Imam Khalid Latif is blogging his reflections during the month of Ramadan for the fourth year in a row, featured daily on HuffPost Religion. For a complete record of his previous posts, visit his author page, and to follow along with the rest of his reflections, sign up for an author email alert above, visit his Facebook page or follow him on Twitter.
All of us probably have some type of funny/scary/sad story of visiting a halal meat store. My wife had one too many interactions with a local store that left her bewildered. She would stand at the cash register and order and the owner would then disappear for 20 minutes and bring back something that was different from what she ordered. She would then ask what it costs and he would give a really high price and then drop it substantially when she pushed back. At other stores, the butchers wouldn't know the cuts she wanted, would cut the meat, pickup the phone, use the cash register and blow their nose simultaneously, all without gloves on. The stories could go on and on. One day she came home and said, "We should start our own meat store." And so we did.
Some of my friends and I started an all-natural, halal meat store in the East Village of New York City a few months ago called Honest Chops. The initial idea behind it was to create a business venture with different alumni/community members of the Islamic Center at NYU. A large portion of profits generated would go back to the Islamic Center and the development of different social service institutions such as a domestic violence shelter, free health clinic, etc. Honest Chops is the third of such initiatives, the other two being a Muslim Wedding Service, which I will probably write about later, and some NYC-Based Edible Arrangement franchises.
In an initial phase of research we surprisingly found that despite the large number of Muslims that lived in Manhattan, there was really no dedicated halal meat store. We found a couple that had closed over the years, but nothing that was fully operational. We then started to visit local halal butchers in the tri-state area and meet with people who previously owned halal meat stores. This is where our vision started to change.
What we saw in most of these stores and heard in many of these meetings was shocking and disheartening. A lack of quality control and a prevalence of unhygienic practices aside, the most alarming thing was the absence of ethics that we saw. It wasn't even about different opinions on what constituted halal, but people were just straight-up selling haraam meat. One butcher that we interviewed told us that he used to work at a place that would marinate pork and sell it as veal. We walked through fridges and freezers that had buckets of blood and heads of slaughtered animal scattered throughout the floor. The theme became a constant as we interacted with local and wholesale suppliers. Money was seemingly the priority.
Learning then how the animals were treated and raised made it that much more eye-opening. We walked through slaughter facilities where chickens were pecking away at carcasses of dead chickens, sometimes eating even their own excrement. Animals were just being treated so poorly and forced to live in the most horrendous of conditions because they were seen as a commodity that needed to be mass-produced rather than as a creation that had rights it was entitled to. They were literally given no room to move around and some were just piled on top of each others in cages or locked away in cold, dark buildings in cramped pens. There was no concern for them because they were seen only as a product, and not something that actually had life. I am not sure if you realize it, but there's a good chance that the cow you eat doesn't eat grass or walk around on grass. That should bother you.
In Islam, so much of our spirituality is tied to what we consume and right now a lot of Muslims, and people in general, are not consuming things that are good for them. There is a presence of God and a reverence for all of His creation that Islam calls for that is missing when things become as commercialized as they have been. There is an inherent beauty in an animal giving its to provide sustenance to you and I. To me, it only makes sense that such an act would necessitate remembering God at every step of the process.
Aside from something being halal, or religiously permissible, the Qur'an calls for food to be Tayyib, or pure. The absence of the latter quality has caused a lot of people frustration. In my own community, a quick survey found many had stopped eating halal because they were so frustrated with the options out there. Some started to eat kosher, some became vegetarian, and some just started to eat anything. Having seen and learned what I have in the last year, I can't blame them. With Honest Chops we are hoping to change that.
Our hope is to reclaim what Halal means and offer the highest quality product possible. Our Honest-To-God Guarantee outlines our guiding principles quite clearly:
We promise that our meat is hand-slaughtered following the strictest Islamic guidelines
Our beef is always pasture-raised and grass-fed (some are on a grain diet at the end of their life)
Chickens are on a vegetarian diet (non-GMOs) and raised in humane conditions
All the meat that enters Honest Chops must be treated humanely
We promise to do annual reports and survey our suppliers on a regular basis
We promise to pay our workers dignified wages
Most importantly, we promise to always be honest and transparent to our stakeholders - you"
We've been open for three months and the response has been amazing. Although many of our clients are Muslim, the majority of them are not. They are just people who are looking for good, quality meat. We've started home deliveries in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn and are hoping to expand in the coming months. If you're ever in the NYC area, feel free to stop by or check us out online at www.honestchops.com.
As Ramadan continues, try to be more conscious of what it is that you are consuming. Make sure the quality of the food you are consuming carries a certain purity to it. It is from that food that your entire body will be nourished. You don't want it to lack in any blessing that could easily be harnessed with a little more effort. Cook at home more and eat more from hands that have a love for you rather than at places who don't even care what your name is. I can guarantee you will feel better physically and, in turn, spiritually and emotionally.