WASHINGTON – Mohammad Malik, owner of Bismillah Halal Meat in Langley Park, doesn’t have Thanksgiving off. He will spend the day in his store, cooking the food his Muslim customers want for the holiday — lamb and goat roasts and pound after pound of rice.
But recently, more people have come in requesting something different: turkey.
“I guess more and more people getting into that tradition,” said Malik, 34, of Gaithersburg. “Just as an American, they are celebrating Thanksgiving. I guess more people, Muslim people, are going, ‘Why not have a turkey?'”
Although there is still no nationwide distributor of turkeys that are “halal,” or slaughtered according to Islamic law, halal food stores in Maryland and around the country report increasing demand for the birds as more Muslims immigrate to the United States and assimilate into the mainstream.
In 2000, Maryland had an estimated 52,867 Muslims, the eighth-highest population of any state, according to the Glenmary Research Center, a leading religion research group. Most of the state’s Muslim population is concentrated in Baltimore and suburban Washington.
Like the Pilgrims who first stepped onto Plymouth Rock centuries ago, Mohammad Sizar, owner of Sizar’s Food Market in Columbia, is an immigrant who fled persecution for a new world. Now a citizen, he left Iran during the revolution more than 20 years ago, but was constantly drawn back to his homeland because he had a good job there.
“I had to choose, American or Iran,” he said. “When I decide I want to be an American, I read about Thanksgiving and I say, ‘OK, why not?'”
Some Muslim immigrants refuse to celebrate Thanksgiving at first, thinking it is a Christian holiday that does not apply to them, Sizar said. But as they become more informed about American culture, they understand the tradition.
“Thanksgiving is a nice holiday and it has very good message, you know,” said Sizar, 46. “It is a time to bring everybody together and it is not something that belongs to the religion.”
Last year, Sizar took 35 orders for Thanksgiving turkeys, but this year he had 50 orders a week before the holiday. He’ll probably order 75 from his distributor, American Halal Meat in Springfield, Va., and still run out, he said.
Although it was too early to tell a week before Thanksgiving, Malik estimated he would take more turkey orders this year as well. He orders from American Halal Meat and from Washington Lamb, another Virginia company that sells turkeys only around Thanksgiving.
Unlike kosher foods, halal items, particularly turkeys, are scarce in general supermarkets.
Giant Food, Safeway and Food Lion do not currently carry halal turkeys, company representatives said. Nor does Shoppers Food Warehouse, although they will try to stock them next year in 10 stores in Prince George’s County and the Takoma Park area, buyer Randy King said.
Since halal turkeys are slaughtered and distributed locally on a small scale, no one is tracking their numbers, said Muhammad Munir Chaudry, president of the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America.
Still, Chaudry said demand for halal turkeys has seemed to increase annually over the past few decades.
“Halal turkeys were not available 20 years ago,” he said. “If you wanted a turkey, you go to a farm and kill your own.”
The stores were more likely to stock chicken and lamb, which are more popular in Asia and the Middle East, Chaudry said. But now, almost every halal store carries turkey around Thanksgiving, in response to increased demand from Muslims who want to celebrate the holiday the traditional way.
“Instead of leg of lamb, there is a turkey,” said Chaudry, who is from Pakistan. “For years, my wife hated turkey. We always had to make a turkey and a chicken. And now, we are only making turkey.”
Halal turkeys have also become increasingly popular as the children of Muslim immigrants grow up American and want turkey for Thanksgiving, he added.
Not every Muslim embraces the holiday. Like many in his religion, Malik, a United States citizen originally from Pakistan, has a big dinner with his family but does not consider it “celebrating” Thanksgiving because he is unfamiliar with its meaning.
“I don’t know why they celebrated Thanksgiving or the purpose of it,” he said. “I guess they had a tea party or something? That’s part of Thanksgiving?”
Years ago, one of Sizar’s Muslim friends who did not celebrate the holiday asked him why he did.
“I said there was nothing wrong,” Sizar said. “I am Muslim but I am American, you know?”