“It’s really hard to cut the jugular vein in one stroke.”
Thursday morning, I sat in the stairwell of Judson Memorial Church off Washington Square with Imam Khalid Latif, the Chaplain of New York University and head of the Islamic Center of NYU. We chatted about ritual slaughter.
Around us, hundreds of Muslims milled through the crowded sanctuary, carrying styrofoam plates piled high with naan, biryani, Dunkin’ Donuts, fruit salad— the high-carb hodgepodge of a potluck. It wasn’t yet noon, but Latif, an American of Kashmiri origin, had already had a busy day, leading morning prayers and delivering a khutba (sermon) to a crowd of about 2,000 New York worshippers in commemoration of Eid-al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice.
Latif’s week will only get busier. Today, he is scheduled to speak at Ground Zero alongside Pope Francis at an interfaith service to honor the victims of 9/11. (“I’m nervous!” Latif smiled). And in addition to overseeing religious life at NYU, he also co-owns Honest Chops, a thriving local meat shop that has made a name as Manhattan’s first shop serving organic, locally-sourced halal meat. The shop, touting its “honest-to-God” products, gets its meat fresh from local farmers several times a week, but in the weeks leading up to Eid it kicks into overdrive.
On this day, Muslims recall the story of Ibrahim (Abraham) in which he is ordered by God to sacrifice his son—a test of his obedience. Ibrahim prepares to carry out the command, but is halted when God provides a ram to take the place of the boy. Following this example, millions of Muslims around the world perform udhiya, or ritual sacrifice, in the killing of an animal (usually a lamb, goat, or cow), which is then carved up and shared with family, neighbors, and the poor.The practice of udhiya is central to the observance of Eid al Adha, says Latif, but the reality of urban living presents challenges to this tradition. “It’s different when you live in Manhattan,” he says, “you can’t take a goat home and cut its throat in the backyard.”
Instead, Muslims wishing to fulfill udhiya must find another way to do so. “There are places where you can perform udhiya ‘under the table,’ but many people now opt for proxies—they send the money to family members in their home countries, and these individuals perform the sacrifice for them.” Many of those at Judson Memorial Church wired money to relatives in Morocco, Sudan, Pakistan, and Albania, among others, and now rest assured that their Eid duties have been taken care of for another year.
Those seeking a more local option, however, need look no further than Honest Chops. Tucked between an artisanal gelato shop and a 24-hour Ukrainian cafe on East Ninth Street, the store, with its chalkboard walls and exposed brick, is as hipster as any of its East Village neighbors. Since opening its doors in 2014, it has become a local favorite—as much with the socially conscious but irreligious crowd as with the Shari’a-observant. (“We sell meat the way white people like it,” said Hamid Bohiyra, the Moroccan butcher across the counter at Honest Chops).
During Eid, the shop offers an online service that allows Muslims to pre-order their requisite udhiya (options include a whole lamb or “1/7 of an organic cow”). Not only will the animals ordered through this service be slaughtered according to Islamic rules, but customers will have the bonus of knowing their offering was be grass-fed and humanely raised. For Latif, this is just as important, and just as Islamic, as the technical guidelines for how to cut the meat.
“In Islam, there’s this idea of tayyib—it means, well, like wholesomeness. It’s a concept that should apply to all aspects of life, especially when it comes to what we consume. We need to recognize that making the choice to eat meat means we have the responsibility to consider how that animal was raised, and to support merciful, healthy, honest practices.”
Scores of local Muslims took advantage of the option for digital udhiya this year—and many of them responded to Latif’s call to donate some or all of their sacrifices to charity. “We want to foster a culture of generosity and empowerment,” says Latif, “in our congregation, we have some people who graduated from the Ivy League, who have high-paying jobs on Wall Street, and we have others who are homeless or living in shelters. Our question is, how do we validate and dignify everyone? How can we each contribute to each others’ needs?”
Latif says community engagement should be a year-round commitment. The Islamic Center has ongoing ties with domestic violence shelters and local charities. Last summer during the month of Ramadan, the congregation raised $250,000 in support of a women-run soup kitchen in the Bronx, which regularly feeds over 700 families. And this Eid, Honest Chops will distribute approximately 4,000 pounds of udhiya meat to needy families and abuse survivors.
At noon, Latif excused himself to make his way to the dress rehearsal for Friday’s interfaith service — “security is crazy around the pope.” On Saturday, he will join his employees at Honest Chops in delivering the udhiya cutlets that will arrive fresh from halal slaughterhouses in New Jersey. Six weeks ago, his second child, Kareem, was born (he’s remarkably patient as he’s passed among the cooing guests). There’s talk of Honest Chops expanding to multiple locations, with the potential addition of a burger shop, and Latif says he hopes to leverage their revenues to sponsor a new shelter for survivors of domestic abuse. All this activity might explain the traces of exhaustion on Latif’s face, but it is certainly the reason for the light in his eyes.
As the potluck wound down and the sated worshipers trickled out of the sanctuary, many stopped to wish their imam a blessed Eid. “Salaam alaikum.” Hands were clasped. “Peace to you.”
Sarah Aziza is a freelance writer and graduate student based in New York.