and made consumable is perhaps the most challenging aspect of eating ethically, because it affects the most people, and is the one phase of our food system where consumers have virtually no agency. Consequently the lack of transparency about the production process is most troubling. Much of what happens to our food before it reaches us is unknown. As Jeffery Burkhardt points out:
…the industrialized agricultural system is not transparent to the ordinary consumer. That is, most people in an urban society do not know much if anything about how food is produced, where it is produced, who produces it, nor how it gets from the farm gate to produce aisle, meat cooler or frozen and canned sections of the supermarket.4
When purchasing a product, consider a few points: where a product originates, did the production process include sustainable agricultural practices, did the production process address animal welfare concerns, and fair-trade values?
Eating ethically requires a person to investigate the production of specific products. This manner of investigation requires diligence, it is time consuming and can be frustrating for the ethically concerned consumer. Not all producers are willing to openly share their production techniques. If a company is unwilling to disclose information regarding agricultural practices, conditions of workers, and animal welfare, consumers ought to avoid their product. Most food purchased from shopping centers has traveled a great distance to reach us. The average item of food travels 1,500 miles before it gets to your plate.5
Eating ethically is clearly a conscious choice that more and more people are making a priority in their lives. Many grocery stores now offer foods that are organic, ethically produced, locally grown, seasonable, and sustainable. U.S. sales of organic food and beverages have grown from $1 billion in 1990 to $26.7 billion in 2010. Sales in 2010 represented 7.7 percent growth over 2009 sales.6 What began as a movement accessible only to those with middle and upper-class incomes has now begun to spread even to the poorest sectors of American society. In the summer of 2010, Walgreens, a company not typically associated with groceries, started selling an expanded selection of food, including fresh fruits and vegetables, at 10 locations selected because they were in food deserts.7
The efforts to tackle urban food deserts, and to establish a right to healthy food, may be the first signs of broad-based change for all members of society. The right to fresh food is a right that no person should be denied. A person’s socio-economic standing should not be a barrier, which prevents them from accessing wholesome food. For people to eat ethically first and foremost they must have access to healthy foods, which is produced in a sustainable manner and available locally. Providing this option for all members of society increases the possibility for collective well-being and reduces the likelihood of harm.
When I think about food and its relation to the spiritual realities in my life, morality and ethical consideration influence a majority of my purchasing and consumption decisions. If I exclude them, it is to affirm that positive law is the only matter to consider with regard to my food choices. However, given the detrimental practices associated with food production, it is of the utmost importance to include morality and ethics at the forefront of the discussion.
When advancing the the idea of harm prevention, the conversation of moral virtue and public interest intersect the business of food production. The major religions of the world teach compassion and humane treatment in food production and Islam is no different.
Imām Dawood Yāsīn served as Imām of Masjid Al-Islam in New Haven, Connecticut, having spent the previous five years studying classical Arabic and religious sciences in Damascus. While in New Haven, he also worked as a teaching assistant and engaged in research at Yale University, and later served as Muslim Coordinator for Dartmouth College. Imām Dawood is currently the Coordinator of Learning Outside the Classroom at Zaytuna College. In his role, Dawood focuses on four primary areas: Residential Life, Community Engagement, Student Development and Student Counseling.
Originally published: Ummah Wide on 18 October 2014