To Eat No-Kill Cultivated Meat. Part Five: Muslim?
An Interview with Mahjabeen Dhala
We are evaluating a scenario: in the medium range future no-kill cultivated meat products become widely available; factory chicken production diminishes; cattle herding and slaughterhouses disappear; methane gas emissions drop; land previously used for animal cultivation decreases; and our planet’s ecosphere becomes healthier thereby. With this scenario we ask: what would a Muslim think? Would cultivated meat meet the standards of Islamic halal?
As an exercise in public theology and ecotheology, we now ask: what are the religious implications? Many of our religious traditions have included dietary rules combined with a theology of animals. We–Brian Brosovic and Ted Peters–began this odyssey with an article, “Meet the New Meat,” in the September 2022 issue of Pax Lumina.
Then, in Part One of “To Eat No-Kill Cultivated Meat” here in Patheos, we looked at the science of cultivated meat. In Part Two, we asked GTU Professor of Jewish Studies Sam Shonkoff: would cultivated meat be kosher? Yes, he said, as long as it follows traditionally kosher practices.
Dharma scholar Rita Sherma, in Part Three, told us that Hindus and Jains would not eat cultivated meat for two reasons: (1) meat eating is not conducive to spiritual advance; and (2) there is no need for meat because the Indian vegetarian diet is both nourishing and tasty.
In Part Four, LDS theologian Lincoln Cannon reminded us of the caring relationship Mormons feel toward animals. So Dr. Cannon welcomes the prospect of no-kill cultivated meat. This new practice would benefit God’s non-human yet beloved creatures.
Now, here in Part Five, we ask: what would a Muslim think? Would cultivated meat meet standards set by Islamic halal?
Meet Mahjabeen Dhala
At the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, Mahjabeen Dhala covers more ground than a rototiller during spring planting. First, she is Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies, teaching at the doctoral level. Second, she directs the Madrasa-Midrasha Program, which fosters Islam-Judaism dialogue. Third, she chairs the Women’s Studies in Religion Program.
Question One. We understand that Islamic halal (lawful, allowed) and Islamic haram (unlawful, forbidden) provide the categories pertaining to dietary rules. With regard to slaughtered meat, which is halal and which is haram?
Mahjabeen Dhala. Islamic jurisprudential laws governing dietary rules are expansive and detailed. I am happy to share the Jafari school’s view on halal and haram meats from birds, fish, and quadrupeds. Birds of prey, birds that eat other animals, and featherless birds like bats are haram to consume. Birds that primarily eat grains such as chickens and pigeons are halal. Fish with scales are halal, and sea creatures with hard shells are haram. Among quadrupeds, animals that feed on grass are halal, and those that eat other animals and that feed on feces are haram.
Birds and quadrupeds need to be slaughtered according to Islamic law. The animal must be laid facing the qibla [Ka’ba in Mecca] and be slaughtered by a Muslim while speaking God’s name. The animal must not be slaughtered in front of its young ones. Nor can it be skinned or parted while the spirit is within its body post slaughtering.
Question Two. Would you kindly speculate about how no-kill cultivated meat might be greeted by Muslims? Are Muslims likely to conclude that cultivated meat meets Islamic halal standards? Are Muslims likely to eat cultivated meat that would otherwise be haram?
Mahjabeen Dhala. Considering the current state of jurisprudential research, Muslims would deem consuming any part of a haram animal forbidden. According to the Jafari school of law, the issue of cultivated meat from a halal source would be subject to two questions: Is eating a part drawn from a living halal animal permissible? Does the cell culture undergo a chemical change as it develops into meat in technically controlled facilities?
Ruling 2642 of the Islamic Laws states that “if something [from an animal’s body] that contains life is separated from the animal – for example, a person cuts off the tail fat or some flesh from a living sheep – it is impure and unlawful to eat.” Would cell culture extracted from a living halal animal be considered separating “something that contains life?” Or would that fall under extracting enzymes from a halal animal slaughtered according to Islamic law? Muslim jurists permit the use of rennet to make cheese cultures as long as it is derived from a halal animal, even if how the animal was killed is unknown. But the animal must be halal and slaughtered according to Islamic law when it comes to gelatin.
Another criterion for assessing the permissibility of no-kill meat would be the degree of chemical/DNA transformation that the process of producing meat in a lab would involve. If something haram transforms into a totally new substance, then according to the rules of istihala (DNA transformation), it will be rendered halal. For example, if a dog falls into a salt marsh and, over time, turns into salt, then the salt is halal.
Another process, inquilab (chemical change), will make vinegar derived from wine halal. The argument is that when wine (haram) turns to vinegar, the process has drastically altered the chemistry of wine so that it can no longer be traced in the new substance, vinegar. Would the cell culture extract from a living halal animal also undergo istihala such that the final product does not contain traces of the original animal DNA?
Question Three. We understand that if a meat is to be halal, traditionally, the person who slaughters the animal must be Muslim. If this is correct, would it be necessary in the case of cultivated meat that only a Muslim would be permitted to draw the cell culture from the animal?
Mahjabeen Dhala. It is correct that the person who slaughters a halal animal must be Muslim. Yet, it is difficult to speculate if the person extracting the cell from a living animal also needs to be Muslim. I say this because, in the case of extracting rennet, the person does not have to be Muslim. How jurists unpack the questions posed in the above response would also impact queries about the requirements of the person extracting the cell culture.
Question Four. Do you have any further thoughts about the prospect of no-kill cultivated meat?
Mahjabeen Dhala. The last time I visited the Shia jurisprudential office in Najaf was in 2019. During the Q&A session, many concerns around sustainability and ecological justice were raised. So, as more details about the process of producing no-kill meat emerge, many Muslims would welcome the prospect of halal-cultivated meats.
We thank Professor Dhala for the attention to detail she provides us with insights into Islamic halal.
On the one hand, the widespread introduction of no-kill cultivated meat products seems like it would revolutionize eating. Our daily habits might change radically.
On the other hand, after interviewing Jewish, Hindu, and Islamic theologians, we surmise that religious sensibilities are likely to remain stable. Traditional religious categories will channel the direction new eating habits will flow.
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To Eat No-Kill Cultivated Meat. Part One: The Science
Brian Brozovic is a student at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and Ted Peters is an emeritus professor at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California, USA. Visit Professor Peters’ website: TedsTimelyTake.com.