Where Smushlims Roam – Living ‘Halal’ Life in America


Muslims have been in the United States for 500 years. So why is halal food nearly non-existent? There are two reasons; the availability of kosher food and the laziness of Muslims

Maryam Ismail | Caravan Daily

“How is it in Trump’s America?” some have asked since I came back last week. How is it? Not bad at all.

This was before the Charlottesville, Virginia incident. Which is not surprising, since 100, and then, 50 years ago, these riots and skirmishes were the norm, so I guess they are long overdue.  But this was just one place in America not the whole country.

However, if you get your news on the Internet, it would seem as if angry, white men, are hunting hijab wearing women, so they can grab them by the headscarf and drag them caveman style down the street. I stayed in three cities, and there was nothing that serious. As long as you don’t want to pray the five obligatory prayers on time, eat halal and really zabihah food, and maintain a modicum of Islamic cleanliness and purification, you should be fine.

My first stop was my hometown, Newark, New Jersey which has a visible Muslim community and a long history with the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammad. There, I met up with old friends who were Muslim and have had such an impact on the city, that Muslims often are a symbol of decency and worthy of respect. My daughters loved it. There were even halal restaurants in our area, there was also good Whole Foods, where we could get at least some good veggies and granola and yogurt.

Even with this history, it cannot compare with the luxurious Muslim life I have been living in the United Arab Emirates. I have been spoiled by the availability of halal food in every supermarket, Muslim friendly washroom, and a suitable place to pray at home and in public.

It really boils down to a cleanliness factor.

After my short time at home catching up with family and friends, it was off to New York, where my daughter was attending a career awareness class at New York University. This is where things got complicated. When got a short term rental apartment a few blocks from the school in the trendy West Village off of Waverly Place. My main concern was explaining nefarious couplets of desire, living so close to the Stonewall on Christopher Street, I however found that I had nothing to worry about, when I was really in Yuppyville. The apartment building that I stayed in was so safe, online shopping deliveries were lain out on the floor for days untouched.

Standing Firm

Every night my daughter would tell me of her adventures at the program. “There is this girl in my class, I think she is Muslim,” she told me. By the end of the program she found out that there were several other Muslims besides her, but she was the only one who wore hijab or claimed the faith in public. This turned out however to be a plus for her. Her non-Muslim classmates did their best to find her Muslim edibles, they walked her home to make sure no one harassed her, and they seemed to be pretty understanding overall. She was quite happy with the experience.

I believe it is because she stood firm and said no, for things that weren’t permissible for her and she gained the respect of other students.

Creepy Shariah: Zabiha, Halal, Khosher-Haram

Since I have been back in UAE, my hunger has been insatiable. I just want to eat everything, from chocolate to chicken-all halal, clean, and made with bismillah.

My husband warned me about eating in the US. “No compromising we have to show our girls the importance of eating halal.” He was right, but it was nearly mission impossible.

In the major supermarkets, the first thing you are struck by is the amazing plenty. There are bushels of fruit and vegetables of every imaginable variety, MasterChef inspired gourmet salad dressings made with white or red wine and even champagne, and meat, fish, poultry, and pork none of it is halal or dhabihah (Zabihah).

Halal means that the food follows the laws of Islam governing food, it should be free of alcohol, pork and pork derivatives as well as by products of animals that have not been slaughtered according to dhabihah rules, which means, in short, cutting of the animal’s throat cutting the jugular vein letting all of the blood of the animal run out so it could be ready for consumption.

 Muslims make up about 1% of the United States population according to the Pew Research Center and 3% of New York City, but, I would posit this number is really double, because many may be ashamed to identify especially post 9/11.

Muslims have been in the United States for 500 years. So why is halal food nearly non-existent? There are two reasons; the availability of kosher food and the laziness of Muslims. Forget halal, just eat anything and say, Bismillah. In the Quran, it says that Muslims can eat the food of the People of the Book, I am no religious authority, but I think that many Muslim in the US have taken this statement to the fullest extent. I have heard some say, even pork becomes halal with bismillah and Allahu Akbar. That’s extreme, the other side of this is, get ready, Muslims can eat kosher. That’s it. Who needs halal when Kosher will do?

When the first Muslims came to America, they just ate Kosher, the food of the Jews. This may have seemed practical, but it was a death stroke for halal food culture and tradition.


I remember my friend Nafisah, had this term smushlim, for those who were not really adhering to the rules of Islam with the full fervor that it deserved. I had long forgotten this joke, until I Googled halal restaurants and found one located on 8th Street and 6th Avenue called Rasa, serving Malaysian/Singaporean cuisine. My kids and I were excited to finally, eat because we were starving. Upon entering, there was nothing to me that signaled halal, no salaams, not stars and crescents, no halal sign, just the usual, the usual, grumped, up New York death stare. What is that? Oh, and they also serve Alcohol! Ask any non-Muslim in America and many will know, that Muslims don’t eat pork and don’t drink alcohol, so why does this restaurant is on the Zabihah website? When asked, the creator of the website, Shahed Amanullah, also a member of the Obama team working on anti-terrorism via his tech company Affinis Labs, just sent me a dead end link with no further comment. When talking to another Muslim friend about halal, they suggested another restaurant which also served alcohol.

Zabihah, halal and alcohol do not go together. Ugh!

I kind of get the feeling that many Muslims in American want to just be like everyone else on the down low, but really want special treatment on the surface. Sorry, no one can have it both ways. Show you are different, be proud and live life, that is more American than apple pie. This may be just about visibility, not so much about living with the goal of entering Jannah, Muslim paradise.

What’s that smell?

Cleanliness is an act of faith, and even though I am not the tidiest of them all, I am OCD when it comes to keeping myself purified for prayer. “You waste water and soap,” I have been often scolded by my sister in-law, but my response is always, “How can you pray if a place is not clean?”

Najis, filthy places and things are reviled in Islam. One should do their best at all costs to stay away from it. In almost every place in Dubai, staying clean is quite easy. A water hose with a spray attached and a hole in the floor to squeegee it away, this may not be your key feature of paradise, but when you live in the Gulf, these are the tools to get you there. In New York staying away from najis, filth, is particularly challenging. It’s the dogs and the people who seen and unseen, love to relieve themselves at every turn. As I did the morning walk to class with my daughter, I held my abaya close to keep it from dragging in the dog pee that seemed to be left at every few feet on both my left and right. “It stinks so bad, that I cannot breathe,” my daughter explained to her friend in a whatsapp voice message. And no, I don’t hate dogs at all, but I hate the fact that their owners feel they have the right to dirty up the streets. Why not take them to the doggie park? And if the dogs weren’t enough, people do it too. Whenever someone came back home to the apartment, they seem to drag that awful grimy, unclean stench behind them.

Muslims in the US seemed terrified of following their faith according to the Quran and Sunnah, aka, shariah. This means making wudu and praying and acting and dressing modestly and eating halal. These simple benign obligations scare non-Muslims and so, as to not make things to awkward, and set theIslamophobe alarm, they have let these issues go. “Muslims are not conforming to American ways,” some say, but what are they; drinking, smoking, and fornicating? Yeah, that is what makes America great. The topic got so touchy, any request a Muslim made posed a threat:

Ten years ago, there was talk of having foot baths  at New York University, to prevent Muslims students from getting hurt from washing their feet in ‘hip high’ sinks, while making wudu.  This sparked the creeping shariah signal and the end of Muslim foot bath and the campaign for real Muslim life. After this, the imam of the Islamic Center of NYU set out on a fund raising campaign, I guess it did work out, because there unlike the Chabad House for Jew or the Catholic Center for Christians, there is no standing edifice for Muslims. They have just a room in the Catholic Center which is not open in many cases during prayer times, such as Maghrib and Isha, and Fajr.

 From that moment onwards, we have seen this parade of Muslims-just-like-you, but the only ones who seem to be fooled by thinking are Muslims. No, no, no. Muslims are different and when people are made to understand, that yes, like all of the other groups, we have special needs and requests and we shall help you embrace them, then, that will be a better America. In sha Allah

A Nation Changed

It’s the Muslims’ fault.

“Black Lives Matter, and we support LGBTQ’s rights,” shouts Linda Sarsour along with other New York Muslims, especially in the light of the of the new equality laws passed by the Obama administration, but while they were snuggling up to everyone else, they had given up on their own rights. Such as the right to pray wherever you want to.

You Can’t Pray Here

I was disappointed to find that after over twenty years of New York University’s Muslim students praying in a church side by side with catholic mass, yep, you get an organ music with your Allahu Akbars, there still only one place in NYU’s 78 building plus campus where Muslims can pray. It’s a shame cause how many Muslim pundits, policy makers, with the ears of many law makers and presidents, have graduated from there?

I was heartbroken to find that since my last visit in 2008 and after a short campaign to raise money to build a student Islamic center, there was till nothing there.  Which means you may have to walk a mile two and fro to fulfill the most important obligation of Islam, salah. One who does not pray, cannot call himself Muslim. This is not like the case of the Jews, where, as they say, “It is not a religion, it is a race,” Islam is a religion and one that has rituals that are obligatory.

It’s 2017, and Muslims according to many have arrived. They are part of the American fabric and praying is something easy. Think again. My daughter was shouted out of a classroom, “Pray? You cannot pray here!” by a woman in the room.  Al hamduillah, we were travelers and were doing jamat al kasir, the shortened and combined prayers. If she had been attending and living on campus, I could easily see her probably praying most at home all piled up or just slowly, giving salah up all together like most students do.

In the news there is a lot about the plight of Muslims have a bad time, well, perhaps they are, but hiding and not working to change their communities, work places and cities better for Muslims is will keep the rest of American suspicious, that being a Muslim who prays, fasts, and eats halal as something wrong. And for those who just want to be all American, go for it, but never ever pull that Muslim card out when you find yourself on the wrong side of the color line. Because, Islam is religion, not a race.

Maryam Ismail is a Dubai-based American writer and academic.  The views are personal and Caravan Daily does not necessarily subscribe to them


  1. The Zabihah app and website have a setting in your preferences where you can filter out any restaurant that serves alcohol or has non-halal options (which is the way I use it). I prefer to let the users customize it to their own tastes and values. Some Muslims are bothered by the presence of those things; others aren’t. I don’t judge.


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