In Arabic class the other night, I was partnered with a fellow Muslim brother and we had to write sentences about things we like and don’t like doing. He opted to craft a sentence about how much he enjoys eating meat. As a vegan by choice, I found this intriguing because when he read it to the class, there seemed to be cheers of approval. It should be noted that our class is predominantly Muslim. This is something I have noticed since I converted to Islam – there seems to be a somewhat surprising connection between being Muslim and being a carnivore. I say surprising because for non-Muslims or new Muslims, it wouldn’t seem to follow that the adoption of a system of metaphysical and ethical philosophy like Islam would have much to do with your eating habits. But this is largely because Islam is improperly named as a “religion” in English when it more accurately can be called a cultural system or way of life (deen). It also doesn’t follow because eating certain ways have very real ethical implications and since Islam has prescriptions for ethical actions, there are naturally things to consider with how we choose to eat – especially in these days of industrial farming.
My journey as a vegan/vegetarian has been bumpy throughout the years. I have been a full-on vegan (no leather, no honey etc), a raw vegan for periods, a vegetarian, a pescatarian and a full-on omnivore. Before I converted to Islam, I was vegetarian and vegan for periods. When I converted, for a variety of reasons, I started eating meat again but in very limited quantities because I didn’t know anything about where to get proper halal meat. Omitting it or sticking to fish was the easiest option. Many vegans will ask, but why the change? Why even consider starting to eat meat again?
Part of the reason I stopped eating meat is because of the cruelty to animals and its strain on the environment. In theory, halal meat is much more ethical and sustainable than factory farmed meat. Animals cannot be kept in cruel conditions; they have to live happy animal lives, be well-fed and cared for. They cannot be slaughtered in the presence of other animals and a prayer must be said over their bodies in gratitude for the meat you are to receive from their slaughter. Additionally, they are slaughtered by cutting their throat as quickly as possible (dull knives are forbidden because they prolong suffering). And, ultimately you are supposed to limit your intake of meat to be an almost insignificant part of your diet. All of this, when put into actual practice, would ideally lead to the production of free-range, pasture-fed, cruelty-free halal meat. Of course, there are controversies with this in terms of how halal is actually practiced and some interpretations of it vary greatly from others.
I have often heard from Muslims that eating meat is part of Islamic culture because it means partaking in the bounty with which God has provided us. Others have condoned and encouraged it because of the Qur’anic designation as khalifa which they interpret to mean as having dominion over the Earth, including the animals. Other scholars have interpreted this as a duty-driven position in which we are in responsible for the environment. While I don’t doubt that this is acceptable in Islam, it should be pointed out that the modern commercialization of meat has made the process industrial and harmful not only to the environment, but also to the animals themselves and the consequences of the meat industry itself are not to be overlooked just because eating meat is permissible. I don’t really want to go into all the reasons to be a vegan here but suffice to say that the time has passed for those arguments which claim that the harmful effects on the environment are a myth.
My primary concerns are three-fold: Can Muslims be vegetarian or vegan? Should they be? And if we do become vegetarian or vegan, how can we reconcile the rituals of Eid-ul-Adha (The Festival of the Sacrifice) with our eating habits?
There are numerous fatwas from trusted scholars on the issue of vegetarianism in Islam and though not everyone will agree with me in citing these, I have to say that any fatwa advising the merits of a vegetarian, cruelty-free lifestyle is not necessarily a condemnation of the omni/carnivore way of life or, more aptly, a fatwa against the eating of meat which is something prescribed by Allah.
For the sake of simplicity, I will simply list a few of these sources here:
Hamza Yusuf (from the Science of Shariah): “So traditionally Muslims were semi-vegetarians. The Prophet was, I mean, technically, the Prophet (SAWS) was in that category. He was not a meat-eater. Most of his meals did not have meat in them. And the proof of that is clearly in the Muwatta—when Sayyidina Umar says, ‘Beware of meat, because it has an addiction like the addiction of wine.’ And the other hadith in the Muwatta—there is a chapter called ‘Bab al-Laham,’ the chapter of laham, the chapter of meat. Both are from Sayyidina Umar. And Umar, during his khilafa, prohibited people from eating meat two days in a row. He only allowed them to eat [it] every other day. And the khalifa has that right to do that. He did not let people eat meat every day. He saw one man eating meat every day, and he said to him, ‘Every time you get hungry you go out and buy meat? Right? In other words, every time your nafs wants meat, you go out and buy it?’ He said, ‘Yeah, Amir al-Mumineen, ana qaram,’ which in Arabic, ‘qaram’ means ‘I love meat’—he’s a carnivore, he loves meat. And Sayyidina Umar said, ‘It would be better for you to roll up your tummy a little bit so that other people can eat.’”
Mufti Ebrahim Desai (Grand Mufti of South Africa): “A Muslim may be a vegetarian. However, he should not regard eating meat as prohibited. And Allah Taãla knows best.”
Muzammil Siddiqui (Doctor of Comparative Religion): “You are right that the matter of halal and haram is only the authority of Allah (SWT) as we are not allowed to make any halal haram, we are also not allowed to make any haram halal. Allah has created some animals for our food as Allah says in the Qur’an in surat an-Nahl, “And cattle He has created for you. From them you drive wont and numerous benefits and of their meat, you eat.” (16:5-8)
Muslims do recognize animal rights, and animal rights means that we should not abuse them, torture them, and when we have to use them for meat, we should slaughter them with a sharp knife, mentioning the name of Allah (SWT). The Prophet (SAAWS) said, “Allah has prescribed goodness (ihsan) in everything. When you sacrifice, sacrifice well. Let you sharpen your knife and make it easy for the animal to be slaughtered.”
So, Muslims are not vegetarianists. However, if someone prefers to eat vegetables, then they are allowed to do so. Allah has given us permission to eat meat of slaughtered animals, but He has not made it obligatory upon us.”
Such pragmatism is not shared across the entire Islamic scholarly world, which is to be expected. What I am talking about is not prescriptive for the entire Islamic world anyway. Awareness of the effects of our actions is what I am pointing to as necessary – which answers the question about whether or not I think Muslims should be vegetarian or vegan. As a post-modernist, I abhor any universalizing (which seems counter-intuitive because I subscribe to the teachings of a universalist way of life) so I would never argue that everyone should be vegetarian or vegan. I would argue, however, that Muslims do need to be more conscious about their choices and the repercussions of those choices. Having the intention to reduce our environmental impact and to not participate in the cruelty of the industry is important. We have to be aware of everything we are doing as part of seeking knowledge and engaging in ethical actions, as well as expressing the spirit of Islamic teachings in everything we do, including eating.
So what happens when a Muslim, like me, decides to be vegetarian or vegan? It should be noted that our decisions to eat more consciously and ethically do not outweigh the requirements of our Deen. And nowhere is this point more true than in our participation in Eid-ul-Adha, the Festival of the Sacrifice, in which Muslims around the world who are able to, slaughter a ram or sheep in the Name of Allah.
This Eid is a marking of the end of the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca by all Muslims around the world. This is a time when Muslims honour the prophetic history of the faith by marking a story told in the Qur’an about how Prophet Abraham was willing to sacrifice his own son because God ordered him to do so. When he was about to sacrifice him, God substituted a ram for the boy instead and accepted Abraham’s incredible act of surrender and worship. For those who have completed their Hajj and all other Muslims around the world, a ram or other animal is slaughtered on this day for meat which is then distributed amongst family and the poor. Special prayers are also attended and Muslims mark the holiday by visiting friends and family. It should remain clear to everyone that the slaughter of the animal is purely symbolic and the blood is not meant as a sacrifice for Allah. Rather it is an act of remembrance of Prophet Abraham and is a method by which the community is strengthened, including through the dispersal of meat to the poor who would otherwise not have any to eat throughout the year.
So what do I think of Muslims that eat meat? Or Muslims who are sometimes vegetarian and sometimes not? Or Muslims who are always vegetarian except on Eid? Not much, to be honest. Everyone is free to follow their own path according to their knowledge and research. For me, that study has led me to find that the meat and dairy industry are no longer sustainable or in accordance with what I interpret to be Islamic sensibilities in terms of how to treat the Earth and the animals on it. I will still participate in Eid-ul-Adha festivities but am conscious enough to know that that participation might change over time.
And Allah knows best.