Madani Halal: After the Founder’s Death  

[Editor’s note: The story has been updated to clarify Uddin’s view on women praying at the mosque and to correct a caption to indicate that slaughtered chickens are placed in scalding water, not boiling water.]

  • A day at Madani Halal in Ozone Park (All photos by Mallory Moench for Voices of NY)
Four days after Bangladeshi community leader Riaz Uddin died of a heart attack, his only son Imran was back to work at the family’s halal slaughterhouse in Ozone Park, Queens. Uddin strode in on a Saturday afternoon, the busiest time of the week, and grabbed the ringing phone.

As-salāmu ʿalaykum, this is Madani Halal, how can I help you?” He repeated the caller’s order for a 10-pound duck, swiped a customer’s credit card for diced chicken, and took $422 in cash for a whole goat before slaughtering it for the family.

Only in a moment of calm behind the closed office door did the 39-year-old show his emotions. “My father was my best friend,” Uddin said of the man who died of a heart attack on Jan. 10 at the age of 81. “He was so wise and I’m going to miss not being able to ask him for advice.”

His voice gave out, eyes bleary. “When I went to the mosque yesterday, they said, ‘Imran, without your father, this whole community’s going to crumble. You have to take over, you have to replace him,’” he said. “So I told them I’ll do whatever I have to do.”

Uddin confronts the challenge of filling his father’s place as a business owner, faith leader, and spokesman for Bangladeshi Muslims in southwestern Queens. In some ways, Uddin is an unconventional candidate. His mother is Puerto Rican, he doesn’t speak his father’s native language, and he married a woman of Norwegian descent. He worked in advertising before joining the family business in 1996; now he serves locals and supplies meat to high-class Manhattan restaurants.

Although a devout Muslim, Uddin’s religious views are more liberal than those of the community’s patriarchs. He lets his female employees slaughter animals and believes women should be allowed to pray in the mosque, although in a separate area from men; he attends both the conservative masjid founded by his father and an inclusive Sufi mosque in Tribeca.

But the community’s leaders believe Uddin can bridge generations within the booming population. In 1980, there were 1,280 Bangladeshis in New York City, according to the American Community Survey. In 2015, there were nearly 75,000, 30 percent under the age of 18. Differing views on how to practice religion, what to wear, and who to marry increasingly divide this second generation from their parents.

As this community has grown, so has discrimination against it. In 2015, the FBI reported a 67 percent increase in hate crimes against Muslims. Last August, a gunman killed a Bangladeshi imam and his associate from Al-Furqan Jame Masjid in Ozone Park.

Uddin said that even before last year he received frequent threats from unknown emails or restricted phone numbers. “They say the same way you slaughter goats and lamb, I’d like to slaughter you,” he said. “Any time an incident occurs, like when there’s a terrorist attack, that’s when it goes up.”

Anonymous calls haven’t led to actual assaults yet. “I’m not going to let that scare me,” Uddin said. “My only fear is God, so that’s why I do good.”

Imran Uddin outside Masjid Al-Aman. (Photo by Mallory Moench for Voices of NY)

Religion and business are inseparable for the Uddin family. When Riaz Uddin immigrated in 1952, he was one of the few Muslims and even fewer Bangladeshis in New York City. Four years later, he opened Madani Halal.

Halal, which means permissible in Arabic, is both a religious practice and business policy. Imran Uddin only sources from organic locations where he knows the animals are well-treated – chickens from an Amish homestead in Pennsylvania, goats and lambs from a second-generation family farm in New Jersey. He keeps the poultry in cages while the goats and lambs graze in a pen. Uddin doesn’t sell packaged meat; customers pick out their own live animal to be slaughtered.

In accordance with halal law, Uddin’s employees never sharpen their knives in front of the animals and don’t allow one animal to see another being killed. Muslim slaughterers pray before slitting the animal’s throat and letting its blood drain out.

But Uddin said halal is more than simply butchering meat.

“It’s not just how you slaughter the animal, it’s a lifestyle,” he explained. “Am I honest, am I sincere, do I pay my bills on time, am I good to my parents, do I take care of my employees, am I humble?”

Madani Halal was one of the first strictly halal slaughterhouses in southwestern Queens; now there are a dozen more within a five-mile radius. Across the city, 80 live poultry markets sell an average of 208,000 birds each per year, according to The Humane Society of the United States.

Madani Halal slaughters 2,000 chickens and 60 goats and lambs per week – less than the average city market. But during major Islamic festivals, the shop goes through at least 400 goats a day.

Muhammed Shabbir worked as a slaughterer for 10 years at Madani Halal before joining Triple “N” Live Poultry & Meat Market, its closest competitor less than a mile away. Shabbir said there is no difference between the halal process and the patrons at the two businesses.

Madani Halal’s customers and employees are diverse – South Asians, West Indians, East Africans, and Hispanics – and not all Muslim. Local business rose by only 10 percent in the last decade, Uddin said, but its customer base remains loyal and long-standing. Now, the son benefits from the example set by his father.

“I’m not going into other places,” said Abu Belal, a friend of Riaz Uddin who’s bought meat at Madani Halal for 10 years. The two men came from the same district of Sylhet in Bangladesh. “He was a founder of the Muslim community,” Belal said of Uddin. “Definitely he will be missed.”

In the 1950s, Riaz Uddin and his brother purchased a building for the first Bangladeshi mosque in Manhattan. They recruited an imam to start a madrasa, or school, and lead prayer times. Over the next 50 years, they bought five more houses that eventually expanded into multi-story mosques serving thousands in Brooklyn and Queens.

Uddin leaves Masjid Al-Aman after midday prayers with Kobir Chowhdury, the mosque’s president and friend of Uddin’s late father. (Photo by Mallory Moench for Voices of NY)

Local leaders credit Uddin with empowering community members to know their rights and report crimes to the police. “Anything would happen to the community, he was the brave person,” said Kobir Chowhdury, the president of Masjid Al-Aman, one mosque built up by Riaz Uddin. The two men met in 1991.

“There were very few like him that knew why people are frustrated or insecure or intimidated and at the same time, what their rights are,” Chowhdury said. “He did the legwork to represent our community and religion. We were so foreign. Now it’s different.”

But Chowhdury said the community still needs to work to fight prejudice and engage young people.

“There are a lot of good things in the old generation, but they’re very hard to adapt to new things,” he explained. “The youth have a difference of opinions. When they’re exposed to higher education or a different work environment, they have the right to give their opinion as long as it’s not fundamentally way out of line.”

Divisions occur when some younger Bangladeshis decline to wear conservative dress or marry outside the community – like Imran Uddin did in 2016.

“My father was still hoping until I got engaged that I would marry someone from the Bengali community,” he said. That, even though Riaz Uddin himself married a Puerto Rican. He came to consider his son’s wife as his own daughter, but Imran Uddin said he was lucky.

“A lot of the ones who decide to date or marry outside the community, they’re looked down upon,” Uddin said. “They wind up leaving the community. I have cousins who ran away from home because they didn’t want to follow the traditions of staying within the same group of people.”

Although the Bangladeshi population continues to grow, Chowhdury fears that if youth abandon their traditions, the community’s core will splinter.

“If they’re not properly involved and dedicated, then within 10 to 15 years, the community will die out,” he said.

That’s why, at Riaz Uddin’s funeral, Chowhdury publicly invited Imran Uddin to continue his father’s mission by joining the mosque’s youth committee.

“I will recommend him, and then people will accept him. People know his father, so they are kind,” Chowhdury said. “I think he is ready.”

Uddin already bridges generations and cultures as a business entrepreneur. “You always have to be innovative, you have to follow the trends to understand your market,” he said. “I’ve lost some customers, but I’ve also gained a lot of new customers – the whole farm to table movement has benefited myself and business.”

Seven years ago, Uddin started supplying meat to highly-rated Manhattan restaurants serving French, Cuban, Italian, or Southern comfort food. Laurence Edelman, co-founder and chef at The Left Bank in Greenwich Village, sources chicken exclusively from Madani Halal. Edelman said he loves the fresh taste, but doesn’t feel the need to advertise on the menu that the meat is halal.

Uddin said affluent Muslims frequently contact him to find out which restaurants he supplies so that they can enjoy a gourmet halal meal. This summer, he plans to open a specialty packaged meat shop next door to Madani Halal for this new clientele.

But the Saturday after his father’s death, Uddin was more concerned about fulfilling the family legacy than his business plans.

“It’ll definitely be challenging. Will I be able to contribute as my father did?” he wondered aloud. Wiping his eyes, he finished counting a stack of bills and told his manager that he needed to go visit his mother. “But I don’t think my father would have left me unless he knew that I was capable.”

Mallory Moench is a student in the 2017 class at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

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