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Zabiha: Religion, Science, and Ethics

Within the last year, the Zabiha method of slaughter in Islam has come under fire in Europe as being a cruel, inhumane, and even barbaric method for killing animals. Animal Rights activists and Right Wingers in Europe with their limited knowledge of Halal meat and their own Western methods of slaughtering have begun to verbally denounce the Islamic method, which involves cutting the neck to let the blood drain, facing the animal towards Mecca, and killing the animal in the name of God.

Animal Rights activists believe this “cruel” method causes suffering to the animals that are still alive while the blood drains. Journalist Danny Penman writes in The Mail (UK) that killing the animal without stunning is wrong and only allowed in the UK because it is a religious obligation, “but this is an exemption that the British ­Veterinary Association and the Government’s advisers, the Farm ­Animal Welfare Council, are objecting to, claiming this form of slaughter causes ‘intolerable cruelty’ and have repeatedly demanded that it be banned. “Muslims,” he says, “claim it is their religious duty to eat only Halal meat from un-stunned animals. Halal meat is being served in schools, hospitals and pubs – even though vets say Islamic slaughter is cruel.” This was in response to them finding the “hidden” and “secretive” ways in which many European Markets provided Halal meat as their only option. Many Quick supermarkets and KFCs provide Halal meat, which is not necessarily advertised. They came under fire for ‘tricking’ consumers. (Notably, Muslim consumers later came to know that they did not even use proper Islamic methods so in reality the meat was not actually Halal.)

The secular forces that can hardly be stirred to care for the billions of humans living in animal-like conditions around the world make an uproar about animal rights. Of course as Islam too conveys, it is important to treat the animal properly; however, we must have our priorities straight. Because of their lack of spirituality, godless people would put an animal’s life equal to a that of a human. (Stories of animals being rescued before people, or on the same scale, using tax and aid money that could be spent on saving human lives, come to mind.) These people will continue to label Islamic practices as barbaric because the concept of giving an animal individual recognition and dignity is lost on them.

Halal and Zabiha is not the same thing. Halal is what is allowed; what is not forbidden. Forbidden substances in Islam include : carcasses of dead animals, pork, blood, and animals slaughtered in the name of anyone but Allah.

“He hath forbidden you only carrion, and blood, and swine flesh, and that which hath been immolated to (the name of) any other than Allah. But he who is driven by necessity, neither craving nor transgressing, it is no sin for him. Lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.”(2:173)

Animals that have been strangled, beaten (to death), killed by a fall, gored (to death), savaged by a beast of prey (5:3), that over which Allah’s name is not pronounced (6:121), and alcohol and other intoxicants are forbidden (5:090). Zabiha on the other hand, is an Arabic word which means ‘slaughtered’. Zakkaytum is a verb derived from the root word Zakah (to purify). Its infinitive is Tazkiyah, which means purification. The Islamic method of slaughter (taken from the rulings of Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Sistani) is as follows:

“The four main arteries of its neck should be completely cut (jugular artery, foodpipe, jugular vein and windpipe). It is not sufficient to split open these arteries or to cut off the neck. And the cutting of these four main arteries becomes practical when the cutting takes place from below the knot of the throat.”

Some of the conditions of slaughtering are that the man or woman who slaughters the animal must be Muslim of a mature age, they must make an intention (Niyat) of killing the animal in the name of Allah, the animal must be slaughtered with a weapon of iron unless it is not available, the blood should be drained, and the animal should be facing Mecca (which the Qiblah; the direction of prayers) when slaughtered.

Islam also has a vast array of philosophical and ethical rulings and recommendations. It is unethical to slaughter animals in front of other animals, or to slaughter animals at night for it is a period of rest for them. The slaughtering itself must be done in the least harmful method, causing the least pain, and the carcass ought to be skinned only after it has become cold. Meat slaughtered in the Islamic way remains fresh for a longer time due to a deficiency of blood in the meat as compared to other methods of slaughtering. Blood is a good medium for germs, bacteria, and toxins that are the cause of several diseases. Therefore the Muslim way of slaughtering is substantially more hygienic. Ideally, Zabiha meat should be organic with no hormones or derivatives. But Halal meat producers themselves do not always follow guidelines. Many times, some of the minor practices of Halal meat slaughter-houses are criticized as a result of not properly following Islamic ethical guidelines out of neglect or ignorance.

Many Muslim advocates of Zabiha meat cite a study by Professor Wilhelm Schulze and his colleague Dr. Hazim at the School of Veterinary Medicine, Hannover University in Germany. The results of the study (Attempts to Objectify Pain and Consciousness in Conventional [captive bolt pistol stunning] and Ritual [Halal, knife] Methods of Slaughtering Sheep and Calves) conducted in the 1970s concludes that Islamic slaughtering is the most humane method of slaughter and that captive bolt stunning, practiced in the West, causes severe pain to the animal. In the study, electrodes were surgically implanted at various points of the skull of all animals, touching the surface of the brain. An electroencephalograph (EEG) and an electrocardiogram (ECG) recorded the condition of the brain and the heart of all animals during the course of the slaughter and stunning. In the Islamic Method, the EEG revealed that the cut veins prevented the animals from feeling pain and the convulsions of the body were a reflex action of the spine. Nevertheless, studies like these should not be the basis for defense of the Zabiha method; they should be looked upon as a mere helpful side note.

Muslims believe that the Western method of raising and killing slaughter animals is far more of a concern than anything involved in the Zabiha method. In the West, an animal becomes a product when it is still alive. The animal is treated as an emotionless creature which does not need to be cared for. An unnatural yet profit-churning method is used – mass killing of animals especially bred to slaughter within seconds, before cutting them up and packaging them. Most animals that end up in American or European slaughter houses live a depressingly minimal existence, treated as nothing more than potential food from the second they are born. Kept in horrible, overcrowded conditions, separated from their mothers much too early, fed only that which makes their meat the plumpest or best-tasting, and are not allowed to roam the fields, enjoy a beautiful day under the sun or play with other animals.

It is shocking to learn about such callous means of mass-killing animals. I have heard about these cruelties for years, but felt a real shock when I received a “Vegan Outreach” booklet on animal cruelty in meat production. As horrifying as it is, these animal rights organizations such as PETA or Vegan Outreach foolishly advocate that becoming a vegetarian or cutting down on meat is the only solution. Yet the fact remains that all one has to do is be educated on what Halal Zabiha really is, and why Islam’s answer to this problem is the best one. It is not a new phenomenon in America; most of us have read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle in high school. The book deals with immigrants in the early 20th century working in squalid conditions at meat factories:

“All day long the blazing midsummer sun beat down upon that square mile of abominations: upon tens of thousands of cattle crowded into pens whose wooden floors stank and steamed contagion; upon bare, blistering, cinder-strewn railroad tracks and huge blocks of dingy meat factories, whose labyrinthine passages defied a breath of fresh air to penetrate them; and there are…rivers of hot blood and carloads of moist flesh, and rendering-vats and soup cauldrons, glue-factories and fertilizer tanks, that smelt like the craters of hell…”

The animal that is going to become dinner is considered a product before it is even killed. In America, most meat slaughter companies follow the advice of John Byrnes, who in a 1976 issue of Hog Farm Management said, “Forget the pig is an animal; treat him just like a machine in a factory”. Indeed, all animals, not just pigs, are treated as raw materials that simply need to be processed. As competition rises, agribusiness tries everything to lower production costs to make their goods cheaper. Thus, the comfort, humane treatment, and any other allowances for the animal are cut first. These businesses treat the animals as objects, not as beings who suffer. To quote the Vegan Outreach booklet, “In the past half-century, most US livestock production had moved from small family farms to factory farms – huge warehouses where animals are confined in crowded cages or pens or in restrictive stalls… Hidden from public view, the cruelty that occurs on factory farms is easy to ignore.”

Michael Pollan, in an article “An Animals place” from the New York Times Magazine in 2002 said, “The American laying hen… passes her brief lifespan piled together with a half-dozen other hens in a wire cage whose floor a single page (of a magazine) could carpet. Every natural instinct of this animal is thwarted, leading to a range of behavioral ‘vices’ that can include cannibalizing her cage-mates and rubbing her body against the wire mesh until it is featherless and bleeding…The 10% or so of hens that can’t bear it and simply die is built into the cost of production.”

Abuses occur on a daily basis. Male chicks, of no economic value to the egg industry, are usually gassed or ground up alive. Some farmers cut a third to half of the beaks of chickens, turkeys, and ducks to reduce losses from birds pecking at each other. Birds suffer pain for weeks, and some, unable to eat afterwards, starve. Male calves, of no use to dairy farms, are separated from mothers after 1 to 4 days. In January 2007, a Mercy for Animals investigator took a job at one of America’s largest slaughterhouses to witness conditions, only to find birds with broken legs and wings, open wounds, and large tumors were shackled and hung on the slaughter line; some were injured and left writhing on the floor for hours beforehand. Workers punched, kicked, threw, and mutilated live birds. They tore eggs from the birds’ bodies to toss at coworkers, and ripped the heads off birds that were trapped inside the transport cages.

Dr. Farrokh Sekaleshfar, a medical doctor as well as an eighth year student at the Islamic Seminary in Qum, extracted eight basic rights of animals from Islamic texts: the right to life, right to basic necessities (food, shelter, hygiene, etc.), right to justice, right to reproductive liberty, right to non-malfeasance (no harm or suffering), right to respect, right to friendship and the right to hospitality. “On creating animals, God did not bestow human perception and understanding upon them,” he says, “however, He granted them with four attributes: the ability to appreciate they have a Creator, awareness in relation to the fact that they ought to search for sustenance, differentiating between male and female and, finally, being afraid of death.” Dr. Farrokh continues, “Although Islamic texts permit the consumption of animal meat, according to first principles, this permission is dependent upon the realization of a number of rights (secondary principles), without which meat production will be regarded unethical and, sometimes, illegal.” Further traditions elaborate on Islamic ethics regarding animals (who, when first purchased, pray: “Oh Lord! Let this owner do me no harm”). The killing of ants, bees, etc. is deemed unethical (save in exceptional cases); the killing of animals (such as horses) during war has been prohibited (save in exceptional circumstances); hunting animals for sport and adornment is regarded unethical, and beating the animal is also regarded as unethical. Homes of animals ought to be big enough that one may pray inside them. The burial of animals that have been loyal and hard-working for a long time, feeding them clean, Halal food, and greeting them is encouraged.

Islamic ethical rulings like those mentioned above, taken from the Quran, the Hadith, and the interpretations of learned scholars show that God asks us to respect all of His creatures. The fact that a being is a creation of the Almighty gives it an inherent importance. One can make connections between the rules of Qiblah for the animal with the rules of Qiblah for us. According to Ayatollah Sistani:

“When an animal is slaughtered, it should be facing Qiblah. If the animal is sitting or standing, then facing Qiblah would be like a man standing towards Qiblah while praying. And if it is lying on its right or left side, then its neck and stomach should be facing Qiblah. It is not necessary that its legs, hands and face be towards Qiblah. If a person who knows the rule, purposely ignores placing the animal towards Qiblah, the animal would become Haram.” And, “When a person wants to slaughter an animal, just as he makes the intention to slaughter, he should utter the name of Allah, and it suffices if he says ‘Bismillah’ only, or if he utters ‘Allah’.”

We are required to kill the animal in the name of God. Imagine the importance Allah has given to even the lowliest of His creatures in that they must be killed in His name if they are to be eaten by us humans, the unique among creation, and be made to face the Qiblah. We face the Qiblah to pray five times a day; the fact that Allah requires us to face the animal that we are about to kill towards His house the way we do during prayers (Salat) is amazing. This animal, one might think, is below us and is hard to respect since we are very soon going to be eating it. Yet, it too must face the Qiblah at the time of its death. Why is the killer facing that which he kills towards Allah, Who the killer himself worships? Why is he giving this honor and dignity to even the simple soul of a sheep? An essential truth is revealed here: Allah truly loves all His creatures, and in giving you food he is giving you a blessing. One life is being taken away, while another is being nourished.

The Plains Indians of North America showed the buffalo that they hunted reverence: “The Great Spirit told the people, ‘These animals are your brothers. Share the land with them. They will give you food and clothing. Live with them and protect them. Protect especially the buffalo, for the buffalo will give you food and shelter. The hide of the buffalo will keep you from the cold, from the heat, and from the rain. As long as you have the buffalo, you will never need to suffer.'” The Inuit tribes of Canada have similar reverence towards the reindeer they kill. Their long history together has created a culture of mutual dependence. In fact, reindeer-hunting is considered vital to the cultural heritage of the Inuit to the point that there is an attempt to place it on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. According to Aboriginal belief, every animal had both a soul like a human being and an inua, that is, an owner, or lord. The sea, the sun, the moon, a cliff, even sleep and laughter, also had a human quality expressed by an inua. Given that the people’s whole existence depended upon hunting and fishing, a good relationship with animals was of vital importance.

Jonathan Waterman, traveler and writer of “Arctic Crossing” said: “After butchering a beluga whale (on which the hunters of Shingle Point have subsisted for more than a millennium), an elder reached into the cow’s uterus, pulled out a tiny fetus, and cradled it gently in his hands. There was a great look of sadness in his eyes as he reenacted an age-old and unbroken ritual – killing to survive, and worshiping the spirit of animals.”

This comment seems to suggest the Inuit have a deep spiritual, loving bond with animals. People participate in these ceremonies individually and in groups. Individually, a person gives thanks every day to the Great Spirit or Creator for all his life. The person rises at sunrise, is thankful for a new day, and thanks Mother Earth for all that she has provided. At ceremonies for the community, the spirits of plants and animals that have been used for food, clothing or other products are thanked for allowing their use (Source). In recent years, activists have attempted to ban traditional hunting in the name of animal rights, “…for the Inuit, animal rights campaigns are just the latest in a long litany of religious, industrial, and government policies imposed by outsiders – policies which ignore Inuit values and realities, and threaten the survival of one of the world’s last remaining Aboriginal hunting cultures.” In Islam, we are observing the God-given rights of the animals by killing them in the name of our common Creator, and in a way, face them towards the Qiblah is allowing for a sort of symbolic last prayer.

Animal rights activists and secular forces that claim Islam is promoting cruelty towards animals display a saddening lack of knowledge about the religion. To not realize the harmony in nature and in creation, the tie of the One and Only Creator, the Cause of Causes which connects them, is to not know a fundamental aspect of the animal which they claim to protect. The concept of dignity and honor is many times foreign to those to whom religion and God are meaningless words. Voldemort from the Harry Potter series makes a similar mistake. In his quest to never die and live forever, he commits heinous acts using dark magic. He does not realize that there are far greater forces out there such as love. Patch Adams tells us, it’s not about living longer, but living better. The animals that true Muslims eat are killed individually in the name of their Creator – not crammed into boxes or mass killed by machines after spending their lives in complete misery and torture.

About Zainab Haider Zaidi

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  • Hussain

    I like the article, and I’ve also read that German study.
    However, you still haven’t answered the Vegans that say that eating vegan is healthier.

  • Zainab H.

    thanks for your comments. My attempt was to outline the spiritual and Islamic benefits of Zabiha and thus I only touched on the health aspect superficially. That is another whole discussion, but in general the scientific community will agree that the Vegan or Vegetarian lifestyle is unhealthy as it leaves one low in Iron and Protein.

  • Hani

    “which then of the favors of ur Lord will u deny?”

  • Nawa

    I want to read Prof. Schulze’s research (Attempts to Objectify Pain and Consciousness in Conventional [captive bolt pistol stunning] and Ritual [Halal, knife] Methods of Slaughtering Sheep and Calves) by my self.
    Would you please give me any link to that text?

  • Zakariya

    A vegan diet does not leave one low in iron or protein. Almost all foods contain protein and many scientific and nutritional organizations and journals have attested to the fact that the average vegetarian and vegan diet complies with all nutritional requirements from young age into adulthood. Many of these researchers and doctors have also stated that a vegetarian diet is healthier in many ways compared to a diet consisting of meat and animal products. We Muslims should be weary of our meat consumption and partake in it sparingly.


  • Worm

    It feels weird replying to such an old post, but I’d love to see some of these stories of animals being rescued before people that ‘came to mind’.