In 2017, Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey was tried in a federal bribery case,1 ending in a hung jury in January 2018. After this, the Justice Department decided not to pursue the case any further.
Shortly thereafter, Menendez started dating Nadine Arslanian, a Lebanese native of Armenian origin, who had fallen on financially hard times. She had trouble keeping up with her modest mortgage, but after meeting Menendez her financial fortunes would soon take a turn for the better, and her mortgage was quickly reinstated. Following her whirlwind romance, Nadine went on to marry Menendez in a socially-distanced wedding during lockdown.2
Before meeting Senator Menendez, Nadine was friends with an immigrant of Egyptian origins, Wael Hana, who purportedly went by “Will” at the time. Somehow, Hana had become the sole halal certifier authorized to clear meat exports to Egypt, a marked change from the Egyptian government’s years-long practice of accepting the certifications of a handful of U.S.-based legacy certifiers. This was an interesting turn of events, though not all that shocking given the prevalence of seemingly arbitrarily awarded monopolies rife in the Arab world, which stifle the economies and serve as rewards for those who are useful to whoever is currently in power.
However, this particular monopoly carried a comical twist — Hana was a Christian with no prior experience of Halal certification and seemingly little idea at all of what halal was. That did not stop him from forcing a manifold increase in certification fees for meat exports, driving a sharp spike in certification revenues, and ultimately, costs to the Egyptian consumer. This was on top of the possibility that a non-Muslim may lack the same ideological commitments to the sacred law of Islām as a Muslim.
None of this stopped the hoarding of cash to be had from meat exports.
According to multiple media reports, Nadine was the one who introduced Menendez to Hana.3 Prosecutors allege that after connecting in 2018, Hana promised Nadine a “low- or no-show” position, in exchange for Menendez facilitating his business dealings. This purportedly included defending Hana’s position from objections raised by the Department of Agriculture that his monopoly on certification was stifling U.S. exports, and facilitating arms and security trade deals with the Egyptian government,4 which was already in a tenuous position given the military’s recent overthrow of a democratically elected government and the repeal of democratic reforms and any semblance of human rights.
The story goes on. Charges have now been filed against the senator, his wife and Hana, amongst others. Menendez has been forced to step down from the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and stories about hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, gold bars, luxury cars and other goods, alleged to be the proceeds of bribery and corruption, decorate every news outlet.
As a madrasah graduate, Qurʾān teacher, Arabic instructor, Friday Imām at my local Mosque and a volunteer working to bring a quality, humane, authentic, and transparent standard of halal to my community in the U.S., I have little unique or earth-shaking things to say about big money politics, foreign influence-peddling, or arms sales.
However, as a servant of the sacred law and creed, and as an individual who wishes to see the values I cherish for the benefit of all living things make the world a better place, I found this entire South Park-ian drama poignant for a few reasons.
Over ten years ago, I attended the American Muslim Consumer Conference, which happened to take place in New Jersey, in my capacity as a community worker who wished to see high standards in what was sold under the Halal label. After hours of hearing people with varying levels of commitment to Islam hungrily salivate during speeches of how multi-billion-dollar-y the “Halal industry” is projected to be, I ducked out to pray. There were very few who joined me. Apparently possessing an innate ecclesiastical aura with clerical vestments to match, I was put forward to lead the prayer. Afterwards, I stood and exhorted the dozen or so congregants, saying that the word Halal is a claim being made about the Dīn of Allāh, and we will be asked about it one day. It is fine to make a living from it, but to treat it as a commodity that can be sold is a treachery that will be punished in the next world.
Later, a confident and irate young man in corporate attire accosted me: “You know this isn’t a religious conference. It’s a business gathering.”
I replied, “You know, business people don’t own Halal, nor do they get to dictate how it is defined or used. Thus all matters connected to Halal, are religious.”
This only seemed to annoy him further, causing him to repeat himself, which, in turn, garnered him the same response, before he angrily walked away. Now flash forward about a decade later to the same New Jersey, keeping this exchange in mind.
When questioned how or why a Christian had a monopoly overseeing the certification of a matter concerning Islamic ritual law, Hana offered an explanation that implied taking the power to certify and collect certification fees away from the Ikhwān, the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist political party that is the bane of the current administration in Egypt as well as a number of other Arab regimes.5
I must admit, I am not a fan of the Brotherhood, its politics nor its amateurish takes on Islām as an intellectual and spiritual tradition. But I also do not see it as a bogeyman that somehow manipulates any sort of communal expression of religiosity into sedition and violence amongst non-nation-state-bound Muslims. At some point, the Trump administration was lobbied to declare ISNA, ICNA, CAIR, Islamic Relief, and a number of other national Muslim organizations in the U.S. as terrorists.6 In my view, if there was anything about them to object to, many of the above-mentioned organizations have, at times, engaged in what seemed to me like buffoonish respectability politics rooted in a desire to trade a little bit of integrity for social acceptance, while prioritizing nervous flag-waving over the genuine spiritual and ethical commitments to which Islām enjoins.
What commitments, you ask? Well, let us start with the ironic — halal. Growing up attending conferences, viewing ISNA as the premier institution of Islām in America, and being part of a Masjid that was connected to ISNA (enough that our Imām had served as its president several times), I can tell you that halal was never a priority, neither in the Masjid nor in the conferences. I honestly grew up thinking that everything in this country other than pork was halal. Maybe it is because I’m daft, but if that is the case, so was everybody else I went to Sunday school with, or attended the conference with that was not part of a Ṭarīqah (spiritual order), Tablīghī Jamāʿat, or affiliated with some old-world institution of Islāmic learning, and such were few. To this day, it seems that a majority of Muslims in America, diminishing as they may be, operationally belong to this group. Not to mention Texas. All of Texas.
It wasn’t until I started reading the standard classical manuals of fiqh that I realized there is no possible way that random non-pork meat in the USA can be halal. It was difficult enough to adjust to the dictates of my newfound enlightenment on the matter, but I recovered quickly.
What I still have not gotten over is how utterly farcical the thinking of Islamic institutions in America, and the clergy, administrators and staff that run them is. I understand that it is difficult to tell people that they must act contrary to the dictates of their most basic and animalistic of desires, but the essence of the message of Islām is captured in the high expression of the Qurʾān:
As for the one who deviates and prefers the life of this world, indeed, the hellfire shall be his abode. And as for the one who fears the day of standing in front of His Lord and forbids his ego from vain desire, indeed paradise shall be his abode.[Surah An-Nāziʿāt, 37-41]
I have given talks in Masājid from coast to coast on the critical importance of consuming halal, and the dire consequence of not doing so. By the grace of the Lord, despite being warned that people would not listen or would grow aggravated at the reminder, almost all who have listened understood why the old thinking of the legacy institutions of Islam in America is not correct. It is not ritually correct, it is not creedally correct and it is not spiritually correct.
This much should be clear for anyone who believes in One Allāh, His Messenger, Sayyidnā Muḥammad ﷺ, and the Day of Resurrection.
But sadly, it still remains unclear to many. How frequently is it that those very Imāms, administrators, and self-styled “community leaders” push back? How many times have we heard that it is not practical to demand a separate food supply? How many times have we heard that we are making a big deal about something insignificant and that Muslims are struggling with bigger issues than this?
As Muslims, we believe that what we consume in food, drink and earnings has a direct effect on our spiritual state. That, in turn, governs the nature of our deeds. Illicit consumption drives evil conduct and pure consumption drives righteous conduct.
But if that’s too esoteric for some, let us take the gloves off, exit the Masjid, where fiqh, ʿAqīdah, Qurʾān and Sunnah are taught, and cross the street to what many see as the “real world.”
The Halal industry is a multi-billion dollar industry in which industrialized non-Muslim majority nations have a disproportionately high share due to their stable economies and technically sophisticated means of production. It is a multi-billion dollar industry that we have allowed Nadine Arslanian, Wael Hana, and Senator Menendez to make a laughingstock of. It is not a secret that the drivers of identitarian Coptic and nationalist Armenian communities in the United States seem to have disproportionately high levels of anti-Muslim sentiment that frequently translates into political and social hostility towards our community, who in turn help them allegedly stuff safe deposit boxes, suit jacket pockets, and drawers with gold bars and cash, in order to facilitate arms deals to regimes that might not always cherish the highest and most lofty ideals of Islām as an absolute priority at home, regionally or abroad.
And, if you think that this is the only time halal has been the vehicle used to commit millions of dollars of fraud in the United States, think again.
Of the major legacy certifiers that were authorized to sign off on exports to Egypt before being bumped off by Hana, none were run by Muslim scholars with expertise in Islamic Ritual law. At least one of the providers was a fully owned subsidiary of a halal meat producer and it existed, largely, to provide in-house certification and still was convicted of fraud by the U.S. government. None of them had publicly posted standards of what they considered Halal, so that a consumer could not know what it was exactly that they were certifying until relatively recently. But this was only after the loud-mouthed pressure by people like myself. Some have acted relatively better than others over the years, but none have met any sort of ethical standard worthy of Islām. Considering all this, it is very possible that the procedures they used to obtain their previously-held credentialing as a government recognized halal-certifier, were not wholly unlike those Hana deployed in order to obtain his.
Do you think that any of the above care about the sunnah, much less animal welfare, or any mode of transparency? Having personally seen a number of meat plants certified by them, I can tell you that the answer is no. If I were to open a restaurant that sells burgers, call it Burger King, and name my main item a “Whopper,” imagine the outcome. How does a corporation’s legal department have more ghayrah for a whopper than our institutions and clerics have for sacred law?
It turns out that the “practical thinking real world” leadership has not anticipated the very real-world, mundane and material consequences of chumping out on halal, and now millions and billions of dollars are going into the pockets of those who wish to gut them. All I can say about it, recognizing the hyper-ferrous turn of events, is that we reap what we sow. In this case, the catastrophic effects bridge the Atlantic ocean and are harming Muslims on both sides.
For anyone who wishes for a different future, one in which we pay more than just lip service to the beliefs, practices, ethics and values of Islām, realize that we need to take a great many things more seriously. Halal is one of them, as is our collection, distribution and standards regarding zakāt, which merits separate scrutiny.
As the Messenger of Allāh ﷺ said, “One of you shall not believe until he loves for Allāh, hates for Allāh, gives for Allāh and withholds for Allāh.”
It is time to be more conscientious about our consumption patterns. Do not simply believe those people who have been shown to turn a blind eye to those who have been lying to you; demand a higher level of scrutiny and proper standards.
If you went to your pharmacist and asked him if the pills he sold were FDA approved, and he responded, “Who are you to ask me? I am a Muslim. Don’t you believe me? Don’t you take my word?” you would be right to be suspicious and a fool to bring home grandpa’s heart medications from him. When it comes to Islām, we are not commanded to act like fools; as the Messenger of Allāh ﷺ so eloquently said, “A believer is not bitten twice out of the same hole.”7
I do not advocate economic or political considerations driving one’s faith, that is a horrible place to be. However, there is a difference between being driven by faith and ethics first, subjugating your economics and politics to noble principles, and being economically or politically naïve as a display of false piety.
There are a set of professional lullaby-singers who are politically, financially and otherwise induced to convince you that piety involves switching your brain to sleep-mode when it comes to Islām in general, and in particular, anything in it that has to do with economic or political things. If you sit entranced by their tunes, don’t blame anyone else if you wake up in a bad place.
Muslims in the US need to take Halal back. This will require a grassroots effort driven by people disinterested in foreign squabbles, for profit business ventures, and ethnic or sectarian vendettas. Such an effort must be driven and supported by the people and for the people.
For a glance at what knowledge driven, non-profit, competent Halal certification that holds industry accountable to ethics and not the other way around looks like, visit https://www.hfsaa.org/about/.
With your support as consumers, advocates and Muslims, it is possible to reclaim Halal in the US. Every group will do what they is in their best interests according to their priorities. It is time that we did the same rather than wishing that someone will magically do it for us without active effort.
I have been actively working on this project, as have hundreds of dedicated and selfless volunteers. I have never taken a cent in pay from this organization, nor have I ever held any business interest in any food producing business. I pray that every bite of Halal eaten sparks a revolution in the heart towards good and righteousness and that we all benefit in this world and the next.Endnotes
- Simon, Scott & Solomon, Nancy. “Sen. Bob Menendez indicted on corruption charges in New Jersey.” NPR, 23 Sept. 2023, https://www.npr.org/2023/09/23/1201306900/sen-bob-menendez-indicted-on-corruption-charges-in-new-jersey.
- Hals, Tom, and Luc Cohen. “Senator Menendez’s Wife of Three Years at Center of Bribery Allegations.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 22 Sept. 2023, www.reuters.com/world/us/senator-menendezs-wife-three-years-center-bribery-allegations-2023-09-22/.
- Miller, John. “The Senator Menendez Case Raises Major Questions for US Intelligence | CNN Politics.” CNN, Cable News Network, 27 Sept. 2023, www.cnn.com/2023/09/26/politics/menendez-intelligence-questions/index.html.
- “U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, His Wife, and Three New Jersey Businessmen Charged with Bribery Offenses.” Southern District of New York | U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, His Wife, And Three New Jersey Businessmen Charged With Bribery Offenses | United States Department of Justice, 22 Sept. 2023, www.justice.gov/usao-sdny/pr/us-senator-robert-menendez-his-wife-and-three-new-jersey-businessmen-charged-bribery.
- Tully, Tracey, et al. “Menendez Inquiry Said to Involve Company That Certifies Halal Meat.” The New York Times, 28 Oct. 2022, www.nytimes.com/2022/10/28/nyregion/menendez-inquiry-halal-meat-company.html. “‘The Egyptian government took away the Muslim Brotherhood’s authorization to certify halal products in order to deprive the group of financial resources,’ Mr. Hana said. ‘They gave me the certification because they know that I am not associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and because they trust my work.’”
- Jilani, Zaid. “Trump Designating the Muslim Brotherhood as Terrorists Would be a Massive Victory for Extremists.” The Intercept, 15 Mar. 2017, https://theintercept.com/2017/03/15/trump-designating-the-muslim-brotherhood-as-terrorists-would-be-a-massive-victory-for-extremists/.
- Sahih al-Bukhari 6133
Shaykh Hamzah Wald Maqbul
Shaykh Hamzah Wald Maqbul currently serves as a resident scholar for Ribāt in the Midwest United States. He obtained a dual degree in Biochemistry and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from the University of Washington in 2004. During his university years, he actively served as the president of the UW Muslim Students Association and emerged as an expert on Islam following the events of 9/11.
Subsequently, he embarked on a journey of traditional Islamic studies which took him to a number of countries, including Syria and Egypt where he studied the Arabic language, Morocco, Mauritania, and UAE, where he studied the madhhab of Imām Mālik, grammar, usul al-hadith, and the two renditions of the qira’ah of Imam Nāfi’, Warsh and Qālūn, and finally Pakistān where he had the opportunity to study tafsīr, Usūl al-Hadīth, Hadīth, ‘Ilm al-Rijāl and Hanafī Fiqh. All of these studies culminated in him receiving an Ijāzat al-Tadrīs (“a license to teach”), as well as an unbroken chain of transmission by which to narrate the Hadīth of such books as the Muwatta' of Imām Mālik, the Sihāh al-Sittah (Bukhārī, Muslim, Abū Dāwūd, Tirmidhī, Nasā'ī and Ibn Mājah), and the Sharh Ma'ānī al-Athār of Imām al-Tahāwī. Upon returning to the United States, he served as a resident scholar at the Thawr Institute in Seattle, Washington, dedicating five years to teaching and promoting the practice of the sunnah. He also collaborated with multiple non-profit organizations, including Darul Qasim College, CAIR, Imam Ghazali Institute, and the Halal Food Standards Alliance of America.