In a previous article, I outlined some issues ‘ulema have discussed with cultured (also known as lab-grown) meat. One is the impossibility of a blanket replacement of meat with lab-grown meat in light of religious obligations and recommendations of slaughter on certain occasions. The American Fiqh Academy’s fatwa (ruling) from Mufti Abdullah Nana, Abrar Mirza, and Sohail Bengali also note the current procedure’s use of impermissible animal products (mainly Fetal Bovine Serum [FBS]) and the source cells (derived from living animals), which constitutes maytah (carrion) and is haram for consumption.
I also mentioned briefly in that article similar discussions in the Jewish community. An article published in The Wall Street Journal in November 2021, Is that Kosher? Rabbis Debate Plant-Based ‘Pork’, discussed the community’s hesitance to certify Impossible Foods Inc.’s plant-based pork as kosher. Kashrut refers to the set of dietary laws under Halakha (Jewish law), with guidelines on the types of food permissible for consumption to which foods cannot be mixed with others. Pork is disallowed, as it is under the Shar’ia.
The article then links this to an “emotional reaction” for why the kosher certification group denied certification to the plant-based pork, despite it being completely animal-free. It also references unnamed “historians” surmising Islam’s prohibition on pork and pig-products due to habits of the animal. While the article is interesting in its coverage of debate over plant-based meats in religious circles, there’s some curious sections.
First, the article jumps between lab-grown meat and plant-based meat. The link between the two is unclear in the context of the focus on plant-based pork.
Lab-grown meat uses an initial source of animal cells, either stem cells or through a biopsy on a living animal, with other animal products like FBS to grow the cells. Some argue that this is better for the environment as it uses few animals, yet is still “actually meat”, just artificially grown.
Plant-based meat’s primary appeal lies in being vegan and vegetarian friendly. Impossible Food Inc.’s fake pork, for example, uses a combination of soy, coconut oil, vitamins, minerals, and heme (an imitation of a molecule found in real meat, produced from genetically engineered yeast).
Both are broadly considered alternative meats. The article quotes Mr. Timothy Hyatt of the Islamic Services of America (ISA) citing “altering God’s creation at the DNA level” as the reason for rejecting lab-grown meat. But this is true of both lab-grown meat and plant-based meat (which genetically engineers yeast). ISA had also certified other plant-based meats from Impossible Foods, Inc. This leaves the reader with a contradictory impression of ahkam (rulings). Is the objection from religious communities’ to genetic engineering, lab-grown meats’ procedural issues, fake-pork’s likeness to something impermissible, or all of the above? Or something else?
The replies to the article unfortunately reflect the perception of restrictions and self-control, in addition to disparaging religion’s “imaginary friend in the sky”, as one commenter writes. Why self-impose “restrictive” laws in the face of plenty and scientific progress?
This is reflected in discussing religious injunctions only on material, utilitarian grounds in order to justify them, such as saying laws on pork and pig products are impermissible for consumption because it’s unhealthy, filthy, impure, etc. This line of argumentation is a problem because the implication is if the aforementioned causes are eliminated, then it should be okay for consumption. The prohibition on pork is ta’abbud. It has only a divine cause. Making pork clean or healthy for consumption would still not permit it.
“Prohibited to you are dead animals, blood, the flesh of swine,…” (Qur’an 5:3)
Shaykh Musa Furber adds,
When halal and haram non-essentials become indistinguishable, it’s best to avoid those non-essentials altogether as shubahat and to avoid falling into the haram.
For some in both the Jewish and Muslim communities, the prospect of alternative meats may be alluring. These meats have the potential to circumvent rules on certain kinds of foods and manners of preparations, and expand the horizon for dietary variety. They could also potentially benefit from access to plant-based alternatives where halal or kosher meat isn’t available. Some also argue they offer “ethical” avenues to enjoy “meat” – which either assumes that halal and kosher methods of procuring meat is unethical, or that slaughtering animals is inherently immoral. Neither are premises that Muslims should agree with. The argument for ethicality and environmental concerns also stem from a context of industrialization and factory farming – for the farmer in Mauritania, to replace traditional farming with an artificial food-chain dependency on expensive biotechnology and Silicon Valley corporations is ludicrous.
There is also something unnecessary about alternative pork. What purpose does imitation of the haram serve? What does a person ‘miss out’ on? Halal Food: A History by Febe Armanios and Boğaç Ergene (book review here) analyze this trend, for example, by looking at ‘nonalcoholic’ imitations of alcoholic drinks. Across the Middle East, in American restaurant chains to local businesses, “halal” ‘Mint Mojito’ and ‘Piña Colada’ run rampant. Saudi ‘champagne’ is a customer favorite. Refreshing as they may be, their choice of branding offers for the curious and the elite a symbol of “affluence, a (partly) Westernized lifestyle, modernity, and a general cultural superiority.” An individual signals his open-mindedness and his access to certain foods and drinks – here, by participating in the most avant-garde of food technology.
In September 2021, Journalist Aymann Ismail wrote about Muslims’ identity issues arising from Islam’s pork prohibition in America. Much of it laments the inability to experience pork-laden foods and curiosity at its taste, but he admits his mother’s rebuke:
“Like Adam and the forbidden fruit. God told him to enjoy everything in the garden except from this one tree. Of all the food we can eat, what’s the problem with not eating just one thing?…why even approach what’s forbidden when we already have what’s halal?”
Shaykh Amin Kholwadia states succinctly, “The wing span of ḥalāl is so enormous that it dwarfs the need for ḥarām.”
While ‘ulema look at alternative meats as technology evolves and where “fake pork” stands, we must understand the metaphysics of religious injunctions especially as they pertain to food here. In Ramadan and other fasts throughout the year, there is a blanket prohibition on food and drink until sunset in obedience of God’s decree. But even when they are not fasting, a Muslim is still concerned with what they do consume in remembrance of God’s commands, too an act of obedience. They are in a constant state of partial fasting from alcohol, certain animal meats and byproducts, etc. Eating is not a brute display of replenishing the body’s need for nutrients with the whims of cravings, but also a spiritual and moral act.
About the Author: Heraa Hashmi is best known for her project, Muslims Condemn. She is a law student based in the US with a background in Molecular, Cellular, & Developmental Biology and Linguistics. Her interests include the Islamic sciences, cognitive linguistics, and bioethics. You can follow her on Twitter here.
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