"I thought they were cool as shit," recalls rapper Anik Khan of the first time he heard his musical heroes reference Islam. "When I heard Nas speak Arabic I was like, 'Are you Muslim?! Oh my God! This has never happened before!' And then Lupe Fiasco started Food & Liquor off with ‘Bismillahirahmaniraheem’ and I lost my shit. And I didn’t lose my shit because I was super Muslim; I lost my shit because I was like, 'Here's something I know, directly!' Having Mos Def scream ‘Allah Akbar’—people have it as a word that’s normalized."
Through his art, the Bangladesh-born, Queens-raised rapper has always pushed to convey the multiplicity of his identity. So it only made sense that when we met up to talk about how this idea translates to food, Khan suggested Nur Thai, a halal Thai restaurant in Queens, co-owned by Bengali Americans. As the courses came out—seafood tom yum, cold beef salad, rack of lamb, a whole fish bathing in coconut curry, pad thai—Khan told me he specifically brings his friends to this restaurant to challenge their ideas of what halal food is. The kitchen at Nur Thai receives butchered halal meat, and its non-Muslim, Thai chef prepares food as he normally would. “In their minds, it doesn’t match. They’re like ‘halal Thai? What are you talking about?’”
Khan is referring to the assumption that halal means the ubiquitous meat over rice with white and red sauce—a stereotype that is far removed from the terms literal and spiritual meaning. For those unfamiliar, the word halal means "permissible" in Arabic. This is an umbrella term for favorable ways in which a Muslim conducts him or herself according to Islamic law. The opposite of halal is haraam, meaning forbidden. The term can be applied to a Muslim’s lifestyle spiritually and literally, in accordance with certain rules or regulations written in the Qur’an. For Muslims like Khan, the term has a metaphysical meaning as well—observing halal practices has less to do with strictly adhering to Islamic rules, and more to do with his relationship with himself and God.
For many others, halal is a moral preference. This is especially the case for Imam Khalid Latif, co-founder of the Manhattan halal butcher shop, Honest Chops, where the process of sacrifice and ethically raising the animal is paramount. For Latif, the butchery is also an extension of his charity work. Honest Chops started as a way of creating revenue for social services to those in need around communities in New York. After doing some research, Latif and his co-owners realized that “despite the fact that there’s a million Muslims in New York, many of them did not have a dedicated halal meat store in Manhattan," he said. “When we started to do research into the quality of the animal, the treatment of the animals, the commercialized industry as well as the halal industry, we found a lot of unhygienic, unethical practices.”
In order to have a holistic view of halal—to understand the physical process of butchering meat, as well as the spiritual undertones of observance—we leaned on Anik Khan and Khalid Latif to correct common misconceptions that halal is simply 'meat over rice.'