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The Halal Industry: a Call for Common Sense

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THE other day I wrote an article about the halalisation of our consumer space by Halal bodies. They were more concerned, I suggested, in making a fast buck than acting in public interest.

The piece, which appeared in a mainstream publication, was a response to complaints by non-Muslims that they had to pay for the Halal certification process.

For those who might not be aware: the retailers who fork out hundreds of thousands of rands annually for the Halal certification of toothpicks, water, fish, coffee, milk or nuts merely pass on their expenses to the consumer.

To say that there’s a growing of cynicism in South Africa of the multi-million rand Halal certification industry is an understatement.

With Halal traditionally centred on the slaughter of meat, and pork derivatives in foodstuffs, it truly boggles the mind that our scholars could suspect that a humble cashew – halal for thousands of years – would now suddenly rub shoulders with piggy en-route to market.

To this effect, an American scholar has even argued that as shocking as it may sound to us, the Halal industry is making a mint out of pork.

In my article I argued that some of our scholars had perverted the very foundation of Shari’ah, or Sacred Law. I said that they had rendered upside down the maxim that the ‘asl (source) of things was their ibahah (permissibility).

In this surreal world, Allah’s Halal Creation has to be deemed inherently impermissible so that some Halal mufti can arrive godlike on the scene with his rubber stamp to deem them permissible.

We have to remind ourselves too that ghuluw, or extremism, was something detested by the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). He would happily dine at the tables of Jews and Christians without inspecting their kitchens, or peering into their pots.

I also argued in my article that had these bodies created public institutions, poverty relief programmes or educational opportunities out of their profits – which they have not to any meaningful degree – we could forgive the Halal industry for taking our money.

I made the point, too, that public interest had to be served here; the benefits accruing from the Halal industry could not be exclusively Muslim, as non-Muslims paid for the certification as well.

Response on Facebook, and other social media platforms, indicated that I had touched a nerve. Some people felt I had attacked particular organisations, and actually named them. This I had not done.

So before I proceed further, let it be said that my aim was to interrogate the principle of the matter. I’m not interested in names, organisations – or the mad-hatter conspiracies surrounding them.

And I seriously don’t advise the indulgence of shoe-fitting. We are dealing with broad issues here that are better dignified by being discussed in a neutral space. Labels only serve to specify, personalise and emotionalise the thrust of the argument.

I have to say, as well, that my critique in no way suggests that Halal certification be done away with. Far from it. We need the Halal process, but what I’m calling for is some commonsense.

The word “Halal process” is used here deliberately. For halalisation in the market place is indeed a process, from the moment the meat is slaughtered – or the product manufactured – to the time it reaches the consumer’s shopping basket.

Historically, the Muslim market-place was governed by the institution of hisbah – the protection of personal honour and public safety. In this scenario a muhtasib, a qualified official, would police corruption and monitor the professional guilds.

He would also check on the ethics of business practice, inspect the quality of goods and ensure that there was no profiteering at the expense of the poor.

“Halal” in this application was far more embracing than just the make-up of the goods on display. It dealt with every facet of commercial life.

Amongst the traditional scholars who’ve studied the role of the muhtasib are Imam al-Ghazali, Ibn Taimiyyah and Imam Taqi Ad-Din as-Subki. The muhtasib played an institutional role in Islamic society from the 8th to the 19th century.

According to Imam al-Ghazali, the muhtasib had to be an accredited scholar – in fact, a Qadi. His duties, which focused on public morality and economic activity, even covered environmental issues. In the modern sense, the muhtasib would be something in between an attorney general and an ombudsman.

Perhaps our Halal sultans, the lords of the supermarket shelves, should be obsessing less on the obscure details of how a particular product is manufactured. They should be indulging more in the spirit of hisbah, and questioning the morality of how things are marketed and sold – and how excessively rising prices, for example, affect the consumer.

For how halal can an over-priced product be if it contains carcinogenic substances and artificial hormones? How halal is clothing that has involved the use of child- labour? How halal can something be if its sale is the consequence of excess interest?

It could be argued – somewhat simplistically I know – that where Muslims live as minorities (as we do in South Africa, the US or Europe) our judiciary bodies’ primary role should be to play the role of a modern-day muhtasib. These responsibilities are enormous.

Hisbah requires large doses of wisdom, as much as it does knowledge of the application of Sacred Law and social custom. It is not a job for the faint-hearted.

The “morals police” of so-called Islamic countries are, for example, an insult to hisbah. Yobbos patrolling the streets and markets with nightsticks and guns are definitely not muhtasibs.

Each society enjoys its own unique customs, and juridicial opinions applicable to Cairo may not be as suitable for Cape Town. But where there’s universality of application is the market-place. That’s where the principles, as reflected in the Qur’an, become the most comprehensive.

And for as long as something with a halal stamp on it is sold to me by a liar, a thief or a cheat – or the goods have been produced by damaging the environment – I will not buy that product. Stamp or not, I will not consider it halal.

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