Nuri Friedlander chats with Qaid Hassan of Whole Earth Meats about how a guy from Philly ends up running a halal organic meat business in Chicago, the importance of ideals, and how we would benefit as a community by having “slaughterman” duty. Whole Earth Meats provides local, grassfed, organic halal meats in the Chicagoland area and beyond. Listen to the interview here.
NF: Asalaamu alaykum, I’m Nuri Friedlander here with my friend Qaid Hassan from Whole Earth Meats. Qaid, could you tell us about how you got into the ethical, organic, halal meat business?
QH: I feel like I always give a somewhat different answer to this question. Sitting here in Boston and reminiscing about growing up in Philadelphia… You know, one good thing about Philadelphia is that there are plenty of Muslims there. Halal meat was sometimes called into question, the authenticity of it. So that’s always been an issue [for me]. Is something halal because it’s slaughtered a certain way, was it actually slaughtered the right way? Is it halal because it’s tayyib and it’s cared for, though it may not have been slaughtered by a Muslim? We dealt with a lot of those things in Philly, as a family, as a community, so it always resonated with me.
When I moved to Chicago, it was essentially a chance to reinvent what I was about, to try a new thing. I looked for the best of the best when it came to food, particularly meat. There was an organization called Taqwa Eco-Foods, and I latched onto it and found opportunities to connect with farmers, to connect with the slaughterhouses and to get some good meat at the same time. From there it was a very natural progression, and I really wanted to normalize what it meant to eat good quality meat, particularly for the Muslim community. We’re not fulfilling what I might consider to be an obligation to eat good quality food, to enjoy good quality conversation, to take care of our bodies and thereby our souls. So I ran with it.
Living in Chicago and in the Midwest, it’s easier to get connected to farms versus in some other parts of the U.S. Wisconsin is a really amazing place for cheese and milk, and meat, and vegetables, and fruits and grains. I found different windows to climb through, doorways to open. Alhamdulillah.
NF: Alhamdulillah. You talked about moving to Chicago and having this opportunity to reinvent yourself, and it’s interesting that part of that involved food. How do you see food—and particularly this kind of wholesome, humanely, and environmentally conscious way of sourcing food as fitting into your identity as a person and as a Muslim?
QH: It does it in a number of ways. For one thing, food is something that we come into contact with at least once a day, for the most part. It’s something that we overlook, and something that we shouldn’t overlook. When I think of ways to preserve God’s earth, when I imagine a place where children can enjoy the stars and the birds and the leaves falling in autumn time, the food system is very integral to that concept.
My move to Chicago was a way for me to carve out something that made sense for almost everyone, in almost every instance. I felt it was something that I could utilize anywhere, wherever I went, wherever I visited. There are things that are part of our food, that are derived from the process of production of food, that also have utility. That, for me, is just amazing. It has such a resounding glow to it, that here’s something that we can eat, we can grow, we can farm, we can harvest, and look, there’s also these byproducts that we can make use of. SubhanAllah, this is amazing. Look at how many hands can be involved in this, so many craftsmen and craftswomen can be a part of building community. And [they’re] tackling some of the problems head on, and seeing some of the solutions, some resolutions come about fairly simply, and in a long-lasting way.
Cooking a really good meal and eating a really good meal functions in the spiritual realm. Of course there’s the physical act of doing those things, then there’s the hearts coming together. We all know the idea of the home-cooked meal, you get that same meal at a restaurant and they might have all the same great ingredients, but it lacks some of the baraka.
I went to Chicago to go to graduate school and it was really a chance for me to figure out what I wanted to do. I spent some time reading a lot of social and legal theorists, from St. Augustine to Freud and Habermas. I had a chance to take classes outside of those subjects [that I studied], and I decided that I didn’t want to continue past the Master’s program. Growing into this area was really befitting. It became a passion, and became easy for me to do, and I [dove] in, alhamdulillah.
NF: You talked about a home-cooked meal having this baraka, this blessing in it. In my mind, a big part of that baraka begins on the farm, where the food is being grown and the animals are being raised. What have you learned about the way that food is produced that can help us better understand that role?
QH: One of my first experiences on a farm was on a sheep farm in Illinois, about a 45-minute drive south from Chicago not far from a predominantly African-American farming community near the town of Kankakee. One of the chores the farmer got us to jump right into was hoof trimming. I never imagined that livestock, shepherded animals, needed to be cared for in that way. By not trimming their hooves, they can get all sorts of diseases that can travel up through their hooves and get into their legs, causing them paralysis or definitely pain. At that point, the animal is no good if you can’t get it back to good health, or you have to pump it full of antibiotics that have all sorts of terrible side effects. And I got to thinking, not just about how important this is, but how we could do this better. There’s so much potential for ingenuity in farming. Farming isn’t some lackadaisical, mundane, unskilled occupation. It’s something that corresponds to one’s heart, their aql. To do good farming, you have to be intelligent.
But this wasn’t the way we’ve been looking at our food, how we’ve been bred in our society, nowhere in the world I think. I’ve talked with some of my in-laws from the Middle East, and they would kind of chuckle when we talked about the idea of growing your own food, because they got away from that. They thought, why do that?
NF: I’ve talked to some African American brothers who have gone back to farming, and they’ve had the same kinds of reactions from their family, you know, “we left the south to get away from sharecropping, and now you want to start a farm?”
QH: Yeah, it’s so interesting! And so in those moments, that day and a half that we spent on the farm…when we eat a lamb chop—when most people eat a lamb chop—we don’t think is important, this part of the process. In hoof-trimming, you’re ensuring that the animal has sturdy legs and can get into the hay bell or get into the barn to get away from inclement weather, to get good exercise. If the hooves aren’t trimmed correctly, the animal isn’t going to graze.
NF: What I’m hearing is a care for the quality of life of the animals that feed us.
QH: Yes, definitely. And [another part of it is that] as a farmer and as a producer, we’re thinking about the care of animals and also thinking about other things, [for example] how to develop efficient contraptions. The contraption they were using basically turned the animal upside down and used shears to clip all four of the hooves, which can be disturbing to the animal, to say the least, but is also time consuming. [The sheep] are not going to go through it with ease; they’re going to try to avoid it. So we went back to the farmer’s office and said, okay, one thing we can do is to lay down some limestone in a certain area, and we can make sure that these animals graze over the limestone, and it will naturally grind down their hooves. And the limestone is good for the soil. It became an issue of landscape design, and a holistic look at the way that we farm. Your invention has so much utility.
Doors just started to open and lights just started to go on—I could live this life. And this is fi khair, this is good and Muslims should be doing this! Not just doing this, but leading the way, changing the game, so to speak.
NF: I think Whole Earth Meats is really changing the game around what halal meat is and can be. One of the things I’m often frustrated by is that you’ll go to a restaurant or to a market and they’ll say “this is halal,” and it’s very difficult to know what their standards are, what they even mean by that word. What are the standards that you hold at Whole Earth Meats?
QH: Back to growing up in Philly, I remember there was halal and then there was halal halal. I’ve never seen it written down, but it was a conversation you’d have with the Muslim shopkeeper about the pepperoni on the pizza. Because there’s halal where I think most [people] would just say “oh just say bismillah.”
NF: It’s “halal” pepperoni meaning that it’s beef pepperoni.
QH: Right. Then there’s halal halal—some people use the term zabiha when it’s hand-slaughtered. The way that we do it at Whole Earth Meats is that we want to get it right the first time and not have to backpedal and reteach slaughterhouses, or even the farmers, who are concerned about how the animals are slaughtered, “oh, this is the way that we should do it but we’re going to do it this way for now.” So the way that we should do it, in my opinion, when it comes to Whole Earth Meats, to the meat that my family eats, is that it should be hand-slaughtered, “bismillah Allahu Akbar.” Of course there’s a lot of preparation that has to go into that, in terms of the tools, the layout of the slaughter plant, and also the assurances that after the eviscerating and the skinning and the hanging, or the dry-aging of the meat, that it’s also free from contamination by non-halal materials.
We, alhamdulillah, have been able to maintain that, and we think that by trying to change the game, we have to live up the ideal as best we can. It means that we’ve missed some opportunities, if you want to call it that, we’ve missed some farmers who believe that it’s humane to stun the animal, to knock the animal in the cranium—in the case of cattle—before cutting. But we’ve found that it’s best to not knock an animal, even in a somewhat dangerous space like a slaughterhouse.
NF: You raise an interesting question. People say, “you’re talking about all these ideals, but you can’t actually do that practically and feed everyone that wants to eat meat in the Muslim community.” What’s your response to the people who say that the ideal is not practically achievable?
QH: The notion of “ideal” is beautiful in itself because it’s an ideal, especially if the people espousing those ideals have a good sense of idealism. What I mean is that if we start gnawing at this commitment, then we’ll start losing the ideals. The notion of high expectations won’t be there as much, we won’t know the ideals, the best-case scenario, the utopia, if you will. We’ll know something that’s watered down, that’s gentrified, that doesn’t have a lot of space and hope for our children. It’ll just be an outdated, mundane way of looking at life. You know, there will be a grandmother, every so often, ninety years old, who maybe will be able to talk about the ideal. But no one who could act on it will be around anymore.
The ideal really is there. We have to hope for something. That’s what drives creativity, what breeds a certain notion of determination. I think our brother Nadeem said it yesterday, succinctly, “if you put enough energy and focus into it, then Allah will give you an opening.” I believe that about the ideal of slaughtering. These are sacred beings. An animal is sacred by being a part of Allah’s creation, even a pig. We don’t eat pig, but they’re here. Allah made them, not as some decrepit, sworn enemy of other creatures or of people.
NF: So in slaughtering animals, in eating animals, in raising animals, we’re in a sort of relationship with Allah’s creation.
QH: And we have a responsibility as Allah’s vicegerents on the earth, that we have to do it well. We have to fulfill the ideal, and aspire to the ideal, because if we don’t, we’re not being good servants.
NF: Part of the ideal that you just touched on has to do with slaughter. One of the things that I repeat a lot is that when we’re talking about halal, we’re really only talking about the last few moments of an animal’s life and how it dies. What are your standards of practice around how animals live?
QH: Let me go back to part of your other question; it’s tied into this. How can we do the ideal with people consuming all this meat? Well, people—Muslims in particular—shouldn’t be eating as much meat as we probably do. We have to recognize that this a new phenomena.
NF: It’s very rare to hear someone who has a business providing a product saying “people shouldn’t really be using very much of my product.”
QH: That’s what I’m saying! And I’m saying it in a way where if you do eat meat, it should be good quality meat. Just don’t eat a lot of it. You’re better off, instead of eating a lot of the bad stuff, to eat a little of the good stuff and none of the bad stuff and lots of fruits and vegetables and healthy grains, and a nice bit of chocolate every once in a while, Allahu ‘alim. I think we will find some harmony, where animals can be raised in a healthy way, on a farm, they’re not going through some sort of feeding program where they’ve got to get pumped up and at 1,200 pounds in twelve to eighteen months, but for 24-28 months they’re allowed to graze on grass and legumes, without any hormones or antibiotics, without any grain. That’s halal—that’s tayyib—that’s taking care of the air, the water, the earth, the animal.
There’s a spiritual dimension to all that, being a vicegerent and doing it the right way, the way that great folks of the past have done it around the world. Rather than feeding this sick food system that we’re in now where there are so many artificial things that are produced in laboratories, that are void of healthy living nutrients—that’s honestly the importance of having the ideal, that we don’t fall victim to the way that everyone else is doing it. So when stuff really hits the fan, we’re kind of in the lizard’s hole with the folks that we should be helping, that we should be leading the way for.
NH: We have a responsibility. You touched on the idea that there’s a spiritual piece to this. In the years that you’ve been doing this work, how have you been changed spiritually?
QH: In thinking about a spiritual life, and the notion of a spiritual life for anyone, I think there’s an aspect of meticulousness that has to happen, ihsan. In some way, at some time, in the spiritual progression, [we] start to pay more attention to the details. I can definitely say that when I go to a slaughterhouse or when I go to a farm to do an on-farm harvest, I am constantly thinking about the knives that I’m bringing, the extra gear that I’m bringing for other people and myself, playing out different scenarios if we’re unable to hang the carcass in a certain way—contingency plans. And that also impacts my spiritual growth, because I’m more on, I’m thinking outside of myself. I’m thinking about not just about the animals, and the farmer, but when I’m back in the city, back in my own home with my family there’s resonance there. I’ll apply that same kind of recognition to my intention, my ibada, my salat, my fasting, to sadaqa, a neighbor. So in that way, I think there’s a sort of spiritual dimension. And also just in eating good food, my fingers touching food that I know has been raised, has been grown in a certain way.
NF: Do you do any of the slaughtering yourself?
QH: Yeah, I probably do about 85% of the slaughter myself.
NF: There’s an interesting passage that I was reading in a text of Shafi’i fiqh from the 19th century, where he’s talking about animal slaughter. He’s explaining why the animal should be facing the qibla,and he says that the person slaughtering the animal draws close to Allah through the act of slaughtering. And he’s not talking about sacrifice—the udhiyyah—he’s talking about slaughtering animals for food. What do you make of that as someone who does this practice?
QH: I agree. It’s really about the intention of the slaughtermen, and if the person is going into it very mechanically, without being cognizant about what he’s doing, then you could just be off. I’ve seen that happen and I’ve cut myself inside of a slaughterhouse where I was being rushed by the USDA inspector who wanted to get on moving. And in rushing, I went in there and cut myself and had to go to the hospital and get stitches in my finger, and it taught me a really hard lesson that I’ll always remember, seeing this as—we would say—as an act of God. This isn’t about going down to slaughter an animal for some meat; it’s about doing it with a certain level of khushua’, really, bi’idthnillah, not being divorced or removed from this.
Just like we were saying that people shouldn’t eat as much meat, an individual shouldn’t slaughter as many animals [as they do], I believe. Because at some point when you’re slaughtering so many animals, you become numb to it.
NF: I think that’s part of what we see when we hear of these bad practices that go on in slaughterhouses. When we read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair—if your whole life is just about killing animals all day long every day, it’s going to have an impact.
QH: Yeah, it loses its godliness, in a sense. I think it’s part of human nature. It’s like when we go on Hajj—we can only be in Mecca for so much time because it’s so jalal—you know, you have to go to Medina to kind of take it all in. And then in Medina you can go back to Mecca and then your heart wants it, so you yearn for it. But to yearn for it you’ve got to not have it.
I think, similarly, when you’re slaughtering an animal, you’re one individual but you should never be slaughtering more than half a dozen cows, for instance, or more than 500 chickens. And that’s for someone that’s worked up to that level of being able to do it, doing each stroke with some level of taqwa, with some level of focus and intention, where the bismillah Allahu Akbar doesn’t lose its luster. That it’s really bismillah Allahu Akbar, you’e not just saying the words, bismillah Allahu Akbar, you want the animal to hear it and to know that it’s coming from your heart, that you’re really in a state of shukr.
It’s made me think about developing a slaughter program collectively with Muslims who are in this line of work, and us forming some sort of council that can build up the knowledge, the expectations, the regimen of some sort of slaughter program, to really bring us back, so to speak.
NF: It was interesting hearing you describe slaughter and that sense of khushua’ and saying bismillah Allahu Akbar with shukr, gratitude. It reminds me of what we think of the hunting practices of the indigenous peoples of this land. Of taking an animal and then going and thanking it—of having that sense of connection. That’s so beautiful. One of the things that strikes me is that you can’t industrialize that. You can’t turn that into a process line.
QH: You can’t, and you really shouldn’t. And that’s why you have more slaughtermen to share in the labor, in the experience. I’m imagining that something like deindustrializing the meat harvesting process and thereby the production process—you know, we have jury duty, I’m imagining that we could have “slaughterman duty,” where we should have these paid, professional slaughtermen, but there would also be an opportunity for Muslim men and Muslim women who are interested to be able to go once a year and put some time in and learn and practice, and know that it has some impact on the larger community and on society. So it’s not like this thing over here that people do, and we never say thank you, or that we never see or experience. It’s visible and it’s transparent, because it’s good.
NF: Hey man, tell me where to sign up!
NF: I just want to end by thanking you. I really see you as providing a greater service for our community, and also I’m so happy to hear that you’re now shipping meat across the country, so I’ll be waiting for that package of pastrami in the mail, insh’Allah.
QH: Insh’Allah, barak Allah fik. It’s been great, thank you.
Originally Published on http://beyondhalal.com