How halal is halal (1) – my lay introduction to dhabiha

My background briefly is that I am a sort of Christian, not a Muslim, and I have had no explicit religious training. I have a farming background and a life science degree, pharmacy.

My interest in halal was stimulated by after reading up kosher rules and recognising that they were based on a solid foundation that will withstand any comparison with modern food hygiene and animal welfare standards. From hereon I’ll just refer to “halal” rather than “kosher”. The two terms are not fully interchangeable but for this article they can be so considered. Both originate from the times in which the Old Testament books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus are set – the Bronze Age. That’s a long time ago.

Detractors assume that because our religious ancestors did not possess microscopes they cannot possibly have had any idea of the causes of infection. Detractors refer to a sky pixie and primitive peoples. These detractors may be wrong.

The peoples of the age that I am referring to were established civil engineers. They had a mastery of metallurgy. They could work artistic wonders with gold and learned how to make metal alloys. They worked out how to harden copper with tin to make durable tools. We do not need to read to deeply into the Bible to realise that they understood the priciples of good hygiene – hence the saying “cleanliness is next to godliness”.

Neither historical records nor archeological evidence fully supports the Biblical story of the exodus but for the purposes of this article the picture of the exodus and the importance of the tabernacle serves as a useful backdrop. The Bible record must have related to something real. For me the picture is one in which a large body of people were exiled from Egypt where they would have led a reasonably civilised lives. They would have lived in established settlements – cities or villages and quite probably have had some concept of sanitation. They went into exile and overnight had to learn a nomadic lifestyle. Hygiene would have been critical – not least because water was a scarce commodity. Food hygiene would have been a big issue. If they got it wrong gastro-intestinal disease would have been a huge issue. Their prophets would surely have worked out good and bad ways to handle meat.

I referred to a sky pixie. I want deliberately to minimise my using the word “God”. In any event, I am not a religious or tehological mission but it’s worth reflecting on the origin of “religious” practice. Look at all the religions of the Middle and Far East and the “sanctity of life” is critical. People would have been intensely spiritual. Where did they come from? Why were they there? What was their purpose? Where were they going? All animal life will have been held in high regard.

Briefly, it is inconceivable that they would have developed any practice that killed for the sake of killing – and certainly not merely to appease a mythical sky pixie. On the other hand they would have asked what they had done wrong when their encampment was inflicted with dysentry – “Oh God, why me, why us?”; “Oh God how have we sinned?”

How many of us, today, mutter even utter the words “Oh God” or “Jesus” when our computer freezes or our houses are flooded or after some other calamity?

For sure they killed to eat but how often? Probably not that often and only on high days and holidays, as it were. Apart from chicken most domestic animals were too big for one family to consume within one or two days so killing the fatted calf would have been a community event – a festival where the meat was shared around.

Let’s try fitting this together. We have a concept of good hygiene that hold to this day. The laver was a vital piece tabernacle furniture. I’ll skip the background to halal food restrictions (the bar on pigs, for example) except to say that today a farmer would not dream of eating an calf that died. He would not know why it died. Was it diseased? Our forebears would surely have worked out eating fallen animals was not good.

Returning to the sanctity of life our ancestors would surely have worked out that bludgeoning and animal to death would have caused unnecessary suffering. Stone Age flint cutting tools had serated edges. Copper was a soft metal so even if they could give a knife a sharp edge it would be easily damaged. Bronze was different.

Go onto YouTube and search on “kosher”. You should easily find clips showing what lengths Jews go to to ensure that their chelafs (slaughter knives) have no nicks or blemishes that are bound cause pain.

Thus far I am seeing nothing but good practices being developed. I see only practices that most people would regard as “humane”. I see practices that were broadly adopted by many cultures. I cannot see why there is so much controversy.

But why a prayer? What is invoking God (or another sky pixie) so important? The clue lies in the recognition of the sanctity of live. In a Christian grace thanks are given to God, or our creator. When our forebears killed to eat it is not difficult to envisage their offering a prayer thanking God for his bounty and asking for forgiveness for taking the life of one of his (or nature’s) creatures.

I’ll return to prayer in part 2.

In Biblical days there was no means of stunning animals to cause unconsciousness from which they could recover. The heart needs to be beating when an animal is slaughtered so stunning to cause instant death was not an option.

It is quite clear that in Biblical days there would have been standard ways or doing things. The maodern jargon is “standard operating procedures” or “SOPs”. We write ours down and in detail. Our forebears had to rely largely on the “oral tradition”.

In this article I have tried to develop the core attributes of halal slaughter. The specific Arabic word specifically transliterated dhabiha or zabiha. The term halal is actually an umbrella term and in this context actually covers all aspect of animal welfare from “farm to fork”. Good halal practice can be likened to organic practice.

Understanding halal does not require rocket science yet science can be used to validate halal (or kosher) practice. Sadly we have a clash of minds. The secular “scientific community” does not easily cope with anything vaguely religious while the religious community may have lost touch with its roots and struggles with the “knowledge” our religious ancestors must surely have had. In fact I wonder if way back many practices were so common place that they were taken for granted – being taught by rote.

Finally I am inclined to believe that much was taught by rote and by the oral tradition that some practices had become corrupted and the Prophet Mohammed was inspired to write it down and to codify the traditions – but that’s for another day.


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