Amina Salihu, Development Sector Specialist, Civil Society

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Subjects of Interest

  • Governance
  • Sustainable Development

Poverty and Halal eating 15 Aug 2022

My family spent this year's Eid ul-Adha in Zaria. Eid is a religious event, either marking the end of the Holy month of Ramadhan (Eid el–Fitr) and the compulsory fast by all healthy Muslims, including children from the age of seven who can, or as part of the rites of Hajj and remembrance of Prophet Ibrahim's love of the Almighty. His willingness to sacrifice his son for his faith and belief in Allah's mercy was rewarded with a robust, worthy ram to slaughter instead.

To commemorate that sacrificial spirit and grace, Muslims celebrate the Eid ul-Adha also known as Eid ul-Kabir (the big Sallah), during the Holy month of Dhul' Hijjah when Muslims also go on the Hajj pilgrimage. Eid is a time to remember Allah's mercy and grace through sharing with the less privileged, friends and family. And so we celebrate, make merry and spend time with loved ones. It is also a time for eating. All of these are regarded as acts of worship.  

One of the tenets of Islam that I respect is the principle of Halal, loosely translated as that which is just, lawful, and clean. Halal is opposed to haram (that which is unlawful) and it is applied to various acts of worship in Islam. That which is most known in the secular or non-Islamic spaces is the food form.

Muslims are enjoined to eat food that has been slaughtered with compassion and in dedication to Allah. There are exemptions; the traveller who can't find suitable food, and some food may not necessarily be slaughtered – they may come dead, e.g., seafood – but they are still eligible food. There is more to Halal, which resonates during a time like Eid. Watching the way we eat, especially through the lens of Eid, leaves me with some lessons about Halal and how we all can apply it to our lives.

It is a shame that Nigeria is the ‘poverty capital of the world’. In terms of human development, absolute poverty is a new low for the country. More people are crossing that dreaded line of living on less than two dollars a day and losing their dignity because of the cost of food, the most fundamental of human needs after oxygen.

The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) reports that the price of food has risen by an astronomical 27 percent since February 2021. As alarming as this year-on-year price increase may be, food inflation is closer to 400 percent using 2010 as the baseline. Staple foods have been priced out of the reach of the poor. Only those with a healthy income level can afford a bag of garri. In one of the most heart-rending, biting realities (pun unintended) in the country, many Nigerians now go to the market to buy half a tuber of yam!

After the Eid celebration, I set out at 6:30am to brave the Kaduna-Abuja road that has become a highway for kidnappings. That early, I saw young children with enamel bowls in their hands. Their task was to go from house to house and ask, 'is there any leftover?' They were not collecting otherwise wasted food for the sheep or dogs in their household but for themselves and their families. I agonised at this unfortunate sight, deep to my soul, and feared for my country and for the children we are raising. How does a child gets on the streets that early in the morning looking for leftover food?

No one should be hungry while their neighbour celebrates. Where the neighbourhood is poor, the better off should find their less-fortunate neighbours and give them meat as charity. But some of us are so much into food that it actually deprives us of a good conscience and spirituality. Food should be a physical activity to elevate our spirituality, not that it should lead us to decadence.

The Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon Him, admonishes Muslims to feed by eating 1/3 food, 1/3 water and 1/3 air. The latter means leaving a third of the space in the stomach free to breathe, feeling not so full as to be arrogant or forget that others truly want, and not harming ourselves by over-indulgence. This is similar to the Japanese hara chi bu principle. But sadly, many of us eat more than we should, just because we can and want to indulge our sense of the material over the spiritual.

Avoiding cruelty to animals to be slaughtered for meat is another Islamic injunction about food. We would diminish ourselves if we ill-treat another life form. Eating the flesh of tortured animals means we have ingested some of the bile from pain such meat carries, which can unbalance the body's yin–yang energy, causing avoidable mental and physical ailments. The story is told of the sinner who made heaven because he gave water to a dog who was thirsty.

In slaughtering for Kurbani  (sacrificial ram), the Muslim must treat the animals we eat with respect; don't brandish the knife and ensure the knife is sharp enough to cut through the jugular vein, carotid artery and windpipe in a quick cut to minimise pain to the animal. The blood is let out to avoid contamination of the meat. The meat is then divided into three equal portions – one part for charity, one for friends and neighbours, and the last part for the family.

In broader society, cruelty to animals should be an unacceptable act. In this regard, I am an ardent friend of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), in honour of my colleague Rebbeca at MacArthur Foundation, who introduced me to the association before she passed.

Life should be enjoyed, but in moderation. I have found the behavioural insight of eating from a small-sized plate very helpful. The bigger the plate, the more we can pile on it and eat up. It is also why we should not keep food nearby for no apparent reason. But if one should indulge oneself, it should be in healthy snacks: carrots, oranges, garden eggs, nuts, dates, etc.

Finally, it is important to avoid wasting food, and how we sort watses has become very important. Biodegrable items should be sorted separately to go to the landfills while non-biodegrable items like plastics are to be sorted for recycling. This is a good environmental practice that everyone should learn to foster a livable environment.

Eid ul Adha, Mubarak! May the principle of halal eating abide with all of us regardless of our faith.

Amina Salihu, PhD, is a development sector specialist.