Charleston’s Muslim Community Has Long Drive To Butcher Shop

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — It was 2:45 p.m. on a Wednesday in early November, and the truck carrying a shipment of meat to Halal International was late.

Owner Ulfat Shagiwall paced the length of his market: down the crowded aisles, behind the butcher counter, into the refrigerator, through the stock room and out the back door. But still, no meat.

Halal International, its shelves stuffed full of Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian goods, sat largely empty. Shagiwall’s customers had memorized the typical delivery window — Wednesdays, between 1:30 p.m. and 2 p.m.

The weekly drop-off was the best chance for many Muslims in South Carolina to purchase the freshest halal meat.

“Halal” is a term describing an action or thing permissible under Islamic law; it is the opposite of “haraam,” which is forbidden. When “halal” is specifically applied to meat, it means the animal has been prepared for consumption according to Islamic law.

An Arabic phrase thanking God must be recited before slaughtering the animal. There is also a specific way in which animals should be killed: a cut to the jugular vein, carotid artery and windpipe, helping it quickly lose consciousness. All blood inside the animal must drain before further processing.

While there is a basic understanding of halal meat among all Muslims, the religion is old and vast, leading to some variance in practice and personal preference. Modernity and colonialism have also changed how people think of halal meat, said Garrett Davidson, professor of Arabic and Muslim world studies at the College of Charleston.

Some stores, including a few local markets and Costco, sell frozen halal meat, as well as meat from animals killed by a machine. The Quran, the Muslim holy book, also permits consuming meat killed by Christians and Jews. Accessibility constraints could influence how Muslims interpret halal.

Shagiwall’s customers, however, will travel from all over the state, including from the Charleston area, for a particular kind of halal meat.

He purchases it from three U.S. suppliers, all of which employ Muslim butchers at their slaughterhouses. The meat is guaranteed to be fresh and hand-killed, and is sold at some of the best prices, Shagiwall said.

These are the factors which have kept customers coming back in the three years he’s owned the place. Good prices and a dependable, predictable meat supply.

Shagiwall’s phone blared again — another customer wanting an update on their meat order.

“Come in a few hours,” he said.

GROWN IN LOWCOUNTRY

The Charleston area’s Muslim community has exploded in growth in the 35 years Dr. Ghazala Javed has lived here. What started at a handful of Muslim families has expanded to what must be about 500 now, she estimated.

The number is expected to only get higher. Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world, the Pew Research Center reported in 2017. Muslims will grow more than twice as fast as the overall world population between 2015 and 2060, the group found.

Javed, who considers herself a moderate Muslim, cooks only halal meat at home, purchased from Halal International and similar stores in Charlotte.

The local Muslim community is tightknit, and families coordinate trips to Columbia or even Atlanta to stock up on meat to distribute back home, Javed said.

“It’s very, very convenient now, but not like going into a store and getting your pick of meat,” she said.

It was around 3:30 p.m. when the truck, caught in traffic delays on its way down from Charlotte, finally pulled into the back of Halal International.

Shagiwall stood at its opening beside a huge plastic bin, chucking in full-bodied goats and lamb, their hooves sticking up every which way.

An employee approached him, telling Shagiwall a customer had arrived, ready to pick up the meat order she’d placed earlier in the morning.

It was as if a switch turned on — suddenly, a line formed in front of the butcher counter. Six people filled the space behind, shouting, slicing and unloading the meat as customers patiently waited.

Srinivasa Kothury doesn’t practice Islam but makes the 40-minute drive to Columbia from Orangeburg every three weeks so he can stock up on meat for his family. It’s fresh and one of the only stores that sells goat meat, he said.

Nasir Waheed, who lives around 12 miles from the store, comes more often. Halal International is the only option when it comes to halal meat, he said, loading several filled bags into his cart.

Javed is hopeful a store like Halal International will come to the Lowcountry soon.

The growth in South Carolina’s Muslim population and the addition of several restaurants in the Charleston area serving halal meat make for promising signs, she said.