For the nearly 1,300 Muslims in the greater Little Rock area, dining out and shopping for groceries requires special care. The dietary stipulations of halal, meaning “permissible by Islamic law,” most prominently require a few basic principles (among many others): no pork, no alcohol, no blood and no animal that isn’t slaughtered respectfully and in the name of Allah. Alcohol-based products are anathema. Dry goods must be examined on a case-by-case basis.
In the Little Rock area, only two places sell halal meat: Butchers at Layla’s Gyros and Pizzaria, and Ali Baba.
If you frequent Layla’s, the delicious Mediterranean restaurant on Rodney Parham, you may have noticed the phrase “halal meats” attached to its name in certain listings. As long as the restaurant has been in existence (about four years), it’s operated a full-service halal butcher shop counterpart. It’s not a particularly well-advertised affair, but if you pop through the unassuming door on the side of the dining room, fresh meat lies beyond. The restaurant’s owner and head butcher, Moumen Hamwi, imports the meat from a place in Memphis where they slaughter according to dhabiha, the animal-killing standards of halal. He showed me his walk-in freezer, with its many dangling sides of beef and mostly whole goats. Their best business is in beef and goats, and Layla’s even supplies halal goat meat to the restaurants Taj Mahal and Taste of India. Hamwi says they go through about 400 to 500 pounds of meat a week and sell 90 percent of the inventory regularly. While we’re standing there, a young Chinese Muslim woman walks in with a considerable order — 2 pounds of ground beef, 10 pounds of beef “with bone” (a Layla’s speciality — nobody cuts beef with the bone in anymore), and 5 pounds of lamb “with the spine,” meaning chops. Hamwi takes down her order on a piece of scrap paper, affectionately referring to her as “sister” and confirming that everything will be ready in a couple of hours. Not three feet away from us an entire skinless and gutless goat lies outstretched on a steel table.
Hamwi speaks rapturously of maintaining the butcher shop as a form of community service — he assures me that he doesn’t make any serious profit from offering halal meats. But he wants to provide the option for a Muslim to come and purchase whatever kind of halal meat they need; he’ll cut the steaks, grind the beef, or cut the chops precisely to the customer’s specifications, just like any traditional neighborhood butchery. He cares foremost about service and freshness. “Those cows in there,” he says as he points to his freezer, “at noon yesterday, they were alive.”
The Dhabiha ritual procedure of animal slaughter is similar to shechita, or jewish law: The animal must be approached compassionately, the blade hidden behind the back — no surprises, no bludgeoning or strangling. The throat must be slit with one deft move, the blade moving in only one quick direction (no sawing) and must be done by a Muslim as he blesses it, saying “Bismillah” and “Allah-u-Akbar.” (In the name of Allah and Allah is Great), while facing toward Mecca. This method also drains most of the blood from the animal. Blood is considered unclean. According to Hashim Gori, a former president and board chairman of the Islamic Center of Little Rock, the practice of stunning a cow between the eyes with a bolt gun is acceptable in halal as long as the animal is not dead by the time its throat is cut. According to Islamic law, there is no hunting of animals for sport; they are only killed to feed the family, and must be thanked in the act of giving life to become food.
Ali Baba is on South University, across from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. All items in the store are halal and the butcher shop, a cluster of large top-loading freezers, sits in plain sight in the corner of the store. The clerk I spoke to told me that the owner slaughters the animals himself and then has a meat packer prepare them for sale.
Apparently this is a fairly common practice. I spoke with two meat-packing businesses near Batesville, which offer do-it-yourself slaughtering services for Muslims. Garrick Harris at Harmon’s Triple H Custom Butcher Shop says about eight years ago a Muslim family approached him about performing the rites on a few goats. Since then, his shop caters to a few families who come and handle the animals that Harmon’s then packages for them. Gerald Meacham of Meacham Packing said his service has been cut back, mostly because the specificity and volume of his Muslim customers was becoming “more trouble than it was worth.” Fifteen to 20 goats were being brought in and slaughtered in one sitting, and it “had gotten to be a big ordeal,” Meacham said.
Gori claims that despite any perceived obstacles, it’s really not difficult to eat halal in Little Rock. He lists several of the Islamic Center-approved retailers and restaurants (a list that’s also found at the Islamic Center website, theiclr.org) and says that when new Muslims move into the area, a member of the community gladly shows them where they can find halal meats. However, he hopes Central Arkansas will be able to expand its halal offerings to its ever-growing Muslim community.