Mechanical slaughter is one of the most controversial aspects of the halal slaughter process and there has been much debate between ‘zabihah’ (hand slaughtered animals) and machine slaughtered animals. The majority of ‘halal’ chickens sold in America are machine slaughtered, largely in part due to the cheaper price. The majority of halal meat stores and restaurants also use machine slaughtered chicken instead of hand slaughtered chicken. It is of vital importance for the Muslims in America to know the legal status of mechanical slaughter in Islamic law and become more educated this issue if they are truly concerned about consuming authentic halal products. This paper aims at presenting the main concerns regarding mechanical slaughter in a summarized fashion. One should refer to the many detailed papers and research articles on this topic.
One must first understand the contemporary application of mechanical slaughter at North American poultry plants and observe the process first-hand before issuing a ruling on its legality. Most poultry slaughterhouses employ a rotating blade/mechanical knife which slits the throat of the chickens which pass by on the automated assembly line. This rotating blade operates continuously once turned on and can slaughter over 200,000 chickens in one day. Although many Islamic scholars have discussed pressing a button for the slaughter of each individual chicken, such a slaughter method does not exist in North America in practical terms.
The primary aspect of human intervention in this process is to turn the machine on and manually sever the vessels of chickens missed by the machine. The machine does the rest of the work as there is no need for pressing the button except in the beginning. These chickens are also not killed simultaneously by one press of the button, rather the machine slaughters the chickens individually – one after the other – over a period of many hours. Therefore, it would be accurate to say that there is no human involvement in the slaughter of the majority of the chickens and they are being slaughtered by a machine rather than a human being.
The Sunnah method of slaughter is to apply the sharp instrument to the throat of the animal with one’s own hands. Rasulullah Salallahu Alayhi Wa Sallam himself slaughtered 63 camels with his own blessed hands during the Farewell Hajj and left the remaining 37 for Ali Radhiyallahu Anhu to slaughter. One can imagine the time needed to manually slaughter so many camels and the physical exertion which our beloved Prophet undertook for this task. He has set the standard for us and left behind a model for the most humane and personal method of taking the life of a animal. There numerous advantages in manual slaughter which are not found in mechanical slaughter. Allah, the most high, also makes reference to manual slaughter which is attributed to a human being in Surah 5 v. 5) A human being’s direct involvement and personal touch help calm the animal during the slaughter process and adds to the spiritual value of the meat which is slaughtered. This same factor is not found in the mechanical process.
The scholars of Fiqh have stipulated that the slaughterer must meet the Islamic criteria for the slaughter to be valid. He/she must be a Muslim or a believing Jew or Christian. There exists a definite doubt as to whether a machine meets this requirement. Likewise, many schools of thought require that the legal intent of slaughter be found in order for the slaughter to be acceptable in Islamic law. This legal intent is not found in the case of the mechanical blade. The actions of a machine cannot substitute for the actions of a human being in Islamic law. For example, it would not be acceptable to train a robot to perform the postures of the prayer, recite the Quran, and lead the congregation as the Imam. Many scholars have declared mechanical slaughter to be unacceptable based on this point alone and they have declared all the chickens slaughtered to be unlawful.
Another major issue regarding mechanical slaughter is the issue of reciting the name of Allah. Many schools of thought including the Hanafi and Maliki schools maintain that it is a requirement to verbally recite the name of Allah on each and every animal slaughtered. They base their view on numerous verses of the Quran and hadiths of the Holy Prophet which emphasize the need to recite the name of Allah. Allah says in the Quran, “Do not eat from an animal upon which the name of Allah was not recited.” The scholars from these schools of thought derive from this verse that it is not sufficient to say the name of Allah once in the beginning, rather, it must be recited separately for each animal.
There are many issues which complicate the recitation of the name of Allah for mechanical slaughter. The first issue is that the name of Allah must be recited by the slaughterer himself and not by a third party who is not involved in the slaughter process in any way. Slaughterhouses employing mechanical slaughter use different methods in an attempt to meet the requirement of reciting the name of Allah, but all of these methods fail to do so. Sometimes, a independent third party ‘reciter’ is stationed next to the mechanical blade to bless each individual chicken slaughtered by the machine. However, it is difficult to say that this blessing meets the halal requirements because of the fact that this individual is not the slaughterer and is not involved in the slaughter process in any way whatsoever. Other futile attempts to fulfill this requirement include a ‘taped’ recitation of the name of Allah. In practical terms, most ‘halal’ poultry slaughterhouses employing mechanical slaughter in North America do not have any Muslim present at the facility to oversee the process or even to recite the name of Allah. The failure to fulfill the requirement of reciting the name of Allah also by itself is sufficient to render the mechanical slaughter process unlawful for many Muslims.
There is also a third major concern with regards to mechanical slaughter. Depending on the type of rotating blade used, a percentage of chickens are not cut properly and the required vessels of the throat are not severed. The chickens sometimes move at the point of slaughter and can be missed completely by the rotating blade. Therefore, most plants appoint a back-up slaughterer to stand beyond the mechanical knife in order to examine the throats of the birds and ensure that the required vessels are cut. This back-up slaughterer will sometimes sever the remaining vessels of the throat in the event of a missed cut. The question is whether such a secondary slaughterer is a Muslim or believing Jew or Christian. As mentioned above, most ‘halal’ poultry slaughterhouses have no Muslims employees for the sake of convenience. This matter also casts doubt on the mechanical slaughter method.
There are strong viewpoints and detailed arguments presented on both sides of the machine slaughter debate. Some Islamic scholars argue that mechanical slaughter is completely lawful, whereas other argue that the process is completely unacceptable and the animal slaughtered in this process is unlawful. The legal rulings of many senior scholars against the permissibility of mechanical slaughter clearly cast doubt on the legality of this slaughter method. Along with this, the three legitimate concerns discussed above regarding the contemporary application of this slaughter process further push mechanical slaughter into the gray area in halal and haram. There are numerous texts from the Quran and Hadith which emphasize leaving all doubtful matters. “He who leaves doubtful matters has indeed preserved his religion, [whereas] he who falls into doubtful matters will [eventually] fall into haram.
No clear consensus exists with regards to the permissibility of this slaughter method, whereas all scholars accept the fact that the Sunnah method of hand slaughter does meet the halal requirements. Hand slaughter is truly the universal slaughter method which leaves no doubt in the halal status of the slaughtered chickens. Caution dictates that hand slaughter should be given preference over mechanical slaughter for Muslims to avoid consuming products slaughtered through a doubtful method.
In order to ensure that the slaughter method is closer to the Sunnah method and is acceptable by all Muslims, the Halal Advocates of America require in their HFSAA halal standards that the animal must be slaughtered by a Muslim. In this way, all the doubtful elements associated with mechanical slaughter discussed above are avoided completely. A few Muslim slaughterers can do the same job as the mechanical blade without any major difficulty and there are many poultry plants in America which currently employ hand slaughter. Muslims in America should also demand the ‘gold standard’ of hand slaughter when purchasing halal meat products. The HFSAA halal seal on a halal product is your assurance that the meat was slaughtered according the universal and Sunnah method of hand slaughter.