The Glass Darkly

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

What really makes a chicken "halal"? by Julia Suryakusuma

Jakarta - When I returned from one of my frequent trips to Australia to visit Tim, my husband, I brought some smoked cheese back for my mother. She liked it very much, so I asked him to bring some more for her when it was his turn to visit me in Indonesia. Tim said he'd also bring his favourite smoked chicken, as he thought my mother would like it too.

A day or two after we had delivered the chicken to her, I called to ask if she liked it. She said she hadn't eaten it yet, as a very religious neighbour had questioned whether the foreign chicken was halal (considered clean to eat according to Muslim faith) or not.

Before I could help myself, I blurted out, "Of course Mamih, Tim eats it, of course it's halal", in a tone that implied how dare she question my husband's Islamic credentials? Tim had been Muslim for years, long before he married me, is deputy director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary Islam at Melbourne University (where he's a professor), and is currently finalising a book on shari'a in Indonesia.

He's pretty laid back about Islamic rituals like praying and fasting, but in terms of knowledge of Islam, I would say he knows as much, if not more than, many Muslims, whose knowledge of their own religion is often little more than bits and pieces they have picked up from friends or family -- and neighbours.

I've always wanted to have better knowledge of my own religion, especially in the context of present day Indonesia, and was extremely pleased when I married someone who studies the subject. It's ironic that I would be learning from a Westerner, but as far as knowledge and truth are concerned, even if it comes from an enemy, we should welcome it...not that my husband is my enemy!

I respect the religious beliefs of mother's neighbour, because they are what make him a good person, but sometimes I think a little flexibility would not be entirely out of place. I conveyed this to my mother. She said, "Well, he's is just trying to safeguard the family purity." I said, "Mamih, our purity is measured more by our thoughts, emotions and feelings than how a chicken died.

Why don't you just say Bismillah-irrahman-irrahim and leave the matter to God?" I left it at that, and didn't push my mum further -- I didn't even say to her, please Mum, have a bit of consideration also for Tim who lugged the (by now) jet-lagged chicken in his suitcase all the way from Melbourne to Jakarta, then from Cinere where we live, to Bekasi, where she lives, not to mention appreciating his effort to please his mother-in-law. I know she would have eaten the well-travelled chicken had her neighbour not questioned how it met its end, but she tends to defer to him on these matters, perhaps because he's a haji (someone who has made the proscribed pilgrimage to Mecca).

Formalistic adherence to Islam, or any religion for that matter, is something that bothers me, disturbs me, vexes me, pains me -- in varying degrees. And yet, this is the norm, in Indonesia, as in most parts of the world. Religious formalism often overrides common sense, empathy, compassion, tolerance, respect for others, truth, integrity, solidarity and, not least, faith in and oneness with God, which is, in the end, the essence of religion.

I was once interviewed on radio by Ulil Abrar-Abdalla, an Islamic scholar who had a fatwa issued against him by the Forum Ulema Umat Islam (Forum of Religious Scholars of the Islamic Community) for writing an article about a renewal of Islamic thought. Asked about my spiritual beliefs, I answered that I believe a lot in God but not much in religion. Religion is merely a vehicle, but in too many instances, it's the vehicle that's being worshipped.

This is akin to embarking on a journey from, say, Jakarta to Bandung, but just staying in the car, pretending you're in Bandung and arguing about the technicalities of driving, or the features of the car. It means missing the whole point of the journey -- to be closer to God and to develop Godly traits in yourself. Simply put, that's what spirituality is about for me.

Bismillah-irrahman-irrahim, which Muslims utter to seek blessings for any undertaking (eating, travelling, working, etc.) means "in the name of God the Merciful and Compassionate", not "in the name of God, the angry, intolerant, unforgiving one".

In connection with the halal issue and the unforgiven chicken, I decided to consult a close friend of mine who has a degree in comparative religion from the State Islamic University. "Just say bismillah (in the name of God) and surrender the issue of the slaughtering of the animal to Allah", she said, just as I had said to my mum.

I mean, what do you do if you live in a non-Muslim country? Turning vegetarian is one option (which is probably the best option anyway), and the doctrine of necessity says you should eat what's available, rather than starve, but many Muslims would prefer to take the option of driving all the way to the other side of town to get their meat from a halal butcher, as do some Muslims who live in Melbourne, my husband says.

Historically, the practice of halal reflects the Prophet Muhammad's concern for cleanliness, and echoes Jewish kosher practices. In the 7th century, when modern concepts of hygiene were unknown, the strict Islamic rules of cleanliness made obvious sense. The way people live has changed a bit since then, however.

It is true that Islam is a religion that concerns itself with all aspects of life, both mundane and sacred, but it is contextual in many of its precepts and rules, and can also be very open and non-rigid. Even on the issue of religious freedom and belief in God, it is amazingly flexible. A vast array of Qur'anic verses specify that the question of faith and belief is a matter between the individual and God.

Rather than determining a worldly punishment for converting from Islam, many Qur’’anic verses assert that all human beings are free to believe or not to believe in God or any particular religion: "Let him who wills believe in it (Islam), and let him who wills, reject it".

So, what happened to the heretical chicken? I don't know -- I was too scared to ask my mother about it. I suppose it just got thrown out, but I'd prefer to think the foul fowl made a quick get-away and took the next plane back to Melbourne, where people didn't care if it was halal or not!

Julia Suryakusuma is the author of Sex, Power and Nation.
This article was distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
Source: Jakarta Post, May 3, 2006
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  • yes, times (but specifically bedtimes) have changed. : ) people out here don't seem to know what "the milk is all" means. it makes total sense to me, but... oh, and someone from northern PA told me that I have a southern PA accent. whatever that is. well i must be going to do homework, so as not to get behind. time management is a huge HUGE thing in college i have realized. i posted some updated pictures, just to let you know.

    By Blogger CUgal, at 3:55 PM, August 29, 2006  

  • If the milk is all, then it's all ... I remember that one and had to be careful when I was an ESL teacher !!! :-)

    Good for you - I am sure you will be much better at time management than I was - I still struggle with that skill!

    Have a fun weekend!

    By Blogger Gecko Girl, at 10:23 AM, September 01, 2006  

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